Q&A: The West Virginian Keeping Appalachian History Alive Through Storytelling

Adam Booth was named the ‘Storyteller in Residence’ at Shepherd University in West Virginia. Photo: Katelyn Stoneberger

In Appalachia, storytelling and folklore has served as an important tool and perpetual reminder of who and what makes up the region’s history. 

That is one of the many reasons award-winning storyteller Adam Booth has continued to share the stories of his home and family across the country. 

Booth grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, with a strong tradition of storytelling in his family. He would often visit his great grandmother in nearby Wayne County, where his extended family would take turns sharing tales and folklore of West Virginia’s history.

It wasn’t until he took a class in college on Appalachian culture that he realized the trove of stories he had been gifted in his childhood. He started sharing the stories his family had told him with others. While in college, he began storytelling competitively through the West Virginia Liars’ Contest where he went on to be a four-time champion. It was also around this time he realized the abundance of storytelling events around Appalachia and the strong tradition of storytelling in the region. 

Today, Booth shares original and traditional stories across the nation, blending mountain folklore, music and awareness of contemporary Appalachia. He is also an adjunct professor at Shepherd University where he founded the Speak Story Series.

100 Days’ Editorial Assistant Gabriella Brown spoke with Booth about the importance of keeping the regions’ stories alive. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Gariella Brown: As a storyteller, what role do you feel storytelling plays in contemporary Appalachia?

Adam Booth: Well, gosh, many roles. First, I think it’s important for us to be telling traditional stories in Appalachia because it’s a perpetual reminder of who lives here, who has lived here and just the many different traditions and folkways of the people who were indigenous to this region or passing through this region. Everyone brought with them stories and storytelling. So in a traditional sense, I think it’s really important for us in contemporary Appalachia to be telling those stories to remind us of who lives here and who is represented here, but also to remind us of who’s not represented here, whose stories aren’t being told. 

In addition to all that, we’re a region where we learn in history classes about how many extractive industries have been in Appalachia’s history. And another thing that’s been extracted is our stories and co-opted. I mean, we’re a region that has a strong history of other people telling our stories about us or telling their stories about us. And so I think it’s important for us to be telling our stories, to talk about what Appalachia is, what it looks like, who lives here, the diversity of people and thought in this region so that we can correct those problems of other people telling our stories for us. Because we have a lot of power, we have a lot of traditions, and we have a lot of folkways in storytelling. We have the gift of talking here in this region. 

When we tell stories, we build community, and we also build our ability to listen. And so I think that’s really important for us nowadays to be telling our stories because the more stories we tell the more opportunities we are given to listen to each other. And now more than ever, we need to be listening to each other.

GB: How has the pandemic affected your career as a storyteller?

AB: Gosh, it was devastating at first. For pretty much anyone in the performing arts, it was just so devastating. And it was really hard, I’m not going to try to sugarcoat it. It was really hard at first psychologically to deal with a calendar of events that just everyday more and more of them cancelled or postponed to a year in the future or two years in the future. And that was really difficult. 

I’m a storyteller, but a synonym for what I do is community building. I get together and, through narratives, I build communities and listen to people to help build community in that space. And when it just wasn’t safe for people to gather anymore, it was just so heartbreaking to me. It was devastating to my artistry that we couldn’t get together and build that community because there’s nothing like being together in-person, listening and talking and sharing stories. 

But so many people acted really quickly and started transitioning storytelling events to an online format. And so, for me, a silver lining through the pandemic was that I was able to tell stories in places where I never would have been able to tell stories before. I mean, I was right here in my studio in my house doing it, but I was reaching people in communities that maybe wouldn’t have been able to fly me across the country to tell stories. Or I got to share stories with people that I didn’t know, that I had never met before, and that’s — what a blessing on my life. 

So really, the pandemic had some benefits for me in that way. And it also pushed me creatively as an artist. How can I adapt stories that are meant for being told in-person where you can see my whole body? I can’t even show it in this tiny little square. So, really, it pushed me as an artist because I had to think about how stories should work through a screen. But ultimately, what I came to realize is that my whole career has been about adaptation. You know, whenever I come into a new town or a new state to tell stories, I have to adapt to where I am and have to meet the people there and learn about them so that I can tell stories about who I am and where I’m from. And this was no different. It was just an adaptation to a different medium.

GB: With Halloween approaching, what kind of cultural significance do spooky stories and folklore have in Appalachia? How does this practice in the region compare to other places in the United States?

AB: One of great things about spooky stories in Appalachia — one of the important things about it — is that you can really get the flavor of where people have immigrated from, and I’m speaking right now solely about people who immigrated to Appalachia. 

You get the flavor of where people came from, because something that people brought with them are stories, and all people tell stories and all people have stories about spirits, whether it’s ghosts or frightening things or what happens in the dark.

When I think about spooky stories here, when I hear a spooky story, I like to start to dissect it to say, oh, I recognize that which is a theme from African American storytelling which then you can kind of trace back through maybe the Caribbean or to parts of western Africa to the griots and the storytelling practices there and say, “Oh, isn’t that cool how it made its way to this story in present day Appalachia?” Or you could hear part of a theme or motif in a story and say, “Wait, that’s very much like stories that connect to parts of Eastern Europe, that’s very clear that people brought that with them if they’re coming to work in steel mills or in coal mines or to be stone cutters for cemeteries” or something like that. So, I think it’s really great to study our spooky stories to see an indication of where people came from. 

But beyond that, it really shows what people believe here. That there’s a strong belief in ghosts, there’s a strong tradition of believing in witches and cryptids. Appalachia is filled with cryptid stories, maybe more so than in other places it seems like. So we can learn about the beliefs of the people here through these spooky stories.

And again, I keep going back to diversity, just the diversity of thought that we have here. Some of these stories stem from religious beliefs and some of them stem from beliefs that aren’t religious at all. But they might have common elements. There might be a common ghost between the story that’s secular and sacred and you can say, “Wow, that’s diversity of belief here in this region.” The different types of witches, witch stories and stories of people who are witches now.. 

And I can’t forget to say, spooky stories are just really entertaining, and we love to sit around and have a good time being scared. It’s something that I grew up with. It’s something that a lot of my friends from throughout different parts of Appalachia talk about. And so I’m glad that I get to be part of that link of the chain of getting to scare people for fun.

You might be from a tiny town that maybe doesn’t have much history, except for a well-known ghost story or it’s where a UFO crash landed or there’s a popular witch story and people are really proud of that. And so it, again, builds community, it gives us a sense of identity and allows us to relate to each other, “No way, we had a story kind of like that where I grew up” and then you can connect that way.

GB: Are there any ghost stories in particular that come to mind when you think of the ones that are significant to our region? 

AB: There’s a popular form of ghost story that appears throughout a lot of Appalachia – and actually in other places across the United States as well – known as the vanishing hitchhiker, that’s the tale type. A story of where, usually, very typically, it’s a dark and stormy night, or rainy at least, and there’s this frail woman on the side of the road. Often she’s in clothing that’s not appropriate for the rain or maybe sometimes she appears in a bridal gown and she needs a ride. And someone picks them up and she says where she needs to go and when they go to deliver her, they pull over and look in the rearview mirror, look in the backseat, and she’s gone. The vanishing hitchhiker.  And so in one way, that’s a pretty important story because it has so many variants that it’s kind of cool to see what’s the terroir, the regional flavor of it. 

Where I live, there’s a really famous ghost story that comes from just down the road a few miles. Shepherdstown is intertwined into what is called Wizard Clip. And the Wizard Clip story goes back over 200 years in the town of Middleway, which for a time was called Clip and before that was called Smithfield. It’s a story about a stranger that shows up on Adam Livingston’s farm. He and his wife are Protestants and the stranger shows up and, as is the case during the day, a stranger would be welcomed in, no questions asked. The stranger is sick and he asks, “Bring me a priest, I’m Catholic, I’m going to die tonight, I need my final rites,” and they don’t want a priest on their property, they’re Protestant. 

Well, the man dies and there’s all kinds of haunting that is associated with it, especially this clipping sound and little moon shapes are cut out of all the fabric in their home and some nearby places in town. Lots of snipping sound and ropes get cut in half and animals necks get cut in half or cut right off. I’ll leave it as a surprise for people that don’t know this story. Seek it out. 

GB: Are there any ghost stories in particular you’d like to share with us?

AB: I would love to tell a story. 

I’m going to tell you a story about a house. This is a story that took place well over 110 years ago down in Mercer County, West Virginia. So I’m talking about the real southern part of my state, right on the border of Virginia — Western Virginia and West Virginia. 

And way back in rural Mercer County, there was a house; a house that was known to never be able to have a family stay in it for more than a month. When some new family would move in, well, they would notice banging sounds coming from another room and as soon as they would go in there it would stop. When they turned around and walked back down the hall, there was that hammering sound again. They noticed also that they might be in a room and hear a sound and look over and an object would just slide right across a countertop or a piece of furniture might scoot along the floor all on its own. And because of these occurrences, well, one family would move out, and they’d try to sell this home to another family, and the family would move in and all the same things would happen again so they would move out. 

Now, some folks would call that a haunted house, and I just want to be clear about this — It’s not a haunted house. A haunt is a ghost of a person that was once alive. When they die, their body is not able to make that full transition over to death, to the other side. And so their spirit sticks around and haunts a place until something allows them to make that full passage over. 

No, this is what they would call a hated house. That house is hated. And a hate is different from a haunt because a hate is a spirit that was never alive. It was never a human. As my mentor taught me, a hate hain’t never been alive, and that’s how you know. And because a hate was never alive, it was never a person and it can’t be empathized with. You can’t try to find pity in it if it comes for you. And hates are always trying to do vicious and malicious things to humans. 

Well, there was a family by the name of Jones, and the Jones family, they were poor. They didn’t have a lot of money and the only home that they could afford to buy was that hated house I was telling you about. When they moved into it, the same strange things took to happening, and they’d hear a hammering and knocking and pounding sounds in rooms all throughout the house. Objects would slide right across the floor. But, as they didn’t have enough money to move anywhere else, they had to live there. 

Now, the Joneses had a son. A son by the name of Robbie, and he was away at military school when they moved into this house. And he got a break – a few days off from school–  and so he took the bus back home to that county and where the bus let off, it was a long walk to get back to their house.As he walked back to the new house, he stopped off where one of his best pals lived, a boy by the name of Jimmy. He said, “Hey, Jimmy, I’m back in town for a few days. Come on over and spend the night.” Jimmy said, “Alright, do you think your mother would be alright with it?” He said “Yeah, mama always loves having another person for supper. Come on.” 

Those boys walked down that dirt road until they got to the house. Well, mother was happy to see Jimmy there with Rob, and she sat him down and there was always extra food for supper. So they had a nice big supper and mother was happy to see her son home and she said, “Now, you boys, when you go to bed, you should take that room up there above the kitchen. It’s the one that has the least amount of all that hate activity that we’ve been able to determine.” Robbie said, “Oh, mother, surely you don’t believe in that kind of thing.” She said, “I heard it and I seen it with my own eyes.” “Mother,” he said, “doesn’t matter where we sleep tonight. That stuff won’t bother me. I’m training to be a soldier by the way. I can’t be frightened by little things like that. Now, come on, Jimmy. Let’s go on upstairs,” and they went upstairs to one of those bedrooms. 

When it was time for sleep, well, Rob took the bed and Jimmy had a bed roll there on the floor and they waited for that hate to appear. Nothing happened. “See, I told you, there wasn’t gonna be nothing like that around here. Now, Jimmy, tell me what I’ve been missing around town since I’ve been gone,” and they swap stories of what town had been like and what life at that military school was like and, you know, when you stay up late swapping stories. 

Well, next thing they knew, they had fallen asleep. You know sometimes you fall asleep even in the middle of a sentence. And those boys had just fallen asleep — bam, bam, bam — there was this sound, and Rob sat straight up in the bed and he looked and saw the foot of his bed where that footboard was, that metal footboard, it was just hammering like this bam, bam, bam, shaking back and forth. And he saw it down there just beyond his feet. 

And he hollered over to Jimmy, “Now, Jimmy, you cut that out! Stop trying to scare me like that!” But Jimmy was there on the floor, looking up watching the whole thing happen. It was almost like there was a piece of metal banging right against that metal footboard, bam, bam. And he said, “Rob, it’s not me. I can see it happening right there.” Next thing Jimmy knew, his bed roll was being pulled down off of his body. Rob looked down at the foot of the bed and just to the side of his right foot, some of those sheets rose up just about that high and began to twist, turn like this. It was almost like an animal had gotten trapped in there and was trying to find its way out. Poor Jimmy, his whole bed roll had been pulled right off of his body, and that fabric began to rise up into the air. And Rob’s bed clothes, they started to lift up into the air, too. Pulled right off of his body, off the bed, up higher and higher and higher, until all that fabric just disappeared right through the ceiling. 

Coming back down from that same spot was a wind. Wind began to blow around that room getting faster and faster. It seemed like it started picking up more wind from each of those walls, blowing their clothes, their pajamas. It was like a small tornado had picked up in that room and boy, let me tell you what, Jimmy jumped up off of the floor and took off out that door down the steps, out the front door and was running down that dirt road back toward his pappy’s house there in the moonlight and Rob, he jumped up, too. “Mother!” he called, “Mother, it’s happening!” And he took off out of that room into his mother’s room. Boy, it was a good thing they had gone because as soon as he had left that room, the wind became so great that the walls of that room and that room only fell right in.

The next day, the Joneses packed up and moved out of that house. And they did what any family with sense would have done. As they left, they set that hated house on fire. And as it set up into a blaze, flames engulfed the whole house straight up to the roof like that in a thought. And the smoke went up into the air and folks saw that smoke and gathered around to come see that hated house just burning. Those that were there that day said that as those flames gobbled up that house, the fire began to burn a bright yellow color; a color fire they’d never seen burning before. And just at a moment when the whole house was engulfed in those yellow flames, suddenly, all the walls came crashing in on top of each other. And the fire got very bright down there on the base. And from the ashes of that foundation, a white light began to glow – a white light that took a form and that white glowing form began to rise up out of the embers of that house. It took a form of a woman with arms outstretched. And as she rose up into the air they heard that hate holler out.

Some folks said that burning that house ended all of her torment. But others said that burning down that house set that hate free and that woman hate spirit moves around with her arms outstretched like this, making her way through the woods and the dark nights. And if you listen closely on a night, you might be able to hear her calling out, too, but I don’t know why you’d want to.

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