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Friday, November 01, 2013

Folkore & the 1st Amendment: The Halloween Story That Almost Wasn't

These Mysterious Hills celebrated its 9th birthday yesterday by weathering the first major challenge to publication of its content in the history of its run.

TMH began Halloween 2004, in the pages of the Advocate Weekly newspaper, where it ran first as a weekly, then a sporadic column from 2004-2009.  As a body of folklore research and fortean journalism, it has spanned also the pages of Haunted Times, Fate Magazine, the North Adams Transcript, iBerkshires, multiple radio networks, internet sites, and television networks from the regional to the international.  Over a decade, I've written on dozens and dozens of legended landmarks and sites of curiosity, from New England to Arizona... not all of them are always thrilled to have persistent rumors of spooky goings on repeated and reported, but though many have opted not to comment on inquiries about their possible para-scare status, none has ever demanded a retraction.

Until now.
Yesterday, within an hour or so of my Halloween special installment for, an annual tradition since 2011, the site was contacted asking that the article be removed.  The complaint came from an owner of one of the three haunted hotels featured in the piece.  The reason given is that one of the proprietors is from an ethnic culture in which discussion of ghosts is sometimes considered taboo.

It's perfectly fine to have a cultural taboo about something.  I have no problem respecting that.  In over a decade of swimming in uncomfortable, taboo topics of study, I have never pushed anyone to talk to me about something they don't want to talk about.

Any time I've profiled the folklore surrounding a place that was an institution or business, I have offered the opportunity for those involved to weigh in.  Many venues have had ample chances, over months or even years, to talk about the lore and ideas that may be floating around about said site, and have declined.  Of the three hotels profiled in yesterday's temporarily banished article, all three have had such opportunities.  One has been overwhelmingly forthcoming, and a pleasure to work with in the past.

To be clear, non-comment in no way makes a story go away, and in folklore this is doubly true.  In an ostensibly free, constitutionally protected country, you cannot expect that your reservations or even disagreement, however strong, are going to be sufficient to suppress the wider dialogue of others in the world.  You are under no obligation to discuss or read information that bothers you, but you are also in no position to halt the flow of that information by others.

It is, perhaps, naive to conclude that just because someone comes to an area and purchases a piece of property, that they will suddenly be able to somehow control or manage the whole social dialogue and body of folklore about a historic local landmark that was part of a community long before said owners arrived, and will remain so long after they have moved on to other adventures.  Not only did these legends existed about this inn before its most recent purchase, but I had already written about them in a different local newspaper long before.  They will linger long after its next purchase. Campfire stories belong to none, and they belong to all.  They are a part of our broader culture, even if some choose not to partake.

It seems almost silly to quibble about a challenge (which nearly succeeded, though the article has been put back up, albeit with some small edits*) to a Halloween day piece about ghost stories.  But in this region I have chosen to call home, we have been in the past couple years weathering quite a few attacks to the free use of speech and the ability of journalists to engage on any topics they wish, and that is a thing more scary than any story I've heard of ghostly shenanigans.

We all have things that we'd rather not hear, read, or see.  We all come across stories and statements that make our blood boil.  We all have something we'd maybe like to see censored or suppressed.

Yet we all want this right to be there for us, we need to know that we can still own our voice and let loose ideas and let them rise or fall in the fray.  It's a relative world, where one chap's sacred is another's silly, but this tenet has proven itself in fire enough to be held true, enough that by now we really should all be championing it, even when it allows for information we don't care for.  It doesn't work applied selectively. It has to stand, for all things and all people, or it will stand for none.

*In case you're curious what was removed from the final version, it was just a longer, wordier of the following warning:  if you're an expecting mother, think twice about booking a room in the main Manor House, particularly #5, the master bedroom.  Word has it that whatever may linger of Dame Spencer is hell on pregnant women.


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ahmed said...

the more you want to say the less you always write, I love your precise writing..Good luck

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