Nfld. & Labrador

What a bunch of creeps: A toast to some seasonal myths and legends of N.L.

The leaves have turned, the temperature has dropped, and many of us have already eaten an entire box of mini chocolate bars in a single sitting. The spooky season is here, and as Andie Bulman writes, there's nowhere as rife with creepy tales as Newfoundland and Labrador.

There's nowhere as rife with creepy tales as Newfoundland and Labrador

Folklorist Daniel Peretti believes there is a particular reason why Newfoundland is the perfect home for creepy tales. (Daniel Peretti)

The leaves have turned, the temperature has dropped, and most of us have already eaten an entire box of tiny chocolate bars in a single sitting. The spooky season is here and there's nowhere as rife with creepy tales as Newfoundland and Labrador.

Daniel Peretti, author of Superman in Myth and Folklore, teaches courses at Memorial University on general folklore principles, its relationship to popular culture, as well as urban myths and legends. 

He believes there is a particular reason why Newfoundland is the perfect home for creepy tales.

"There certainly are a lot of storytellers here, but I think the reason there's an abundance of legends and hauntings is because this was a dangerous place to live," he says.

"There are steep cliffs and cold, brutal waters and forests that go on and on. Stories and legends spread when deaths are violent."

Peretti's work often involves classifying and exploring famous ghost stories, urban myths and local legends. I asked him to examine some of the island's most famous spooky tales. We began with the only Newfoundland ghost to appear on a postage stamp.

The hag of Bell Island

In 2016, the hag of Bell Island was celebrated by Canada Post and featured on a limited-edition postage stamp, but ghost tour operator Henry Crane prefers to call her by the local nomenclature.

"Yeah, I don't know where Canada Post got the title … but around here she's known as the Ghost of Dobbin's Garden," Crane said.

The Bell Island Hag was one of 15 haunted tales chosen for a 2016 Canada Post stamp collection. (Canada Post)

The famous Bell Island yarn begins in the days leading up to the Second World War, when the island was an international hot spot. Sailors and merchants would come ashore, drawn to the trade and commerce surrounding the rich iron ore mine.

The story goes that a serving girl who worked for one of the wealthier families on Bell Island began a relationship with a German man. Their relationship was serious, but was interrupted by the outbreak of war.

German U-Boats attacked Bell Island. Later, in the dead of night, several of those seamen came ashore to resupply. According to legend, this young woman stumbled upon the German sailors, recognized several of the men from earlier, happier times, and approached. She was dragged into the marsh, and brutally murdered. Some local men heard her screams but ignored the shrieks, fearing it was a "fairy trick."

Since then, there have been many sightings of a hag dressed in a torn grey dress crawling out of Dobbin's Garden. Worms slither from her eye sockets, and sightings are linked to a terrible, rotten stench.

While the tale of this ghost continues to be traded across campfires and wood stoves, it's likely not much of this story is based on fact. After all, no persons were reported missing at that time.

Peretti would classify this as a local legend as opposed to an urban myth. The difference, he explains, is some scholars believe stories with a supernatural element disqualify them from being urban legends. He also points out that stories similar to the tale of the hag/ghost of Dobbin's Garden are told the world over.

LISTEN | Hear The St. John's Morning Show's coverage of Canada Post's Bell Island Hag stamp

She comes with a tale of wartime intrigue and a really, really bad smell. And now she has her very own postage stamp. 8:30

"I would think the people who moved to Newfoundland from Europe mostly arrived via Ireland or England, where stories of hauntings and banshees are common — especially as they relate to the tragic death of women."

So why does this story continue to be told?

"Stories like this are told for lots of reasons and the only way to figure out which one is appropriate is to examine the context: who told the story, to whom was it told, and when? Generally, these can be warnings to avoid dangerous areas, dangerous people, and dangerous circumstances."

In Deer Lake, a hitchhiker vanishes

The Vanishing Hitchhiker of Deer Lake is a story with elements that will ring familiar to many.

A person driving from Deer Lake toward Corner Brook sees a rain-drenched woman in white with her thumb out. Concerned, the good Samaritan pulls over and urges her to come inside, but as the car slows, the woman vanishes.

There's a legend about a woman in white hitchhiking in Deer Lake — far from the only tale of its kind. (Shutterstock)

A scarier experience awaits those who don't pull over. As the unsuspecting driver passes the hitchhiker, they'll glance in their rearview mirror to discover she's no longer on the road. Then, in their periphery, the hitchhiker will be sitting in the passenger seat of their own car.

Peretti would classify this as a migratory belief legend, which is a legend that travels and manifests in different places.

"There are vanishing hitchhiker stories the world over. You find it in the oddest places," he said. "Like in Hawaii, where the hitchhiker is said to be the goddess Pele saving people from volcanic eruptions. Sometimes, the hitchhiker is Jesus, or someone predicting the end of the world. More often, it's a local woman who haunts a stretch of road."

Like many of these tales, the Vanishing Hitchhiker of Deer Lake can't be traced to an actual missing person. That's not at all uncommon with myths and legends.

"To find an origin, you start with the person who told the story to pinpoint where they heard it, then follow the trail as far as you can, which usually isn't very far. You encounter people who heard the story from deceased relatives and things like that, where the trail just stops."

While some migratory belief stories are untraceable, other tales do have some factual basis.

"There was a story about a car, in which someone died, that was sold cheap," Peretti said.

"The automobile had an awful smell that could not be eradicated. Some folklorists tracked that down and found there was an element of truth to the tale. Likewise, the 'hook' story has some factual basis. As you'd expect, the stories gain momentum and pull details from other tales over time — legendary accrual."

There's a warning in there somewhere

Like the Ghost of Dobbin's Garden, the Vanishing Hitchhiker of Deer Lake seems to be a type of warning.

"This tale is about our complicated relationship with automobiles. They are useful to us, but they're also responsible for a lot of violent deaths, and violent deaths tend to be the ones that produce hauntings, or tales of hauntings," Peretti said. 

Autumn seems to be the time of year when a harbinger of doom seems to be around us … or above us. (Andie Bulman)

Both of the above-mentioned tales involve women wearing white, a fact that doesn't escape Peretti's notice.

"There's often some connection to innocence and purity in these tales," he explains, "but sometimes the legend reflects a more specific anxiety. The Newfoundland version of the vanishing hitchhiker seems to surround the idea of a single woman engaged in a risky activity. It's a complicated legend."

Not all ghost stories serve as warnings or harbingers of doom.

Instead, we sometimes simply tell these stories over and over for fun. "It can be for entertainment too. These stories get told late at night during a sleepover or at a campfire. Sometimes people just like to be scared."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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