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I grew up in rural Appalachia in a small, untouched corner of northeast Tennessee. When you imagine that region of the world, you might think of banjos, moonshine, and log cabins. But for me, the part of my hillbilly upbringing that has had the most staying power is the belief that the dead are always surrounding us.

Haints—or ghosts—were everywhere in my hometown. In our stories, our homes, our fields, our schools, our stores and our office buildings (yes, we had one or two office buildings in town). Everybody had a story or two, and our parents fed us these stories for dinner alongside our soup beans and collard greens.

As an adult who has since left this region and can look back at it, I am fascinated by this obsession with haints and the dead. I attribute it to the region’s obsession with the past and with history. Or maybe I’m just projecting my own obsessions onto my memories. After all, I, too, am obsessed with history. And with restless spirits of all regions.

However, I can’t deny how omnipresent the dead seemed to be during my youth. The very first summer camp I attended as a child tasked me with tromping through Tennessee’s oldest cemetery to do grave rubbings (a popular pastime in the area). The next year, I went to a sleepaway music camp where our evening entertainer taught us how to arrange our belongings at night to trap ghosts that would otherwise crawl into our beds. The corner store at the end of our street had cat ghosts that would leap into your lap should you sit and take an offering of tea from the proprietor. And, no one seemed to think it abnormal that the annual fourth grade field trip sent us to stay at an old cabin with a rotting dear carcass strapped to the roof.

I also love a well-told story. Storytelling is another cultural trope of Appalachia, and when you combine a practiced storyteller with a fine ghost story, the chills are real.

So, to answer the question—what is a haint? It’s a spirit, a ghoul, a ghost. It’s the subject of beloved, chilling tales that fill the family evenings after dinner. It goes well with a glass of iced tea and a rocking chair. And it only gets better with age. Check out our podcast for all the best chilling true ghost stories!