The informant was told this scary story on a camping trip with other USC students. The student who told him the story said he heard it from his friend who was actually among the students in the story. This gives the story more validity, though of course it’s completely likely that the story is absolutely false.
INFORMANT: “Okay, so apparently this guy had a friend who decided to go down to Mexico for spring break with a group of his friends, pretty standard. The guy was totally psyched, and so were all his friends, because they’d never been to Mexico, but one of them was a little nervous because he had a huge exam the night they were supposed to get back. But they repeatedly assured him they’d be back on time and he shouldn’t worry, so even he loosened up and got really pumped for the trip. So they went to Mexico, they had an amazing time, it was a crazy week full of alcohol and debauchery or whatever goes on when college kids go to Mexico. And finally, before they knew it it was their last night, and they decided to celebrate their awesome week by going out to a club and dancing the night away. So they went to this club, mingled with the other club-goers, danced and drank, you know. And one of this guy’s friends started flirting with this handsome muscly Mexican guy, and they were really hitting it off. She spent the whole night talking to him and dancing with him, and when the time came for the group to head back to the hotel, she told them she was going to spend the night with the guy and that she’d text them where to pick her up the next morning. Everyone was drunk and trusted her judgment, especially since they assumed she’d gotten to know the guy decently well because they’d been together all night. So the group shrugged it off and went home to the hotel. In the morning, they packed all their stuff into the car and waited for a text from the girl. And waited, and waited, and waited. They called her several times, but she didn’t pick up. They left her dozens of texts and voicemails, but nothing. They were annoyed – they assumed she was still passed out with that guy somewhere, hungover or whatever. And the guy with the test was starting to get really nervous again, because he had to get back. So eventually, after something like 3 hours, they were just like ‘Screw it, she’ll have to fly or take a bus or something. And they finished packing the car and they set out back for USC. When they reached the border, they were waiting in the big line of cars and a border patrolman came up to see their passports and ask all the usual questions. The kids thought this would be a good opportunity to bring up their friend – ‘We have this friend who stayed overnight with a guy here and she didn’t respond to us so she’s still around, but we’ve got to get back. What do we do?’ As the patrolman was about to answer, one of the guy’s friends shouted ‘DUDE! There she is!’ They all looked over, and believe it or not, there was their friend, asleep in the passenger seat of some random guy’s car. The patrolman went over and had the driver roll down his window. He glanced at the girl, who was out cold, dark sunglasses on and head flopping down and everything. ‘Sir, can you wake her up please? We need her to reenter the States in the same group she came with.’ The driver was like, ‘No, it’s okay, let her sleep. She’s sleeping. It’s okay.’ But the patrolman insisted, and the driver was like ‘No, it’s fine.’ So this went on for a while, and finally the patrolman just went around to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. To his shock and horror, the girl fell limp out of her seat and onto the dusty ground. The sunglasses fell off, and the patrolman saw that the girl’s eyes had been SEWN SHUT. She was dead. Naturally, the driver was apprehended, and the USC kids all had to be taken in for questioning, so that one guy definitely missed his test. As it turns out, the girl had been cut open, all her organs had been removed, and she’d been stuffed with drugs and sewn back up. They were going to use her to smuggle drugs across the border and then dump her body somewhere! How awful is that?”
As any good scary story should, this story has the potential to be true. It hits especially close to home that the people involved are described as USC students, and the fact that the story came from a friend makes it seem like it must have really happened. The story definitely relies on stereotypes and qualifies as blason populaire – it plays on people’s fears of Mexico as a dangerous place riddled with drug crimes and violence. The informant voiced that the story is effective because it horrified him so much that the only way he can feel better about it is if he spreads the story so other people will be equally horrified. Scary stories spread rapidly in this way, with people wanting others to share in their fear and shock.
*Note: Taylor is a member of the student organization USC Troy Camp, a group that mentors/tutors students in the South Central L.A. area and raises funds during the year to send 200 elementary schoolchildren from South L.A. to a week-long summer camp in Idyllwild, CA. This week-long camp is completely run by the counselors, and through the year many legends and traditions have developed that are upheld/told each year at camp, carried on by newer counselors as older ones graduate. Because I am also a member of Troy Camp, she didn’t provide any context for this, so I figured I’d do so to minimize confusion. This particular story is the story of the meteor candy, which we tell to campers outside on a big grassy field under the stars at night.
COLLECTOR (myself): So tell the story we tell the kids, and then also explain what we do with the candy.”
INFORMANT: “Okay, so we’re sitting out on the field with our cabin, and we tell them we have a very special story to tell. Okay, so…
Years ago, before any of us were in Troy Camp, there was a family who lived in Idyllwild in a little cabin up in the mountains. There was a little girl and her mother and father, and one day the mother got very sick, and the girl and her father went out down the mountain to try to get the medicine that could save her. They walked many miles to town and got the medicine, but as they were walking back through the forest, suddenly the sky FLASHED and something huge fell from the sky. BOOM! It was a giant meteor! It crushed all the trees and sent smoke and debris everywhere, and the girl and her dad got separated. They called out and called out, but they were too far away – they could barely hear each other. There was so much smoke and it was so dark that neither one could see the other. The girl sits down in defeat and begins to cry. She picks up a piece of the meteor and throws it in anger… but when it hits the ground, it creates a bright spark! The girl has an idea. She picks up more pieces of the meteor and throws them, creating sparks each time. Suddenly, from all the way across the clearing, through the smoke, she sees a spark. Her father has seen the sparks, and now he’s throwing pieces of the meteor too!! The girl and her dad keep throwing meteor pieces and making sparks until they’re close enough to hear each other and then to see each other. They gave each other a big hug and continued back up the mountain to give the mother her medicine. The meteorite had cleared a big hole in the forest, a lot like the field we’re sitting in right now. But the best part was that the candy shop down the road got little bits of the meteor all over it, so the candy they make still has liiiittle pieces of the meteorite in it. Did you notice the candy shop we passed on the way up [of course, we didn't pass a candy shop, but none of the kids were looking out for one, so this part gives the story more validity]? We have some of these candies for you tonight.
And then we give each camper a mint Lifesaver, but like they don’t know it’s a Lifesaver, and we tell them to turn to a partner and chew the Lifesaver. And when they bite into the Lifesaver, usually it makes a tiny little spark in their mouths. It’s really cool, I don’t know why it does that.
This is one of my favorite TC traditions, because the younger kids are usually totally amazed. Some of the older kids figure out that the candy is just a Lifesaver, or they look for the candy shop on the bus ride back down the mountain and notice it doesn’t exist, but most of the campers are completely captivated by the meteor story. It helps because we tell the story in a big clearing, so we can pretend that’s the spot where the meteorite hit many years before. After we tell the story, usually the cabins lay out and look at the stars, because a lot of the campers haven’t really seen many stars in their lifetime because they’ve never left LA.
The story doesn’t have much of a message, but it’s a fun way to bond the cabins and contribute to Troy Camp lore to make the campgrounds seem almost magical. This story, like Mary Brown, is told slightly differently by each counselor who tells it, though the general elements remain the same.
*Note: Taylor is a member of the student organization USC Troy Camp, a group that mentors/tutors students in the South Central L.A. area and raises funds during the year to send 200 elementary schoolchildren from South L.A. to a week-long summer camp in Idyllwild, CA. This week-long camp is completely run by the counselors, and through the year many legends and traditions have developed that are upheld/told each year at camp, carried on by newer counselors as older ones graduate. Because I am also a member of Troy Camp, she didn’t provide any context for this, so I figured I’d do so to minimize confusion. This particular story is the story of “Mary Brown,” which we tell to the 5th grade students (the oldest) when they spend a night in tents instead of their cabins.
INFORMANT: “I’m going to tell it like I’d tell it to the kids, okay? Okay. So… years and years ago, kids just like you were coming to Troy Camp for a great week at camp. They were so excited, and on the first day everyone was running around and making friends. Everyone except one. There was a little girl named Mary Brown, and she stood in the corner and didn’t talk to anyone – she was so shy. She would just stand in the corner and stare at her sparkly red shoes. The kids started to make fun of Mary, asking why she never played with anyone else and making fun of her red shoes. But no matter what they said, Mary would just stand there silently, staring down at her shoes. The bullying got much worse, and no matter what the counselors did, they couldn’t stop it. One day in the dining hall, a girl walked up to Mary Brown and started making fun of her shoes. At first, Mary was quiet and just stared down. But suddenly, she grabbed the fork from her plate and brought it down right on the bully’s hand – stabbed her in the hand with the fork. Silent the whole time, even as the bully screamed and cried. Her counselor took her aside and tried to reason with her, told her they were going to have to call her parents for breaking the rules and hurting another camper. But Mary said nothing… she just stared down at her red shoes. Her counselor tried that night to call Mary’s parents to come pick her up, but she couldn’t get through to anyone. The number was disconnected. So the counselor went back to the cabin, and all the girls were fast asleep in their beds… except one. Mary. Mary Brown was nowhere to be found. The counselors all panicked. They searched, they looked everywhere, and they just couldn’t find her. Finally, in the middle of the night, some counselors went down to the river, and that’s where they found her. There she was, standing on a rock in the middle of the river, dripping wet, holding a fork and staring down at her red shoes. “Mary, Mary! Please come back!” they yelled to her. They begged her to come back, to let them help her. After many… after many minutes of this, she finally looked up. She looked them straight in the eyes, raised the fork, and without saying a word, STABBED HERSELF, again and again and again with the fork until her body fell limp into the river. The water washed her right away, and no search party or the Idyllwild police was ever able to find her body. And now, every seven years, a couple forks go missing from the dining hall, and one camper falls victim to the wrath of Mary Brown, who comes click-clacking into the cabin in her sparkly red shoes, and STABS them with her fork. It’s been said you can hear her approaching because she scrrrrrrrrrratches the outside of the cabin door with her fork, scrraaaaaatches along the door. And… I hate to say it, but this year is the seventh year since the last incident. So watch out, kids, listen carefully for the fork on the door. And tell someone right away if you ever catch a glimpse of a pair of sparkly red shoes walking through the forest.”
This legend is cool because I’m fairly certain it’s completely unique to Troy Camp – at least under the name “Mary Brown.” One day I got curious and googled ‘Mary Brown ghost story,’ and found almost nothing similar to our story. Mary Brown is also interesting because there tends to be one counselor who tells it best, and they’ll tell the story to the campers until they graduate, at which time the job of primary storyteller is passed down to another counselor. This year, the guy who usually tells Mary Brown to the campers is graduating, so nobody knows who’s going to tell the story next year at camp. The story changes a little bit with each person who tells it, so there’s no way of knowing how the story began. No one in Troy Camp knows what year they started telling Mary Brown, but it’s an established tradition now.
“Mary Brown” also exemplifies the difference between a story like “La Llorana” and a regular ghost story – legends like La Llorana tend to have a message, a rule to obey. Contrarily, Mary Brown exists just to scare the kids! Ghost stories don’t usually have messages or morals, they’re for entertainment purposes only. One could argue that Mary Brown teaches campers not to bully other campers, but the bullying seems a little beside the point. I’ve also never known counselors to actually go around with forks on the cabin doors, because that would probably be too scary.
*Note: The informant, Harriet, is my grandma. She was born in the 1930s, so she’s seen her fair share of wars and has collected some interesting facts about wartime. This particular story is a legend about the truck of the American flag (the ball at the top of the pole).
INFORMANT: “So during the Cold War, Americans were always afraid there was going to be a Soviet invasion. Or, at least this is how people claim this got started, even though there were balls on the flags way before the Cold War. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes, so everyone was in constant fear of this Soviet invasion. So what they did was they put these balls, which were called trucks, on top of the American flags, and supposedly inside they put one bullet, a bag of rice, and either matches or a knife or razor or something like that. And it was to keep the Russians or whatever enemy from getting to the flag. In an emergency, a soldier would be assigned to the flag and he would eat the rice for energy and use the razor or the match to burn or destroy the flag so the enemy couldn’t get it. And then the bullet was to kill himself.”
COLLECTOR (myself): “Why would he have to kill himself?”
INFORMANT: “Well, either to avoid being captured by the enemy, or out of guilt for destroying the flag, maybe. He’d done his duty but he did still destroy the American flag, and that’s a big no-no in the army.”
This rumor holds little weight – most experts say that the ball atop the flag is made of solid metal. However, this myth has spread through many channels, having become a favorite of veterans and soldiers. It’s a piece of nationalistic folklore, relating to American pride, wartime patriotism and an undying devotion to the country and the flag. Protecting the flag is a metaphor for protecting the country as a whole, and patriotic myths like this bestow honor on those who serve our country and add a sort of allure to the army. Perhaps my grandma had a connection to this particular myth because my grandfather served in the army – he fought in the Vietnam war.
*Note: To provide some context, there are large trees outside the on-campus restaurant Moreton Fig. The informant is passing along a rumor popular within the USC community that the Moreton Fig trees were donated by Hitler.
INFORMANT: “I first heard this when I was a freshman in Parkside. It’s one of those things where if you go here, you’ve probably heard the rumor. So you know the big trees outside Moreton Fig? I guess I’d assume they’re fig trees, but I don’t know… there’s this rumor that they were donated to Von Kleidsmid by Hitler and the Nazis, because Von Kleidsmid was a eugenist or something like that.”
I tried to do a little research after the informant told me this, and I came across a couple LA Times articles that explain the rumor.
It would seem that Hitler didn’t donate the trees, and the tree(s) may not even be at Moreton Fig, but rather between Bovard and PED. However, the type of tree is known as a “Hitler tree.” In reality, the tree was donated in honor of an Olympic athlete, not because Von Kleidsmid was a eugenist.
*My mother told me these stories about her father, my grandfather, specifically, but also mentioned that most of them were common among older Jewish men in general, specifically Jews who identified with the Yiddish aspect of Jewish culture.
INFORMANT: “One of [the jokes] was he would make a bet with you about almost anything, and he would say, ‘I bet you…’ Oh shoot, what was it called? … It was called a ‘brass figliggy with an oak leaf cluster,’ and he would always bet us, ‘I’ll bet you can’t… I’ll bet you a brass figliggy with an oak leaf cluster,’ and we were like ‘OH OK THAT SOUNDS COOL,’ and we would do whatever he wanted, and I guess it wasn’t until we got older that one of us said, you know, ‘Well, where’s my figliggy with an oak leaf cluster?’ And then, as soon as you say it out loud you’re like… a figliggy? What even is that? He just made the whole thing up! But it sounded all official because of the, you know, the oak leaf clusters on military medals. But he played us for years!”
“Also, he used to do this thing with us that his mother used to do with him when he was a baby. And it was a little Yiddish folk song with a… he would put you on his knees, and I’m sure he did this to you, he would bounce you up and down, and he would sing [note: these are Yiddish words I have absolutely no idea how to spell, so I'm just going to write them as phonetically as possible. Yiddish isn't really a written language, so this is the best I can do, my apologies!] ‘Ya shelipta guy yinkus voren raftsa lata tigala, tigala y yazala na yashava, HOOT MAHN!’ What it means in Yiddish is, basically, Yoshala, who’s this little guy, rode to the market on his sheep or on his goat, and then on the way back, the goat rode on Yoshala. I know, so stupid. But then he would… oh wait, but then the ‘hoot mahn,’ we have no idea where that came from because that’s Scottish. His parents just threw that in. But the very last thing they would say was ‘Coo coo la fligala’ and they would point somewhere else. In Yiddish it means ‘Look, look! A little bird!’ And then when you looked, they would tickle you under the chin. Stupid little games like that.”
“He also used to make this thing he called a ‘hibbity-gibbits.’ He would take an apple and he would make… like a zigzag like Charlie Brown’s shirt around, and he would open it up and take the core out of the apple, and then he would put it back together so you could barely see that it had been cut at all. And then he’d give it back to you like it was a regular apple, and you would bite into it and it would fall apart and there was no core.”
My grandpa was a notorious prankster, and apparently these pranks and pranks like them were pretty common among Jewish grandfathers. They’re all along the lines of the classic grandpa joke “Pull my finger,” but with distinctively Yiddish twists. I can remember my grandpa sitting me on his lap and singing that strange Yiddish song about Yoshala and the goat, so these pranks have a lot of personal significance.
*Note: The informant, Harriet, is my grandma. She attended college at Rutgers University in New Jersey!
INFORMANT: “Well, there were a lot of jokes about the football team, the Scarlet Knights. They weren’t very good. West Virginia had a lot of jokes about us. And then there were the usual jokes about Rutgers kids being stupid, Rutgers kids being idiots. It was all pretty generic, most of the jokes could really be applied to anyone or anything. But one of my favorites was the one about the cemetery. It was … there was … a little boy and his mother were walking through a cemetery and they passed a tombstone that said ‘Here Lies a Rutgers Graduate and a Great Man.’ And the kid looks confused and he says to his mom, ‘I don’t get it,’ and she asks ‘Why not?’ And he asks, ‘Why are there two people buried here?'”
While the cemetery joke was pretty general, Rutgers jokes are a good example of the wider category of sports or college rivalry-related jokes. Almost every college has a direct rivalry with other colleges, whether it’s based on sports, academics, or something else entirely. With this competition always comes a slew of jokes, often very basic and general, that demean the other team, emphasize their shortcomings and failures, and downplay their triumphs. These jokes build on the lore of each particular school, strengthening bonds between its students and alumni, and enriching campus culture.
Generic jokes, I suppose, are also a form of folklore all their own, because they are blank slates to which any number of things can be applied. They aren’t specific enough to be blason populaire, but rather they’re so general that they can be used as a quick put-down for virtually anything.
*Note: The informant, Kate, grew up in Canada.
INFORMANT: “Now, I didn’t grow up in this part so they didn’t really do this in Alberta or anything, but one year in high school my friends and I took a trip to New Brunswick for National Acadian Day. That’s on August 15, and it’s mostly celebrated in Acadia, which was a colony of France, so Acadians consider themselves descendants of the French colonists who lived in Acadia. Anyhow, we traveled to New Brunswick and while we were there I learned about one of National Acadian Day’s traditions, which is called tintamarre. Essentially, what that is is on Acadian Day people go through the streets making as much noise as possible with noisemakers and instruments or whatever they can find. It’s supposed to symbolize the solidarity of Acadia and basically to just remind people that Acadians are there.”
I looked up tinamarre after Kate told me about it, and it looks like it was inspired by the French folk custom “Charivari,” also known as chivaree, where people made a ruckus outside the homes of newlyweds. Because Acadia was a French colony, it could be argued that tintamarre is the Acadians’ way of holding onto their French roots and feeling connected to their heritage. In this way, the lore custom when the French settlers colonized Acadia, and it’s grown into a custom that’s uniquely its own but is also inspired by its French background. The word itself means “din” or “clangour” in Acadian French. I thought it was interesting that Kate considered the custom significant even though it didn’t directly apply to her. While it’s considered a Canadian custom, it doesn’t apply to all Canadians, or even all French Canadians, but rather is only totally relevant to Acadians. However, it seems that Kate still counts tintamarre as a Canadian custom worth mentioning.
*Note: The informant, Kate, is my mother’s girlfriend. She grew up in Canada but is of Scottish heritage. She now lives in the Bay Area. Here, she describes a legendary creature said to live in Okanagan Lake in British Columbia.
INFORMANT: “Ogopogo is a creature that I learned about when we moved from Saskatchewan to Alberta in 1971. He resides in the neighboring province, British Columbia. People always talked about him in the same kind of conversation as the Loch Ness Monster – he was like our Loch Ness Monster. He lives in Okanagan Lake. There were sightings and newspaper stories and he was all over the lore of Western Canada. He was actually a creature of the Salish nation, a figure of western Canada’s aboriginal peoples. There was a sighting of him sometime in the late 60s, early 70s, and he was in the news a lot then. As kids we always talked about wanting to go and camp at the lake and see him.”
COLLECTOR (myself): “What’s he supposed to look like? Do you remember who first told you about him?”
INFORMANT: “He’s a greenish serpent. I think it was my Edmonton friends who first told me about him. I was 10 when we moved to Alberta and when he came into my consciousness, and by then all my friends already had a deeper relationship with him. People would go to British Columbia for holidays and talk about hoping to see him. He was this kind of mythical creature in my mind because my family didn’t go on vacation there so he became bigger in my mind. He was an aspiration for me from the time I was about 10 until I was in my teens. I wanted to see him and know what they were talking about.”
COLLECTOR (myself): “So would you say you believe in him? Like, personally?”
INFORMANT: “I don’t know if I believed in him or didn’t believe in him, same as the Sasquatch or any other mythical land creatures that appear from time to time. The Sasquatch was also a big idea in our minds. Even more awesome in some ways, because you might actually come across him in the woods! Now, naturally I’m skeptical of Ogopogo and Sasquatch and all that. But back then? It was definitely a possibility.”
The Ogopogo, as Kate points out, is essentially a variant of the Loch Ness Monster legend, the Canadian oicotype. People are fascinated by the idea of creatures they’ve never seen before, especially creatures hiding right in your own backyard. Bodies of water are also great sources of mystery because you can’t just swim down to the bottom and see what’s down there. The Ogopogo story is so ingrained in Canadian culture that just becoming acquainted with the story made Kate feel more at home in her community after she moved. People bond over shared beliefs, so a childlike excitement over the possibility of there being a great beast right beneath our very noses is a great way to bring people together and enrich the lore and culture of a certain place or people.
ANNOTATION: The Ogopogo is one of Canada’s most popular and enduring legends, so it has spawned a number of books and reports, including Arlene Gaal’s 2001 book In Search of Ogopogo: Sacred Creature of the Okanagan Waters.
*Note: the informant, Kate, grew up in Canada, Alberta specifically.
INFORMANT: “Well, in Canada we do a lot of pancake breakfasts, I’m not sure if this qualifies as folklore per se, but every time there’s a festival in the summertime, people cook up a ton of pancakes, and I mean a lot of pancakes, and they give them away for free! Or sometimes they charge a small fee to raise money for something. In Edmonton specifically, where I grew up, pancake breakfasts were huge, especially on K-days, which is a giant exhibition for 10 days in the end of July. Also in Edmonton we had the Calgary Stampede, Canada’s biggest rodeo, and pancakes were a huge thing there. Because in like the 20s or something, when the rodeo first began, some rancher started cooking up free pancakes on his camp stove and giving them away to whoever came by the festivities. Pancake breakfasts are even tied to politics, a lot of Canadian politicians will hold pancake breakfasts or make appearances or even be the volunteers making the pancakes. Also football. Lots of pancake breakfasts for football events.”
This is a food-related tradition that seems pretty specific to Canada, even though America has started doing similar pancake breakfasts as fundraisers. The concept of free pancakes is great, as everyone knows free food is extremely bonding. I think it’s interesting that politicians are capitalizing on this tradition and making it political, using pancake breakfasts as public events at which to make appearances or make themselves seem approachable or folksy by cooking pancakes.