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Ghost Fever

McAllen Monitor

Everybody knows the story of "La Llorona" and many have passed it on to new generations. Joe Hayes is considered one of the authorities on the story and has retold it countless times. Heís also authored a version recently reissued in hardback, which tells the infamous story in both Spanish and English.

"My version is largely based on things I heard about La Llorona when I was a boy in Arizona, with some of my own inventions thrown in, of course," he writes in an addendum to his book. I give the tale a more logical structure than it had in the renditions I heard in my youth, but I leave some loose threads untied for future speculations," he writes.

Hayes thinks there is a timeless quality and a geographical resonance to the story. "I think the secret of La Lloronaís success as a ghost is that sheís always local. Wherever you are, sheís seen right around there. Itís also a deeply moralistic story. And it combines shocking and outrageous deeds done in the past (sensational in the way contemporary news stories of mothers murdering their children are) with a present and imminent threat. And, of course, that threat is made real by all the reports of people having seen or heard her," he writes in his version.

Hayes is one of Americaís premier storytellers and he travels all over the United States. Heís been sharing his stories in print for over 20 years. His most recent one is Ghost Fever: Mal de Fantasma about a young girl who gets sick because of her fatherís disbelief in ghosts.

Hayes, 59, was born in Pennsylvania but moved to Arizona as a young boy and became enchanted with the area. "The beauty of the Southwest isnít opulent and sensational: you have to learn to see it," he wrote in a recent e-mail interview from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Growing up, his father was a role model for storytelling. "His parents immigrated from Ireland, and I guess he inherited the gift of storytelling. He was quite a charmer and a raconteur," he says.

"The Hispano storytellers of northern New Mexico, whose stories were transcribed by folklorist in the 1930s, also provided me with a model for my own telling," he adds.

As for that tradition of storytelling in the Southwest, Hayes believes it shares a lot in common with other European traditions. "But it has a distinctive role in the United States because it blends earthiness with a wild, irrational quality."

And what is it exactly that makes a good storyteller? "A generous and sincere spirit and a constant awareness that itís the listener who really create both the story and the storyteller," he believes.

Hayes also thinks kids love ghost stories because they are a sort of safe scare. "They get the thrill of being scared without any real danger," he says. "And a ghost story defies reason and explanation. Thereís something satisfying in this super-rational age to contemplate things that science canít explain."

Which is his favorite story to tell? "This is one of the questions kids most frequently ask. I tell them my favorite story is the one that really seems to be appealing to the group Iím talking to at that moment. The same story may not go over so well with another group, and then itís not my favorite," he said.

How about the burning question of whether or not he really believes in La Llorona? "What I tell children who ask me that is I donít think the things really did happen, but if you think about the story you find a lot of truth in it," he said.

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