Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Legend: The ghost of a woman killed in a car crash directs rescuers to the wreck to save her still-living baby, who is trapped within.
Origins: Whether one ascribes "ghostly intervention" stories to God or to earthly ties so strong they empower the deceased to reach back from the grave, this legend type is hugely popular because it confirms one's personal belief system (i.e., that God is all powerful and will engineer a miracle to save an innocent, or that the love of a parent will overpower death itself if the child is in danger). Comfort is also found in legends of this ilk due to the implied promise that parental protection will outlast the lives of the caregivers themselves, and that Mother and Father will still always be there in times of need. For folks desperately trying to come to terms with the loss (or projected loss) of a parent, this reassurance is most welcome.
In the world of folklore, ghosts have been fetching help for the still living almost since time began. Observe this example harvested by Brunvand from an 1981 newspaper:
[Brunvand, 1981]Versions of the story quoted immediately above were part of oral lore at least as far back as 1890 in at least three countries (Russia, England and Canada). The "summoned help" is either a doctor or a member of the clergy. Such tales of loved ones fetching help and only afterwards being identified as deceased via their being identified through their portraits continue to circulate:
There is a story going about town that is worthy of attention. The only question is whether it is true, and to what extent. The other day, somewhere on Sergievskaya Street, or near it, a priest carrying the holy sacraments came to a certain apartment after mass. A young man answered the door.
"I was asked to come here and give the sacraments to a sick man," said the priest.
"You must have made a mistake. Nobody lives here except me."
"No, a lady came up to me today and gave me this very address and asked me to give the sacraments to the man who lives here."
The young apartment dweller was perplexed.
"Why look, that is the very woman who asked me to come," said the priest, pointing to a woman's portrait hanging on the wall.
"That is the portrait of my dead mother."
Awe, fear, terror seized hold of the young man. Under the impression of all this he took communion.
That evening he lay dead.
Such is the story.
[Collected on the Internet, 2004]These days, we tend to envision crises worthy of summoning ghostly parents back to do their duty as involving life-threatening physical danger to the child, so in modern tellings of this legend, the parent returns to direct rescuers to a trapped youngster who might otherwise be overlooked or to scoop up the injured tot herself and bring it to a doctor or nearby hospital. But in older versions, the crisis that would kickstart a deceased parent to intervene was spiritual, not physical. In the example quoted above, the ghost mom fetches help not to save the life of her child, but its soul.
There came a frantic knock
At the doctor's office door,
A knock, more urgent than
he had ever heard before.
"Come in, Come in,"
the impatient doctor said,
"Come in, Come in,
before you wake the dead."
In walked a frightened little girl,
a child no more than nine,
It was plain for all to see,
she had troubles on her mind.
"Oh doctor, I beg you,
please come with me,
My mother is surely dying,
she's as sick as she can be."
"I don't make house calls,
bring your mother here,"
"But she's too sick,
so you must come or she will die I fear."
The doctor, touched by her devotion,
decided he would go,
She said he would be blessed,
more than he could know.
She led him to her house
where her mother lay in bed,
Her mother was so very sick
she couldn't raise her head.
But her eyes cried out for help
and help her the doctor did,
She would have died that very night
had it not been for her kid.
The doctor got her fever down
and she lived through the night,
And morning brought the doctor signs,
that she would be all right.
The doctor said he had to leave
but would return again by two,
And later he came back to check,
just like he said he'd do.
The mother praised the doctor
for all the things he'd done,
He told her she would have died,
were it not for her little one.
"How proud you must be
of your wonderful little girl,
It was her pleading that made me come,
she is really quite a pearl!
"But doctor, my daughter died
over three years ago,
Is the picture on the wall
of the little girl you know?"
The doctors legs went limp
for the picture on the wall,
Was the same little girl
for whom he'd made this call.
The doctor stood motionless,
for quite a little while,
And then his solemn face,
was broken by his smile.
He was thinking of that frantic knock
heard at his office door,
And of the beautiful little angel
that had walked across his floor.
Barbara "soul support" Mikkelson
Sightings: Popular culture is replete with examples of this legend type, some involving parents and their endangered offspring, some involving spouses (the 1990 film Ghost fleshed out this folktale to make a full-length movie of it), and some involving friends (such as in the 1978 Stephen King novel and 1994 mini-series The Stand when Nick appears to Tom in a dream to direct him to the right medicine to save Stu, who is dying).
Last updated: 16 January 2007
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