The Hillfolk’s relationship with the spirit world is a delicate balance often kept in equilibrium through certain beliefs and taboos about ghosts and “haints” (haint being another word for a ghost or spirit. It comes from “haunt” or “haunted.”) Many of these beliefs show signs of European folk tradition, others come from Native American or African folklore. Regardless of where they come from, people in the Ozarks used to take their beliefs about ghosts very seriously. Most of the quotes below are from “Folk Beliefs from Arkansas” by folklorist Mary Celestia Parler who recorded many folktales and beliefs about ghosts.
Beliefs about Ghosts:
“During the dark of the moon, ghosts will appear.”
“Ghosts can be seen more easily at the time of the new moon.”
“When a rooster crows in the dawn, all spirits depart for the spirit world.”
“When a person is dying and a whippoorwill starts calling outside the house, that whippoorwill is trying to catch the soul of the dying person to keep it from reaching heaven.”
“If you bury a body before it’s been dead three days, the soul will be trapped and may never leave.”
“It is wise never to mention the names of dead people in the vicinity of a grave yard, for the attention of ghosts would perhaps be attracted to the speaker.”
“An elderly Indian woman lived alone in Prairie Grove. People use to ask her if she wasn’t afraid to live alone. She said no, because she always put food out at night and when she went out in the morning, it was gone. So she knew she was protected at night.”
“If you sweep the floor after midnight, it will stir up the spooks and ghosts.”
This belief is also noted by Vance Randolph in his “Ozark Magic and Folklore” where it seems sweeping should be avoided at night altogether:
“An old-time Ozark housewife seldom sweeps her cabin after dark, and she never sweeps anything out at the front door. Otto Ernest Rayburn observes that ‘one of the most progressive merchants in Arkansas will not permit his janitor to sweep dirt out through the door after dark.’ A woman in Madison county, Arkansas, told me that ghosts and spirits are accustomed to stand about near cabins at night, and it is dangerous to offend these supernatural beings by throwing dirt in their faces.”
“The Indians also believe that you should never pass a grave without tossing a stone or twig on the mound. Should you omit this rite, you will incur the anger of the ghost, a serious matter, resulting probably in your illness or death.”
I’ve seen examples of this belief in several graveyards where rocks and sticks had been piled up on top of tombstones as sort of votive offerings. I’m not sure about the accuracy of this coming in from the Native Americans, it might have been partially influenced by them as the Osage and Caddo both were, if I’m not mistaking, mound builders. I’ve seen examples of this folk belief elsewhere as well. One example I can remember is from the novel “Independent People” by Halldór Laxness where the protagonist Bjartur adds stones to the cairn of the evil woman Gunnvör to appease her spirit. It wouldn’t surprise me if this tradition came into the Ozarks from multiple sources.
People who can see ghosts:
“A person born in January can see ghosts.”
“People born on Halloween are able to see and talk to ghosts.”
“People born with a veil [caul] over their face are able to see ghosts, spooks, and things of that sort.”
A well trained Power Doctor not only knows how to avoid ghosts and spirits, but also how to dispel them if need be. In the Ozarks dispelling ghosts falls under a few categories: preventing, appeasing, or manually sending them away.
Preventing ghosts involves the use of certain plants or objects, often hung or scattered around the house, in order to keep ghosts away from the house or family. Examples of these preventatives include the color blue, often called “haint blue” because when painted on doors or porches it keeps haints away from the house. I’ve also heard that ghosts can’t cross over new boards, so new planks of wood are often used at the front door to keep out ghosts. Also with the front door, a lot of people keep a screen door, not only for practical purposes, but also because it’s believed a ghost has to count every hole in the screen before it can enter into the house. By the time the ghost is finished it’ll be daytime and the ghost will be scared off by the Sun. Here are some examples:
“To keep ghosts out of your house, hang mustard seeds in a cloth sock at all doors and windows.”
“Always keep some kind of light burning in your home cause the evil spirits will not come around light.”
“If you hang a horse shoe over your door it will keep the ghosts away.”
“If you put a nail in the doorstep and a horseshoe over the door ghosts can’t get into your house.”
“Don’t let the fire go out on Christmas morning or the spirits will visit you.”
“Keep a buckeye in your pocket to ward away evil spirits.”
“Put sand on your front porch or steps at night to keep the evil spirits away.”
“If you have a crow’s foot in your house, it will keep away evil spirits.”
“When in the woods at night if a owl hoots, turn your pockets inside out to keep off bad spirits.”
“Fuzzy chickens in the yard keeps away the haints.”
“Wear a string with eight knots in it around your ankle to keep the haints away.”
“If a person whistles while he is walking at nighttime, it is supposed to attract all the bad spirits in the vicinity.”
“Turn the mirrors toward the wall so that the ghosts will not stop and admire themselves.”
Or the opposite:
“Put mirrors in a room or house where ghosts live and they will see themselves and scare themselves away.”
There’s a belief about water cancelling out certain black magic and witchcraft, this belief also can apply to ghosts as well, as seen in the examples below:
“A ghost cannot follow a person over running water.”
“If you have any enemies that are dead and there ghosts are bothering you, move by a river because ghosts can’t cross rivers.”
There’s also a belief among certain Power Doctors that their healing can’t be done remotely for a person if they are across water from the Doctor. As long as there’s no water between them the healing can be done. There’s a similar belief among Cajun Traiteurs or Treaters.
It’s said that the reason why people at a funeral have to wear black is to make them inconspicuous to the ghosts that may be in the graveyard. There’s also the belief, that most likely comes from Old World Halloween beliefs, that a bonfire must be lit outside the house on Halloween in order to keep the wandering spirits away. An interesting note about the bonfire, the word originally comes from the combination of “bone” and “fire” because a bonfire was originally a fire in which bones were burned. It’s interesting to see that Ozark bonfires often have animal bones thrown in to “keep the spirits away from the fire” as I’ve heard it said.
Appeasing a ghost means leaving out food or drink for the ghost to either prevent their entry into the house or draw them out of a place they’re already residing in. Here are some examples:
“Better not venture abroad at night without a light and if you must travel through a dark forest scatter bits of food as you go.”
“When followed by a ghost while walking at night, pour a little whiskey on the ground and they will stop following you.”
“If you think there are bad spirits in the house, leave a jug of whiskey in the corner of the room. The next morning the spirits and the whiskey will be gone.”
A similar tradition as the above involves leaving a bottle of alcohol open in a haunted house over night. Go in the next day and the alcohol will have changed color. Stop up the bottle along with the spirit. This bottle can be kept and used in cursing your enemies, or the spirit can be dispelled by pouring the alcohol into a bonfire. I’ve used this bottle technique many times with great success, although I was taught certain prayers to accompany the work that seem to be integral to its success.
Manually dispelling is when the Power Doctor uses certain means to physically remove a ghost from a place or “kill” the spirit. Here are some examples:
“You can kill a ghost with a silver bullet.”
There’s this idea of “laying a ghost” meaning that you are preventing the ghost from manifesting or rising up out of its grave. One example, people used to put a large stone directly over the head of the buried person. This was supposed to “lay the ghost.” You can also use white chicken feathers on top of the grave to “lay” the ghost of your enemy.
“Sneezing is a good omen because it is believed that the sneeze makes a bad spirit leave the body.” I’ve often seen Power Doctors make their clients sneeze using various powders because of this belief.
Sulfur or Juniper (and in some cases corncobs or tobacco) is often burned inside the house to drive out evil spirits. Asafetida is also hung around people’s necks to keep away ghosts and also certain diseases.
While many of these folk beliefs have died out over the years, there is still this underlying fear and respect for the spirit world in many Ozark people. As a modern day Power Doctor I’ve helped many people with hauntings and the occasional unruly spirit, and I can personally attest to the survival of this belief among people around here, both young and old. I can also attest to the effectiveness of many of these old folk beliefs, the fact that many people consider them “superstitions” doesn’t change the fact that many people used them for a very long time. They’ve survived in memory because they work, if they didn’t people would have forgotten them years ago. Anyway, that’s a soapbox best left for another day.