Legends We Live

Bill Ellis. Aliens, Ghosts and Cults: Legends We Live. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
In this collection of articles folklorist Bill Ellis explores the borderlands of experience and folklore, and the nature of legends. While sections of the book are clearly of interest only to the folklore specialist, other parts should be of interest to a more general audience. Of particular interest will be the story of the Frackville Angel, actually a phantom hitchhiker said to utter gnomic prophecies of the end of the world, the Pizza Hut ghost, and his, perhaps over generous review of Whitley Streiber's Communion in the chapter `Varieties of Alien Experience'. For Ellis the legends grow up to provide a narrative which can 'name' nameless numinous experiences which exists on the very boundaries of reality. These ambiguous experiences can be accommodated by being given a name and a tradition. As Forteans are coming to realise, not all these' experiences can ever get named, and remain protean accounts, capable of drifting into any one of a number of categories.

In his general approach Ellis has clearly been influenced by David Hufford, who is rapidly acquiring the status of an unchallengable sage. Ellis's arguments that we should not dismiss experience narratives with `rational explanations' fall into the same category. Cultural historians however might argue that this is just one aspect of a wider world view which holds that personal testimony and `self esteem' should not be challenged. Elsewhere however Ellis does challenge, quite correctly in my opinion, the personal testimony of people who claim to have been members of Satanic cults and have sacrificed babies. And how do we deal with memorates that are not supernatural, but say racist or misogynist?

The claim that one can somehow perform a kind of archaeology and find the `true' nomen behind the narrative, in some hesitant first draft, is a very problematic claim. Long before any first telling to another, there is bound to have been a series of narratives to one's self, and in any case as our ordinary perceptions are bound totally with culture, how much more so this must be with the ambiguous and liminal.

The legend does not just name and unnameable; it can domesticate and tame, and reduce it to a manageable state. The legend trips of young people, Ellis argues, perform something of this function. They allow youngsters to symbolically confront death and the horrors of the real world, in a controlled, game reality. What lies behind the legend can be immeasurably worse than any spooky tale.

Ellis tracks down the legend of the `Orphanage on Gore Lane', a spooky old ruin on a rural back road, not only to the domestic tragedies of the neighbourhood but to a displaced memory of a great American disaster, the Lake View school fire, a horror beyond words and imagination, which was expunged from official history. The horror is transported as people move out of the city, attaching itself to new locations, and given a legendary status which distances the victims (who are orphans, i.e. 'not kids like ourselves' as in the real events). Only by reducing it to legendary status, a local ghost story, can this unassmilable nameless horror which can neither be forgotten nor remembered, be contained and brought back into memory

On a lighter note Ellis goes some way to portraying his campus town of Halzeton as one of the legendary weird places of America, which deserves to be on the same tourist trail as Port Pleasant. Weird Fortean events, rumours of high school Satanists and a school principle called Mussoline (when was that last letter changed I wonder) make an ideal location for one of those high school TV series.

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