Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Ghost in the Cellar

As kids in early 60s Steeltown, we had a whole repertory of backyard games. My favorite was Ghost in the Cellar.

Children's games often have a soupçon of ritual to them—most are circular, the game's intent being to regenerate itself by starting over again—Ghost in the Cellar being the most ritualized of them all. It had all the elements of good ritual: a story, archetypal characters, catharsis, a felicitous combination of the scripted and the spontaneous, and, best of all, a ritualized dialogue that had to be repeated with absolute precision every time.

Dramatis Personae: The Mother. The Children. The Ghost.

Story: In the course of play, the Children get dirty. (Here there was lots of room for fun improvisation. As we got older, the "dirt" became less physical and more behavioral.) The Mother calls the Children in for supper, but is dismayed to see how dirty they've gotten.

Mother: Go down to the cellar and wash your hands!

The Children go down into the (imaginary) cellar—it never occurred to us to play the game using a real one—but there they encounter the Ghost.

Ghost: [Shrieks]

The Children run back to the Mother, screaming.

Children: There's a ghost! A ghost in the cellar!

The Mother assures them that there is no ghost—here she would improvise creatively about laundry hanging up to dry—and sends them back down to the cellar. Three times—the ritual number—this happens. The third time, the Mother agrees to accompany the Children to the cellar. There, sure enough, they encounter the Ghost.

You've got to hand it to the Mother. Does she run away screaming? No. Instead, she confronts the Ghost (which, I'm told, is exactly what one should do in such situations).

Mother: What do you want?

Ghost: A match.

Mother: What for?

Ghost: To light my pipe.

Mother: What for?

Ghost: To kill you!

The Ghost chases the running (and shrieking) Children and Mother. Whoever he or she catches becomes the next Ghost, and the game begins again.

Quite a game. Quite a story.

As a kid, I can remember being puzzled by that pipe. Do ghosts smoke? What did lighting a pipe have to do with catching a victim?

As an adult, it occurred to me that the line may originally have been: To light my lamp. Then the Ghost would have enough light to kill by.

Years later, as a grad student, I happened to be reading British folklorist Peter and Iona Opie's 1979 Children's Games in Street and Playground. Sure enough, there was Ghost in the Cellar, reported from London in the 1840s. The dialogue was nearly identical. (I was gratified to see that my proposed emendation to lamp was indeed correct.) 120 years, 3000 miles, and one Transatlantic crossing later, the game was still recognizably itself.

That's one pretty stunning feat of folk-memory, transmitted—presumably—from child to child.

As one would expect, we played Ghost in the Cellar a lot around Halloween. I wonder sometimes if, in the old neighborhood, the kids still do. It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that they do.

In the end, ritual will out.




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Tagged in: childrens games Ghosts
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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