“The Golden Arm” is the first ghost story I can remember ever hearing, reading, or otherwise absorbing and being fascinated by. I wrote about this in my first ever Confessions of a Fearphile post years ago1, and in that piece mentioned that this story has a “number of variations.”
Boy, does it ever.
I’m not even going to attempt to find every iteration of the tale. That’s not the purpose (or fun part) of this “Classic Scary Story History” series anyway. It’s to highlight the stuff I find interesting and try to trace these stories as far back as I can possibly go.
While Mark Twain categorized the story as a “Negro ghost story” in his many live show retellings, it predates the oral folklore of Black folks in the postbellum south. Folklorist Joseph Jacobs once documented a stupendously English version, first published in 1866, that is loaded with “thous” and “thys.” In one telling the parties involved may be husband and wife, in another a pair of friends, in a third a thief and deceased queen. In yet another they are aunt and niece. So on and so forth. In some cases the body part is not an arm, but a leg, as is the case in Vincent Price’s rendition on the 1974 record A Graveyard of Ghost Tales.
In some cases it’s just a toe, and in some the desired body part is not made of gold, but made of silver, or diamond. It has variations that come from France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and more.
Wilson M. Hudson–one of the three authors of Folk Travelers – Ballads, Tales, and Talk–devoted twelve pages of that book just to exploring “The Golden Arm” and as thorough and informative as they are, even that isn’t enough to capture the story’s range. The well-assembled collection of “corpse reclaiming its property” stories put together by folklore researcher D.L.Ashliman is another great read on the subject, that also can’t be expected to gather all the many different takes on the tale in one place.
Both Hudson and Ashliman observe that “The Golden Arm” is an extension of a broader type of ghostlore–the story of a restless spirit that returns from the grave because someone has stolen something it wanted buried with. It’s distinct from ghosts that return to avenge a murder, or right some other wrong (clear their names of a crime, for instance), or because of guilt, or a desire to inflict misery on the living, or simply because they’re seemingly unaware of being dead. No, these ghosts are driven solely by reclaiming the thing either stolen from their grave, or withheld from them when they were buried. Sometimes returning the missing item will assuage the spirit. Sometimes the ghost will still strike the thief dead even if their equivalent of a “golden arm” is returned. And sometimes we never find out if the ghost has capacity for mercy or not, either due to them striking before the thief thinks to return the artifact, or because what was stolen from them can’t be replaced (a liver taken from a corpse and eaten, for one example).
One of the most famous retellings of the original story came from an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. In the episode “Back to Nature,” the underrated Mr. Griffith tells a variation in which the man who lost his arm was an old hermit, in search of treasure, who lost his original arm to a bear attack. He stabs the bear to death with remaining hand, finds the treasure, then uses it to buy a golden arm. He later dies and is buried with it, and it is stolen as it is destined to be. However, Griffith adapts the story to be even more suitable for the campfire setting; the hermit never catches up to the person who stole his golden arm, as would be the case in many versions of the tale. Instead his spirit still wanders the woods, asking, “Who stole my golden arm,” and attacking anyone he encounters, presuming they are the thief.
Cousins of this idea can show up in the expected places, such as the classic anthology film Black Sabbath. In the film’s final segment, “A Drop of Water,” a nurse steals a sapphire ring from a dead woman she’s dressing for burial, and as you can imagine, things do not go well for her, as the deceased wants back what was taken.
The “stolen item” variant shows up in a much more unexpected (and certainly much more popular) place in the SpongeBob SquarePants episode “One Krabs Trash,” where Mr. Krabs commits grave robbery to take a novelty hat.
In both cases, as well as in most other takes on this type of tale that have come to the screen, we miss out on the stolen object being part of the person’s body. Recently, the Fear Street films on Netflix had its horrors kick into highest gear by way of a corpse’s missing hand, but that was more accidentally displaced than stolen, and also turns out not to be the true straightforward source of the spirit’s vengeance. In most few films or television episodes that give us a spirit seemingly awakened by a missing body part it’s rarely anything as beautifully macabre as a golden arm, or any other appendage made of a precious, shiny mineral.
Whereas the last classic scary story I wrote about, “Wait Til Martin Comes,” might be too much of a strange, hyper-specific and jokey premise to ever be adapted for anything beyond an audio retelling…
…the story of “The Golden Arm” at first feels like it could fit in an anthology film, or in a short episode of a series like Creepshow. Seeing it actually in action, however, makes its limitations fairly apparent.
An adaptation was made for the little-seen Quibi series 50 States of Fright, with some surprisingly strong talent behind it. Sam Raimi directed it, and wrote it along with his brother Ivan. It starred the marvelous Rachel Brosnahan, and Travis Fimmel, lead actor for the first four seasons of Vikings. It went semi-viral for being ludicrous, but it’s not really as comically bad as some made it out to be. It is by my no means good, either.
To stretch the story even up to a little over fifteen minutes it has to incorporate some drama that is facing a massive uphill climb to become interesting, through no fault of the actors or direction really. It’s just hard to feel connected to something as bizarre as someone getting a golden arm made for them. The story would probably work better were it more dreamlike and, naturally, folktale-like, not as if it’s something remotely tethered to the real world. 2
Rachel Brosnahan defended the project as a whole as mostly-intentional, classic Raimi camp, with the dramatic parts taken out of context for easy internet jokes. Which is a little bit true. But, also, those dramatic parts are indeed played pretty straight, in a way that’s too understated to reach entertaining levels of lunacy. Now had she been asked to play her bizarre arm fixation up the way Jeff Fahey did in Body Parts, (except, obviously, wanting to keep the arm on instead of wanting it taken off) the adaptation would probably be memorable for different, better reasons.
The oddity of a golden arm makes it far more suitable as a campfire story than something for other mediums. Similar to “Wait Til Martin Comes,” it has a crucial aspect to it that is not only meant to be unexplained, but barely even questioned.
In “Martin,” there’s the story isn’t all that concerned with, “Wait, how are these cats able to talk? What are they? What’s really going on here?” In “The Golden Arm,” the story doesn’t care about, “Why does this person have a golden arm? How does it function?” It’s not meant to be a metaphor for the futility or selfishness of being buried with valuables that are useless to the dead, but would be useful to the living. It’s a very simple, straightforward ghost story, and the golden arm is just there to add to the strange, otherworldly quality of it. Sure it can work effectively as a ring, just like “Martin” can work effectively if the cats are replaced by disembodied voices, but both stories linger longer when they employ their strangest features. This is one thing that separates this kind of lore-inspired fiction from others, and one of the things about it that appeals to me.
Make no mistake, I love a good, well-planned, spooky mythology that layers and enhances a story with history, making the impossible feel real and the created world feel like a place you could visit. Nonetheless, I also have a soft spot for certain, well-told classics like this that are all about the feel of the story, and aren’t concerned with justifications. It makes me think of being a kid, hearing a friend tell me that the woods past the park were haunted. Looking at those twisted trees with moss hanging off them, I didn’t ask why they were haunted, or how it could be possible, because I just looked at them and thought, yes, of course those woods are haunted.
The first time I heard about “The Golden Arm,” even though I was a kid liable to ask “Why” about any-damn-thing, I didn’t have any questions about it. Of course someone with a golden arm would be capable of returning from the dead. Of course the arm would get stolen; it’s made of gold. And, of course, the person it was stolen from would want it back. They’d even be willing to kill, to get it back.
- Recently updated to pay condolences to the teacher who introduced me to the story–as well as the book Mrs. Nelson is Missing–which was a key factor in turning me into someone determined to write scary stories. Thanks, Mrs. Nina. Rest in Peace.
- There are, to be sure, other issues with this adaptation, not least of which being that it’s presented as though it’s about horror unique to Michigan when, as we’ve established, this story isn’t unique to any one country, much less a single state.