Why are Appalachian ghost stories so deep-rooted in mountain culture and folklore?  Let’s journey into this ancient, rugged land to find out.

Ask many Southern Appalachian natives if they believe in ghosts and the answer will be an emphatic “no.” In this strongly Protestant region, often called the “buckle of the Bible Belt,” some consider a belief in ghosts to be against the teachings of Scripture.

But Appalachian ghost stories serve as vessels of mountain folklore, culture, and values stretching back generations. Often taking the form of legends (folktales told about a particular person or place as if real events), they typically involve a human character encountering something supernatural. Subsequently, how this character reacts teaches lessons about this society’s moral codes.

Legends of revenants (beings returned from the dead) or haints (ghosts or evil spirits) have been told for generations in Appalachian communities. Some of these communities were once very isolated from the outside world.  And the lessons these legends taught were comforting to early settlers, combating fear and uncertainty in the strange land they suddenly found themselves in.

Where Are The Appalachian Mountains Located?

The Appalachian Mountains stretch from the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador to northern Alabama and Georgia. This narrow and extensive mountain system parallels the eastern coast of North America for nearly 2,000 miles.

Appalachia is an ancient land – one of the oldest mountain systems on Earth.  Formed roughly 480 million years ago, the mountains are over five times as old as the taller, more rugged Rocky Mountains.  Indeed, millions of years of erosion have whittled down massive peaks some believe were once taller than the Himalayas and Mount Everest! 

Today, heavily forested mountains, valleys, high ridges, and wide, dissected plateaus make up the system. Some rock structures date way back to the Precambrian and early Paleozoic eras.

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina have some of the tallest peaks (Mount Mitchell in North Carolina is the highest Appalachian peak at 6,684 feet). While the backbone of the system, the Blue Ridge, stretches from Georgia north to Pennsylvania.

Appalachian regions as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission: Northern (green), Southern (blue) and Central (all other colors).

A massive fall line separates the Appalachians from the eastern Coastal Plain. Between the Blue Ridge and the fall line, a rolling plateau known as the Piedmont takes up large portions of Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia. While on the western side is the Cumberland Plateau, stretching from southern West Virginia to Alabama. And between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland, a hilly region called the Ridge and Valley stretches from central Alabama up to New York State.

Appalachia today is often thought of as three regions: Northern, Central, and Southern (see map above).   Although exact boundaries are up for debate, the history, culture, and folklore across these regions are in many ways similarand very different. 

What is Appalachian Culture?

Common “hillbilly” stereotypes depict Appalachian culture as poor and white. However, early Appalachian settlers included Native Americans, newly arrived European whites and Africans, all living in close proximity.

Native American tribes in Appalachia had their own unique cultures and oral folk traditions. In Southern Appalachia, the most prominent group of Native peoples was the Cherokee Nation.  Like other tribes, the Cherokee made sense of both the visible and unseen worlds around them through song and storytelling.  For example, the eerie mountain mist creeping through areas like the Great Smoky Mountains was of particular significance to them.  Subsequently, famous Appalachian ghost stories like the Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina are thought to be of Cherokee origin.

But Native American life changed dramatically with the arrival of European settlers.  First, Spanish and French explorers pushed into Appalachia as early as the 1500s. Followed by immigrants from the British Isles (largely Scotch-Irish).  Clannish and fiercely independent, these settlers had rebelled against restrictive laws back home.  Consequently, they sought a place where their Protestant beliefs could flourish without interference.

Early Appalachian Life

These settlers were awed by the dense hardwood forests teeming with game, and the fresh, sparkling rivers filled with fish.  At the same time, the rolling green hills reminded them of their homelands in the Scottish Highlands, Ireland, and elsewhere.

Deep within the hollows, the settlers staked their claims. Virgin forests provided plentiful building materials. Often with the help of the Cherokees, they raised corn, potatoes, and black-eyed peas. They grew fruit trees, and gourds to make containers. Meanwhile, the men hunted the woods for “beasties” (wild animals) with the help of their loyal dogs, often described as “part hound, part cur” (or fierce breed of dog).

Settler log cabins were often cramped, one-room homes. Inside, the women would dye clothes with berries and bark gathered from the forest. Cooking took place in large stone fireplaces. While in-between chores, they would knit quilts on their looms, using elaborate patterns with unique names like “nine-patch,” “double-wedding ring” and “dove-in-the-window.”

Appalachian Folklore

Imagine being a pioneer in such a wild and strange land.  With endless miles of mysterious, dense forest surrounding your small homestead.  Not to mention native peoples with odd language and customs. 

These settlers were already a superstitious group. For instance, everyone knew the moon affected planting cycles, the tail of a hound dog attracted lightning, and an ax placed under the bed of a birthing mother would kill the pain.

But as night fell across the hills, the forests would come alive with spooky, unknown sounds. Whatever they heard or saw in the dark woods probably found their way into ghost stories told around the fireplace at night.

Photo by Marc Del Santro

Folklore From the Old World

Appalachian culture and folklore helped build community spirit. For instance, communal activities like corn shuckings, house raisings, and log rollings brought people together.

But mountain dances were the most popular gathering spots, frequently called “play parties” if the local church didn’t approve of dancing.  Fiddlers, accompanied by banjo and dulcimer, would play humorous and plaintive ballads reminding the settlers of their homelands. Occasionally, the musicians played narrative folksongs of local legends, fairy tales, and ghost stories.   For example, the popular Appalachian ghost story The Ghost of Fiddlers Rock is about an unlucky fiddler at one of these parties.

Therefore, many ghost stories, songs, superstitions, and folk remedies considered “Appalachian folklore” can actually be traced back to places like Scotland or Ireland.  For instance, settlers would share tales of Scottish haints and Irish fairies, then adapt them into Appalachian stories over generations.  Of course, physical and cultural isolation kept many of these Appalachian folklore traditions alive well into the 20th century.   Such Old World traditions are sometimes known as “Appalachian Granny Magic.”

An Isolated Mountain People

Although skirmishes with the Cherokees occurred from time to time, many early settlers learned to co-exist.  Some Cherokees even joined forces with the U.S. against pro-British tribes during the War of 1812.  At the same time, Cherokees learned to adopt “civilized” ways of life, such as individual farming, business ownership, and their own syllabary and newspaper.

But the discovery of gold in north Georgia accelerated the forced removal of the Cherokees by the United States government. As a result, the shameful Trail of Tears removal of 1838, nearly eradicated Cherokee culture from Appalachia. Leaving behind a culture largely of European descendants and, as latter day research has shown, a growing number of Africans.

Slavery in Appalachia

One common misconception is that all Appalachians were against slavery.  In fact, some early European settlers owned slaves, and the Cherokees held the most slaves of any Native peoples – especially among the elite plantation owners in Southern Appalachia.  While some Appalachian white farmers were slaveowners, the region as a whole didn’t depend on slave labor like the Deep South. 

Both enslaved and free Africans played major roles in defining Appalachian folklore and culture (see Affrilachia). In fact, some Africans lived freely in certain mountain communities for generations.  While the banjo, a folk instrument long associated with mountain whites, was originally brought over by enslaved Africans.  Furthermore, part of the Underground Railroad ran from Tennessee to points north via Appalachia.

Intermarriage between Africans and other ethnic groups further diversified Appalachian folklore and culture. In fact, the dark-skinned Melungeon people of Central Appalachia are believed to be a “tri-racial” group consisting of African, Native American and European ancestries.

How Did the Civil War Affect Appalachia?

The Civil War hit Appalachia harder than almost any other region.  Appalachia was strategically important to both Union and Confederate armies because of its mines, saltworks, rivers, and railroads. 

Broadly speaking, Southern Appalachia supported the Confederacy, Northern Appalachia the Union, and Central Appalachia was stuck somewhere in between. In reality, Civil War allegiances were often split among regions, towns, and even within families.  In fact, West Virginia was founded by Virginia mountaineers who didn’t agree with Southern secession.  Many Appalachians just wanted to stay out of the fight altogether – and ended up attacked by both sides. 

The Virginia and Tennessee valleys were major battle sites. Many Appalachian communities were stuck between equally violent, plundering forces.  Robbers and guerrilla fighters from both sides stole livestock and food, burned farms, and terrorized the women left behind.  Children were sometimes captured and forced to serve as lookouts on mountain ridges.

As a result, the Civil War severely scarred the region for generations.  Starvation, poverty and malnutrition were common.  Distrusting of both warring governments,  many communities turned further away from the outside world. Consequently, little immigration took place through the 19th century, leading to intermarriage within families.

With fresh memories of the horrors of war, Appalachian storytellers spun ghost stories of eternally damned and suffering soldiers from both sides, their cries heard in the darkness of devastated mountain battlefields.  In Georgia, the stories of the Hell Hole and the legendary Green Eyes of Chickamauga were but two of such oft-told tales.

20th Century Appalachian Ghost Stories

Many ghost stories and legends have their origins in real life hardship and tragedy. Appalachia saw its share of both, especially in the 20th century.

Some Appalachian farmers now struggled to grow crops. Migrating from the low valleys into the creek branches, sub-valleys, and steep hillsides, families toiled on rocky terrain not ideal for farming. As a result, many families fell into poverty, with disease and malnutrition spreading.  Central Appalachia, located further away from urban centers and transportation networks, became an especially isolated world.

Social Changes to Appalachian Culture

Early 20th-century social workers were stunned by the living conditions they found in some areas. Little sanitation, children without shoes or fresh clothes, and large families crammed into dirty, one-room shacks were common sights.

Distrusting of “furriners” toting little black bags filled with “black magic,” some mountain families became their own doctors and pharmacists. They used odd assortments of herbs, tonics, and roots to treat everything from typhoid fever to measles. As a result, the mortality rate soared.

Hence, these social workers brought what became the first wave of modernization to the hills. For instance, trained nurses taught families about personal hygiene and homemaking skills. Teachers taught children to read and write. While midwives helped deliver babies in the remote hollows. Indeed, some social workers risked their lives braving rough mountain roads, swollen streams, and treacherous bridges to reach these isolated families.

But Appalachian ghost stories like The Town Without Death didn’t flinch from the inevitability of death. On the contrary, such stories argued that life must be lived to its fullest, no matter the hardships.

Appalachian Coal, Lumber, and Ghost Stories

In the early 1900s, the lumber and coal industries made inroads into Appalachia.  After the lumber centers in the Mississippi and Louisiana flatlands had been fully “slashed and burned,” lumber companies exploited Appalachia’s hardwood forests. Additionally, Appalachia’s abundance of coal became crucial to post-Civil War industrialization.  

Hence, mill towns and railroads sprung up seemingly overnight.  Waves of immigrant workers from places like Italy, Mexico, Germany and Eastern Europe sought work.  African-Americans leaving the South during the Great Migration were recruited by the mining companies, especially in Central Appalachia.  Consequently, the coal camps became largely integrated communities. One can only imagine the nightly cultural exchange of music, storytelling and other folk customs by these new arrivals.  

But these loggers and miners found themselves working extremely long hours, with the constant threat of accidents, dismemberment, and death. Still, many had no choice but to accept such conditions to support their often impoverished families. 

It’s no wonder then that many Appalachian ghost stories about mining accidents or mysterious dogs saving miners appeared around this time. These stories are still told to this day.

Photo courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Appalachian Culture and Folklore Today

As the 20th century drew to a close, Appalachia experienced rapid cultural change.  In areas heavily dependent on coal mining, the industry’s latter-day decline spelled economic ruin for many families and communities.  Not to mention lingering health problems, severe pollution, and broken promises of health benefits and pensions. As a result, younger families faced with limited opportunities migrated to the cities, leaving ghost towns behind.

In addition, modern technological advances had a dramatic impact on Appalachian culture. In this once-isolated region, new highways along with radio, television, and the internet, diluted traditional speech and customs. 

At the same time, many Appalachian natives proud of their heritage – especially younger students – sought to redefine and preserve Appalachian folklore and tradition.  Foxfire and Appalshop are two well-known organizations arming Appalachia’s youth with multimedia tools to keep the traditional folk arts alive, while also looking toward the future. 

(Fans of Appalachian folklore and ghost stories should read Foxfire’s story collection Boogers, Witches and Haints: Appalachian Ghost Stories, told by older mountain residents.)

Appalachian Tourism

Many parts of Appalachia today rely on tourism, deep-pocketed retirees, and second homeowners.  Some former working-class towns have become quaint shopping and entertainment districts.  Many visitors seek an “old-timey” Appalachian culture long gone, or a sanitized version of a once hard existence. 

But even now, traces of traditional Appalachian culture can be seen.  Like an older farmer still plowing his steep fields with a team of horses, or story swapping in mercantile stores. Traditional bluegrass music is still played by old and young acts on community radio stations. Locally carved crafts, fiddles and dulcimers are sold in gift shops. And countless mountain churches dot the hillsides.

In conclusion, Appalachian ghost stories are still told, if only in storytelling festivals, movies or books.  But what serves as entertainment today was once the delivery system for a unique culture’s beliefs, hopes and fears in a strange, isolated world.  By telling these ghost stories, through mediums known and not yet known, the elder voices of Appalachia live on.

Bonus: Appalachian Dialect

If you’re lucky enough to hear an Appalachian storyteller tell a ghost story in traditional Appalachian dialect, it may take you by surprise.

Most original settlers were immigrants from the English Isles. They brought with them colorful, Elizabethan era words and phrases one can find in the works of Shakespeare.

As time passed, the isolation of mountain life transformed the language. Words were mispronounced, and phrases and sentences were rearranged. New words were created to fit the rugged life these settlers faced. Family intermarriage helped this unique language flourish for many years.

But modern influences transformed mountain dialects. As the exodus of young families from the mountains grew, the Appalachian dialect became less prevalent.

Glossary

One can still hear some of the original dialect in more isolated communities. Therefore, if you find yourself in such places, listen closely for unique words and sayings like:

SAYINGMEANING
a-childingpregnant
a give-outan announcement
arm babychild small enough to be carried in someone’s arms
a whoop and a hollera long distance
ain’t had much schoolhousingisn’t very educated
bald faced whiskeyfresh whiskey from a still
bigging it and bigging itexaggerating
bonnygood
butter-mouthedspeaking in flattering terms
chunk-washerheavy rain
death watchticking insect in the wall of a house that meant death in the family.
dogtrotcovered passageway between two rooms
doney-girlfemale sweetheart
etate
furfar
graveyard coughdeep, tubercular cough
goozlerboy whose voice is changing
jairynervous
kivercover
knee/lap childchild small enough to sit on a knee/lap
papfather
pile up with trashassociate with low class, immoral people
rip and tearraise Cain
since Heck was a pupa long time ago
skunskinned
turn right-handed/left-handedturn right/left
yanyonder
yan sidefarthest side
  
Common Appalachian Sayings and Meanings

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This Post Has 33 Comments

  1. Matt

    Thanks for your website! We have to keep these stories alive, keep remembering where we come from. Tailypo (and the big toe) were ones which always stuck with me. So much that I tell them to my kids and made a short story and film about the tailypo…which is the same as the big toe really.

  2. Jackson

    Good Story Although almost every mountain folk in Tennesseee sided with the Rebels. They also didn’t say whoop n’ hollar maybe hop skip and jump away.

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  8. gta 5

    Fantastic post I like it. Keep it up

  9. www.google search

    This is a great article, that I really enjoyed reading. Thanks for sharing.

  10. makenna

    …my class is learning about this in reading

  11. micah813

    katherine from 6/3/15, , , , what in the world does slavery got to do with poor folk living in mts?

  12. Katherine

    I think you may want to do some more research c I nc erring the slave economy in the region. Many parts of Appalachia relied on slaves just as much as the people further south did. Often, slavery is not commonly recognized because of type of labor slaves were used for. In western North Carolina in particular slaves were used heavily. In most counties in 1850 the slave to master ratio was 1:7, in Charleston at the same time it’s 1:2, however those platatio s were much larger oporations that opiates on a global level. Because of the restrictive geography resulted in small, but thriving economies

  13. Yes sir re, thares lots of spirits here en these hillz. Tha kind ye find in a bottle uf corn sippens that iz.

  14. Enjoyed reading this article tremendously , however, the writer incorrectly states that the Great Smokey Mountains got that name due to the bluish mist that often covers the hills. The Great Smokies were named the smokies thanks to both the frequent true fog and the clouds which often blanket that particular mountain range. It so happens that the sub-range reffered to as the Smokies, are comprised of mountains which are elevated suffeciently to extend into lower cloud decks, while also, creating cloud decks via oragraphic lift. Visitors to these mountains whom encounter these clouds as they drive or hike upwards into the mountains often incorrectly refer to those clouds as fog. The GS’s are indeed often blanketed in true fog, thanks primarly to the cooler temperatures, inherent to higher elevations, and the massive amount of water vapor which frequently converges on the mountains from the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific and even the Great lakes. As you know, fog is formed quite readily when a moisture laiden parcel of the atmosphere is cooled down to the dew point temperature, causing condensation to occour.
    For those that do not already know, another name for the Smokies, is the Unicoi mountains. The Uncois, while often thought of as being part of the Blue Ridge mountains, are in reality a seperate range or sub-range of the mountain complex which includes the Blue Rige mountains. The Unicoi range lies just to the west of the Blue Ridge escarpment. As many readers are aware, the Blue Ridge mountains earned their name from the Bluish haze which cloaks not only the Blue Ridge proper, but a large portion of the Appalachian mountain complex. This blue haze is created by the chemical reactions triggered by the combination of high atmospheric moisture content and a substance known as isoprene, which is released from the abundant mountain vegitation.

  15. Hallie Dixon

    Since I live in nc in the beautiful blue ridge mountains, I have many stories to tell about my home.

    My nana (family friend) was in her house one day and she was looking at her cellar which was about 100 yards away from her house. Right behind the cellar is the mountain. The cellar is built into the side of the mountain. Anyway, she was looking at the cellar and she saw a woman floating in the air in a white dress holding a candle. Her house was ruined in a flood and she has built a different house on the property and the new house is right beside the cellar. She says now she can hear screams coming from the cellar some nights.

  16. barbara hite

    thanks for the history! i am writing a story about the virginia valley, near Staunton, and the language examples a good.

  17. Jackie Staley

    Born and raised in KY and it will always feel like home.

  18. Bhandari Garwhal

    Mountain life is similar everywhere.I have lived and travelled in a part of the Himalayas .The simple,hardy hillfolk.Their emotional and expressive language is similar to what is described here.May Mother Nanda Devi bless us all.

  19. james

    sounds strange a family from the uk found itself liveing in a strange place in NC at 11 years old in 1987 i can not remember names etc, only the strange going on,s i saw first hand as a child….we rented a log cabin up the side of a mountain past a big black rock on your left just before the home, a large plush log cabin front porch built over a modern basement new rooms patio doors,
    lean to/car port led into the liveing area all wood flooring open plan kitchen to the left / hallway to 2 bedrooms on left mine.sister bathroom right end master bedroom huge fireplace then a doorway down to the cellar modern rooms
    a huge room/patio doors.. the 2/3 rooms one locked…arfter some very strage happenings we had a priest out with holy water in that room it was full of black magic items i do not wish here to say what went on. but at 11 now 40 it will never ever leave me regards james lincoln uk

  20. Richard Crowosn

    Born and Bread in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains of central Alabama. My ancestor Aaron Crowson was an original founder of Crowson Cove that is now called Cades Cove. When I lived in Selma in the 1970’s and was youth pastor of a Methodist Church I met Kathryn Tucker Windham. She wrote a book about Ghost stories in Alabamahttp://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1582

    The only Ghost I believe in is the Holy Ghost.

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  22. Sylvia Mashaw

    I love reading and listening about the History of the Appalachian Life Style. Homegrown Feelings

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  24. C-J-M

    I have lived in the shadow of the great smoky mountians all my lift. my family has lived and survived in these mountians for hundreds of years. even my father and grandfather have walked these “valleys and hills” all thier lives. the stories are still passed down from generation to generation. i my self have travlled and see wonderful lands all over the world, but the springs, forests, and wind from these “hills” are still running friercly through my veins. my father says there are no ghosts in “them there hills.” but i have been there and i have felt the ghosts of the past telling me thier tales. they are alive and well. these mountians are so much apart of me that i even married a man form the other end of the trail in up state New York. so no matter where we are the Great Mountians are still very close by. when you live and breath these wonderous and mysterious mountians, you will know when you are truly “home”. they take care of thier own.

  25. Bob Marshall

    My grandmother, Essie McCall, was born in 1898 in Rabun County, Ga just below where the three states meet. I always loved it when she talked about what it was like living in these mountains. She said there was a pig trail or a nearby mountain she couldn’t climb. So she did. Foxfire books are my favorite books. having hike the Bartram trail, the Ozark Highlands Trail, and the Foothills Trail i have met the most wonderful people and seen some amazing sights. I found out first hand why my grandmother loved the mountain life so much. I have an even deeper appreciation for the people who have and those who still live there. i support Christian Appalachia, partly because of my grandmother but mostly because i feel a kinship.

  26. Karen

    Love all the stories about Appalachia as there are similar stories circulate the internet. I like this one more though.

  27. Allen Kopp

    While not born in the beautiful Smokies, I bring my 12 grand kids there once every year to see the beauty and learn of the past. I try hard to tell them true stories of the region, but they are growing older and want to hear “ghost “stories of the region and Gatlinburg. This year we are staying in Wears Valley area. Do you have any stories that you might share. I wrote one a few years back, “The Curse of 21”. Please let me know thank you and good story telling.

  28. LMJ

    My family is from Appalachia, and I don’t know a single person from their region of southeastern Kentucky that DOESN’T believe in ghosts!