Horror Folklore and Legend
An Interview With Dr. Bob Curran
The Winter King, By Will Jacques
It is with the greatest of pleasure that I introduce one of my favorite authors, the legendary Irish folklorist Dr. Robert Curran. One of the most prolific and published historians of his day, Dr. Curran specializes in subjects both strange and unnatural. He’s the real deal, the Van Helsing of his time. If there’s anything you need to know about the creatures that lurk beyond the light, Bob Curran is your man, from ancient Mesopotamia, to the fog-shrouded hills of his native Northern Ireland. He is an absolute authority, the king of supernatural legends.
Not only is Dr. Curran a scholar of incredible depth and diversity, he’s also an accomplished writer, with a clear, conversational tone. Informative, without ever becoming over academic, or condescending, he’s a natural teacher and it shows. I’m a teacher myself and I know. Dr. Curran is the professor every student wishes they could have. He has the gift of transcribing legend into prose effortlessly, with colorful imagery and impeccable flow. He brings our ancestors to life through their superstitions and folklore and shows us ourselves within them. We find that what scares them is what scares us still. When the dark wind blows, and we face the non-negotiable realities that wait, we are alone in the wilderness. Its scary being alone and it always will be.
Oh well, enough of that prattle. Besides being a renowned academic and internationally published author of umpteen-zillion books, Bob Curran has something lurking within his work history that I find REALLY impressive…at one time, he was a gravedigger!
I also have the honor and privilege to have served behind the shovel in that noble profession. I recall with pride the glorious day that I dug a grave, set up the tent, chairs, and all that, filled the grave back in, and piled the flowers back on, ALL BY MYSELF. I told my wife all about it in detail that night; she wasn’t as excited about it as I was.
Let me tell you, there’s nothing like standing in a freshly dug grave while watching a cold mist drift softly among the tombstones. You’ve either been there or you haven’t
Will Jacques, October 28, 2010
Here’s Dr. Curran’s page on Amazon. You can buy all of his books there:
Can you find the 11 gravediggers? Picture By Will Jacques
This is an animated grave digger, ready to be used in a haunted amusement house.
Another rubber gravedigger
A few of the boys at work
Interview With Dr. Bob Curran, Article By Jason Whittle
Q) You come from Ireland, a land rich in history and Celtic mythology, but have also travelled the world and seen other cultures. To what extent do you think your background and experiences have led you into a writing career?
A) I suppose that my background must have had an influence on me and probably moved me to write. I think that some writers use their work to understand who they are and how they’ve got where they are and I suppose that’s the basis of my own work. I grew up in a very remote rural area of Northern Ireland at a time when what we might call “superstition” was still very much the case. People there still believed in ghosts and fairies and such things. It’s easy of course to dismiss them as simply “foolish” but these were sensible people and they used such supernatural concepts to explain and frame up the world for themselves. This was an extremely important and relevant thing to do, given the time and the location. And in that environment, I framed the world in the same way that they did but much later I began to ask myself why I did that. So I would say that the writing is an attempt to understand myself and where I came from. I am frequently asked the question – “Do the things that you write about – ghosts, vampires, werewolves, fairies etc. – actually exist?” But that for me is not the question – I don’t know whether or not they exist, or if they exist in the form that we believe them to, they may or may not do. The more important question for me is “Why should people want to believe in them? What role to they fulfil and what do they tell us about ourselves?” And I think this is where my background is studying psychology comes in and what my books are trying to explore.
Coastal Northern Ireland
Q) I heard somewhere that you worked as a grave digger in your younger days. Is this true, and if so how did it make you feel?
A) Yes, I was a gravedigger at a time. I left school was very few qualifications – I have children of my own now and I try to encourage them not to do as I did – and worked for a short time digging graves for what was then a local authority in County Down. It was an interesting period. Some of us were assigned to some of the mountain parishes in order to “break graves”. In these churchyards, burying space was at a premium and if a grave was unmarked <by a headstone or funeral marker> we had to consult what was known as an Applotment Book which gave a record of burials. If there was no record of any burial in that particular grave for over 100 years, we were entitled to open it and use it for fresh burials. A lot of diggers wouldn’t do that but I didn’t mind. I worked with another man who made a tidy sum in gold wedding rings that he dug up. You didn’t dig up all that much although you did dig up the occasional bone and parts of coffins. I think the thing that alarmed me most was one evening I was working on a grave when I dug up a coffin lid. Whoever had been buried there had been quite well to do as the coffin had been lined. But part of the interior lining had been torn away and the marks of nails were in the wooden lid. Whoever had been buried there had been buried alive <not uncommon in former times>. I think this annoyed me a little and later I gave up grave digging and became employed as a lorry driver, working for a lemonade company.
Q) Your books contain a mixture of historical fact, legend and dramatisation. Is there more truth in these myths than our readers might realise?
A) I think that all these old legends and folktales contain at least some element of fact. Legends and folktales are a means of interpreting the world around us and our relationship to other things within it. Just as the people in the area in which I grew up framed up the world in terms of fairies and ghosts and such things, so other people <often in other cultures> still may interpret the world in different ways than we do – perhaps in supernatural terms. Without trying to be controversial or offending anyone this is perhaps the same fundamental principle that guides religion. Therefore such legends and myths are important as they give us a glimpse into the thought processes and interpretations which have formed differing views of the world and indeed there may, as you suggest, be more truth in them that we realise. Depending of course what you mean by “truth” <a philosopher’s answer!>
A Religous Musical, By Will Jacques
The “Montauk Monster,” an unexplained animal
Q) Our previous series of interviewees dealt with extra-terrestrials, thought forms and the supernatural. What is your theory on the origins of the creatures in your books?
A) As I said above there may be some truth – admittedly with added interpretations – around some of these creatures. It is interesting that you make the point about extra-terrestrials, as I’ve just published a book about dark fairies that often carried both children and people away. In fact where I was brought up there was a man living near us who was known as the Fairy Man because he’d been allegedly abducted by the fairies for a period of seven years <although he couldn’t remember where he’d been with them. However, according to my grandmother, a postman had seen him living with a woman other than his wife in a village a good number of miles away. However, in the minds of most people he’d been “taken” by the fairy kind>. Nowadays the cultural references have changed to some extent and it’s extra-terrestrials who carry <or abduct> people off. But there may well be some sort of factual basis around some of the creatures which have been interpreted in various ways by various cultures.
Images of Irish UFO’s, these are from Meathe
Another Irish UFO
Other images of Irish UFO’s
A Brisk Infusion Of Alien Technology, By Will Jacques
Q) You do cover a very wide range of myths and legends. Could you name your favourites for our readers, one which you think is the most factually plausible, and one which – whether true or not – resonates most strongly with you?
A) It’s really very difficult to say which one of the myths, legends or topics that I cover is my favourite or resonates with me most strongly. All of them interest me in various ways. The creatures I am most asked about, I suppose, are vampires and that’s simply because there has been a lot of vampire-orientated media of late – with a series such as Buffy the Vampire Hunter or the Twilight books and films. And I think the vampire is such an enduring myth because it addresses very fundamental human questions – what would it be like to live forever and what would it be like to be forever young <because vampires don’t appear to age all that much>. But recently I have noticed a few more questions about zombies probably because of Zombie Wars, Zombie Apocalypse and Zombie Survival Guide. I have to admit though that I’ve not taken very much notice of these – I’ve never seen a complete episode of Buffy or Angel for example nor have I read any of the Twilight books though my daughter has and they’re lying around – as it’s the folkloric element which interests me.
The Village Vampire, By Will Jacques
Q) Some of the great legends have been told and retold so many times that they have become distorted over time. Leprechauns, mermaids and faeries are now most commonly depicted in children’s cartoons. Does this sadden you, or is it a good thing just that they are remembered at all?
A) It doesn’t sadden me as such. I think that the depictions of the monsters and creatures are simply a different, commercialised conception which is more geared towards the concerns of the modern world. Although I haven’t read the books I’m guessing that say, Twilight addresses issues around <American> teenage/young adult angst which are important for the readership and why they have become so popular. But once again, like many of the old tales they also address moral issues. Of course, this has been going on for some time – the stories get adapted to the period in which they’re told. The Victorians did the same in the mid-1800s – they adapted some fairly gruesome and horrible folktales <cannibalistic old woman living in the forest, wolves who would eat old grandmothers and young children> collected by people like the Brothers Grimm and turned them into fairy stories for children. There are still common concerns, like morality and fear of the unknown for instance, underlying many of them but they also reflect the time they’re in. So I don’t get saddened in the least when watching Scooby-Doo <although I do think that Sponge Bob is a little better>
Hansel and Gretel has always been a very weird tale. Imagine geing abandoned by your father and then held captive by a cannibalistic Witch. It’s every child’s dream vacation.
Q) As well as the ancient mythological creatures, you have also written books on the monsters more commonly seen in cinemas; vampires, zombies, werewolves. I know there’s a lot more that can be said about them than will fit in a two hour film or a website interview, but do you think the filmmakers are on the right track with their depictions of these?
A) Leading on from the above question, I suppose that film-makers have adapted some of these old stories and legends to make them more dramatic, sensual or exciting, probably to suit the tastes of their audiences. And I suppose to make them more relevant to the present day – you can’t have a vampire continually living in a ruined castle in Transylvania. Better have him or her in New York or Los Angeles <I think we even have vampires living on the Moon now>. And in doing so they have added a number of dramatic elements. For example, in many of the films the vampire drinks from the neck of his victim <Dracula also does this in Stoker’s novel>. This of course adds to the erotic symbolism of the vampire itself. However, if the creature drank from the jugular vein which runs through the neck there would be one heck of a mess with blood everywhere and its victim dead. In some cultures, the vampire drinks from a vein at the crook of the arm <where a nurse would take a blood sample> or from veins near the soles of the feet. But of course that wouldn’t look either as dramatic or erotic on the screen or in literature. Again, there is a common conception that only a silver bullet <especially one made from a melted-down crucifix> can kill a werewolf. This again is a rather dramatic <with religious overtones> concept – in many tales a lead bullet will kill the beast just as easily. So whilst writers and film-makers explore the concepts which these monsters embody they add their own touches. However, I’m not condemning that because this is the basis of storytelling and many legends themselves, as I’ve hinted in my previous answer, get changed and adapted over time to suit their audiences. This often adds to their richness and imagination.
Q) We’re now in October, Halloween is looming large and soon all the kids will be dressed up as various things that go bump in the night. This is all good light-hearted fun, but what can you tell us about the true meaning of Halloween, and how it all started?
A) Indeed, Hallowe’en is almost upon us. In fact in some shops, the festival has almost become as big and as commercialised as Christmas. As far as the festival goes in Celtic mythology, it arises from the time of Samhain which was one of the turning points in the Celtic year. This was the beginning of “the dark time of the year” and was one of the times when the forces of darkness and the dead held sway <May Eve was another such time>. However, Samhain marked the beginning of Winter when, on a practical level, animals were to be slaughtered to store up food for the coming months and when the last of the crops should be in. The days grew dark and the light more uncertain. So it was natural for people to imagine that ghosts and strange things were about and might be glimpsed in the half-light. In some Christian mythologies it was a time when the “blessed dead” <those who had lived a good life>, were permitted by God to return to the places that they’d known in life for a single night <Hallowe’en night> to enjoy some of the things that they missed in the grave. I remember an old woman who lived not far from us arranging the chairs around the fireplace before she went to bed and sprinkling what we called the “gleeshins” <fine ash from the fire itself on her hearthstone>. If they were disturbed in the morning she would know that her dead ancestors had paid her a visit and had danced on the hearthstone as they did when alive. On Hallowe’en night my own grandmother used to set an extra place at the meal table in case a dead neighbour was wandering by and would come in and join us. None of them ever did but the tradition was there.
A cool family of scarecrows
“Mr. Overalls,” a ghost picture from the collection of Will Jacques.
Q) Halloween is of course followed immediately by All Saints Day. The tales of the Ancient Celtic Saints are as enthralling as any spooky stories. Which is your favourite, and why?
A) The idea of saints was particularly strong in the area where I was brought up mainly because there were a number of what we called “holy wells” in the area which were dedicated to certain saints. Many of these were “curing wells” where people could go to get a “cure” for whatever ailed them. I doubt if the saints whose names they bore had anything to do with them. A number of them still exist today. I’m thinking about something like St. Aidan’s well which is about ten miles from where I am now, which has nothing to do with St. Aidan – former abbot of Lindisfarne in the North of England – but is still used as a curing well by the people round about. In former times it’s said that every house in the area, both Catholic and Protestant, had a bottle of “St. Aidan’s Water” in it to bring good luck. Most of these were of course pagan wells which became sort of “Christianised” and simply given the name of a convenient holy man. But there were stories of saints everywhere and when I was growing up there was supposed to be a deep hole – actually a cleft between two large stones set into the hillside <probably an old Celtic ritual site> – in which a local saint was supposed to have trapped an evil spirit. If you shouted into it in a certain way, the spirit would mock you by calling your words back at you <it was an echo of course> and I remember that as small children we used to go up and try if we could hear the spirit by shouting into the cleft. There is also supposed to be a hill in County Mayo where St. Patrick is supposed to have defeated a horde of demons that came from the East and so protected Ireland from evil.
Saints have it rough. They are not always happy people.
The Devil and His Cat, By Will Jacques
Q) You always show a great deal of spirituality in your writing, but sometimes hint at disenchantment with the dogma of organised religion. Could this be influenced by the Troubles of your native Northern Ireland? Did they ever affect you, and if so how?
A) This is an interesting question and one which I’m not often asked, so thank you for allowing me to answer it. It’s interesting that you say that I show spirituality in my writing – it’s not done consciously but I suppose it’s there. Maybe nobody who was born and raised in Northern Ireland can put religion out of their lives. But you’re right too – I am disenchanted with the dogma of religion which was at the centre of the Troubles and which continues to underpin Northern Irish society. I was born into a Protestant household, although my grandfather <though nominally a Protestant> had come from the border country of South Armagh where religious distinctions were slightly more blurred. He was a great musician and raconteur and I think it was through him that I acquired my interest in folklore and culture, particularly Irish culture. My father and a couple of my brothers came from a rather different tradition, became heavily involved with evangelical churches and were <and still are> extremely religious. So my early background at least was very “church based” and I suppose that although I didn’t formally recognise it, there were cultural tensions between my grandfather’s <my mother’s father> perspective and my father’s. Whilst I do not condemn any religion – in fact I think that many churches do a measure of good for certain people and provide a focus for them especially in difficult times – I have always equated religion with power especially here in Northern Ireland. I make a fundamental distinction between religion and faith and this led me into many disagreements with my family, particularly my father. For example, I have seen people in churches in reasonably good jobs, handing over one tenth of their monthly earnings to the church under the “tithing” system <which is still rigorously enforced in some churches> and then struggling to cope and feed their families on what they have left whilst their ministers ride around in BMWs and wear Armani suits. I think that says it all. Now I know that’s not the case in all churches – but in my experience here in Northern Ireland, a number of people do very well out of religion as a career opportunity. And I know of families who have split over some point or religion and even of people who have been killed for marrying “the wrong sort”. Surely that can’t be what religion is about? Perhaps some of that disenchantment and disillusionment has fed into my writing. And of course, such underlying power has fed into the Troubles – you have only to look from the Protestant perspective at the links between the DUP and the Free Presbyterian Church <and, allegedly, certain paramilitary factions>. People say to me “Politics and religion shouldn’t mix” and I reply “Why shouldn’t they as they’re both just different aspects of power?” This has, I think, been the reason that the other part of my life has been involved in cross-community work between Catholics and Protestants in various parts of Northern Ireland and I can see the same old problems every day. Although we notionally have a Peace Process in Northern Ireland, we don’t have peace and won’t have for some time to come. I think the English establishment is realising this with the rise in so-called “dissident Republicanism” <which is a much more complex issue than the authorities make it appear> – the problems haven’t really been completely solved just because Martin McGuiness and Peter Robinson sit down together. I suppose part of that frustration feeds into the work and it’s very interesting that you’ve picked it up. It must come from living in Northern Ireland.
A Common enough scene in Northern Ireland during the “Troubles.”
Q) Bob, thank you so much for joining us. Any final thoughts for our readers?
A) I think the final thought that I’d leave your readers with is to keep questioning everything and to accept nothing. Remember, the truth is out there – though it may not be what you imagine it to be.
© Will Jacques, Jason Whittle, and Bob Curran, 2010