Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
Myths

Nightmare

Informant Bio

My informant is an office manager living in Hollywood, California. He grew up in the midwestern United States and moved to Los Angeles to attend USC’s graduate program in film production. He now does media work in an office at USC, and in his spare time stays active with creative endeavors like creating web videos and writing a web comic that updates twice weekly. He completes the daily crossword puzzle at lunch every day, and is the type of person who probably always wins Trivial Pursuit.

The Cauchemar

I was chatting with my informant (my boss) at our office – near the water cooler, yes,  it actually happens – and he told me a strange story about his roommate who had recently attempted astral projection (magical transportation of her consciousness to another place) by putting herself into a meditative state. Though her attempt was not successful, she did descend deep enough into her meditation that she had a dreamlike vision of a small, humanoid creature sitting in darkness. She asked it, “what are you doing?” It replied, “waiting.” Frightened by the image, she quickly snapped herself out of her meditative state.

My boss thought the creature sounded like a cauchemar. The cauchemar, he explained, is a demon-like creature whose name means “nightmare” in French. He had first learned of it from a friend who lived in Louisiana, though he suspected stories about the creature had been brought to Louisiana by the French because the myth “seems European.”

According to my informant, the cauchemar is an evil creature, that chooses its victims at random. It sits on your chest while you sleep and either: rides your sleeping body where ever it likes, or sucks the breath out of you, killing you slowly while you sleep. My informant thought that the cauchemar sounded like an explanation someone might have given for conditions that cause sleepers to wake in the middle of the night feeling pressure on their bodies, like sleep apnea.

Because the cauchemar does not discriminate when it chooses a victim, it seems to me to be a simple personification of nightmares. Its impossible to control whether or not one will have a nightmare, and that lack of control, especially while vulnerable (unconscious), is frightening. Giving them a face makes nightmares easier or us to understand, and even if depicted as a hideous, malicious creature, this is comforting.

Authored Forms

This painting of the creature from the 1700s  by Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Fussili supports my informant’s suspicion that the mythological creature may have been brought to the United States from Europe. It depicts an impish creature with large ears and fur covering its body, sitting on the chest of a woman in white. In spite of its comical appearance, the distressed pose of the sleeping woman, and the alarmed face of her horse suggest that this is indeed a creature to be feared.

Cited

Image found at: “Cauchemar.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 4 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cauchemar>.

Legends
Narrative

Jimmy Hoffa and Giant’s Stadium

Informant Bio

My informant grew up in Hudson County, New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s, spending most of his childhood in Secaucus. He remembers having friends whose family members had ties to the Italian mob, and in fact his own father worked as a Teamster (a cement mixer driver, specifically) for the Teamsters local 560. This was the chapter of the Teamsters union run by notorious Italian mob boss Tony Provenzano. My informant does not recall that living in such a mob run area ever caused him or his family any anxiety, it was simply a fact of life in Hudson County.

My informant now lives in Monterey, California, and will occasionally tell stories about New Jersey when his family is around, or when he is feeling nostalgic. I was able to take notes on this story while some of my informant’s family was visiting from the East Coast.

Jimmy Hoffa and Giant’s Stadium

My informant told me that because gangster and Detroit Teamster Jimmy Hoffa mysteriously disappeared during the construction of Giant’s Stadium (now officially named the Meadowlands Sports Complex) in East Rutherford, New Jersey, a popular theory was circulated that Hoffa was killed by the mob and dropped into the newly poured concrete in the stadium’s end zone.

“People liked that theory (where I lived). Most people thought it was possible. They knew how mobbed up the companies building the stadium were.”

However, my informant doesn’t quite believe this theory about Hoffa’s final resting place, because my informant’s father was one of the men pouring the cement at Giant’s Stadium. My informant’s father pointed out at the time that planting a body in the cement at the stadium would require a large number of people knowing about the hit (on Hoffa). It simply takes too many men with cement trucks to plausibly plant that body – and even if they did it at night after the construction day had ended, it would require hands to dig up the cement that had been laid during the day and Teamsters to pour new cement in order to prevent the construction crew from knowing that the cement had been tampered with.

“They’re (the mob) not bright bears as a rule, but they’re not that dumb,” my informant said. So though my informant has a personal connection to the story, he believes that it would have been easier for the mob to carve up Hoffa’s body into pieces and dump him in the Meadowlands, “or Snake Hill landfill, which is home to, a lotta guys apparently.” No reason to give Hoffa any special treatment.

The various theories about Hoffa’s disappearance that have come out of Hudson County, New Jersey seem to be an exhibition of the denizens of their knowledge of the way the mob works. Living with the acceptance of mob activity makes their actions something that can be enjoyable to speculate about, especially when people feel they have some understanding of their dealings. It’s a source of, in a way, town pride and personal connection between those people who lived in the mob’s shadow, but were not directly connected to them.

Legends
Narrative

Certo’s Tailor Shop

Informant Bio

My informant grew up in New Jersey in the 1960s and 1970s, a classic period of Italian mafia activity in the United States. As a child he lived in Secaucus, New Jersey with his parents and three siblings. His father worked driving a cement truck for the Teamsters Local 560, the union local that was run by the mob boss Tony Provenzano.

My informant now lives in Monterey, California, and will occasionally tell stories about New Jersey when his family from Jersey comes to visit. I was able to take notes on this story during one such family gathering.

Certo’s

According to my informant, Certo’s Tailor Shop was a store in his hometown of Secaucus, New Jersey that was perhaps not-so-secretly run by or, at least used by, the mob. My informant does not know if it was ever proven, but as he put it: “It was reputed that interesting people gathered there, and that interesting things would sometimes be kept there overnight until they could be… uh, well, buried.”

My informant’s belief that Certo’s could have been used to store bodies for the mob temporarily is absolutely plausible to him. Hudson County, New Jersey, where Secaucus is located was the home of notorious Italian mob boss Tony Provenzano, and so stores that were “fronts” for mob activity were simply a fact of life. My informant explained that this was accepted and never something that caused him or his family any anxiety as a child. “This was the lore of the area,” he told me. “And it wasn’t untrue.”

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Jersey Devil

Informant Bio

My informant grew up in Hudson County, New Jersey, in the 1960s and 1970s, spending most of his childhood in Secaucus. He remembers having friends whose family members had ties to the mob, and in fact his own father worked as a Teamster (a cement mixer driver, specifically) for the Teamsters local 560, the chapter of the Teamsters union run by notorious Italian mob boss Tony Provenzano. He does not recall that living in such a mob run area ever caused him or his family any anxiety, it was simply a fact of life in Hudson County.

Though my informant lived for almost twenty years in Ohio during and after college, and now resides in California, his New Jersey accent slips back into his voice when he tells stories about New Jersey. This story was recorded at a family gathering in California when some of my informant’s family from the east coast were visiting.

The Jersey Devil

The Jersey Devil is a mythic creature that reportedly roams the Pine Barrens (a stretch of undeveloped wilderness) in New Jersey. My informant related to me the tale he heard as a kid of how the devil came to be.

During the Revolutionary War days, the Pine Barrens were a place that the outcasts of society, those too poor to afford better, lived. The tale goes that a poor couple with many children lived there, and they were so poor they could barely feed the family. With another child on the way, the husband decided to make a deal with the Devil (as in Satan of Christian lore, not the Jersey devil) that if he performed certain tasks the Devil would grant them enough wealth to feed the family and allow them to move out of the Pine Barrens to a better place.

My informant couldn’t remember the tasks the Devil gave the man exactly, only that instead of doing them, the husband tried to fake that he had done them somehow.  The Devil was, naturally, not fooled. So he cursed the couple’s unborn child. The wife gave birth to a hideous beast with cloven hooves and leathery wings, and as soon as it was born it flew up the chimney and out into the Pine Barrens.

The beast was given the name “the Jersey devil,” and it is rumored to prowl the Pine Barrens to this day, attacking people and eating children, as such beasties will do. It is well known in New Jersey that one should never go into the Pine Barrens alone, or at night, because the Jersey devil might get you.

What would appear to me to be a scary story that could be told to children to keep them from wandering off into dangerous woods and getting lost, actually has a more important message for the residents of Hudson County, New Jersey, where my informant was from. He explained that the Pine Barrens are nowhere near Hudson County, so to him the tale is a parable for not double-crossing the mob. Replace Satan in the story with the mob, and you see the warning: that if one doesn’t fulfill their side of a bargain with the mob, they may not take it out on you, they might take it out on your loved ones; your family.

Appearances in Authored Literature

The Jersey devil has become such a beloved part of New Jersey popular culture that it has most famously become the mascot for the New Jersey Devils Hockey Team. Reported sightings of the creature, and even people who claim it attacked them, keeps the story alive and in the public consciousness. A piece on the Jersey devil appears in the popular travel book Weird NJ, where a different version of the tale tells of a woman who, after having 13 children by a jobless drunk, in a fit of rage asked the heavens to turn her next child into a devil.

The devil even made it into an episode of the X-Files, a popular show during the 1990s that featured two FBI agents who exclusively investigated reports of paranormal phenomena. In that episode, sightings of the devil were attributed to a Neanderthal-like creature that may have been the product of an evolutionary mutation.

Cited

Carter, Chris, prod. The X-Files: The Jersey Devil. Perf. David Duchovney and Gillian Anderson. 1993. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <www.netflix.com>.

Moran, Mark, and Mark Sceurman. Weird N.J.: Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets. New York: Sterling Publishers, 2009. Print.

New Jersey Devils Team Site. National Hockey League, 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://devils.nhl.com/>.

 

 

Myths

The Franklin Castle

Informant Bio

My informant grew up in Kent, Ohio, attended Bowling Green State University, and spent over ten years after graduation living and working in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a self-professed lover of cities and turn-of-the-century architecture. She considers herself every bit a midwesterner, though she now resides in California.

My informant told me about the Franklin Castle while discussing her plans to visit Ohio this summer.

The Franklin Castle

The Franklin Castle is a mansion-sized Victorian stone house in Cleveland, Ohio that is commonly believed to be haunted. My informant told me that the story she heard is that the man who built the Castle in the 19th century was a twisted, evil man who would kill travelers that he would allow to stay in one of the house’s many rooms. The many rumored ghosts haunting the place are supposedly the spirits of those the man killed.

The Castle is full of hidden passageways and storage places that were likely used by servants. Apparently a recent renovation attempt did uncover bones in one of these hidden compartments in a wall. Tests done on the bones showed that they were very old, however my informant puts more faith in rumors that the bones were planted there by the current owner in an attempt to revive interest in the haunted building.

My informant is more interested in the Castle because its a fascinating looking old building than because of the rumors that it is haunted. She suspects that the rumors that the man who built it were evil stemmed from the fact that he was, in fact, a wealthy banker, and was likely not well liked in the community. “He probably foreclosed on a couple of people and suddenly its going around town that you’re evil. And everyone comes up with their own idea of what that means.”

Cleveland itself has been in recent years viewed as a dying metropolis. The city itself is an amalgamation of incredibly old buildings like the Castle (which have faded from their former glory and now comprise the poorer, more run-down parts of the city) and large modern skyscrapers, bars, clubs, and museums. Though the newer entertainment and shopping districts have not brought the population or reputation of the city back to what it once was, expansion and modernization are considered the only way to revive the city. Stories about spirits lingering in the old buildings mirror (and encourage) the fear of the older, poorer sections of the city.

Customs

Driving under a yellow light

Informant Bio

My informant was born and raised in the small town of Hanford, California. She describes it as a town so small that everyone knows each others’ business. The industry there is largely rural, and my informant belongs to a wealthy family that owns a successful mill. She spent much of her time as a teenager with her friends driving around the country roads because there was nothing much else to do.

A Driving Gesture

My informant was driving us to an event when I saw her kiss her ring finger. I asked her why she did it and she told me that she does it every time she drive under a yellow light. We had talked in my Forms of Folklore class about the practice of hitting the ceiling of the car when you drive through an intersection, and that there are variations that make this a game (to see who hits the ceiling first). When I told my informant this, she told me that its different in her town.

My informant explained to me that she had a friend in high school who kissed the ring on her ring finger every time she drove through an intersection. Though she never knew why her friend did this, my informant suspected, based on her personality, that she preferred kissing her hand to hitting the roof of her car because it would be easier on her hand. Sadly, this girl was killed in a car accident in town when she tried to beat a yellow light. Ever since her death my informant, and many of the young people in town who knew the girl, have taken up the practice of kissing their ring finger when they drive through an intersection when the street light is yellow.

This variation on the common gesture acts as a severe reminder to the people of Hanford of the poor girl’s memory. I believe that the practice may have once inspired some guilt in those who would speed up to beat a yellow light instead of slowing down; guilt over not being more cautious. However several years later I cannot say that I’ve noticed that my informant has driven any more cautiously. It has become a reflex action for her. Underlying it however is the grief for the loss of a friend, and when traveling in a car with someone else who kisses their hand in Hanford, those who knew her share their loss.

Legends
Narrative

Brady’s Leap

Informant Bio

My informant grew up in Kent, Ohio in the 1960s and 1970s. At that time the area was not rural, but it wasn’t urban in the modern sense. Neighborhoods were spread out with forests, lakes, and rivers dividing them. My informant spent much of her time walking and biking along trails to her friends’ homes, and in the summer they would spend much of their time swimming in the lakes. She lived most of her life in Ohio, attending college at Bowling Green State University and living for over ten years in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. She considers herself every bit a midwesterner, though she currently resides in California.

My informant told me this story while discussing her plans to visit her family in Ohio this summer.

Legend of Brady’s Leap

My informant remembers first hearing this story in the 7th grade because that was, “around when we studied the Revolutionary War.”

Brady’s Leap is the name for a particular spot on the Cuyahoga River. My informant’s story told of a Captain Brady, who was sent by the American army to scout for the British camp in the Sandusky territory, which today is a large swath of Northeast Ohio. Brady and his men were captured by the British, but Brady escaped and tried to make his way back to the army camp near Pittsburgh. My informant’s story goes that Brady was discovered by Indians (Native Americans), and he was forced to run. When he reached the banks of the Cuyahoga River he was stuck, but to go back meant either re-capture by the British or death at the hands of the Indians. So instead, he took a flying leap across the river and miraculously made it to the other side.

My informant points out that between Brady’s flying leap and today, the river has been widened at that point. She says it was widened to let large supply ships through when the Erie canals were being built. To look at the spot now the leap would be impossible, but back then my informant believes the gap must have been no more than 20 feet for him to have made it across.

Learning the story in school, my informant said it was a way to relate the nation’s history to the area – to give the students a sense of connection to their home and to their country. The story does seem to have a patriotic message about the abilities of the early Americans, and though the legend does not specifically say that Brady was born in or lived in the Ohio territory, by claiming him as a local hero through the naming of a place on the river, it can give the locals a sense of pride in their history.

Game

The Little Green Men

Informant Bio

My informant is a 19 year old college freshman studying theater at an academy in Hollywood, California. This student is deeply involved in the active social aspect of life as a theater student – frequently attending wrap parties, after parties, and general Friday night parties to blow off steam after a week of classes. Because the academy is not a traditional college or university, the student body contains a wide range of student ages, from teens just out of high school, to men and women in their late thirties.

My informant was observed playing the game detailed below. He was not the only underage student there.

The Game

“Two is you, three is me, four is whores, five is drive, six is dicks, seven is heaven, eight is mate, nine is rhyme, ten is thumb master…”

There are many variations of the rules of the game known as King’s Cup. It’s a party game, played by young people, often in their teens or mid-twenties. In this case the game I observed was being played by a group of four students. The game involved a can of beer placed in the center of the table with a deck of cards fanned out around the can. Each student also held a cup of their own filled with beer. The students took turns choosing cards from the circle – each card had a special action associated with it. For instance, if a player draw a “7,” they would quickly drop the card to the table and point both fingers in the air (toward heaven). The last player in the circle to follow suit and point at heaven would take a drink from their cup.

At one point my informant drew a jack. He was told to make a rule (that the other players must follow until another jack is drawn from the deck) and he decided on the “little green man” rule. To demonstrate, he pointed his fingers like a gun and “shot” at the top of cup of beer. He explained to me that this killed his “little green man.” By establishing this rule, now whenever any player needed to take a drink, they would first need to kill the little green man sitting on the rim of their cup.

My informant’s demonstration of the rule led to a dispute. Another player had heard the little green man rule played differently. In her version, the little green man should be taken carefully off the rim of the cup and set aside on the table, allowing the the player to drink, and then placed back onto the cup when the player finished drinking. My informant had never heard this variation, and claims he finds his version to be more fun because players can be very creative in deciding in what way to kill their little green man.

The rules to King’s Cup, and even the name of the game, varies wildly depending on the group one is playing with. The little green man rule is one example of how the game changes between groups. However, in both cases the little green man rule allows the player to act out the removal of an obstacle to drinking. A drinking game itself can have only one purpose – to aid in the intoxication of the players. As this is a game that is often played among groups of young adults, and in some cases including the game I witnessed, with students who are not yet legally old enough to consume alcohol, the little green man rule asserts the players ability to get drunk together and party in spite of the restrictions of parents, their academic institution, and the law. The little green man is an alien outsider who represents anyone or any institution who would put a stop to the dangerous and potentially illegal behavior, and must be removed before a drink may be taken.

Life cycle
Musical

Hush Little Baby

Informant Bio/Context
My informant is a mother in her late 40s who works as a database manager for a community college. Her two children are both grown and live away from home. She lives with her husband, their dog and two cats.

My informant used to sing the lullaby written below to her kids when they were infants. She told me: “I like lullabies and I think it worked to calm the kids when they were cranky and tired but couldn’t fall asleep. Maybe it didn’t make a difference, plenty of moms don’t sing to their kids, but me I like music, so I did and they slept.”

Song Lyrics
Hush little baby, don’t say word
Mamma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird
If that mockingbird don’t sing
Mamma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring
If that diamond ring turns to brass
Mamma’s gonna buy you a looking glass
If that looking glass gets broke
Mamma’s gonna buy you  a billy goat
If that billy goat won’t pull
Mamma’s gonna buy you a cart and a bull
If that cart and bull falls down
You’ll still be the sweetest baby in town
So hush little baby, don’t say a word
Mamma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird.

Analysis
My informant told me that she couldn’t remember where she first heard the song, only that she can’t remember not knowing it, so she suspects she learned it in her childhood. She does not remember her parents ever singing it to her. She likes lullabies because she finds them “endearing and calming.” So when she had children she would sing them the ones she remembered from her youth, and others she would look up in books of nursery rhymes.

Lullabies feel personal, even if singing them doesn’t come from a family tradition. The lilting melodies are soothing, and the rhymes innocent and nonsensical, making them easy for parents to share with their kids. The association of lullabies with childhood and our children gives us a sense of the cycle of life, from child to parent, regardless of whether or not we are singing the same lullabies to our kids as our parents sang to us.

Customs
Folk speech
Legends
Narrative

What we call a clothes-pin

Context and Informant Bio

My informant is a female USC film student who is studying to become a director of photography (or DP: the crew member on a film set responsible for lighting scenes and composing shots with the camera). She started learning set procedure and lingo even before taking film classes at USC by volunteering to help out on student sets. Today she is well-versed in set terminology and, as a senior film student, enjoys teaching younger students set protocol.

On this set of a USC student project,  my informant worked as the 1st A/C (first assistant cameraman – assistant to the camera operator). At one point she asked a freshman production assistant (or PA:  a person who can help any department on the set with small tasks, such as running errands) to give her the “C47″ she had clipped to her sweater. The PA was unsure what my informant meant, so my informant pointed to the clothes-pin clipped to the PA’s sweater. She then gave the following explanation.

 Transcript

PA: What is, C47?

Informant: Uh, it was a term that was developed back in the day. On equipment lists of stuff, it was listed under C47, so they called them C47s.

Me: And what is it that you’re holding?

Informant: A wooden clothes-pin.

Analysis and Background

There are several variations on the story my informant told about the term “C47″ for a clothes pin. Generally the story involves an official equipment order form, as my informant described, on which the order code for clothes pins was C47. Another version of the story I’ve heard plays on the common stereotype of frugal movie studio executives, and tells that when executives saw equipment listed on order forms that they could not divine the purpose of, they would deny the order. So when reporting equipment orders to the executives, DPs would list C47 instead of clothes pins because the number made the item look like important equipment.

Clothes pins are an item found on film sets that it may be hard to think of a purpose for, but they are in fact very helpful. Wooden clothes pins are what the lighting crew use to clip colored filters (called gels) onto lights to give the light a particular hue.

Film sets are full of strange terms for common objects. The legend about C47s justifies the terms with a simple explanation that basically amounts to: that’s just what we call them. More important than the story about the origin of the term however is the use of the story. The story is never told to a seasoned crew member on a set, it is always brought up in the context of explaining the term to a newcomer, like the freshman production assistant in this instance. Learning terms like C47 and the stories behind them is part of the process of learning set protocol. Once you know the terms, you become an accepted part of the crew, and often this basic knowledge allows a crew member to move up from production assistant to grip (crew member in the lighting department), and beyond in climbing the ladder of crew positions.

 

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