Straight from the field: ghost stories from AnthroSoc

Malinowski among Trobriand Islanders.  Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Malinowski among Trobriand Islanders.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

As I sit writing this, it’s Thursday 30 October, and I’ve just returned from AnthroSoc’s event, Tales From the Field: Halloween Edition, in Sallie’s Quad. The event, which was advertised on Facebook as ‘the best the Anthropology Department has to offer’ surpassed my high expectations, leaving me with several tales I don’t think I’ll forget until I’m an old and senile alumna telling my great, great, great, great (great) academic grandchildren about all the weird stuff that went on when I was at uni.

When I pushed open the doors to School V, the room was already quite full, humming with the awkward, mild chatter that frequents the beginning of events where one only knows one or two people. While the space ratio was wobbling between comfortably full and oops-perhaps-we-ought-to-have-rented-out-Younger-Hall, the event’s leaders handled their growing audience with aplomb. When the couch and chairs on the periphery of the room filled, cushions were cheerily distributed and the room felt quite safely snug for an evening full of (anthropological) ghost stories.

A large coffee table in the middle of the room offered biscuits, cheeses, and bowls of Halloween candy, which everyone was too awkward/polite to take more than a piece or two of until the ice had been broken with the first story. As the committee members introduced themselves, wine was passed around, and the first speaker began.

Please note that quotations in this article are only approximate and not necessarily exact representations of what speakers said, and thus may not reflect their actual or inferred meaning.

Tale One: Werewolves in Brazil (and Portugal)
Dr. Mark Harris, Head of the Department of Social Anthropology

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“I decided to sort of follow the spirit of the dead and the ghoulish, so this story will reflect a bit on that aspect of my experiences, in a way… I think stories are a great way to subvert the normal presentation of anthropological ideas… Hopefully it’ll have an ending; I haven’t quite got there yet.” Laughs.

“When I was researching in the Brazilian Amazon, it was interesting to observe the, well, observance of Halloween in the area. American themes – you know, the traditional pumpkins – mixed with some Brazilian figures in unique ways.

“The immediate course for this story, actually, came from a reference in an archive I found… I was going through heaps of books, looking for this and that to do with my research, when I came across this word – labezerg – werewolf. And I thought: ‘What was this doing in the Amazon?’

“Can we turn the lights off, by chance?” Laughs. He motions to switch the lights off. “Oops – too dark.” More laughs. It is decided that the lights in a display case with a variety of masks are good enough; Dr. Harris switches to what will become known as The Chair for the remainder of the night; candles placed among the biscuits and cheese in the middle of the room. Eeriness deemed sufficient.

“So here’s a story…

“In Portuguese folklore, a person is transformed into a werewolf by spinning very quickly in the same spot where the animal last lay… They don’t go around killing anyone, just romping about in the countryside. Other tales of werewolves in different areas around the world include the Curupira, with their feet turned backwards, that’s the main Amazonian representation…

“There is the story of a man, Jose, who traveled between Portugal and Brazil, learning about the women of the Amazon and their loves and lives through their stories… He eventually was appointed to a high position in the town, but was accused of being a (self-proclaimed) werewolf. He declared it false, but was forced to move to a different village.

“That was the end of the story.” Laughs. “I suppose it’s indicative of many stories… The point is: no matter the media coverage of destruction you hear around the Amazon these days, remember there are other stories, too… Some anthropological context for you there.” More laughs. End of Story One.

During the interim, I notice the view from the large and only window in the room, and comment on it to my neighbor. Low clouds frame the bell tower of St Salvator’s Cathedral, the clock face eerily illuminated from below, and remind me that from the other side of structure stares the face of Patrick Hamilton, a university student who was burned at the stake on site. I take a biscuit.

Tale Two: Fertility and Spirits of the Deceased in Indonesia
Dr. Lynda Newland

“I’ll get right into it.

“In Southeast Asia, in the Pacific, it’s quite common to believe that the spirits of the recently deceased wander between the grave and the household. In West Java, Indonesia, where I’ve done some of my research, the landscape is just populated with spirits of the dead… In this culture, there are certain areas you shouldn’t be; certain mindsets you should avoid so as not to become possessed by spirits.

“There are different types of spirits: people have died in accidents, terrible, terrible, accidents; there’s the spirit of the seit: a virgin who died right before the prime of her life – fertility is very central to West Java culture – who hangs around in bamboo groves. Any young man who passes by one of these seits – his genitals will be clawed until he dies.” Sympathetic chuckles.

“Anyone can be possessed. You’re more vulnerable during sunset, if you’re staring out of windows at night, if you’re alone, or daydreaming. Daydreaming isn’t a positive thing there. It’s considered to be a sort of melancholic revelry; your mind isn’t focused, so you’re empty – the world will fill it with something, which is likely to be a spirit.

Mt Bromo in Java, Indonesia.  Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Mt Bromo in Java, Indonesia.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Now, I’m an Australian who’s used to being alone; here, people didn’t want to let me be, because they were worried for me, and wanted to keep me from being possessed.

“There’s another type of spirit, the contalana: a beautiful woman with hair down to her hips, which hides a hole in her back. She’ll come looking for pregnant women, because she so wants a child of her own. The midwives – very important figures in West Javan culture – don’t feel fear or anger against her, just pity. For these reasons, and others besides, pregnancy is highly ritualized. Women were traditionally married at thirteen or fourteen – nowadays it’s up to nineteen-ish. Marriages are about having your firstborn more than your spouse… The time between marriage and when a wife first becomes pregnant is called coso. I had friends there who would say ‘I was coso for x months,’ ‘I was coso for x months,’ etc. It’s a very scary time for a woman.

“When a woman does die in childbirth, midwives take certain precautions to prevent her from becoming a contalana; they put needles below (or into) the feet of the body in the coffin, so that when the child wakes up and says, ‘Mom! Come on, mom, let’s go for a walk!’, she’ll say: ‘I can’t. My feet hurt.’”

Appreciative silence, which Dr. Stan Frankland breaks. “Wow,” he says. “Gives new meaning to the phrase ‘pins and needles’!” Laughs.

Several others shared their tales as the evening continued on, including elves in Finland and blood dealers in Baltimore, Maryland. One story in particular I would’ve kept to myself for the sake of the individual experience, anyways. That said, if you want to hear stories like this in person, which I promise far exceed this attempted coverage, you can check out events AnthroSoc holds in the future.

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