Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Protection

New Years Ghost: Nian Guay

“So there was this monster called Nien. Every year he would go into the village and eat all the people. This is for Chinese New Years and basically the customs such as wearing red, lighting firecrackers, and candles I guess. So every year on Chinese New Years eve, a monster would come out and eat people and animals, and so in order to avoid the monster the people would flee behind the hills of the village to hide out. And they called this day Nian Guan (the passing of the monster) But one year this old beggar came into the village but didn’t know the whole story with the Nian monster, but this old lady gave him food and told him, “You have to run into the hills if you don’t want to be eaten.” The beggar told her he will get rid of the monster if you let me stay in your house tonight. So the lady houses him for the night, but that night the Nian monster came out and saw that there was red on the door of the old ladies house, which was also brightly lit. So when the monster reached the entrance of the house the man came out in a red robe, and the monster was scared away, and the village was saved. From then on Chinese people have a lot of red on display for the New Year, and they have firecrackers to scare the Nian Guay, and a lot of other traditions come from this story.”

This is a myth that explains of where the Chinese New Year holiday came from, and why some of the traditions that take place exist. I’m not sure whether this story came first or if the new year existed before it, but Nian Guan also means “the end of the year,” which would give clues to the origin of Chinese New Year. Or perhaps the monster just happened to appear at the liminal time of the New Year, and the man scaring it away was the impetus of the New Year celebration.

Also, this story explains to modern cultures why they practice some of the traditions in place. Firecrackers, the color red, and candles are all things that would scare the monster, and thus these are things celebrated today and symbolize the time for celebration. I have also heard that the idea of red envelopes was developed because the monster would steal money from people, and the red kept it away. These are all derivative from this story, and give meaning to some of the actions that correspond to the holiday.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs

The Mumu

“My mom used to scare me by telling me about the Mumu. Like a Filipino monster sort of that would take you away in the night if you didn’t behave. Like a boogeyman. Supposedly it was a miniature monster that looks kind of like a cat, and it knew when all the kids are misbehaving and not sleeping and doing all the things moms tell kids they shouldn’t be doing. And if you did do that thing, when you went to bed it would come to your house and kidnap you.”

The informant tells us of a creature called the mumu, which sounds just like the boogeyman. It is something parents tell their children in order to get them to behave or listen to directions. It is convenient for parents to have a monster that can keep watch over the children at all times, and this theme is found in many other stories parents tell their children, including the boogeyman or even Santa Claus. It is also interesting that these creature will always attack after bedtime, when the child is most vulnerable unless they are in bed under the covers. The effect is all the same. Kids are afraid to stay up past their bedtime, read with a flashlight, or misbehave in general.

Earth cycle
Myths

Chang’e and Houyi

The informant was told this as a bedtime story when she was little by her mother. She says it is of little personal significance, and obviously not true, but is a fun story nonetheless.

“There was a hero and his wife Chang’e and Houyi, I think Houyi was the hero. But a long time ago, there were 10 suns that burned the Earth, and Houyi was the one with his bow and arrow skills that shot down nine of the suns, leaving the one we have today and making the world liveable. Something like that. Anyways, because he did this service to humankind, some Empress or Goddess gave him a potion of immortality as a reward. However, he didn’t want to leave his wife Chang’e, so he kept the potion stored away where no one would use it. But one day, Chang’e became curious as to the effects of the potion, and when Houyi left on a hunting trip, she drank it. As a result, she became immortal and began flying towards the heavens. When Houyi came back, he saw what happened and immediately rushed outside and pleaded with Chang’e to stay with him. Chang’e wanted to be with Houyi, but couldn’t get back to Earth, and so she was stuck on the moon forever. I think she’s supposed to be the dark spot on the moon, but there’s also another legend about a rabbit flying to the moon and they might be related.”

This story tells how the Sun and the Moon came to be, making it an origin myth. The Sun was left to sustain life after Houyi shot down the other nine that were scorching the Earth. Chang’e’s curiosity and disobedience in turn, are the reason why there is a dark spot on the moon. Both are explanations for mysterious(at the time) natural phenomena.

It is interesting to see that this story matches the context of the Greek folklore, Pandora’s box, where the wife of a hero unleashes sin on the world when she becomes too curious, and even Adam and Eve, where Eve eats the fruit in the Garden of Eden. This perhaps hints at the patriarchal society China may have been when the story was imagined.

Folk Beliefs
Legends

Werewolf Sighting

I’m pretty sure I saw a werewolf or a witch or something once. In 5thgrade everyone went to some camp in Oklahoma called Camp Classen, and one night there was a bonfire. It was fun, we made smores and played games but then at the end we told some ghost stories too. So everyone was having fun but also thinking of all the weird stuff we heard about I guess, and on the walk back, we walked through the forest and it was really sketchy. Pretty much we were all 5thgraders so I was scared of everything after the ghost stories, but I’m sure I saw some animal at least the size of a human in the distance. Unless there were like bears or something at Camp Classen, I’m pretty sure it was a werewolf. And I told my friend and he saw it too. Plus I remember clearly there was a full moon that night so you know its plausible. Honestly it was probably just some counselor or groundskeeper or something walking around at night. Werewolves don’t exist, but I might have seen one at camps.”

 

This story highlights many aspects of childhood socialization and the nature of folklore. First, the informant goes to great detail to explain the setting: at camp, during the night after hearing ghost stories, and in the dark forest with a full moon. These are all factors that add to the credibility of the story, as they are the conditions in which werewolves and creatures thrive in popular culture. Thus, the informant has turned his story into an memorate, a story of personal experience that, combined with knowledge of popular culture and others’ influence fits a mold of stories that have been told before; in the case the werewolf.

Furthermore, it shows how folk belief can act as social glue for a group. The informant tells his friend who believes him and sees similar things. There is probably not actually a werewolf, but later on the group undoubtedly gossiped and discussed the existence of such a creature, further perpetuating the idea that they may be real, and setting the scene for future discussions and propagation of the folklore.

 

Childhood
Musical

99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

“Oh you know this one for sure:

99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer, take one down pass it around, 98 bottles of beer on the wall. 98 bottles of beer on the wall, 98 bottles of beer, etc etc etc.

We sang this one on school field trips when we had the long bus rides to pass the time. I don’t know if there was a goal like seeing how low we could get with the numbers, but damn, I didn’t realize I sang so many songs as a kid.”

 

This is another camp song that children sing to pass the time. However, this time it refers to beer, a subject that might be taboo to such a young age group. Taking one down and passing it around obviously refers to the consumption of beer, which is illegal for children but probably something they see as an adult action their parents do. Thus, this song is the childrens’ way of taking part in the action with their own friends, and acting like the adults that are their role models.

Initiations
Legends

Gravity Hill: Loma Alta St, Pasadena, CA

“Basically, you’re driving, I’ve never been there so I don’t know how steep the hill is, but its on an incline. And you get to a certain point where your car is nearly vertical. And you put your car in neutral so you would imagine your car would go straight down, but apparently, what happens is that your car will start to roll upwards instead. And I guess the story is that there was a schoolbus that overturned or crashed, or there was an accident that happened on that hill and a lot of people died. So what happens now is I guess the ghosts of the kids are still there and they’ll push your car upward so no one dies like they did, and people say like you’ll see hand prints on your windshield when it happens.”

 

This is a standard ghost story from Pasadena, California. It tells the story of a tragedy that occurred within the community, concerning children who had full lives ahead of them. Thus, the story is perfect for ghosts as the childrens’ spirits would want to stay on the Earth to complete their business, in this case which is protecting others from suffering the same fate. Furthermore, it takes place at the top of a hill, a liminal space where boundaries blend together, another condition for the existence of ghosts.

It is interesting that this is also a FOAF tale, where the informant heard the story from a friend of a friend. However, I looked it up, and the effect has been confirmed by multiple people. The common explanation is that the hill is on a grade, and the rest of the view is skewed, which gives people an optical illusion that the hill is slanted downwards where it is actually going up. This is an excellent example of how people will try to explain mysteries with the supernatural when they do not understand how a phenomena works.

general

Ghostly Experience

“In third grade we went on a field trip to this place called the Heritage Farmstead, which was like an old abandoned farm that had been restored and turned into a museum I think. We were walking around outside looking at all the old tools and machinery and stuff they used in the past and the tour guide was talking about the people that lived there in the 1800s. But I swear when I looked up at one of the buildings, I saw an old man staring out of the second floor window. He started to turn away and I grabbed my friend but by the time he looked, the old man was gone. The tour guide told us that no one lived in any of the buildings anymore, and when I asked, they said rarely anyone ever went inside except the occasional maintenance person. I’m almost sure I saw a ghost that day, the dude was really white and looked almost transparent. I was kind of freaked out, and even telling you now I get the shivers thinking about it.”

 

The informant has turned his experience into a memorate, an experience affected by social conditioning to fit the mold of a well known archetype. He is the only one to have seen the man, saying it was gone when his friend looked. Also, he describes the ghost as white and almost transparent, saying it was of an old man. While these all may have been true facts, it is probably that his experience was changed to fit the description of “ghost.”

Also, the conditions in which the experience occurred are prime for ghostly sightings. Old, abandoned farms are places where ghosts reside, liminal areas where the old inhabitants have left but the new have not yet come in. While it could have been a janitor or maintenance person, the informant chooses to believe that it was an encounter with the supernatural.

general

Taiwan Ghost Experience

My friend, R, had gone to Taiwan on a program to teach underprivileged children English in the past, and this is his account of the ghost in his school:

B: Didn’t you have like a ghost story about Taiwan?

R: Let me think, shit, do you remember what it was about? I remember having one too and I remember….

B: I think it was like a classroom with a chair or something?

R: O shit! OK.

B: Hahaha, oh that girl that killed herself right?

R: Yea, on the third floor, and those kids who were badasses for kids. Like, no one would go near the school at night and one night, we snuck in and it was all dark and stuff and we were crawling up the stairs. Shit was scary, and then like, there was a scream from upstairs and we freaking ran so fast. It was ridiculous, I mean, but at the time, like, ok. So we didn’t know about the girl dying, like the kids just told us to stay away. And we snuck in and heard the noise and ran. But then the next day, we asked the village people and they were all like, “Ohhhhhh, did you go to the third floor? Some girl just recently died there. We’ve already sent for the priests to go and collect her spirit” Or something, and we were all like holy shit, cause we didn’t know about the dead girl beforehand.

R tells the story from a firsthand perspective, not to scare people, but rather to share his experience. Through this experience, his ghost story fulfills many societal functions, especially for a band of Americans teaching together in a foreign country, with only strangers around. For R, the adventure into the unknown with only his American peers could be defined as a socializing experience. Together, they sought to learn about their environment, and by sharing this common experience, and subsequently learning the history that could possibly explain the experience, formed relationships and grew closer together. Another function is to form a closer connection to the environment and their culture. When he learns of the dead girl, and the villagers’ customs, he becomes more aware of their culture, more integrated in their society. By partaking in this ghost culture and being a part of it, R is able to understand the Taiwanese a bit more, perhaps helping with his job of teaching, especially if he is trying to teach so called “badasses for kids.”

Another aspect to examine is that the existence of this ghost seems eerily possible given the conditions. R and friends go out at nighttime to a de facto restricted area, perfect conditions for ghostly phenomena. A girl had recently died there, presumably the source of the scream they heard. On top of that they are all in an unfamiliar place, where ghosts stories could serve to teach about culture and reflect social norms. Certainly, Taiwanese culture tends to believe in spirits, exhibited by the villagers’ responses. In fact, through their rituals, such as “collecting” the spirit, in their culture it appears obvious to the Taiwanese that a ghost is the reason for the scream.

The spirit itself is also an interesting feature of the story, which can highlight the organic nature of folklore and cultural differences. I had been told this story before, so when I asked R to retell it to me, I asked for the story of the girl that killed herself. Yet when he retells it, there is no mention of suicide or foul play, or any of the other factors that in American culture tend to produce ghosts. After thinking about the story for a while, I had changed it into an oicotype, to fit in with the American point of view. However, over time this is the impression I got about the story, because if there were no unfinished business, why would a ghost be necessary to the story? This impression would differ from a Taiwanese point of view, where their views on spirits and superstition would require different reasons behind the girls ghost.

Thus, R’s ghost highlights many features of ghost stories. First, it serves functions of social integration and building group relationships. Second, the story and sharing this story with others allowed R to learn others’ viewpoints and cultures by listening to their interpretations. Finally, the spirit highlights differences between cultures in their approaches to ghosts, and shows how a story can become an oicotype as it crosses regional bounds.

 

Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Sidewalk Grates and Vents

I ask my sister what the deal with telling me about sidewalk grates was.

“Oh yea, all sidewalk grates and vents at the supermarket and all that stuff have witches in them, everyone knows that. No but really, you have to avoid those because if you step on them someones going to grab you and kidnap you and cook you in a stew. I don’t know, I probably just said that to scare you. I am your older sister after all; wouldn’t want you to get too comfortable.”

My sister is older than me by four years, and it seems she created this folklore herself, fakelore, in order to establish her superiority over me. She manufactured this story as a way of scaring me and proving to herself that she had power over me. In fact, this is a function of folklore seen in many cases, such as American tales of American superiority, be it Davy Crockett over Mexicans or folklore of Pilgrim and Indian battles.

It is also interesting that she chose grates and vents as the location of the witches. Grates and vents are liminal spaces, filled with the unknown, and that makes them perfect for being the residence of scary creatures that would prey on the fears of children.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

White Lighters

“Ewwwww, is that a white lighter? I can’t use that. Don’t you know? White lighters are bad luck. I’ve been caught smoking (marijuana) twice, and both times I was using a white lighter. I’m not trying to get busted again man! I mean if that’s your only one then I guess….”

 

The white lighter is a bad luck symbol among smokers. The informant says he was caught partaking in illegal activities and this has only happened when he was using a white lighter, and thus it must be bad luck. Many cigarette smokers have caught on, even though smoking cigarettes is not illegal and there are no negative consequences, and they too believe in the bad luck associated with white lighters. However, the illegal activity is likely what created the folklore, and the similarities probably spread it to other activities using lighters. Because the consequences of getting caught are harsh, superstitions arise to make people over cautious and less likely to be caught.

[geolocation]