Since its discovery by European settlers in 1497, the island of Newfoundland has been known for its sea-faring past. Although it wasn't until the 1700s and 1800s, did Newfoundlanders expand the fishing industry into Labrador; this industry always played a vital role for the island's economy. Of course, the island of Newfoundland holds a lot of history. Not surprisingly, my home province is considered one of the most haunted places in the world.
Although supernatural events are often rationalized within a folkloric context, I must confess that I'm a big fan of ghost stories and they have become an important part of my life. Ghost stories are often dismissed through plausibility, however, it's important not to dismiss the significance of another person’s beliefs.
In terms of Diane Goldstein’s work, she emphasizes the concept of supernatural events and the ways they can be explained. Goldstein places the transmission of supernatural stories into a social context:
We’ve all been there. You’re sitting around with friends sharing a few stories, when the topic turns to the supernatural. Someone tells a ghost story they heard while camping many years earlier. A second person tells a story about a neighborhood house that is reputed to be haunted. (Goldstein, 60)
In terms of Newfoundland sea-faring legends, my late grandmother told me of her father’s working experiences when I was around seven years old. I was born in 1996, so these family ghost stories had been shared with me sometime in the early 2000s. More specifically, when I was old enough to hear stories that are deemed as frightening. I've always been fascinated by the things that go bump in the night.
My maternal great-grandfather worked as a fisherman from a young age, until he was in his 40s or 50s. Not surprisingly, there were various stories he shared with my grandmother and her siblings, while they were growing up.
Credit: Nat Jones
Something to consider is that my great-grandfather worked primarily as a fisherman, and the majority of his personal ghost stories took place on the open water or near the ocean itself. More specifically, the story my grandmother shared with me was said to have taken place in the 1930s or 1940s.
My great-grandfather was walking on the beach in Boswarlos (a small community on the Port Aux Port Peninsula), as this was something he would do when he finished work for the evening. In the distance, he noticed another man who was walking on the beach. Naturally, he believed the man was one of his co-workers so he waved to him. Interestingly, the man did not respond so my great-grandfather turned forward to keep walking. However, in one version of this story, the man is standing in front of him and then disappears.
In another version, the man is holding an eye-ball in his hand and offers it to my great-grandfather. With respect to changes in narrative content, this proves that contemporary legends and cautionary tales are often subject of variation. Within the context of story-telling, my great-grandfather might not have told the story about the offering of the eyeball until my grandmother was older than five years old, per se. Although the aforementioned story cannot be proven false, it was certainly told as a form of entertainment.
Furthermore, ghost stories in Newfoundland have often contained comedic elements in order to dismiss the frightening nature of supernatural events. With respect to the story my grandmother told me, evidently this story was shared with her as a means of warning her from walking along the beach at night- especially alone. The issue of cautionary tales frequently corresponds with the transmission of supernatural stories, such that these types of stories are told as a means of warning people of certain behaviour- often children.
Sea-faring contemporary legends also serve as cautionary tales between children and adults, whereas adults often tell their children scary stories as a means of protecting them from real world dangers. Although sea-faring legends are often told amongst fisherman, this does not dismiss the importance of warning children against playing near the water.
Within the context of Newfoundland culture, the small out-port communities are often surrounded by water. Furthermore, it would not necessarily be difficult for a small child to fall into the water, unable to return to shore. Consequently, parents tell stories that will scare children, and prevent them from wandering too close to a body of water.
In terms of cautionary tales, these stories undergo changes in order to fit a specific context. In a social context, parents often share stories to transmit various methods of discipline, such as evoking fear.
As a child, this certainly worked for me. My mother would warn me against wandering too close to the water on trips to Topsail Beach in Conception Bay, claiming mermaids or water nymphs would drag me into the ocean. Interestingly, my mother likely used this specific story because I'm still unable to swim at the age of twenty-four. Therefore, the issue of teaching children legends of scary monsters is a useful tool in social and educational value of contemporary legends.
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What are your thoughts?
The Modernist Son, 2020-
Goldstein, Diane. Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore. University Press of Colorado. Utah State University Press. 2007. (60-62)