Over coffee, Ray John de Aragón recalled some important moments of his childhood in Las Vegas, N.M. He described in rich detail the lore that his family kept alive—for example, his mother's rule that he had to be home by 9pm during summer, well before the “witching hour” of midnight. Or, when he lost a tooth, the protocol was very specific: He should take the tooth and go outside. He should look in the direction of the sun, but not into the sun itself. “She would say, then close your eyes immediately, and swing your tooth in that direction as hard as you can,” de Aragón described. Of course, La Llorona kept him and his friends out of the arroyos, though it didn't stop them from sitting on the river banks waiting to see if they might catch a glimpse of her ghostly figure.
These are just some of the types of stories that de Aragón describes in his large catalog of written work. He's published more than a number of books on the history, as well as the rich folklore and ghost stories of New Mexico. His most recent addition to the canon, Haunted Santa Fe, was published in September as part of the Haunted America series from Arcadia Publishing. Outlining the history of the City Different, de Aragón goes on to describe that among the bustling tourist destinations, art boutiques and museums there are “intense secrets” and “stories of nocturnal spirits that roam the dark recesses of the past and present.” The book then goes on to, chapter by chapter, share this lore. Haunting the pages are Billy Bonney's ghost, the spirits of early Spanish priests, a Civil War colonel whose shadow still stalks the halls of La Fonda Hotel, and society maven Julia Staab, whose home was built where La Posada now stands.
De Aragón acknowledges that fear has been a powerful teacher for humans over the centuries, and the origins of many of these stories, handed down from generation to generation, is to instill caution in the next generation, or teach simple lessons. “These cautionary tales are really interesting, they taught young boys and girls to take care of themselves—it's such a rich way of teaching,” he said. “Fear can be powerful, you know. It's a driving force that has kept us alive as humans.”
In his work, de Aragón makes a very conscious attempt not just to deliver thrills, but to provide the historical context of these stories. Many of these legends crop up across the state, region and the country, taking on different variations that speak to the specific topographical dangers, or the unique cultures that exist there. Most of them, if not all, offer up a moral. For example, de Aragón's mother didn't just tell him to hurl his baby teeth into the sun, she also warned him about leaving hair or fingernails about. Doing so might make it easier for witches to collect these and later bewitch him, so he should be sure to dispose of them. It's a handy story that didn't just protect de Aragón (and countless other children) from spells, but taught them to establish a personal habit of cleanliness.
Some stories also transfer history, either family history or history in a broader sense. De Aragón comes from a long line of storytellers, evidenced in the many stories he shared with me, like of his great grandmother, a curandera who was buried alive, the house he grew up in and the ancestors who haunted it, a cursed pie courtesy of a witchy neighbor that made his uncle sick and many, many more. He wanted these stories to live on, so he wrote them down. These days, with the success of his books, he still gets to practice his oral storytelling in presentations and as a teacher, helping the tradition to live on with the tales. In this way he accesses new stories, too, through his interactions with students and gets a read on what resonates with young people today. “A lot of children don't believe in Santa Claus,” he observed, “but they are deathly afraid of Bloody Mary, right? What's scary, maybe it just has a little bit more lasting power in mind.”
Tales of the supernatural are present in almost every culture, giving the topic a lot of substance and texture. It's a rich area for anthropological study—how do these stories, in all their variety, speak to a place and its history? “Viene del corazón,” de Aragón writes in The New Mexico Book of the Undead, “It comes from the heart. There are beautiful recuerdos, memories from the ancestors, and cuentos, stories lovingly passed down from one generation to the next.” In work such as the books that he has penned over the year, these stories—that powerfully speak to our fears and values—are preserved to teach and to even keep us awake at night. The author himself remembered many nights as a child laying awake thinking of such ghost stories, terrified under his blankets. It's proof of a story's power when he hears from readers that they've had the same experience. The creeps, like the lore, lives on.
Catch de Aragón at a reading at the New Mexico State Commission of Public Records (1205 Camino Carlos Rey) in Santa Fe on Halloween—that is, Wednesday, Oct. 31. The event, Haunted History, will also include a talk from a noted ghost hunter. The free event begins at 1:15pm. If you can't make it to Santa Fe for the festivities, you can find de Aragón's work on Amazon and at arcadiapublishing.com.