Author Archive
Legends
Narrative

Haunted Train Tracks

The informant used to live in the Gulf Coast region of Texas.

SC: I did once hear the obligatory “haunted train tracks” legend in my town back in Texas. Some kids were joyriding along the tracks and got killed dead. LEGENDS SAY that if you park your car on the tracks and cover your windows with powder, you can see their handprints form as they try to push the car off.

There’s a lot of train tracks in the area and a few crossings in town don’t have warning lights or bars, so it’s not too hard to believe someone was acting stupid and got into an accident.

The legend actually caused some people to park their cars across the rails in hopes of meeting the ghost kids, but the inherent danger in doing that and obscuring vision to catch the ghosts in the act made the traintracks even more unsafe. Since then, fences and crossings have been built across more of the railroad crossings in the area.

Digital
Folk Beliefs

The Y2K Virus

Y2K stands for Year 2000. In the 90s, computers were still a relatively new addition to the daily lives of Americans, and few understood how they worked. As the new millennium approached, a rumor spread that because computers only handle dates in 2 digits, when the numbers changed to 00 at the turn of the millennium, all computers would shut down due to their inability to compute the date, resulting in an event imagined to be the opposite of what is now imagined to be the Singularity.

GT: one of my neighbors bought enough canned food and water to survive an apocalypse, like he literally blew his life savings on survival supplies to prepare for Y2K virus. He thought it’d be anarchy but the virus never happened.

In reality, the Y2K problem did actually exist, as computers only stored 2 digits for each date and 2000 was indistinguishable from 1900. The rollover from 99 to 00 caused logical problems due to the lack of a 3rd digit. However, this is entirely a programming issue, and most companies were able to upgrade their systems to avert a possible crisis before it occurred. In fact, on January 1, 2000, the main impact of the date glitch caused some malfunctions in data storage only after some programs started up, and other programs were unaffected. Some machines integral to life in developed countries malfunctioned and generated false results due to the bug, but the issue was contained quickly enough to avoid pandemonium.

The rumor that the problem would significantly affect real life was unfounded, but it did cause panic leading up to the event. Because people were only just beginning to rely heavily on machinery to operate through daily life, a fear of machinery quickly spun a minor problem way out of proportion, validating to people distrusting of the digital age that the machines would lead to the end of civilization.

general

Morbid Jingle Bells

I was first taught this song at the age of 10 while at a ski lodge in Lake Tahoe:

Dashing through the snow, On a pair of broken skis

O’er the hills we go, Crashing into trees

The Snow is turning red, I think I’m almost dead

I woke up in the hospital with staples in my head, Oh! 

Jingle bells, Jingle bells, Santa’s almost dead!

Rudolph brought an atom bomb and blast it on his head, Oh! 

Barbie doll, Barbie doll, tried to save his life,

But G.I. Joe from Mexico (??) and stabbed him in the head! 

The entire some makes absolutely no sense, grammatically or logically, but it was catchy and as children it was easy to latch onto because American pre-teens have a tendency to want to appear grown-up by pretending to be unfazed by gruesome ideas. Also, the people I was friends with at the age of 10 all spoke English as a second language, so we never noticed how ungrammatical it was until years later. There are in fact other versions of the song with similar violent vibes, but usually only the first verse (before Jingle Bells) is the same. I tried to look up any instances of this that appear in media, but all I found was that this morbid version is actually very widespread.

In December 2014, I heard a few lines from this version of the song while on vacation in Reno, sung by two giggling Chinese-American girls between the ages of 7 and 10. I had always thought that this was something my friend AZ had made up back in 2003, so I tracked him down to find out where he’d heard it.

AZ told me that he had heard it while in art class from GT, who I happen to now know. He was singing the song for attention at the time, but the lyrics he knows were grammatical, as it removes the “and” in the last line, AZ just remembered it wrong when he sang it back. When I asked him where he’d heard it, he only remembered that it was from Minnesota, but no longer remembers the details of who sang it at him and the circumstances under which he learned it.

Digital

I Told You About Stairs Bro, I Warned You Dog

Homestuck is a complicated topic to breach when it comes to cyberlore and memetic mutations. It at one point held the title of longest webcomic in existence, and as of 4/30.2015 totals over 9000 pages and nearly 18000 panels, and includes 158 animated movies that total 3 and a half hours of animation. The most notable part about the comic is the ease with which a fandom can spring up around it. It features many reused frames that call back to each other, lines said by completely unrelated characters with tweaked phrasing, and incorporation of memes originating from the fanbase in the canon material. In fact, much of the art used in the later parts webcomic and all of the music were not actually created by the writer, Andrew Hussie, but by fans of the comic who he later hired to work officially on Homestuck. It’s a classic example of the lines of authorship being blurred between creator and audience.

Early in the comic’s running, Hussie created a side comic that was written by one of the main characters in-universe, called Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff. It is intentionally written to be “so bad it’s good.” with intentionally bad drawing, grammar, and nonsensical plot. The comic became a huge hit on the internet, and has contributed to the popularity of “meme comics.”

At one point in the story, one of the characters falls down some stairs while carrying a stack of video games, and the other yells the phrase, “i told you about stairs bro! i warned you dog!” after which the comic consists only of the first character continuously rolling down neverending stairs while the second shouts more warnings from off-panel. The second character never actually issued the initial warning as he claims, however.

Later, whenever anyone falls down anything, they yell out some mispelled variation of “IT KEEPS HAPPENING”.

This has since been referenced in countless other webcomics, memes, and regular communication among internet communities. Initially, this phrase was used exclusively as referencing someone falling down stairs, especially in unexpected situations, but later the phrasing came to encompass any kind of negative consequence resulting from not heeding another’s warning.

This phrasing has since infiltrated the vocabulary in the real world, even among people who had never known about the origin of the phrase. In the collection recorded here, BD and GT were having a conversation, and GT complained about having an issue with the notoriously buggy digital drawing tablet. GT said, “it keeps happening,” not intending to invoke the meme, but BD follows up with “I told you about tablet drivers, bro.”

When asked, BD admitted that he had heard of Homestuck, but never knew it had any relevance to the phrase or its origin, which he had seen in the context of reaction images on forums about completely unrelated subject matter.

Customs
Digital
Folk speech

Kek

“lel” is a common term used among people who frequent certain online imageboards. It is commonly used as schadenfreude in response to something bad happening to someone else, or some antic that elicits inappropriate laughter, implying the emitter of the laugh is a “troll.”

It has had a complicated history. The original acronym, “lol”, stood for “laugh out loud” and quickly replaced simulating laughter online. In the massively multiplayer online game World of Warcraft, there are two factions, Horde and Alliance. While their chat messages appear to each other while standing nearby in-game, the two factions cannot communicate with each other, which the server facilitates by running dialogue through a coder. When a Horde player types “lol” in chat, it appears to Alliance players as “kek,” which in itself is accepted as a sound made by silly laughter, especially when repeated (kekkekkekkek).

Soon, kek became itself used as to indicate inappropriate laughter, until it morphed back into “lel,” as k is next to l on the keyboard, and it also looks like a bastardation of “lol.”

There exists a type of Turkish snack food called “Topkek,” which the boards have since adopted as an higher-tier substitute for “kek.” Even this usage has now morphed into “Top lel” among groups of friends who have ventured deep enough into the imageboards.

Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Owls and the Lakota

SI: Way back in the day, I was probably about, uh, 12 or 13 at the time. My momma told me once, that to the Lakota Sioux, my tribe particularly, the Oglala tribe, they see owls as a postive thing, a lot of other cultures see it as an omen of death or destruction or something negative. But the Lakota Sioux view it as a symbol of hope and power and wisdom, of course. Basically it’s a positive sign. I remember because one time we were cruising to the reservation – we used to live on a fish farm. So we were heading back to the fish farm, and we saw an owl overhead. There’s also this connection between the Sioux and owls, it’s a whole Native thing.

Once an owl got caught in a fence at the fish farm, and her (SI’s mother) boyfriend, another caretaker of the farm, was trying to get it out of the fence by hurting him, but it kept going ballistic on him. So my mom went up to it, and she took like a t-shirt and put it around its head, but it was completely calm. The caretaker tried to do the same thing and it went ballistic. My mom still firmly believes that because she’s Sioux and because owls are a good thing for us, that that’s the reason the owl didn’t freak out as much.

That was on a reservation in Arizona, in the desert. I just think it’s interesting that different cultures can see different signs as positive or negative. Like I said, a lot of European countries think, since it’s a nighttime bird, that it’s something negative, like a raven almost. I was told that when we were cruising on the way back to the house.

SI’s mother’s maiden name was Brown. That was not in fact her last name at birth, but her aunt had made her change it so she would not be bullied for it. The name she was born with was Barbara Brown Owl, but only held that name for the first few years of her life.

general
Protection

The Laziest Boy in China

My informant for this is my mother, JL. The following is a recollection from when I was younger and she used to try to scare me into doing things right with stories with a moral. I went back and interviewed her for her experiences for this project afterward.

Once there was a boy who was very lazy. His parents did everything for him, and he never had to lift a finger. One day, his parents had to go on a trip for a weekend. They made him a very big pancake and cut a hole in the center to hang it around his neck so he wouldn’t go hungry.

When they came back 3 days later, the boy had starved to death in the house, with the back half of the pancake still hanging behind his head, because he was too lazy to turn the pancake around when he finished the front half.

I just translated the food item to “pancake” for ease of storytelling, as the actual type of food doesn’t matter in a story about someone starving to death for being too lazy to rotate something around his neck. The actual food is a type of flat wheat-based food, like a tortilla or the crust of a pizza, generally referred to in Chinese as “bing.”

This story, while morbid, is actually meant to be humorous when told to a child. It warns off the child from being lazy themselves because the death that occurs within the story is so unlikely and easily avoidable. A child told this story is encouraged to not want to embarrass themselves by letting themselves sink so low.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative

Fossils in the Creek

The Informant GT lived in a house with a huge backyard in Minnesota for 6 years until he moved to California at the age of 11.

GT: There’s this creek in our backyard in Minnesota, and there’s fool’s gold and ammonite fossils in it, and a bunch of other fossils I didn’t know the names for back then. It was really cool, we used to collect them.

There’s a forest behind the creek, and behind that is farmland and undeveloped territory. One of the older kids told us that if you went past the creek into that territory, there’s a guy named Dead-Eye Pete or something like that who lives there, and if he catches you he’ll kill you and turn your body into rocks and that’s what the fossils were. Since the fossils all looked really organic and we were a bunch of dumb kids, we actually thought all the fossils were made of dead people who got lost and wandered into his territory.

This story exploits a child’s fear of the unknown. The older kids referenced in the story were not interested in actually protecting the younger children by warning them off from unmapped territory, but wanted to scare them into doing what they want them to. Scary stories often pique a child’s curiosity about its subject matter more than it does to dampen it with fear.

Folk Beliefs
folk metaphor
Folk speech
Proverbs

binbo yusuri – The Poor’s Leg Shake

The informant, KK, is Japanese-American and does not speak Japanese, but can understand it to a degree.

KK: One thing my parents told me a lot was that shaking your legs while sitting leads to you getting poor. It either attracts some figure, or ghostie that lives in your house and sucks up all your dosh.

My parents said it whenever I shook my leg while sitting. I’m drawing a blank on the exact wording but the phrase is “binbo ni nacchauyo!”

I think either the story or the entity is called “binbo yusuri.”

(Japanese script: 貧乏ゆすり)

After I did some digging, I discovered that the first two characters literally mean “poor” and the rest of it is a verb that means “to shake.” It is the official term that refers to the behavioral tic, but it can be considered a proverb because the literal components of the word are not only metaphorical, but also reference a superstitious belief that shaking would cause a child being poor when they become adults.

There is no official consensus on why the Japanese associate leg-shaking with poverty, but there are two most commonly held beliefs why this is the case. The first is that shivering and fidgeting is associated with malnutrition, and the poor are possibly more likely to be afflicted with it. The second, more convincing possibility is that among samurai, fidgeting suggests a lack of self control. Shaking one’s leg thus implies that the person lacks discipline, which in turn suggests a lack of honor.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Don’t Let the Cucuy get you

SC: Whenever me or my siblings would act up, the nearest authority figure would say, “You better calm down or I’ll call the cucuy.” This happened often in the car, and my parents would knock on the windows. (Informant knocks on the table)

“YOU HEAR THAT? THE CUCUY’S COMING!” And I’d be all “…fffff.” Y-yeah. Didn’t spook me at all. Wasn’t like I thought I actually was going to get abducted when no one was looking.

Me: What’s a cucuy?

SC: It’s basically a Mexican boogeyman. Are you asking what I thought it looked like? Probably seven feet tall, ratty moss-green fur, bloodshot yellow eyes. Craggly coffee stained teeth. Like a giant baboon that lived in a sewer all its life.

The cucuy is also sometimes called the coco in Portugal and el cuco in Latin America, and the Coco Man in Hispanic communities in the states. Its appearance is different in each culture, ranging from a pumpkin-headed ghost to an anthropomorphic alligator. This legend is referenced in the last chapter of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, in which Don Quixote is referred to by this title on his epitaph.

[geolocation]