Academic journal article Western Folklore

Faces in the Fire: Images of Terror in Oral Märchen and in the Wake of September 11

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Faces in the Fire: Images of Terror in Oral Märchen and in the Wake of September 11

Article excerpt


The debate over the news coverage of September 11 offers parallels to the century-old fight over the violent imagery of storybook märchen. Do monstrous fairy-tales scar the child who hears them or fortify that child by presenting horror within a safe frame? Evidence suggests that traumatized adults blend their own imaginary experiences with real-life horrors as part of a healing process. Verbally-tripped images may ultimately aid the listener in coming to terms with traumatic experiences.

KEYWORDS: 9/11, märchen, media, story telling, trauma

Anyone who grew up hearing or telling Southern Mountain folktales knows the importance of firelight. One of the finest of all such tellers and listeners is Jane Muncy, who at age 11, in 1949, spoke with adult composure into the microphone of the first reel-to-reel tape recorder that anyone had seen in Leslie County, Kentucky. On the other side of the mie was folklorist Leonard Roberts, who would make Jane a celebrity in a world she has only recently begun to meet. Transcriptions of 1 1 -yearold Jane's tales appeared in Roberts's South from Hell-fer-Sartin (1955), nearly half a century before Jane herself was to learn that these printed records of her oral art had been enjoyed by thousands of readers.1

In 2001, 51 years after she had first recorded her tales, Jane told me about the nighttime rituals during which she had heard some of them:

At Aunt Nora's house the dark would fall and the fire would be there, and we would sit around in rocking chairs. The little kids would come in and out of the shadows and sometimes we would, at the end of the evening, end up in our . . . parents' laps, and listening to the stories, particularly if there was a scary one. And the scary ones would come toward the end of the day when they wanted us to come out of the shadows and . . . get into the cuddling down period. . . . And the fire would flicker, there was always looking in the fire. (Fugate 2001a; Lindahl 2004:326)

Firelight was on everyone's mind late in the night of September 11, by which time most of us had watched dozens of times the repeated moving image of a jet disappearing into one side of a giant tower and instantaneously transformed into a red cloud swelling from the other side. There was little left to say toward midnight, when ABC newscaster Peter Jennings paused to attempt to justify why he and his co-workers were still trying to say it. His first explanation revealed a refreshing vulnerability: "We don't know what else to do." His second justification was more self-aggrandizing, and less assuring, at least to me. He asserted that TV had become America's campfire,

equivalent to a campfire in the days as the wagon trains were making their way westward and there was a catastrophe on the trail. Some people pulled the wagons around, and sat down and discussed what was going on and tried to understand it. (Cohen 2001)

That night, I used Peter Jennings's explanation as an excuse to fall asleep with the campfire on. Sometime before dawn, I turned off the TV, but on the morning of the twelfth, in a gesture extremely rare in earlier times but almost automatic in the months to come, I immediately switched it back on.

This time I tuned to CBS. A female announcer was interviewing a psychologist, a specialist in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The newswoman, like most of the people I was to see on the street and in my classroom later that day, appeared conspicuously sleepdeprived. She told the expert words to this effect: "I went to bed seeing that tower in flames, and all night long, whether I was awake or asleep, I saw that flaming tower, over and over again." The specialist responded, quickly and flatly, in this sense: "What you've been experiencing is Posttraumatic Stress" (CBS 2001). Immediately I thought of Jane Muncy, the Jane Muncy that folklorists are only now getting to know (Lindahl 2004:279-333; Lindahl 2006), the daughter and mother of two Marines who suffered from PTSD, the girl who had grown up to become a psychotherapist deploying the tales she learned as a child to treat adults with PTSD. …

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