Southern legends of haints, ghosts, witches, booger men, boohags, and boodaddies
Origination of haint beliefs
What exactly is a "haint"?
Haint is an old southern word for a specific type of ghost or evil spirit from the Carolina coast, but found in tales from various regions of the south. Belief in haints probably originated with the Gulla Geechee people, descendants of African slaves in the Carolina low country and barrier islands. In South Carolina, haints are malicious ghosts, often seeking to steal or harm naughty children (maybe used as a story to make unruly children behave?).
One online dictionary defines the word "haint" simply as a ghost. The tradition is more complex than that.
Felder Rushing, who wrote a book about the history of bottle trees, says the word haint is actually derived from early European roots: the verb "hanter," meaning to stalk or inhabit. He dates that word to about 1330. And he says the African-American word haint, used as a noun, was first recorded in 1843. (Source).
Other sources claim the word actually originated from the Welsh word haint, meaning infection, plague, or pestilence.
Haint blue: a color specifically for protection against ghosts
In Charleston, belief in haints was so common, they even spawned their own color of house paint.
In her "History of the Gullah Culture," Marissa Polascak wrote, "There are many Gullah traditions, customs, and beliefs that are still being practiced today. For instance, the Gullah believe in witchcraft and paint their doors "haint blue" in order to ward off evil spirits and witches. There are people in the Gullah community that are thought to have the power to protect people from evil. If the Gullah believe that their houses are haunted by evil spirits, or are worried that a spirit will soon try to inhabit their dwelling, they will paste newspaper on their walls in order to distract the spirits from doing any harm."
Still today in the low country of South Carolina, historic homes often feature a special hue of blue paint on the ceilings of their big, covered porches, or window shutters, sills, and doors. There are various explanations for this tradition, but one of the most common is that haint blue represents water to confuse haints, which according to legend, can't cross over water. (1)(2)(3)
The color "haint blue" is so common in the south that the Sherwin Williams Co. mentions it on their website, with the following explanation:
". . . many Southerners suggest that blue porch ceilings originated out of the fear of haints. Southerners, especially in the area of South Carolina, have a name for the ceiling paint used on porches – the soft blue-green is referred to as 'Haint Blue.'
'Haints are restless spirits of the dead who, for whatever reason, have not moved on from their physical world,' says (Lori) Sawaya.
Haint blue, which can also be found on door and window frames as well as porch ceilings, is intended to protect the homeowner from being 'taken' or influenced by haints. It is said to protect the house and the occupants of the house from evil." (1)
Here's a website about Haints, where you can submit your own true ghost stories: True Tales of Southern Haints
To read a Gullah ghost story, visit The Boo Hags of Gullah Culture.
Newspaper on the walls of an abandoned house in Tennessee. According to legend, newspapers on the walls distract haints, which are compelled to read every word before they can proceed. Click to buy a fine art print of this photograph.
How to get rid of haints
If you didn't use blue paint on your porch and windows to keep the haints away and now find yourself troubled by the bothersome spirits, how can you get rid of them? According to lore, these are some tried-and-true methods for distracting or getting rid of haints:
Bottle tree - The bottle tree originated in Africa and migrated to the US with the enslaved people. The bottles are said to catch wandering spirits at night, and hold them until they can be destroyed by the sunshine of daytime.
Distracting haints with counting tricks - According to legend, haints can't resist certain repetitive tasks, such as reading newspapers pasted onto walls, or counting the straws in a broom, or grains of rice. The idea is to distract and frustrate the haints, who keep losing count and starting over again repeatedly. The haints will be forced to leave as morning approaches, having done no harm.
Clean the house - Burn sage or incense. Mop the floors with pine and camphor, and place salt across doors and windows, and in corners.
Do you know other methods for doing away with haints? Leave a comment.
Victorian Woodwork on an Old House in Charleston (A0018728), a black and white photograph by Keith Dotson. Click the photo to buy a fine art print.
Message from a reader remembering his grandfather
Denver-based motivational speaker Jonathan McMillan sent a great story fondly remembering his grandfather — a second-generation freed slave from a small town in Kansas.
"Just read your blog about haints. I came across it because I was reminiscing over my grandfather who used to mention haints anytime he would slide me some pocket change. He'd ask if I had any money, to which I'd reply 'no' and he would reach into his pants pocket, pull out a roll of cash, and peel off $5-$20 and say 'Just something to keep the haints off ya.' I now use the phrase when I'm laying some cash on my son."
Incidentally, Jonathan McMillan is doing great work in Denver with helping at-risk youth and gang intervention. His website is here.
Haints discussed in the media
Apartment Therapy wrote about haint blue porches in 2014
In her article "Pretty & Practical: The History of 'Haint Blue' Porch Ceilings," Taryn Williford advises that powder blue on the porch is a beautiful color choice for aesthetic as well as superstitious reasons, and reminds us that blue porches are popular up-and-down the east coast.
Haint blue porches discussed in Charleston newspaper
The Charleston Post Courier newspaper explains why Charleston's 'haint blue' porch ceilings have a tough history to track in this article. Something interesting in the article is that it says the city's official handbook for tour guides includes a chapter on "malevolent spirits in Gullah culture."
Discussion of haint blue, traditional indigo dyes, and slavery on Atlas Obscura
The fascinating article "What the Color ‘Haint Blue’ Means to the Descendants of Enslaved Africans," by Shoshi Parks on Atlas Obscura (January, 2020), explores the complex relationship of indigo to enslavement, and traces the use of indigo dyes back to Africa.
Also on Atlas Obscura, the travel article "Haint Blue Porch Ceilings: The Lowcountry color with the power to stop evil from entering a home," provides photos and addresses where visitors can see haint blue in use on the fine historic homes of Beaufort, South Carolina.
Article on The Awl says haint blue isn't a specific color but an idea
Katy Kelleher discusses the idea that haint blue is more of a cultural concept than an actual color in her article "Haint Blue, the Ghost-Tricking Color of Southern Homes and Gullah Folktales" published on The Awl
"This Is the Only Ceiling Color You'll See on Lowcountry Porches," by Taylor Eisenhauer on southernliving.com.
Haints in To Kill a Mockingbird
Did you read the literary classic To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee, 1960)? You may not remember the mention of haints in chapter 28, when Jem and Scout are walking past the Boo Radley house, and talking about haints,"hot steams," and other spooky occurences. The implication being that Boo Radley is a scary character, maybe even himself a haint.
Did haints teach Robert Johnson to play guitar?
In the 2019 Netflix documentary "ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads - A Robert Johnson Story" it's suggested that the origination of blues guitar legend Robert Johnson's story of selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads may have morphed from his habit of practicing in a graveyard. According to the documentary, Johnson (a very mediocre guitarist at the time) sought help from Ike Zimmerman who was known as one of the best guitarists in Mississippi. Zimmerman instructed Johnson to practice in the graveyard where no one would complain about his terrible noise, and to sit on a gravestone and let the haints teach him how to play. Whatever Johnson did, it worked!
The word ‘Haints’ in the 1941 movie King of the Zombies
The 1941 movie King of the Zombies contains several mentions of the word “haints.” It’s not a great movie, nor is it really about ghosts, but it was interesting to hear the words “haints” and “hainted” used in the dialogue.
Audio recordings of old haint stories
Listen to Tennessee banjo player Cayce Russell recall old haint stories here. (There are a few short stories across the two pages)
Southern ghost legends from other regions
The word "haint" is also used outside the low country, in other parts of the south, with slightly different aspects from region to region.
In Mississippi, haints could be ghosts, monsters, or even witches. Writer Matt Staggs says, "Just about everybody’s mamaw or papaw (southern for grandmother or grandfather) has a tale or two they can share about an old antebellum ruin, graveyard, or civil war battlefield said to have a haint attached to it." (5)
In the Pennyrile region of south central Kentucky, a haint is interchangeable with a ghost, but sometimes haints can only be heard and not seen. (6)
From the Appalachians to the Ozarks, and from Savannah to Alabama, haints, hanks, booger men, boohags, and boodaddies still haunt the woods, foggy hills and hollers, and darkened doorways of the southern imagination.
Tennessee and the Bell Witch Haunting
1894 illustration of William Porter attempting to burn the Bell Witch in Tennessee
One of the nation's most famous haunts is based on actual events—the Bell witch haunting of Adams, Tennessee. The Tennessee State Library and Archives briefly recounts the Bell Witch legend and other Tennessee ghost stories in this illustrated blog post, including the "rain of blood," and "spearfinger."
Dean confronts the Witch, "An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch: The Wonder of the 19th Century, and Unexplained Phenomenon of the Christian Era" (1894) by M. V. Ingram, Library Collection.
Appalachian ghost stories and tall tales passed down from generation to generation, collected and edited by the Foxfire students. Amazon Kindle edition.
Want to meet a ghost yourself? Here's a list of haunted places in Alabama.
Watch a full play about haints online
The Haint: A Southern Gothic Ghost Story
written and performed by Troy Mink at American Contemporary Theater, Los Angeles
Photographs of some of the haunted places I have visited in the south
Gate to Savannah's haunted Bonaventure Cemetery. Fine art photograph by Keith Dotson. Buy a print here.
Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, was site of a terrible Civil War battle, with the house used as a field hospital. Blood stains can still be seen in the house's wooden floorboards, and stories of hauntings persist. Buy fine art print of this photograph.
The Old Charleston Jail operated from 1802 until 1939. Click to buy a fine art print.
Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama is supposedly quite haunted. It operated from 1882 until 1971, and has reopened as an arts and events center, and for tours. Click to buy a print.
Voodoo Tomb marked by Xs and offerings in New Orleans' St Louis Cemetery No. 1, Click to buy a print.
The old Spanish fort Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, the oldest and possibly most haunted city in America. Buy a fine art print.
St. Augustine Lighthouse in Florida. Buy a print here.
Haint Legends and Southern Ghost Stories on Amazon
Note: This posting contains Amazon links which may allow me to earn a small commission on qualifying purchases.
- "History of the Gullah Culture" by Marissa Polascak
- PorterBriggs: The Voice of the South, "5 Southern Superstitions to Heed" by Lisa Lakey
- "Haint Blue: The Ghostly Blue" by Jessica Penot
- Histories of Things to Come, "History of a Colour: Haint Blue" by Tam B.
- "The Whys Behind the Blue Porch Ceiling" The Sherwin Williams Co.
- Unbound Worlds, "Monster Week: Haints" by Matt Staggs
- Haints and Witches and Legends...Oh my! Tennessee Folklife Myths and Legends blog post by Tennessee State Library and Archives.
- Ghosts along the Cumberland: Deathlore in the Kentucky Foothills, William Lynwood Montell, The University of Tennessee Press 1975, p. 218