American Horror Stories: Ghosts and Hauntings

From the Vanishing Hitchhiker to the Overlook Hotel, we track five famous ghost stories from folklore to the screen.

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Good ghost stories require two elements: the ghost and the story. While ghosts themselves may or may not be real -- that's a

whole other question

-- the story part is a phenomenon we can study and track. In the study of history and folklore, ghost stories have a haunted mansion all to themselves. Ghosts appear, as it were, in the written and oral traditions of virtually every culture on the planet. As they're handed down through generations, ghost stories get retold in different forms and media, depending on the era. America has its share of famous ghosts and hauntings, many of which go back hundreds of years. Our most famous stories tend to wind up on the TV or movie screen eventually. Such is the way of Hollywood. Everyone likes a good ghost story, right? We track five famous American ghosts and their journey from story to screen.

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One of America's earliest and most sensational hauntings, the Bell Witch story begins in rural Tennessee in the early 19th century. As the story goes, farmer John Bell and his family began experiencing unexplained phenomena in and around their farmhouse in 1817. Knocks and whispers soon grew more malevolent, with the spirit throwing objects around the house and attacking the family's children, particularly 12-year-old daughter Betsy. Soon, people were coming from hundreds of miles away to witness the manifestations first-hand, and the legend grew with each retelling. The spirit was identified as the ghost of a witch -- at least, that's the story that stuck. Tales of the Bell Witch haunting were eventually written up by newspapers and book authors, albeit more than 70 years after the fact. Folklorists and scholars have since

investigated the case

and found verifiable details extremely hard to come by. But the Bell Witch story has inspired several books and feature films including "An American Haunting" and -- most famously -- "The Blair Witch Project."

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In 1820, American author Washington Irving published his short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in a collection of essays and fiction. In the story, superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane encounters the Headless Horseman, which legend says is the restless ghost of a Hessian soldier killed during the Revolutionary War. Irving's tale is actually rooted in a ghost story with an immigrant pedigree all its own. The headless horseman is a motif that can be found in many different European myths and legends, some dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. Irving's update was based on a colonial New England version of the legend, and would become one of the first works of American horror fiction. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" was first adapted to film in the 1922 silent film "The Headless Horseman." Dozens of TV and film adaptations have been produced in the years since, including director Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" in 1999.

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America's great contribution to the classic ghost story, the urban legend known as "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" has fascinated folklorists for decades. Everyone knows the drill, right? A mysterious hitchhiker catches a ride into town, but mysteriously vanishes from the moving vehicle en route. When the driver asks around, it's revealed that the phantom hitchhiker is actually the ghost of... Well, there are several different endings, depending on regional variations. This particular ghost story is so widespread that folklorist Jan Harold Brunvard named his groundbreaking 1981 book on urban legends, "The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings." Brunvard traced the American iteration of story all the way back into the mid-19th century. Similar stories of roadside ghosts can actually be found further back in history, in Europe and elsewhere, but the classic Route-66 style hitchhiker narrative is distinctly American. Over the years, the Vanishing Hitchhiker story has been recycled in literally hundreds of books, songs, stage productions, commercials, TV shows and movies.

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Like most historical resorts, the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colo., has plenty of ghost stories. Opened to the public in 1909, the hotel was soon haunted by the ghosts of its original owners, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley, who could be seen making their spectral rounds and entertaining guests. Other ghost stories developed over the years and by the 1970s, the Stanley had a dozen different ghosts attached to various guest rooms and public areas. In 1974, horror writer Stephen King and his wife Tabitha spent an evening at the Stanley just as it was closing up for the winter season. After a night of weird dreams, the Stanley became King's inspiration for the sinister Overlook Hotel in his 1977 novel "The Shining." Director Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation is widely considered to be one of the best horror movies ever made. Fact and fiction have been terminally confused ever since, and the Stanley Hotel now trades heavily on its reputation as America's most haunted hotel. The Stanley hosts an annual horror film festival and the owners

recently announced

that they're planning to open a horror museum and film archive on the premises.

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Probably the single most famous American haunting story in the last 50 years, the incidents that took place in late-1970s Amityville, NY, play out like a fast-forward ghost story for the mass media age. In 1975, George and Kathy Lutz, and their three children, claimed to have been terrorized by a series of shocking paranormal experiences. The house they had recently purchased was the site of a mass murder just 13 months earlier, when 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo murdered his parents and four younger siblings. The Lutz's astounding claims, which included demonic apparitions and swarms of flies, were quickly chronicled in author Jay Anson's book "The Amityville Horror," published in 1977 with the subtitle: "A True Story." The book was subsequently made into a 1979 movie, which spawned even more movies, which triggered even more books. Alas, it was

all a hoax

. In courtroom depositions years after the fact, the Lutz family and their collaborators -- including the lawyer for Ronald DeFeo -- admitted that the entire affair had been invented over a few bottles of wine. A lot of people made a lot of money, and the Amityville haunting has since passed into the annals of national ghost story folklore. What could be more American?

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