In the rational modern world, belief in the supernatural
seemingly has been consigned to the worlds of entertainment and
fantasy. Yet belief in other worldly phenomena, from poltergeists
to telepathy, remains strong, as Gillian Bennett's research shows.
Especially common is belief in continuing contact with, or the
continuing presence of, dead family members. Bennett interviewed
women in Manchester, England, asking them questions about ghosts
and other aspects of the supernatural. (Her discussion of how her
research methods and interview techniques evolved is in itself
valuable.) She first published the results of the study in the
well-received Traditions of Belief: Women and the Supernatural,
which has been widely used in folklore and women's studies courses.
"Alas, Poor Ghost!" extensively revises and expands that work. In
addition to a fuller presentation and analysis of the original
field research and other added material, the author, assisted by
Kate Bennett, a gerontological psychologist, presents and discusses
new research with a group of women in Leicester, England.
Bennett is interested in more than measuring the extent of
belief in other worldly manifestations. Her work explores the
relationship between narrative and belief. She anticipated that her
questions would elicit from her interviewees not just yes or no
replies but stories about their experiences that confirmed or
denied notions of the supernatural. The more controversial the
subject matter, the more likely individuals were to tell stories,
especially if their answers to questions of belief were positive.
These were most commonly individualized narratives of personal
experience, but they contained many of the traditional motifs and
other content, including belief in the supernatural, of legends.
Bennett calls them memorates and discusses the cultural processes,
including ideas of what is a "proper" experience of the
supernatural and a "proper" telling of the story, that make them
communal as well as individual. These memorates provide direct and
vivid examples of what the storytellers actually believe and
disbelieve. In a final section, Bennett places her work in
historical context through a discussion of case studies in the
history of supernatural belief.
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