I like to think of myself as a realistic, logical person. I was trained as a biologist and have spent most of my writing career focused on factual, serious reporting, churning out stories about breaking news, local government, and state- or national-level politics.
But there is something about folklore, legends, and mythology that I find fascinating. I'm talking about the kind of stuff that a small, often hyper-localized population strongly believes or used to strongly believe, despite a lack of evidence. The kind of stories that are highly unlikely, but often difficult or impossible to disprove. I think our creation of, sharing of, and reaction to these tales that fall somewhere on the spectrum between fact and fiction says a lot about our selves and our culture.
I recently published a story about the Swedish tradition of a "year walk" in Atlas Obscura. The article deals with an ancient pagan practice said to show omens of the future that some people believed in so strongly that they put their well-being at risk to participate in the creepy ritual. I never wanted the research for this story to end: The "year walk" folklore is engrossing.
Here's a look back at some other stories I've written about folk beliefs:
In my very last article for The Day, a newspaper in New London, Connecticut, I examined the sincere belief held by multiple educated, intelligent people in a small New England town that a mountain lion had wandered far from its home and was living among them.
This summer, I learned some people fervently believe that Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was not killed in a barn in Virginia as the government officially maintains. Instead, a variety of people -- including some of his descendants -- believe that Booth escaped, assumed a new identity, and went on to live for years in Texas, Oklahoma, California, and/or other places around the globe. I wrote about this unusual legend for Scalawag.
North Stonington, again. Potentially home not only to ghostly mountain lions, but actual ghosts. The Old Town Hall is haunted, according to employees, including some state troopers but not the man who served as the town's executive for decades. Maybe "the ghost doesn't relate to me," speculated the former First Selectman. (If you read this article, please be forgiving of the glaring typo in the first paragraph. When you're juggling a bunch of newspaper deadlines, mistakes can happen.)
Not exactly a legend -- more like something many of us think of as legendary happening in real life. Someone on a New York island launches a message in a bottle into the sea ... and receives a response from the UK.
Page 16 of this issue of Statler & Waldof, RPI's literary and humor magazine, features an all-too-real story I wrote about my uncle's sudden death. But my uncle was a figure of mythic proportions, so much so that a story I included in this article -- the one about him lighting matches in a mine -- was incorrect. I can't remember what the exact story was -- did he have a flashlight on him, maybe? -- and I don't know whether my mom exaggerating the telling, or I remembered her telling wrong, or a bit of both. I felt awful, at first, when I realized I'd written something that was factually inaccurate. But it doesn't bother me so much anymore: Larger-than-life stories have always followed my uncle, and this one is just part of his mythos.