An assistant professor of history at Tennessee Tech University has brought them into the classroom, and Paula Hinton’s ghosts, myths and legends in American history course is scaring up lots of interest among history majors and non-history majors alike.
“This is a fun course because it delves into a part of America’s past that’s largely ignored by most historians,” Hinton said.
The purpose of the class is not just to share favorite campfire ghost stories, however. It examines how those “things that go bump in the night” can reveal broader patterns about the past.
“By studying the ghost stories, myths and legends that were popular at a given time, you can actually learn quite a bit about a society’s gender, race and class issues and about the cultural impact of national and world events,” Hinton said.
The 19th century rise of spiritualism, for instance, reveals an important gender issue.
“This was long before the Women’s Rights movement. Women still couldn’t vote. They didn’t have careers outside the home — but the greatest percentage of spiritualist mediums were women,” she said. “By supposedly being able to communicate with their clients’ dead relatives, they were indirectly wielding a sort of power.”
For another example, UFO sightings and alleged alien abductions didn’t gain widespread popularity until the Cold War — which reveals how deeply Americans feared the military-industrial complex created during that period of history.
“With this class, the history just sneaks in without the students even knowing it,” Hinton said. “Even students who tell me they don’t typically like history seem to come to this class excited and eager to learn.”
Some of them also come ready to share personal stories of their own possible encounters with the supernatural.
“It’s often not just students who catch me after class to tell me things like that,” Hinton said. “I’ve found that mentioning this class can be a good conversation starter with almost anyone — but you can’t always predict what a person’s reaction is going to be.”
When she first told her family about the course, for instance, her aunt revealed her own close encounter with a possible ghost.
“When my uncle was in the Army, his family lived for a time in an historic home at Fort Monroe, and their small daughter had an imaginary friend who was an adult woman,” Hinton said.
One day, the child — in a state near panic — told her mother that she’d found her friend hanging in a closet in the house. The episode inspired Hinton’s aunt to research the history of the house, and she discovered that a former female resident had indeed hanged herself in one of its closets.
Hinton, a native of Virginia Beach, said the local legend of Grace Sherwood — popularly known as the Witch of Pungo — influenced her own interest in such topics.
Sherwood is Virginia’s only convicted witch, but her name was officially cleared this year on July 10 — the 300th anniversary of the court ruling against her.
As for topics covered in Hinton’s course, she said she usually begins with a study of the varied cultural traditions that have led to our current Halloween celebrations — such as carving jack-o-lanterns, trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples and wearing costumes.
It also includes a survey of the Salem witch trials, New England vampire lore, the rise and popularity of spiritualism and the cultural history of horror in Hollywood films.
And it doesn’t neglect the poltergeist that could be considered Tennessee’s state ghost — the Bell Witch.
The legend of the Bell Witch, which haunted the family of John Bell in Robertson County’s Adams community from 1817 to 1821, may be one of the only accounts to credit a supernatural force for a person’s death. The “witch” allegedly poisoned Bell as he slept.
While that detail of the legend might call people today to question the existence of a supernatural force in committing that crime, Hinton points out that the purpose of her course is not to determine whether or not ghosts exist.
“By its very nature, history is an exercise of the imagination,” she said. “We don’t know — nor will we ever know — exactly what happened in the past.
“Ghosts, myths and legends are just the contexts I use to encourage students in this course to understand — and then to challenge — the assumptions and methodologies historians use to study the past,” Hinton continued.
“It’s a topic that makes them think about the ways history has been used to justify the present and to legitimize social and political relationships,” she said.