Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Ghosts Moving Furniture

Academic journal article Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore

Ghosts Moving Furniture

Article excerpt

Have you ever heard furniture moving on the floor above? "SCRREEK!"--a sharp, grating sound, like fingernails raking a blackboard. When people drag tables and chairs across a room, the source of this annoying noise is clear. Sometimes, however, no flesh-andblood movers seem to be present, and ghosts get the blame. New York State has a long tradition of ghostly furniture movers, both in private homes and on college campuses.

"Furniture," from the French fournir, means "the movable articles in a room." In many Romance languages, the word for furniture (French meubles, Spanish muebles) means "movables," so furniture is all about movability. In English, tables and chairs have "legs," which express the dead or seldom noticed metaphor of furniture resembling a living creature that can walk around.

In the 1979 movie The Amityvilk Horror, a rocking chair rocks by itself, terrifying the new owners of a large old house on Long Island. Fascination with furniture that moves by itself has a long history. At the height of American Spiritualism, in the late 19th century, people claimed that tables rocked back and forth, jumped up, and climbed walls, as if they were living creatures. The sounds of tables moving helped to prove the presence of spirits. In the Spiritualist colony of Lily Dale in western New York, founded in 1879, early photographs show mediums moving their hands above tables to make them move. The astonishing idea that tables had a life of their own inspired New Yorkers to visit Lily Dale's psychic mediums and to experiment with "table tipping" of their own.

Ernest Baughman, in his index, Type and Motif-Index of the Folktales of England and North America (The Hague: Mouton, 1966), lists four stories about furniture-moving ghosts from New York. One of the best is the story of Aunt Sylvina, collected by Emelyn Gardner in 1914. Aunt Sylvina, who had always been very particular about the arrangement of her house, haunts the house after her death. Her younger relatives try to change the furniture around to suit their own taste, but she keeps changing it back, making loud noises while doing so. Finally, the new occupants decide to let Aunt Sylvina keep the furniture as she wishes it to be. This legend shows that there should be "a place for everything and everything in its place," and that older family members should maintain order, both during their lifetimes and after their deaths. In other words, older relatives rule.

In contrast to the story of Aunt Sylvina, a campus legend from Binghamton University describes what happens when a young Resident Assistant, Malika, is alone in her residence hall before new students arrive. Malika is a selfconfident student leader who does not want ghosts to bother her. She explains:

   I was all alone on my floor, making door
   tags for all the students who would be
   moving in soon, and it was really quiet. All
   of a sudden I heard furniture moving in
   the room on top of mine--SCRREEK!
   Really scary, because I knew nobody
   was there. … 
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