To grow up in the South is to be fed a steady diet of grits and ghost stories. Ask any household in Alabama, and they’ll tell you about a friend or family member with a rogue phantom that blows out candles or stomps around in the attic. Being haunted is a permanent condition below the Mason-Dixon, one that defines the region as much as the voracious kudzu and the iced tea so sugary that it hurts your teeth. William Faulkner, who was known to spin particularly scary fireside stories himself, described the Deep South in Absalom, Absalom! as “dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts.”
No one knew that better than Kathryn Tucker Windham, an Alabama folklorist who spent much of her life collecting and patiently preserving Southern superstitions, recipes, and, most of all, ghost stories. Before passing away this June at the age of ninety-three, Windham published four cookbooks, eight ghostly collections, and more than a dozen works of regional mythology, memoir, and fiction, most of them featuring her own household ghost, a Slimer-esque jester whom the Windhams affectionately named Jeffrey.
Windham’s voice was unforgettable. In high school, I would listen to All Things Considered every couple of weeks to hear her explain, in her rolling, sticky Southwest Alabama accent, the canoe-fighting of the Creek Indian War or the boll weevil statue in Enterprise, Alabama erected in honor of the pest that forced local farmers to diversify their crops. She hunted through cemeteries, traced old wives tales back to their sources, and described the grandeur of crumbling mansions, spared by the Union army only to rot from neglect. “I don’t care whether you believe in ghosts,” Windham was fond of repeating, “The good ghost stories do not require that you believe in ghosts.”