The death of Michael Jackson has triggered a frenzy of folkloric activity. Tasteless jokes are already proliferating, as they do after any personal tragedy. Rumours are circulating about his death and burial.
It was not surprising then when television footage appeared that seemed to show a ghostly figure stalking Neverland. As a folklorist researching belief in ghosts, I'm much more interested in the responses on message boards than I am in the footage itself. Where parapsychologists study the reality or otherwise of the phenomenon, folklorists look, as Linda Dégh put it, at 'the nature of human creativity to be discerned through the report of such experience'. (1)
So from the perspective of my research, it's fascinating to see the very people who are most devoted to the memory of Michael Jackson also being the most critical in their assessment of the images on the film. News reports from the message boards have covered a wide range of responses, from the simple analysis of the phenomenon per se ('It's clearly not a shadow because ... there's no one there to make a shadow, plus it's completely see through'), via the hopeful ('Maybe it was Michael, telling us that he is still here with us in spirit'), right through to the dismissive ('You guys are craaaaaazy! It's too tall to be Michael ...')
What was most striking about the last quoted correspondent, RebeccaMJ, was that her comments rested on a body of implicit belief about spirit activity. Michael Jackson wasn't roaming Neverland, she wrote, because his spirit is "resting and at peace. Only disturbed souls creep around'. RebeccaMJ is clearly expressing a hope for the star's post mortem peace, but she is also dismissing this particular ghostly phenomenon by validating a much wider set of beliefs. I've come across this narrative device before, and I'm interested in probing it further.
1: Linda Dégh, 'Foreword', in Leea Virtanen, "That Must Have Been ESP!": An Examination of Psychic Experiences, trans. John Atkinson and Thomas Dubois (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p.xii