REVIEW: Dark Folklore by Mark Norman and Tracey Norman

I am the first to admit that I know very little about myth, legend, and folklore.

The closest I ever got to a historical interest in folklore was getting caught up in the 1990s UFO craze that was adjacent to the original transmission of the X-Files. I’ve watched a lot of dodgy TV programmes about ghosts, monsters, unexplained mysteries, and cattle mutilations but those kinds of TV programmes tend to approach those kinds of phenomena by ‘debating’ whether or not they are based on real-world events. This is only one of several ways in which odd beliefs might be interrogated.

Folklorists – on the other hand – seem to have little interest in whether or not an event actually happened. Rather than getting bogged down in the ‘soundness’ or ‘reasonableness’ of believing in ghosts or UFOs, folklorists tend to be in the business of cataloguing beliefs and interrogating their origins by considering the social, cultural, and psychological forces that might allow unusual beliefs to gain traction amongst a broader population.

Written as a collaboration between the historian and playwright Tracey Norman and the folklorist and podcaster Mark Norman, Dark Folklore is a short but evocative ramble through some of the darker corners of contemporary folklore; Emphasis on the ramble.

Dark Folklore is a short but pretty book split up into five chapters, each illustrated by Tiina Lilja and Kathryn Avent. The chapters are entitled:

  • The Old Hag: Folklore and Sleep Paralysis
  • Blurring the Lines: The Dark Church
  • Folk Ghosts
  • Urban Legends: The Darker Side of Storytelling
  • Dark Tourism and Legend Tripping

I said in my opening remarks that this book was an “evocative ramble” with an emphasis on the ramble because each chapter feels as though the authors decided on a title and just started writing until they hit a particular page count.

This book doesn’t assume the form of a ‘bestiary’ listing various legends, nor does it use the journalistic pretence of the authors describing their investigations in the first-person. What you get is a description of a particular folkloric phenomenon usually involving specific cases, and then the authors start swinging from topic to topic, addressing a variety of concepts and cases until they just stop and move onto another broad topic. For example, in the chapter on legend tripping they start off by talking about how, following the death of Princess Diana, people started visiting the site of her death and leaving flowers. They then move on to a discussion of the Mexican Day of the Dead and then move on to a discussion of the Aokigahara suicide forest in Japan.

This is an interesting approach to this style of book; The rapid movement from topic to topic can be frustrating as the authors will occasionally touch on a really fascinating idea only to move off on some semi-random tangent rather than expanding upon that idea. Thankfully, each chapter comes with a bibliography and the authors are very good at pointing you towards books that deal with specific topics in greater detail but it still makes for a somewhat unusual reading experience. When I found out that one of the authors was a podcaster and that this book may have been sold based on the popularity of said podcast, I was not surprised as the format of Dark Folklore is very similar to that of a good podcast: People just start talking, move from topic to topic, and then come to a halt once a certain amount of content has been generated.

I must admit that I was somewhat surprised by the selection of topics as I expected a broad populist book about folklore to deal with big well-known issues such as Bigfoot, UFOs, and Ghosts. However, rather than covering ground that has been long-since trampled to death, the book moves around these issues and only really touches on them in a tangential manner. For example, rather than talking at length about famous hauntings, the book devotes a chapter to the concept of the Folk Ghost, which is what happens when a reported haunting gains so much traction that it becomes part of the background mythology of a particular time and place. This is a fantastic distinction to make and I really wanted to read more about it but Dark Folklore is content to just explain the concept before moving on to other topics.

Despite being written in an accessible manner, I wouldn’t really say that this was a good place to start learning about folklore. The decision to gloss over both Big Famous Legends and Big Important Concepts meant that I spent my time with this book trying to make my own connections. This being said, I suspect that if you know enough about folklore to make those connections quite easily, you might be frustrated by the book’s shortness and resulting lack of depth. Fans of the folklore podcasts will doubtless adore this as listening to podcasts does tend to encourage an incredibly broad but relatively shallow level of understanding but I must admit to finding the book an evocative but ultimately quite frustrating read.

My feelings towards the book are quite neatly exemplified by its closing paragraphs. The section comes at the end of a really interesting paragraph about people making pilgrimages to places that are sometimes incredibly dark and morbid:

To many people, the concept of dark tourism is an unappealing one. This is increasingly true considering the current trends of a ‘cancel culture’, which is leading to the removal of reminders of our cultural history, rather than acknowledgement and interpretation that they were wrong and that, although they are far from part of desirable societal norms in the twenty-first century, they still happened and should be explained or remembered. To remove them completely is to deny a narrative to the victims.

Stripped from its original context, this passage raises a few red flags. Complaining about ‘cancel culture’ is seldom a good look but if you are going to take a shot at the cultural king, you had better not miss and making your attack in the form of a long run-on sentence that is littered with weird sub-clauses and self-exculpatory caveats serves only to lessen the power of the point being made.

What the authors are trying to get across is quite simple. Firstly, wanting to go and visit suicide forests or irradiated Ukrainian towns is pretty fucking morbid. It is morbid in a way that most people would probably find a little bit odd. As is often the case, if you transgress a social taboo then you run the risk of there being consequences to your act of transgression. One form that these consequences might take is your being ‘cancelled’ by people who view your morbid curiosity as something so far outside of the boundaries of social acceptability that they think that you should suffer social consequences.

This dynamic is a fact about the world; it happens now, it happened in the past, and it will continue to happen in the future: People who do stuff that is considered to be outside the boundaries of social acceptability will sometimes face social consequences for their actions. People have always been cancelled.

The question is not whether cancellation should exist; the question is whether this kind of dark tourism should be worthy of social censure. The point that the authors are trying to make is that nobody is harmed by this kind of morbid curiosity. Not only is it a way of keeping unpleasant things in popular memory, it is also a way for victims and other traumatised people to deal with their own fears and issues. At the moment, online opinion tends to empower those who wish to deny and repress at the expense of those who wish to confront. In fact, opinion is so skewed in that direction that even doing this kind of thing in relative privacy can elicit a social sanction.

You see this with regards to media that deals in darker or transgressive topics: It’s not enough that people only want to consume culture that is comforting and morally uplifting, they also want to make it harder for people who want something other than Hamilton or Ted Lasso to find something they enjoy. Back in the early days of the Young Adult boom, people would often argue that you should not be mocked for having a preference for comforting and/or morally uplifting media and as popular tastes have flowed in that direction we have moved from ‘you should not be bullied for comfort-viewing’ to ‘What is the point of culture is not to comforting?’ and so the pendulum will start to swing back as people get bored of the same limited-diet of cultural experiences and start to look for something different.

I think this is the kind of point that the authors are trying to make but rather than taking the time to expand their ideas properly, they just drop a few evocative paragraphs and move on to the next topic. Given that the book I read before Dark Folklore was Peter Laws’ The Frighteners: Why We Love Monsters, Ghosts, Death & Gore – a book written by a horror-loving vicar that presents legend trippers as morally-dubious weirdos – I was 100% ready for a robust defence of morbid hobbies but Dark Folklore was content to allude to the ideas and then move on. As I say… frustrating stuff.

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