I studied folklore, and focused on paranormal and UFO narratives. Folklore was one of the few area where I could get away with indulging my fascination with these topics. As soon as it became known I was interested in hearing from to others with supernatural, Fortean and especially UFO experiences, I had all kinds of people contacting me, eager to share their stories. Many of them told me they hadn’t shared their stories, or only with a few others. Often they hadn’t even told their spouses or significant others, or children -- they kept these experiences to themselves. Knowing they had someone who would listen to them without judgment, keep their confidence if they requested that, and had my own strange experiences gave these witnesses the space to share.
I loved the academic realm of folklore as a discipline, but, had a few major problems with it at the same time. I am not an academic, and , when in college, decided to not follow that path. I’m simply not wired that way; can’t deal with authorities, politics, 9 to 5 job milieu. . . but that aside, I found a huge problem in folklore studies -- as an academic pursuit - that seemed ironically contradictory. On the one hand, collecting stories while remaining nonjudgmental was encouraged. At the same time, it seemed to me folklore couldn’t decide what it wanted to be. Professors wanted conclusions, they wanted a psychological analysis. Well, I’d say, I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a psychology student, I’m not even taking any psychology classes. While I could give a sort of every-woman’s, educated take on, say, UFO narratives using psychology (Jung, etc.) it wouldn’t really be worth much. If not psychology, sociology, if not that, science, they wanted something. Pointing out that folklore, while utilizing those areas in some ways, is not those things, -- well, we just went around.
At the same time, self-reflexivity was encouraged, depending on the professor. I liked that; we are not objective beings. In dealing with stories of UFOs, abductions, aliens encounters, hauntings, high strangeness, Bigfoot sightings and all manner of Fortean, supernatural events, the standard, neat little explanations of psychology science etc. do not apply. Especially if the interviewer/researcher herself has had her own experiences.
Because of my own experiences, which caused me to research, which gave me information that I could share with witnesses (or “informants” as we called them which always struck me as an odd term) I asked myself: what am I? Researcher? Experiencer? Witness? Where do I come in, when do I step out?
It’s a dance, a partnership, a journey: “researcher” and witness. Bigfoot researcher Autumn Williams has brought this issue forward with her recent book Enoch. A great book in my opinion; what Williams has to say about Bigfoot research can be applied to all anomalous research. Respect for the witness, certainly. Listening to the witness. Just . . . listening. Respect for the witness, allowing the witness to determine time lines and how things will go, or at least, recognize the researcher/witness relationship is an equal endeavor, not a power one of Researcher vs. witness. Her book has caused quite a controversy within Bigfoot research, but, maybe that’s a good thing. It’s shaken things up, that’s for sure. Maybe her words will cause researchers to take a look at their expectations of what they want from research, from “finding Bigfoot,” to what they expect and want from witnesses.
(Speaking of the roles of witnesses and researchers, I remember a folklore conference I attended years ago. Big time folklorists were present, revered academics, published authors; it was great. And a fist fight almost broke out! There was one well known folklorist, who insisted the wishes of the indigenous culture he had been researching for years be respected -- their stories not told out of season, for example -- while another equally well known folklorist insisted no such consideration should be held; the stories were too important, the research too important, to withhold the stories from the rest of us. I personally found the disregard and lack of respect for the culture being discussed shocking, and amazed that this academic authority could get away with such behavior. I know;I was naive!)
UFO research, for example, sees this; researchers arguing about who controls data and information, release of findings vs. witness confidentiality, etc.
I had many professors tell me that just compiling stories wasn't enough; what about them? I agree with that to a point, after all, anyone can collect a bunch of stories, however, that "so what" is very valuable; that bunch of stories is data. Aside from the usual folklore stuff: tracing cultural origins, comparisons and contrasts with other groups, group dynamics, etc. well, what about them indeed? They’re there; and with, say, UFO stories, I don’t know the answers any more than anyone else does.
My frustration reached its peak when I was working on my final project (akin to a thesis) in folklore. My paper was on UFO narratives that included animals. From the behavior of the family pet in the face of a UFO landing, to animals and creatures appearing as guides to liminal experiences, I had a nifty collection, naturally organized into categories, of animal tales in a UFO context. But what was my analysis? What was my take on all this? What angle was I operating from? A Jungian one? Freudian? etc.
The following is from an article I wrote for the UFO Folklore site a good ten years ago. It was written when I was just beginning to get involved in this field on-line. The article is titled Defining Folklore; I wrote:
There is a common misconception among many people that the term "folklore" implies "something that is not true." Nothing can be further from the truth. Folklore means the "lore" (stories) of the "folk," whatever that lore might be, true or not.The main point of all this: as interesting as all these stories, narratives, cross-cultural expressions and so on were, the assumption was that it wasn’t real. Some other explanation is needed: psychological, religious, social, scientific, cultural. Anything but the idea that witnesses were describing exactly what they saw, what they experienced, and anything but exploring those events for what they were, rather than ignoring the elephant in the room; the elephant being the alien, UFO, ghost, etc. reported by the witness.
... For some, the fact that a comparison can be made is "proof" that the current UFO stories are "lies." A folklorist merely points out the interesting pattern, but acknowledges it is not "proof" of anything. .. Conspiracy theories, animal behavior and imagery, abduction tales, the role of popular culture, telepathic communications, and more, are all part of the lore that is examined by folklorists. It may be true, it may not be true. It is not the role or objective of a folklorist to make an absolute statement one way or the other.
For myself, I am concerned with the process of UFO stories. How do they change, how are they the same? What are the "extensions" of UFO tales? (conspiracy tales, ancient astronaut theories, etc.) What can we learn about each other, ourselves, and the world -both seen, and unseen?
In exploring the UFO stories in all the complex and varied lore that exists, much can be learned, on several levels, about the human psyche. That's only part of the exploration. We can also come closer to the "truth," whatever that might be.
The folklore of the people is where we will find it.
I still love folklore, and please don't misunderstand, I have respect for the field and many folklorists. I retain what I see as a core element of a folkloric approach. Which is: listening. Observing. Finding themes, comparisons, contrasts, connections but. . . listening. And allowing myself to be a part of the journey, as opposed to setting myself apart.
A recent Coast to Coast episode had author Jeff Belanger on as a guest, who discussed legend tripping and paranormal, Fortean stories from a folklore perspective. Belanger doesn’t consider himself a folklorist, not in an academic sense, but he really had a grasp of what folklore lore is, and how it operates within paranormal events:
"A legend is a living entity," he declared, noting that such stories are born, grow, 'marry' or merge with other tales, clone themselves, travel, and even die if the story ceases to be told. To that end, he described 'legend tripping' as "getting out there and putting yourself into the story," thus experiencing, first-hand, the locations where sightings of anomalies like Bigfoot, ghosts, and UFOs have occurred.
And our responses to those sites, our own experiences, if we’re lucky to have them, are a part of that research.
Jacque Vallee, while not a folklorist, used folklore brilliantly in his book Passport to Magonia, a book that remains a huge influence, as does George P. Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal, and Patrick Harpur’s Damonic Reality. Thomas Bullard's work, who is a folklorist, was very influential, was just about the only folklorist at the time who openly delved into UFO narratives as a serious area of study.
All this isn’t to suggest there aren’t academic folklorists out there who are so stodgy. And I’ve been away from the academic world for a very long time. As I said, I am not a folklorist or an academic.
I’ll end with this YouTube clip of researcher David Hufford, another influence and author of The Terror That Comes in the Night: An Experience-Centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions, speaking about academia’s perspectives on, and responses to anomalous experiences: