Appalachian Halloween Memories

My love for Halloween can be traced back to my childhood. Sure, most people will say that and chalk it up to kids and candy but it was more for me. I have always loved a good scare. What I think really plays into it was growing up in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. It wasn’t until I first left Virginia when I headed to college that I realized how many things were strictly southern or Appalachian. Those are the things that really sparked my interest in scary things and truly loving Halloween.

The images that first come to mind are grade school and being in music class. Our teacher always tried to do things around themes or times of the year. Halloween was one of the best for me. The room she had would be decorated in cobwebs, cardboard images of witches and monsters, it seemed scarily magical to me. All of us are familiar with Christmas carols and songs, but how many of you remember singing Halloween songs?

There were three that I remember very well. I don’t claim that all of these songs come from the Appalachians but many people I have talked to over the years are not familiar with them. That is, unless they are from similar areas. The first song is called the Ghost of Tom. There are stories that say this song came from Kentucky and others that say it dates back to Europe during the time of the plague. Either way, it is a song that I have never forgotten. The song conjures a very vivid image of Tom and how it would feel to be like him. It is a breathy song that when added with various instruments can become really creepy. 

The next song was called Skin and Bones. In class, we actually acted this one out. We would spend a couple weeks practicing it before performing it. It’s a fun song about a witch who decided to take a stroll at night. 

The last song was just a bit of fun. This one I have heard in many places, so I don’t think it was unique to our small rural town. The song is called Witches Brew.

I absolutely loved our library time. It was in that library that I developed my love of scary stories. I had a cousin that worked as the librarian in our school and she saw my love of reading and scary stories and pointed me to Appalachian folk stories, among other things. And being that the Appalachian Mountains are some of the oldest on earth, they are steeped with spirits and stories. She tried to keep me to age appropriate stories but I have never been one to listen to people. By the time I was in sixth grade, I had already read the Amityville House story. From there I naturally moved to Stephen King.

My love for those stories started much earlier. I joined cub scouts and loved camping. Our troop camped up until about mid-October. And it was those chilly nights that we spent huddled around our campfire that ghost stories were told by our scout masters. Tales of foxfire and haints. In Virginia, there were very few places there were not touched by the Civil War, so ghost stories were everywhere. Now, your natural, first question may be what actually is a haint. Well, a haint is a very specific type of ghost and generally of an evil nature. It is a complex term that is still debated about where it originated from. Many tales said it is from an old Welsh word that means pestilence or infection. This is a really good definition since the basic meaning of haint is a restless spirit of the dead that hasn’t moved from the physical world for whatever reason. These types of spirits tend to be sorrowful and longing for life. They are known as the ones that have carried off the unsuspecting travelers at night. 

Foxfire

Hearing these stories was when I was also introduced to foxfire. This is a term that describes many phenomena. One would be used to describe swamp gasses. And Virginia has plenty of marshes that make that one option. This is not where I first heard it, though. During our camping trips, we spent a lot of time hiking in the woods and playing. I remember that one of the kids in our group found this log that he just had to bring back to camp with him. It was an old rotting log that just looked creepy and he felt he needed to take it home. 

While we were sitting around the campfire, one of us happened to look over at this log that was brought back and noticed this strange glow. A bright blue green glow that seemed to come from nowhere. Quickly we all took notice and became excited and curious. That was when my dad chimed in and said it was foxfire but also called haint’s light. He went on to tell us that it attracted these angry spirits and was a gateway for them to pass between worlds. Of course this led to a night filled with angry spirits stories. My dad loved scaring us and this night he was on point. He told us a story about an old Indian chief that was killed in battle by white troops and in his dying breath swore revenge on them.

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As we all went to be that night, our talk was filled with the scary stories we had heard and we were all a nervous buzz. After about an hour and a half we started drifting off and that was when we heard this soft sound of something walking around. It would stop for a couple mins before the dragging shuffle would be heard again. Then a slight moan seemed to rise out of the night. The campfire was a low flame but I remember seeing a shadow cast by it, flicker across our tent. I laid there very still listening and the shuffling drag got closer and louder and another moan punctuated the night. As it got closer, the low drawn out name of the person who found the foxfire was heard. He let out a soft “leave me alone.” As the noise became louder and closer, you could hear him getting more nervous. His tent was next to mine and he was getting pretty scared. Just then, the shuffling stopped outside his tent and another moan was heard. Just then all you heard was his tent being shaken and a yell saying his name. He screamed and bolted out of the tent, running as fast as he could. It was then that I heard my father’s laugh echoing in the night next to my tent. I am pretty sure that kid peed his pants from that trick.

As an explanation, foxfire is a bioluminescence that is created by a type of fungi present in rotting wood. A chemical reaction creates it and can range from a very soft hue to bright enough to read by, stories of it date back to Ancient Greece. I have not see it since I was a kid. 

I absolutely love Halloween and the weird customs that surround it. I have my childhood of growing up in a rural southern Appalachian town to think for it. I often wish that Halloween hadn’t become so desensitized as it is now. It is a great time for passing on American folk history. It truly makes me miss my childhood.

I hope you enjoyed these simple sharing from my past. Are there songs you sang in school that you still remember that stem from Halloween?  Share them with me, I would love to hear them. If you remember singing these songs, let me know. It is cool hearing about how things we did as kids that can be tied to specific areas or encompassed the whole of the United States. 

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