Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the assorted eerie tales that cluster around the Black Lady of Bradley Woods. This ghost has long been known the local area, however as we have seen in our little investigations, the stories surrounding this particular haunting are not only still being told but are also still evolving. Now largely this is occurring in the usual way for folklore - that is to say that the details of a story change as the tale is retold over the years, and occasionally new elements and additions find their way into the fabric of the legend too.
Now in the case of the Black Lady of Bradley Woods, tales of her hauntings have spread into a wider arena. For these days, her legend is recounted not just in the local area but across the world thanks the dubious magic of the internet. Hence while the Black Lady isn't the only ghost in the region, she is certainly well on her way to becoming the most famous. She has her own Wikipedia entry, appears in countless online catalogues of local spooks, and perhaps most significantly of all, she has entered the strange worlds of Creepypasta. And if you are unfamiliar with with Creepypasta, allow me to explain...
While you may well be forgiven that it is some sort of off-beat cookery site, Creepypasta is a term, and part of the name of several websites, for short macabre tales shared online. Effectively creepypastas are the digital equivalent of all those old campfire stories and playground shockers that have been passed around orally by generations of kids. The term itself derives from a corruption of "copy and paste", a nod to how such creepy tales originally began circulating on the internet, as chunks of text copied and pasted from emails and bulletin boards. While some purists might wish to dismiss creepypastas as something separate and different from traditional folklore, to my mind if they are not an emerging modern form of folklore, they are at least closely related. For example, in our previous explorations we have seen what I have tentatively termed 'weblore' shaping the current versions of the Black lady legend. And the fact that she is also now haunting the online realm of creepypasta is also having an effect on the shape of her stories.
Now then, the Black Lady makes an appearance on the major sites for creepypasta, the Creepypasta Wiki and her tale appears on this page here. Now this article retells the usual version of the Black Lady's origin, however at the close of the piece, it makes this addition -
Legend has it that her ghost still wanders the woods today, and if anyone is brave enough to walk into the woods on new year’s day and shout "Black lady, black lady, I’ve stolen your baby!" three times, the woman shall appear and confront them.
Anyhow, the interesting thing here is the new addition to the story, the claim that you can summon up the Black Lady. And in other write-ups of the Black Lady stories we have an additional caveat that states that it is thought this summoning appears to be a relatively recent addition to the mythos.
Now firstly we should note that such simple rites to call up a local ghost, a witch or even the Devil Himself, are common in local folklore. For example, as I have previously mentioned in these columns, a local ghost I'm familiar with, the Grey Lady Lady of Aycliffe Village, can be called up by walking round St Andrew's Church at midnight. And there are many more such tales in regional folklore. Common elements involve going to a certain place, usually on a certain day, or at a certain time, and either reciting something and/or performing some simple action - knocking on doors or walking so many times around an area are common examples of this.
Folklorists have called these sort of informal folk rites "legend tripping". They occur all over the world and are perennially popular with teenagers. These rites share much in common with other spooky activities that kids everywhere practice, that I'm sure you are all familiar with, such as messing about with ouija boards at sleep-overs or summoning Bloody Mary. Legend tripping taps into that same spirit of daring each other to do something that will scare the pants of you, however it is specifically tied to a certain place which has a local folklore story attached to it. In some ways, you can see legend tripping as a way of bringing a legend to life, or as a kind of live action roleplay of a campfire tale (or these days a creepypasta).
Now in the case of the Black Lady summoning incantation, it is claimed that this is a recent addition to the legend, and given its appearance in a creepypasta version of the Black Lady story, it would be easy to assume that this summoning is indeed a new addition to the lore. But I did wonder about that. For while the term "legend tripping" was only relatively recently coined by folklorists, and hence gained a lot of attention recently, the actual phenomena has been going on for decades.
For example, the humorist Odgen Nash wrote a terrifying ghost story called The Three Ds which appeared in 1948 in Harpers Bazaar, which tells of a girl at a Massachusetts boarding school who is dared to do the local legend trip to the grave of one Elizabeth Catspaugh, a witch hanged in Salem. Going further back into the realm of fiction, the tale Wailing Well by MR James can be read as a legend trip going horribly wrong - in this story a group of Scouts out camping (a traditional place for telling of eerie tales of course) are warned from going into a certain patch of woods. One boy decides to test the truth of the legend, and needless to say as this is a James story, pays dearly for it. Delving back even further into literature, there are countless ghost stories from the Victorian era that have as their central premise someone going to stay in a supposed haunted house as a wager or a dare.
So then, is the summoning of the Black Lady really a recent addition, or is it a case of this aspect of legend being only recently recorded? Next time, we'll attempt to trace this element of the story back to its roots.