House Lights, On! Editorial Reflections on the “Ghost Light” Series

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Editor’s Note: This is the seventh post in the Ghost Light: Folkloric NonHumanity on the Environmental Stage series edited by Caroline CE Abbott. The series aims to illuminate the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and the environmental humanities and to encourage intersectional conversation.


In the wee hours of 1 June 1784, a full moon hung over a small Connecticut town in which a ritual exhumation may or may not have taken place. This is not the only fresh print I have found on the trail of Willington’s vampires since my introduction to the Ghost Light series described, in brief, the alleged exhumation of two members of Isaac Johnson’s family in the late eighteenth century by family members in pursuit of a folk remedy for consumption, but it is the most dramatic — and certainly among the more fitting for an interesting, if anti-climactic, introduction. There is simply much historians, archaeologists, and folklorists do not know about Willington’s role in the New England vampire panic, and more we may never know. Sometimes, the historian’s traditional toolbox can only give us the means to dig so far, but there is still much to be excited by. On Halloween, I joined our co-Editor in Chief Jessica DeWitt for a NiCHE Conversation to talk in part about the Ghost Light series, and as our collection of six beautiful contributor essays draws to a close, one of her questions closely informs the body of this writing: where did the inspiration come from for the series? Per usual, I wish I had sooner thought more clever words which now seem very clear: dead ends.

Over the three years in which I have, every so often, returned to it, I have found myself in good company at the imaginary gravesite of Isaac Johnson’s two allegedly-exhumed children. Both folklorist Michael Bell and state archaeologist emeritus Nicholas Bellantoni might agree that they have uncovered more questions than answers on their own, co-travelled path to advance intersectional understanding of one of the region’s most infamous archaeological and folkloric legacies.1 It was not until I at last stopped digging in disappointment, abandoned the project, and revisited it through non-humanity frameworks that I noticed the dense entanglements which had grown over the missing graves, open questions, lost correspondence, apocryphal tales and uncertain veracity of the Willington vampire story in my absence. 

Over the course of an incredibly enriching month, I have had the privilege of curating the work of six contributors, each of whom rose to the challenge of responding to the inquiries proposed by the Ghost Light call for participants in unique ways. Their work took NiCHE audiences on folkloric journeys across a humbling scope: other-than-human beings emerged from the cultural histories of four continents. I hoped to approach my role as editor with the intention of co-cultivating a digital space which could germinate these highly intersectional conversations rigorously, yet allow them to flourish and reach freely towards new light. The patience and care of our authors proved fertile soil, and all credit belongs to them. It is a privilege to reflect on their work and to apply it to a piece of my own. The inaugural wave of the series now ended, if we were to return to the dead-ends and unknowns of Willington’s vampire panic as an example, would we find ourselves better prepared to approach outstanding questions through its other-than-human, folkloric environmental frameworks? In answer, we must reframe the series questions.

Fig. 1. Old East Cemetery in Willington, Connecticut, 2019 (graves predate incorporation into Willington Cemetery Association). Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott.

Who are the non-human actors in the story of Isaac Johnson and the New England Vampire Panic at large? What relationships do their stories have with environment?

With Clare O’Reilly’s opening essay, readers were plunged into the boreal forests of Western North America and introduced to the settler-colonial anglicization of the so-called “Sasquatch” mythology. Along the trail, O’Reilly weighs the risks and benefits of an environmental history viewed through the settler entanglements of the cryptozoological lens. Prudently framing all work to follow, she reminds us that human relationships with folkloric monsters and creatures of legend “[lurk] just beyond reach and out of sight,” helping humans “define [their] fear of the unknown.” The work of the environmental humanities, then, must recognize the places where those “monsters” also define the other. The other-than-human; the other-than-settler; the other-than-dominant.2

Adrianna Michell’s work echoes this need. Following along the steps of a recipe, she takes the history of the ubiquitous and invasive garlic mustard from “pest to pesto,” telling the story of the plant’s North American introduction and settler entanglements. Was its introduction an accident? An act of intention? Both? Framed by the “two dominant stories of the plant’s arrival” — one, of seeds transported willingly by Euro-American settlers keen on bringing familiar herbs to new cultivation spaces, or one of a more passive source “via soil on settlers’ boot soles” — her work considers the moral price plant communities pay against settler-colonial legacies in North America. Uniquely, Michell puts readers in direct conversation with the plant, asking what stories it might tell about itself.3 

As Moses Holmes’s 1784 accusation of Isaac Johnson in the Connecticut Courant makes mention, the presence of “a sprout or vine fresh and growing” in the chest cavity of a corpse substantiated the rural belief in the presence of an other-than-human evil within, implicating a single sprout in a folkloric ritual with far-reaching roots.4 Per Michael Bell’s reminder in Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires (2011), grave mold and associated matter, when used in folk medicine, suggests a relationship between the corpse’s spirit and its inhabitation of matter — matter which may also “contain matter from the decomposed corpse” itself.5 These are deeply stratified layers of being: the weight of a deeply controversial historical folk ritual so falls upon a single seed, knocked into the grave in the process of burial.

While it is with some hesitation that I make mention of Michell’s tantalizing contribution in the same breath as the concoctions of rural settlers desperate for a tincture to cure consumption, it is, therefore, also within the breadth of a ruderal recipe with deep, settler roots that folklore’s kinship with non-human beings is made clear. The presence of the botanically other-than-human, in the Johnson case, proves definitional to the existence of the monstrous other-than-human. Indeed, seeds sown by settler boot soles on quests to define the other at the edges of the fears O’Reilly describes grow all the more important. If the vine Moses Holmes attributed to a sorrel seed were treated as definitional to the other, rather than as a means by which to explain away a folk superstition, what cracks might its roots find in the walls of dead-ends? What might it tell us about the gardens and national identities of Willingtonites and other rural New Englanders? The proximity of the common garden plant to settler places of burial, or the maps we use to find them? If it was asked, what stories might the sprout sought by the exhumers of Isaac Johnson’s children tell us about human fear of the non-human other?

Fig. 2. Lichen, moss, mould, and ruderals grow on the cemetery grounds. Willington, Connecticut, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott.

Into what roles are non-human beings cast in Isaac Johnson’s story?

The second week of our series introduced NiCHE audiences to folkloric beings across two incredibly disparate, yet hauntingly similar, aqueous environs. The folkloric beings of aquatic ecologies — particularly those of islands, deltas, and peninsulas — render other-than-terrestrial tracks and require the casting of a different sort of academic net. With a weather eye on the shoreline as liminal space “productive of monsters,” Jonathan Westaway’s contribution, too, kneels at a grave. Walking us along the shorelines, derelict crofts, and shifted landscapes of the Isle of Sanday, Westaway takes readers through a thorough analysis of the writings of Orcadian folklorist Walter Traill Dennison. Considering Dennison’s mythography in relation to class conflict, Anthropocene, and folklore, Westaway navigates the environmental anxieties written into Dennison’s folk tales (and the folkloric beings which dwell there).6

Suddhasil Halder’s writing emerges from waters almost five thousand miles (eight thousand kilometers) away, retelling a tale from the land of eighteen tides (‘Aathero Bhaatir Desh’), the Sundarbans, bringing the multi-faith parable of Bon Bibi into similar climatological consideration. In the Sundarbans, Bon Bibi is “woman of the forest,” a more-than-human Goddess and foil to tiger figure Dokkhin Rai. Together, Halder explains, the figures have long provided moral boundaries between human and other-than-human worlds, and stood guard to protect the forests from human greed. But, as climate changes, so, too, does role of the other-than-human folkloric being: “increasingly-extreme climatic conditions,” he reminds us, “threaten common regional livelihoods in the Sundarban region,” straining the boundaries which Bon Bibi might otherwise peaceably maintain. As climate changes, the multi-faith communities of the Sundarbans “whose livelihoods depend upon venture into the largest Deltaic mangrove forest in the world” are left more vulnerable to class conflict, tiger attack, and extreme weather. Bon Bibi is changing with climate.7

The contributions of Westaway and Halder, while representative of extremely disparate incarnations of being and class systems across aquatic and semi-aquatic ecologies, face the same rising tides. Westaway’s analysis of folkloric beings which “[make] inescapable the limits of human agency” in the face of Anthropocene pair well with Halder’s presentation of Bon Bibi as environmental negotiator.8 The ebb and flow of humanity within other-than-human spaces — and the negotiations which take place there— is made clear in both works. Both contributions speak to the role of folklore and myth in the age of climate change and crisis. As climate changes, the old boundaries between human and other-than-human worlds are hardest to maintain for those most vulnerable to its ravages.

Turning to the well-worn but theoretically-diverse origin inquiries into the so-called New England vampire panic and the folk rituals which underwrote its emergence there, Westaway and Halder may inspire scholars to hold the migration paths of Euro-American settlers up to new social and environmental light. Indeed, Bell’s 2001 work establishes a link between folk remedies for consumption from the Shetland Isles which bears incredible likeness to the characteristics Holmes’s 1764 article describes.9 C.A. Fraser’s 1893 folkloric study of highland communities in Ontario, too, attributes the ritual to Gaelic-speaking Scots.10 Folklore, plants, and environmental anxieties travelled with them from old, socially or environmentally uninhabitable worlds to new, differently-trying ones. Critically, the very same roles assumed by other-than-human beings in Dennison’s folkloristics, and by the parable of Bon Bibi, are arguably present in the vampire panic. Disease, death, fear, loss, and desperation make humans vulnerable, edging them ever-closer to the domain of Dokkhin Rai. What might we learn about the spread of folklore in retracing the paths of boats, trails, and migration along climatological lines conscious of oppressive class or caste systems?

Fig. 3. Public Domain image (altered hue for visual contrast) of a 27 January 1896 article in the Boston Daily Globe satirising rural New Englanders’ folk beliefs and the other-than-human evils of which they conceived. Source: Wikipedia, Public Domain.

What does what Moses Holmes and Isaac Johnson fear tell us about the environments with which interact, or that we study?

Amanda Wells approaches these deeply-stratified layers for their entanglements across a “place of spirits.” Telling the story of Chowilla with the settler agricultural projects which have occurred there across time, she recounts the histories written into the soils of Erawirung land, including the desecration of Indigenous burial sites. Across what the nation of Australia now refers to as the Riverland , she explains, “more-than-human entanglements [persist through time]” and are present “in visible as well as shadow places.”11 Rosamund Portus, too, considers these entanglements: her reflection on the folkloric legacy of bees in the age of Anthropocene reminds us that the age of climate crisis has returned humans to a state of “morbid intimacy with bees,” in response to their struggles to thrive, enmeshing the meaning of their non-human deaths with anxieties over our own fate.12

Exhumation is indeed a death ritual. The fears of rural New England settlers, and those who moralised their actions from positions of privilege in the cities, entangled colonial legacies with non-human beings, folkloric and otherwise. Both looking into the face of death and looking into the face of superstition were, in different, but related ways, scary. The vampire panic echoed settlers’ worst fears, continued their worst practices, and brought out the worst in each other. The “shadow places,” as well as the visible ones, then, reveal these “morbid intimacies,” and become crucial to knowing which unanswered questions may be most worthy of reconsideration.13

While Bell and other folklorists, for example, do consider the influence of non-white and Indigenous folk stories with vampiric elements alongside the evolution of settler rituals, the field disproportionately favours study of the ritual among white, settler communities. Indeed, Bell’s attempts to locate the graves of the allegedly-ritually-exhumed Congdon children — a multiracial, Black Indigenous family — might be considered only minimally fruitful by traditional, historical standards. Declaring a “dead end” of few records and a “lost” Indigenous burial ground in Westerly, Rhode Island, Bell is satisfied with having done the important, if unfinished, work of confirming census records of the family’s patriarch, Bristoe. Settler fears certainly drove the vampire panic, but the entanglement of those fears with Black and Indigenous histories are none too well explored. As Bell puts it, “next month, next year, next decade, other voices will speak, and the story will continue to be shaped and reshaped.” It is the necessary work of non-humanity frameworks to reinvigorate analyses of the deeply-stratified place in which those settler fears were recognized, and so, shaped Black and Indigenous communities.14

Fig. 4. A headstone in Willington’s Old East Cemetery featuring an inscription over which lichens, mosses, and other beings grow. Willington, Connecticut, USA, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott.

The contributors to this series issue future challenges and importantly, will embolden others to spend more time with their own “dead ends.” Indeed, exemplifying the Willington vampire episode reveals the many pathways by which scholars might reframe their own mysteries. But, while the inquiries made along the course of this series can certainly be celebrated for their ability to breathe new life into dead vampires, they are inquiries worth posing in their own rite. The expansive promise in applying these intersectional frameworks to the environmental humanities is lain bare through these contributions, with much work ahead of us. Folkloric non-humanity frameworks are as much a path to re-enchantment with the field as they are a means to highlight its necessary work. It is so that we welcome and encourage submissions to the Ghost Light series on a rolling basis.

Whether the full moon was visible through cloud cover on the day or evening Isaac Johnson of Willington, Connecticut allegedly exhumed two of his dead children, burned, crushed, and prepared their body parts in a tincture as cure for consumption, I do not know. Although I may still not have a very good answer to this and other, perhaps more pressing “dead-end” questions, as I enter my second term as an editor at NiCHE and on my journey overall, I have learned to love the dead-ends of history: they present a challenge. I am grateful for the contributors whose work has opened new avenues, blazed new trails, and revisited old graves with such care and dedication to detail.


The Ghost Light series is now an open call! To propose a contribution, please send abstracts of 250 words and a short bio of 100 words to Caroline Abbott: abbott [dot] caroline [dot] ce [at] gmail.com.

The editor would like to thank Bucknell University for the privilege of attending the Summer Institute on Non/Humanity, the Northeast Atlantic Region Environmental History Forum (NEAR-EH) for affirming the importance of more-than-human histories, and Co-Editors in Chief Andrew Watson and Jessica DeWitt for their patience, guidance, and encouragement.


Notes

1 Bell, Michael. 2011. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. 2nd ed. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press; Sledzik, Paul S., and Nicholas Bellantoni. 1994. “Bioarchaeological and Biocultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 94 (2): 269—71. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/ajpa.1330940210.
2 O’Reilly, Clare. “’A Bear — A Man — A Giant:’ On Sasquatch as Cryptozoological Missing Link,” The Otter, Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 17, 2022, https://niche-canada.org/2022/10/17/a-bear-a-man-a-giant-on-sasquatch-as-cryptozoological-missing-link/.
3 Michell, Adrianna. “Garlic Mustard Assemblages: A Brief Recipe for Pesto,” The Otter, Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 18, 2022, https://niche-canada.org/2022/10/18/garlic-mustard-assemblages-a-brief-recipe-for-pesto/.
4 Holmes, Moses. Connecticut Courant, 22 June 1784.
5 Bell, 2011.
6 Westaway, Jonathan. “Another Land Made of Water: Anthropocene Islands and Ecological Collapse in the Orcadian Folklore of Walter Traill Dennison,” The Otter, Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 24, 2022, https://niche-canada.org/2022/10/24/another-land-made-of-water-anthropocene-islands-and-ecological-apocalypse-in-the-orcadian-folklore-of-walter-traill-dennison/.
7 Halder, Suddhasil. “The Parable of Bon Bibi and ‘Being’ in the Sundarbans,” The Otter, Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 25, 2022, https://niche-canada.org/2022/10/25/the-parable-of-bon-bibi-and-being-in-the-sundarbans/.
8 Westaway, 2022.
9 Bell, 2011; Holmes 1784.
10 Fraser, C.A. “Scottish Myths from Ontario,” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 6, No. 22, 1893.
11 Wells, Amanda. “‘Place of Spirits:’ Persistence and Deep-Time Entanglements in Colonised Place,” The Otter, Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), October 31, 2022, https://niche-canada.org/2022/10/31/place-of-spirits-persistence-and-deep-time-entanglements-in-colonised-place/.
12 Portus, Rosamund. “The Stories We Tell: Explorng the Folklore of Bees in an Age of Extinction,” The Otter, Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), November 3, 2022, https://niche-canada.org/2022/11/04/the-stories-we-tell-exploring-the-folklore-of-bees-in-an-age-of-extinction/.
13 Ibid; Wells, 2022.
14 Bell, 2011.

Header image: A composite image constructed of two layers. An illustration made available via a public domain image of an 1896 article in the Boston Daily Globe is superimposed over the base layer, a photograph of lichen taken at Old East Cemetery in Willington, Connecticut, courtesy of Caroline CE Abbott.

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