Sunday, October 6, 2013

Exploring Mormon Ghost Stories

One evening after watching an especially fun horror flick with my sister, we sat eating ice cream and talking about why so many good horror movies seem to involve a Roman Catholic worldview. We came to the conclusion that it was mostly because Catholicism has such a big head start as far as tradition goes. When you have 2000 years of history, plus the latitude to draw on Jewish culture and religion, you have a lot of material to work with. Catholicism has also developed a very interesting theology around the living and the dead, angels and demons, and how they cross over into each other’s worlds. Of course, many Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Shintoism also have quite a rich tradition.

My sister and I started to wonder what contributions Mormonism has made to the world of ghost stories. After all, Mormonism has quite a unique view of spirits and the afterlife.
Even though evil spirits make no appearances in the Book of Mormon that I can remember, a few pop up in the Doctrine and Covenants, and supernatural conflict arises in many settings where it isn't found in other Christian traditions. For example, in the pre-mortal life, Satan manages to draw 1/3 of the hosts of heaven away with him, meaning that things could go terribly wrong even when God was present. And then there are the teachings about spirit prison and spirit paradise where, once again, spirits are continuing their journeys, being drawn toward light or darkness. And mortal life is cast as an all-important testing ground where spirits are purified or damned. We also have a very interesting tradition in the early church of evil and benevolent spirits interacting with human beings, such as David W. Patten’s encounter with Cain, Wilford Woodruff seeing the spirits of the Founding Fathers, and Heber C. Kimball getting knocked to the floor by an invisible power and gazing for an hour and a half upon a horde of evil spirits. Indeed, Brigham Young once said, “You never felt a pain and ache, or felt disagreeable, or uncomfortable in your bodies and minds, but what an evil spirit was present causing it.” (Journal of Discourses 4:133). Spirits were everywhere back then.

However, when my sister and I considered how often we had heard ghostly events spoken of in contemporary Mormonism in North America, we realized that we had heard very little. Why was this? With such a rich and unique tradition to draw on, shouldn't Mormons be producing some interesting ghost stories?

So I went out and did an Internet search for “Mormon ghost stories.” It took about four hours of reading to cover the relevant hits. I was disappointed to find that most of the stories being told were quite traditional: hearing noises in an empty house, feeling an invisible presence brush by, seeing a figure in the darkness. There were also stories of missionary exorcisms, but they were frequently about a “friend of a friend” and usually quite sparse on details. (Even my own two missionary ghost stories happened to a companion or district member.) And these missionary stories had very much the same form you would find in any other Christian tradition.

As with ghost stories rooted in Christian tradition, Mormon ghost stories tend to either be morality tales or authority tales. I have read and heard about how playing with an Ouija board had caused some frightening events that required prayer or a blessing to overcome. I also remember hearing about evil spirits laughing in the corners of fornicating couple’s rooms. Ghostly events were mostly caused by sin and were therefore banished by repentance or prayer. I also heard many stories about how an evil spirit would not leave until someone with proper priesthood authority cast them out, or about a healing that was done through the wrong means that was reversed when the proper authority arrived. In other words, Mormon ghost stories (as with Christian ghost stories) have two very strong prescriptive components: “Go off the track, and you’ll be sorry,” and, “Our leaders can keep us from evil.”

Of course, one ghost story form that is at least somewhat unique to Mormonism is the family history ghost story. In these, the protagonist is guided to an unlikely file, or the microfiche machine gets stuck on just the right slide, or just the right (but un-looked-for) book falls off the shelf leading the protagonist to find an unbaptized ancestor. These stories are numerous in Mormon culture and do not usually suffer from the “friend of a friend” syndrome. A sub-set of the family history ghost story is the temple ghost story where a person doing temple work for a deceased person feels that person’s presence nearby. These are probably Mormonism’s most unique contribution to ghostly tales. They are usually very sweet stories that reveal Mormons deep commitment to family connections and very optimistic view of their forebears.

So, with the exception of the family history ghost story and the temple ghost story, contemporary Mormonism has made few contributions to the ghost story genre. For the most part, the ghost stories we tell are unoriginal and often do not reflect our unique understanding of the spirit world.

This dearth of originality is why I am starting this blog. I want to see if we can dig up uniquely Mormon ghost stories from the lives of Church members. I’m fairly sure they are out there. But it seems they are rarely spoken of.

Why the silence? The first reason that comes to my mind is the idea that if one talks about evil spirits, they are drawn toward you. Curiosity about darkness is seen as a bad thing in Mormonism, which probably explains the lack of major horror-genre artists in the Church. The closest we have are Brian Evenson (who was excommunicated), Neil LaBute (who, though he has never written about the supernatural, still has a very dark bent—he was also excommunicated), and Richard Dutcher (who made the very frightening, but again, not actually supernatural, Brigham City, as well as an unreleased horror film Evil Angel—he has since left the Church). And, I suppose you could argue that these artists are a case in point: they were drawn toward darkness and eventually out of the Church. So Mormons don’t have much practice thinking about our interactions with spirits in the first place, much less experience telling about them.

I think there is also the worry that if you tell these kinds of stories from your own life, you’ll be marked as kind of a nut. Mormonism has joined mainstream America sufficiently to be suspicious of these kinds of tales. Mormonism also likes to project a very clean image. Our ads show people whose lives are organized and purposeful with well-functioning families. We draw people toward the Church partially with the promise of a well-ordered life. We’re more interested in being clean and righteous than we are in being interesting. Ghostly tales don’t have much of a place in this kind of environment, especially ghost stories that are difficult to interpret—where one’s interactions with a spirit can’t be immediately pegged as inspiring or evil.

So, as Brigham Young once said, “this is the right place” to bring your Mormon ghost stories. If your experiences with spirits have a particularly Mormon flavor, send them on over. I’m not just interested in cataloging them; I’m interested in exploring them. So I’ll likely pump you for details and ruminate with you about how they interact with Mormon theology. And when the story you and I put together goes up on the blog, I promise to keep your privacy intact. We’ll change details and names so that you feel comfortable sending your story out to the world. Send your story in to mormonghosts[at]gmail[dot]com.

This is going to be way fun—and hopefully a little freaky. 

(Just for the record, I’m not really interested in collecting family history or temple ghost stories unless they have a unique twist. I’m not saying that they aren't worthwhile stories; I’m just looking for something different.)

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