Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live

Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live

Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live

Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live


In late May, a Pennsylvania high school hums with the rumor that a Satanic cult plans on killing the first four couples through the door on prom night.

A horror writer in the Catskills is overcome with grief, alienated from his wife, unable to write, and suffering from recurring thoughts of physical and sexual indignities he has no words to describe. He concludes he has been abducted by aliens.

In a Pizza Hut in Ohio, employees refuse to close alone because the ghost of a hanged man haunts the refrigerator.

Tales such as these are the subject of Bill Ellis's Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. In the book, he explores the complex relationship between ordinary life and outlandish but oft-told legends. What he finds is startling. In multiple case studies legends become part of life. Officials take action in answer to each story's weird details, and people adjust their behavior to avoid or to experience aliens and ghosts.

Written for both the cultural studies expert and the reader fascinated with reactions to extraordinary phenomena, Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults pursues motivations for why people tell these "true stories, heard from a friend of a friend."

Ellis shows legends creating a sense of community in a multi-ethnic institutional camp. He traces some contemporary scares to such old tales as the vanishing hitchhiker and murderous gang initiations. In analyzing some newly emerging legend types, such as alien abductions and computer virus warnings, Ellis discovers connections between earlier types of religious experience and supposed witchcraft. Finally, the book reveals how legends can inspire people to actions, ranging from playful visits to haunted spots to horrifying threats of violence.

Legends rely on active discussion to spread and mutate. This book considers them to be a social process, not a kind of narrative with a fixed form. People worldwide may tell a legend or one person to whom the event allegedly occurred may "own" the story. Individuals may relate an event as something strongly believed or as something laughable. Legends may be very new or have roots in old folklore. But when high schools, law enforcement agencies, city governments, and individuals take action, the story becomes one of the legends we live.

Bill Ellis is an associate professor of English and American studies at Penn State University, Hazleton campus. His previous books include Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, and he has been published in Psychology Today, Skeptical Inquirer, Journal of American Folklore, and Journal of Popular Literature.


The 1993–94 winter was one of the worst in the history of eastern Pennsylvania. At the end of the previous winter, on March 13, 1993, residents had been stung by a blizzard that dropped as much as three feet of snow in the area. Then, starting on December 22, a stubborn weather pattern brought snow after snow, punctuated by spells of subzero weather. the fifth major storm in less than a month hit on January 17, 1994, with two feet of snow (bringing the season's total to six feet). Two days before, the nearby Reading area suffered a significant earthquake on January 15, the first to occur in Pennsylvania in years and the strongest ever recorded there. We were wondering how and when it would all end.

Monday, January 31 brought another blast of icy cold, with temperatures dropping to all-time records of [H11502] 20 [H11034] F. That morning, between 6 and 7A.M. Sergeant Barry Reed, station commander of the Pennsylvania State Police Station at Frackville, a small town in the mountainous Anthracite region of northwest Pennsylvania, got a phone call. a motorist wanted to report something strange that had just happened to him. He was on the way to work along State Route 61, just south of town, and stopped to pick up a hitchhiker, whom he described as “a tall, thin man with long dark hair and wearing a long dark coat.” After getting into the back seat, the man told the motorist, “I am here to tell you the end is near.” When the driver looked into the back seat, the hitchhiker was gone. Reed was further mystified when this call was followed by three similar reports, two placing the hitchhiker on Route 61, and one on Interstate 81, the major freeway that bisects Route 61 at Frackville. While he did not record the identities of the persons who called, he described them as reputable local citizens. “All of them were scared and appeared to be telling the truth, ” Reed later told a reporter. “They were from different towns. I have no reason to believe they could have gotten together to make something up.”

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