By Edward Karshner
Icy Sedgwick is a blogger and host of the Fabulous Folklore Podcast which explores a range of folklore and mythology including its appearance in art and film. She is working on a PhD about haunted house films. When research gets tiresome, she writes dark fantasy and gothic horror fiction.
You are the creator and host of the Fabulous Folklore Podcast. What I find amazing, as someone who tends to overcomplicate things, is the skill you have in condensing the complexity of folklore to its essential functions in fifteen minutes. Why was it important to you to keep the podcast succinct? What are some of the frustrations in keeping the material so compressed?
Originally, it was more or less an accident. I didn’t intend to start a podcast, I just wanted to offer audio versions of my blog posts to improve accessibility. And the length of posts I wrote naturally fell within the fifteen-minute mark. It then became part of the tagline (get your fix of fabulous folklore in fifteen minutes), and while some episodes have run a little longer, I try to keep them shorter. Part of that is because I know people listen to a lot of podcasts, and it’s easier to fit in a 15-minute episode than one that runs for two hours, so I want to make them easier to consume for listeners. The other part of it is a lot of research goes into the blog posts, even for a 15-minute episode, and making them longer means giving up more time, which I don’t really have. That said, I feel like the podcast is never going to be the end word on any topic, so I hope the episodes act more like an introduction, and if people want to learn more about a subject, they can check out the bibliography on each blog post.
I think the story of how folklorists came to folklore is often as fascinating as the folklore we study. How did you come to folklore and why?
It’s all my mum’s fault, really. We’d been at one of the many castles in Northumberland and there was this small pamphlet called More Ghosts and Legends of Northumbria in the gift shop. I’d always been mad about ghost stories, so even at the age of about 10, I asked if I could have it. I loved all the legends and tales of fairies, and we started collecting them everywhere we went. I found it was a great way to develop a deeper interest in the places we went on holiday, beyond the surface level of “this is where everything is.” So, my interest was piqued, but it really took off properly when the #FolkloreThursday hashtag started on Twitter and I realised that there was a whole community of people who were likewise fascinated by these stories and old practices.
So, your dive into folklore started with an interest in ghosts and place. We’ve talked about the importance of place in folklore. My Appalachia and your Northumbria have a lot in common in terms of being a “haunted” borderland. How important is place to folklore?
I think folklore doesn’t work without place, to be honest. I asked people on Twitter in 2021 ‘What got you interested in myth, legends and all things superstition based? Why do you love folklore?’ And I got so many answers! For some people, folklore was shared by the family, although in many cases, the stories still revolved around their local area. This made folklore a living part of their family space. Likewise, other people came to folklore as a way to connect with their heritage. Many people specifically highlighted place as their first route into folklore, with people saying they actively sought out tales of any places they visited to better understand the culture and people. Others said the stories made the landscape come alive for them, and yet others said they enjoyed finding legends from other places that were similar to the ones they knew where they were from. Even the people who said they’d come to folklore having been inspired by popular culture then found themselves wanting to visit the sites associated with the original legends. I think the place provides a context, or an anchor, for the story.
Emily Hilliard has a great book on folklore and culture (Making Our Future). One of her ideas is that vernacular culture, expressed as folklore, and mass culture, expressed in popular media, ultimately come together to inform each other in “hybridized” ways. You are currently working on your PhD dissertation that explores haunted house movies. Tell me about your research project? How would you describe the conversation you see between folklore and film?
I’m ultimately looking at the representation of the haunted house in contemporary Hollywood horror movies, and I’m doing so by reading the use of cinematography, set design, and sound design in a selection of films. In many ways, this is just an update of the trickery embraced during spiritualism to create the manifestation of spirits during a seance, except this is an illusion we actively buy into when we buy our ticket and get ready to watch. One of the things that’s fallen out of these readings, and this is inspired by the work of Mark Fisher on the weird and the eerie, is that the living have an unconscious anxiety about their ability to belong in a place. While in these films, that anxiety often manifests as financial problems (like not really being able to afford the haunted house), it’s my contention that this actually comes from our awareness that no matter where we go, the dead were there first. Two of the films, The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes, actually offer a way for the living and the dead to co-exist, which is fascinating, but most of them, like Poltergeist or The Amityville Horror, give that stay/go binary for the living. Ghosts are a funny idea in that some people see ghost stories and folklore as being separate, but I do think that ghosts can and do become part of the lore of a given place. While a lot of things in UK folklore are aimed at warding off witches and evil spirits, there’s less lore designed to keep ghosts out, and I wonder if that’s because we ultimately realise you can’t keep them out.
I’ve been fascinated with this idea of ghosts as “ever present” in my own work. That even as we try to avoid them, we can’t. Do you think we want to be haunted?
I don’t know that we want to be haunted, I think we just can’t help it. I know there are scholars who read ghosts and hauntings as a metaphor for trauma, and I think that helps to explain that sense of ‘being haunted’ that perhaps people who don’t believe in ghosts can still understand. But if we think about how long the world has existed, and the weight of all those beings in that space, both human and more-than-human alike, it would be bizarre if there wasn’t an accumulation of spirits. Sometimes time feels less like something we measure, and more like a form of data storage for everything that happens. I don’t know, maybe there’s a ghost reading this over my shoulder while I’m typing and rolling their eyes!
You also write fiction. And, speaking of lurking ghosts, my daughter, Alex, is a huge fan of your Necromancer books. How does your research into folklore inform your fiction writing?
Often, I’ll be reading something and there will be a short snippet of lore that inspires an idea. One of the more recent examples I can think of was during the first lockdown in 2020, and Owen Davies said something on Twitter that made me wonder what would happen to all those phantom hitchhikers if no one was out in their cars. That inspired me to write a story about an Uber driver who ended up picking up a phantom hitchhiker and driving her home. The folklore usually kicks off a “what if…” moment, and the story becomes my thought process of working through that idea to its conclusion.
We keep hitting on those essential folklore themes of haunting, ambiguity, place as context, making sense of the unknown. In my own work, folklore reminds me that we are all haunted by an ever present past, and “ghosts” function as a reminder that we have choices within, what you call, the “what if.” Which I think, to your point, is why we don’t want to get rid of them. In your own work, how does the re-telling, re-examining, researching of folklore, through the lens of popular culture, and really, vice versa, help mediate the anxiety we feel when confronted with that which “sits just beyond human behavior”?
It’s funny, I think some people who engage with my work do so because they see the magical potential of folklore, and what it might tell us about the more-than-human that earlier generations understood on a different level, while other people see the investigation of folklore as simply offering a way to understand different eras, albeit through a lens of folk practice and belief (and I can’t help thinking there’s an air of superiority about that one but that’s a different rant for a different time). There’s sometimes a danger of imposing contemporary belief systems and ontologies onto earlier times, but I think that if you actually come from that both/and perspective that folklore both captures magic and tells us about the people who practiced it, then it can help to alleviate any anxiety you might feel when you’re confronted with something weird because you know you’re not the first person who’s ever encountered it. And true, we might have a different set of worries, like I don’t have to fear accidentally letting the Devil into my house, but I think the principle behind a lot of folklore remains the same, even if we practice things differently. And that ties into popular culture. Look at the Insidious films, which worry about the prospect of astral travel and entities possessing your body – in a lot of ways, it’s no different than earlier worries about sleep paralysis and possession, it’s just updated with flashy cinematography and a certain kind of soundtrack.
Let’s end by talking about your forthcoming book, Rebel Folklore. Too often folklore gets reduced to fairytales or children’s stories. However, there is a movement to reclaim folklore as subversive storytelling. I’m thinking about Maria Tatar’s idea of folklore and a “pedagogy of fear” or David Southwell and “scarelore.” Tell me about your book but also what you see as the rebellious nature of folklore?
Folklore is full of characters who are fairly ambiguous, so where we might have something like the Redcap in the Borders, which is wholly malevolent, or there is folklore about plants and trees that bring good luck, there are other characters that aren’t so easily classified. It’s not that they’re bad sometimes and good the rest of the time, it’s more that the binary of good/evil is completely unhelpful and leaves no space for nuance. The figures explored in the book sit in that space where they almost defy categorisation because they sit beyond human behaviour. One of my favourite examples is the group of psychopomps. Death-like figures are often seen as ‘bad’ because they’re associated with the end of a life but look at how often Death is often the coolest character in pop culture—they’re just performing a necessary function, and I find the whole idea of psychopomps surprisingly comforting!
Folklore could be described as rebellious by dint of its creation—it’s not sponsored by the state, nor is it ratified by the upper echelons. It’s the lore of the people, so it encapsulates the beliefs, practices, and rituals of ordinary folk. If we look at the contemporary embrace of witchcraft as a means of finding power outside of the usual capitalist power structures, then folklore has the potential to do something similar. The problem occurs when people then use folklore, myth and legend to justify heinous ideologies, rather than seeing the concept of folklore as the rebellious thing.
For Further Reading:
Icy’s blog, podcast and a link to her books are available on her website www.icysedgwick.com
If you are interested in reading about folklore as a cautionary tale, I highly recommend Maria Tatar’s Off with Their Heads: Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood.
Icy is a folklore blogger and host of the Fabulous Folklore podcast, exploring a range of folklore and mythology, including its appearance in art and film. She’s also working on a PhD about haunted house films. When she tires of research, she writes dark fantasy and Gothic horror fiction.
Edward Karshner was born in Ross County, Ohio and grew up in the Salt Creek Valley of Southeast Appalachia Ohio which draws together Ross, Hocking, and Pickaway Counties. After earning a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Philosophy from Bowling Green State University, he began to explore cultural rhetoric as expressed in folklore. His primary interest was how landscape influences folk-ideologies. In the early part of his career, he travelled extensively in China, Slovakia, Austria, and the Czech Republic before spending over a decade working with the Dinè(Navajo). Now, as a Professor of English at Robert Morris University, he has returned to researching, teaching and writing about Appalachian folklore, magic, and mysticism. A 2022 Research Fellow in Folklore at Berea College’s Special Collections and Archives, Karshner is the author of “These Stories Sustain Me” in the collection Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Replies to Hillbilly Elegy. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and is forthcoming in Still: The Journal.