ST. GEORGE- What is the difference between a spiritual experience and a supernatural event?
Author Darren Edwards explores this fascinating question among other critical questions throughout his forthcoming nonfiction book, “Supernatural Lore of Southern Utah,” published by The History Press. The book goes through hundreds of prevalent supernatural folk tales unique to southern Utah, focusing on what the stories reveal about the communities that tell them. The book hits shelves September 12, but it can be pre-ordered here.
For three years, Edwards investigated well-known and obscure supernatural stories in southern Utah, such as stories of howling ghost mothers wandering the prairies of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the ghost of Lydia Knight communicating to visitors about his headstone in the St. George Cemetery, the curses of taking petrified wood from Escalante State Park, and the stories of Navajo Skinwalkers in Monument Valley.
He has conducted more than 200 interviews with witnesses who claimed to have experienced supernatural events, and he has delved into countless peer-reviewed academic papers regarding the cultural history associated with those stories.
Edwards did not seek to capture the stories in order to prove or disprove the historical and factual reality of the stories. Rather, Edwards was interested in what the perpetuated supernatural stories reveal about humanity within the communities that keep the stories alive.
“I hope everyone who reads (my book) will better understand the nuances of the stories and cultures,” Edwards said. “It’s empathy that makes something witty and not scary.”
As an example of this type of analysis of a supernatural story, Edwards told a story in his book, a story frequently told in a community near the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. According to the story, a local woman adopted a baby who was spared during the massacre, and while the adopted parent was gardening, a woman dressed in white clothes appeared and asked if she could see the baby. The adopted mother agreed and watched the phantom mother enter the house, only to find the peaceful apparition totally gone moments after walking through the door.
“Why would any community share this story, real or not? Edwards asked. “It’s a way to feel better about what happened. Here is a victim of the massacre who comes back and says: “I am at peace”. Thank you for taking care of my child. There is no admission of guilt here. It’s the community trying to feel better about the slaughter and, in a way, trying to cover it up.
One of the final chapters of Edwards’ upcoming book covers the legends of the Navajo Skinwalkers. He said it is one of the most told monster stories among southern Utahans, and that the stories differ dramatically from original Native American beliefs.
“I knew people were going to pick up the book and hope and expect to find Skinwalkers, so I knew I had to have it in there,” Edwards said, “but how do you write about it when it’s is something natives don’t do’ you wanna talk about?
“I wanted to be sensitive to the fact that I didn’t want to go further into cultural appropriation. I wanted to address that and explore.
Edwards conducted several interviews with Native Americans from several tribes, and he compared their stories and experiences of Skinwalkers with stories told by white Americans in towns in southern Utah who claim to have encountered Skinwalkers.
“It’s fascinating to see the differences between the stories and to see what we can learn from them,” he said.
After months of trying to arrange an interview, he was finally able to meet a Navajo woman who gave four personal first-hand accounts of Skinwalkers, including the story of a group of Skinwalkers trying to recruit her to uses their own spiritual gifts. to serve their group instead of the tribe.
“I had chills listening to him tell me these four stories, and they are so different in context, flavor and detail from the non-native ones.”
His stories about Skinwalkers were all from a national perspective, entangled in a spiritual culture that developed independently of Western beliefs, Edwards said, instead of an Americanized view of a savage monster in the desert.
Raised in American Fork, Utah, Edwards attended Utah State University for her BA in English and MA. He taught English classes at Utah State for three years and he taught creative writing classes at Dixie State University for four years. Eventually, he decided to take his current job as a high school English teacher at St. George Academy, a college-preparatory school, where he teaches 11th and 12th graders.
His current administration has allowed Edwards to start his own class at St. George Academy called “Academic Approaches to the Supernatural.”
“We look at it from a folksy perspective,” he said. “We don’t care if ghosts are actually real or not. We don’t care if Bigfoot is real or not. What we’re looking for is what is the cultural truth, the personal truth of these stories? I I tried to put a lot of it in my book.
“We also look at the scientific method, really giving students a solid understanding of what the scientific method is, and then looking at things like pseudoscience and confirmation bias.”
Edwards has his class analyze shows like “Ghosthunters” that may claim to conduct scientific investigations, but, Edwards said, that’s really not the case. He said it helps students see what real scientific research would entail, unlike what TV shows might include for entertainment.
“Kids love the class. It helps them to think about things in two very different ways – the emotional truth and the verifiable, factual truth of things.
Since teaching in the Washington County community, Edwards said he knows the area’s common religious views and respects them. He said he helps his students see a different perspective regarding sacred spiritual stories from other cultures that have turned into superstitious American ghost stories.
“I always point out that class does not argue against religion or creed. We’re just trying to better understand them as they are, and it’s actually very helpful to point out – like when we talk about Skinwalkers, which I have a chapter on in my book – the theft of Native American beliefs and the appropriation cultural. ”
One example is how he helps Latter-day Saint students imagine how they would feel if people dressed in the sacred garments of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for Halloween. He said he then helps students empathetically apply this perspective to Native American spiritual beliefs, particularly a southern Utah Caucasian perspective on Skinwalkers as a scary monster story.
Although eager to share his work and the discoveries he has uncovered through his research, Edwards acknowledged the adversity his book will likely face.
“I expect negative reactions to the book,” he said. “There is no way you can talk about the Mountain Meadows Massacre without upsetting people. I try to have things very balanced, but for a lot of people in this community, “balanced” isn’t going to feel balanced — it’s going to feel like an attack. But I hope members of the Church will think critically and appreciate the balance I have tried to bring to this book.
“When I talk about the interaction between the pioneers and the Native Americans, it’s going to sound like an attack. It’s not, though. It’s just a calculation of what really happened, and we have to think about it.
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