Informant: “So I live in a house on [REDACTED] street at the North University Park District of Los Angeles, California. Actually, the Governor of California used to live there in the early 1900s. But whoever lived there in the 1940s or ‘50s, um, they, there was a whole third story. Like picture the old victorian houses with the spirals and stuff. But there was this third story and it burned down, like, in this crazy fire. And the like room that burned like more than any others was the room where this crazy woman that lived there had all of her cats. And like all of the cats died, so now like in the middle of the night, if you go up, there’s like this stair case that leads to the roof of the house but as you’re going up this staircase you can see the remnants of this old third floor. Um, cause they like didn’t do a really good job of getting rid of that, and when you’re going up that staircase to the roof, you can hear meows in the middle of the night. I have not personally heard them, but I’ve only gone up there once.”
Informant: “I learned this story when I was a freshman when I joined a group that has lived there the past decade or so. I heard it from a senior who was also a very superstitious guy who said ‘Oh, I like, hear it every night.’ The people who believe it take it very, very seriously. But the people who never experienced it all kind of think of it as a joke.”
Informant: “We tell the story when we let in new members. I don’t know, it’s just a fun thing to add to the aura of it all – they’re like, typically freshman, you know? It’s just fun to make them feel like a part of the group with a little story.”
Ghost animals are not nearly as common as ghost people in folklore, as we’ve talked about in our class with Professor Tok Thompson. Yet, in this story, they are just as eerily scary. That this ghost story includes artifacts that tie the legend into real observable truth, in that the remnants of the burnt third floor are easily accessible, is truly haunting. In the participant telling the story, I could envision walking up the stairs and seeing the charred, blackened floor.
It also seems like there is somewhat of a ritualistic retelling each year for new members of this group. The story helps identify their group because they collectively lease the house year by year, and so in retelling this story and having it be retold primarily by their group, they are owning the house in more than one way. The formal telling of this story to another member is one way to extend that ownership.
Equally as interesting is that this group is a singing group and that the hauntings come in audio form. Oftentimes, ghost stories, legends, and other forms of folklore are described in terms that are familiar to that particular ‘in’ group. In no way am I comparing their singing to the meowing of 40 cats burned alive, but it is interesting that they are auditorily stimulated, rather than visually.
“Ok, so, there’s these two parents. Well, wait, not parents. There’s this couple, and they can’t have kids, and they’re, like, pretty old now. So it’s snowing one day, and the husband goes outside, and has an idea to build a snowgirl…? So like a little girl instead of a snowman. They made her look really realistic and then a stranger comes by one night, and he, like, does some sort of magic and then he leaves. Then, at night, the snowgirl comes to life. And so they’re really excited, because now they have a daughter, so they take her inside. But, she’s, like, snow, so they keep her from going outside as it becomes spring and summer, and in the summer the girl wants to go outside, um, and her parents always tell her ‘no’, and they don’t tell her why, they don’t tell her why, they don’t tell her that she’s snow. Um, so, the parents go to like the market, or they leave the house one day, and the girl goes outside, and she melts. And the parents come back and she’s, I guess, dead.”
“I mean, I like it. It’s stuck with my all of these years. I don’t know, I didn’t do, like, a great job of telling it. I think the message is to always be honest, I guess? And I like that, I think if the parents were, um, more honest with their daughter they could’ve saved her.”
“My parents got, like, a little set of stories from India. It’s not an Indian story, but they used to read it to me at night. Sure enough, I actually met the informant’s mother later that day. I asked her about the story and she said, “Oh yes, we used to have plenty of books filled with little stories that we’d tell the kids before they went to bed. Not necessarily Spanish, or Indian, just some fairy tales and little stories.”
I had originally asked this informant to participate because I knew that her and her family were very much still in touch with their roots. She visits India nearly every year, goes to Indian weddings, lived in Spain near her family for half a year, talks about all the traditional Spanish food her mom makes. So when I asked her to share with me some form of folklore, be it a proverb or a cultural event, or a story, that this is the one she thought of.
To be honest, it could have been because she had been around a previous informant who was also telling a tale, but I still believe it is telling. Out of all the stories that her mother told her over the years, and I’m sure countless relatives had told her, she remembered “the one about the snow girl.” She couldn’t remember exactly what the story was for some time, and I suggested that maybe she think of something else. But she was adamant about teling this story; she called her mom, called her dad, called the house, and finally it clicked.
After more of my own research, I found the origin of the “Snow Girl” tale to be, in fact, Russian. The Snow Girl, or Snow Maiden, is formally known in Russian folklore as Snegurochka. There are many tales of Snegurochka, and many variations of this same story that the informant had told me. Here is a variant where she melts, but does so intentionally, after her parents compare her to the value of a hen when a fox brings her home from being lost in the woods. However, in this story, she refuses to leave with the fox, and her once banished dog brings her home and is rewarded, and she remains in tact and happy. To read yet another version, you may want to check out The Snow Maiden and Other Russian Tales by Bonnie Marshall. (Marshall, Bonnie C. The Snow Maiden and Other Russian Tales. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004. Print.)
Beyond the interest of all these variations, however, is the context of this informants nationality telling this story. Clearly, with so many stories, the Snegurochka is something that Russian’s identify their culture with. Yet, here is a girl, whose parents are from countries that don’t even traditionally see snow, retelling the tale in Southern California as the one piece of folklore that she would like to share. This just goes to show that while one’s heritage and self-proclaimed culture are important, they are not all encompassing of the folkloric artifacts that they hold dear.
Question: There are two rooms, one room has nothing but three switches. The other room has nothing but three light bulbs. You can only enter each room once. How do you determine which switch corresponds to which light bulb? Also: the walls aren’t transparent.
Answer: Flip one on, wait a couple minutes, repeat. Feel the heat of the bulbs in the other room.
The participant likes this riddle because it’s a bit longer than most of the ones he tells. I talked a little about his story in my post ‘A Dog Walks into a Forest…’ But essentially, he likes these riddles because they remind him of him and his dad growing up telling them to one another. He also said “Usually I’d ask riddles that have more to do with word play, I don’t know. But this one is just like a fun variation on that and makes the person think a little bit harder.
I actually guessed this one right, and he was pretty impressed. He asked, “You hadn’t heard that one before?” It was originally being told in a battle of wits between him and a friend of mine, who were asking riddles to one another trying to out-riddle the other. He usually will tell it if someone else will tell one first, or he might do it just to break the ice between he and someone he knows.
Just like the other riddles, this one was told as a back-and-forth exchange between two informants. What I find to be most interesting is the competitive aspect of this folk telling. The informant actually seemed to be legitimately surprised, and even almost a bit annoyed, that I had known the answer. As with traditional riddles, like this one is, there are traditional answers. Typically, those answers are not supposed to be easy to think of; they wouldn’t be considered good riddles if they were. Riddles almost give the person telling them the power to drive the conversation; only they know the answer, or other people who may have heard it.
Also intriguing is the competitive aspect between the two participants. I asked for different riddles, or jokes, but it seemed that just as one ended, another began. I didn’t say that the best one won some sort of prize, or that the most clever would be included. However, it seemed that they were more interested in telling one another these riddles than to me. Why might this be?
I would argue that these participants had learned these riddles throughout their childhood and early adulthood; to them, they own their histories and the memories of them. These riddles, actionable to recall at any time, act as a way to show the history of their wits. Whoever is able to stump the other repeatedly, or has more clever riddles, is the one that has had superior intellectual exposure to riddles. It’s common after someone tells a riddle to say “Ooooh, that’s a good one!” This qualification of which riddles are the most clever can act as an actual social agent in determining the wits of an individual.
Question: You’re standing in a room which is centered perfectly on the south pole. You see a polar bear walk by the window. In what cardinal direction is the polar bear?
Answer: North. It can be northeast or northwest.
“I don’t even know where I heard this. Probably when I was in middle school? I don’t know, I definitely remember telling it to people in high school – it’s one of my favorite riddles. It’s just like, simple, but sort of like fucks with your mind a bit? You can almost, like, feel your head spinning as you think about it”
“I usually tell this story only when other people bring riddles up. I don’t, like, just casually whip out some riddles because I want to. But they are fun and entertaining, I guess.”
This, along with “A Dog Walks into a Forest” and “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…” were part of an exchange between two informants that went back and forth with riddles they knew. While the first informant had familial connections to the riddles he was telling, this informant seemed to have less attachment to his riddles. Still, however, it was a point of pride for him when no one could answer. For more analysis on what this competitive aspect of riddling might mean, reference my post “Three Light Bulbs, Two Rooms, and One Answer…”
As for the piece itself, I think it’s interesting that this riddle would probably have been easier in years past. As we become more removed from our transportation and travel around our world, so too does our sense of direction become lost. I know many people who do not know the difference between East and West. While that is certainly not standard, and not a good thing in any way, it was still interesting for me to have to mentally orient myself on a map on the South Pole, spinning my head around trying to make sense of it all.
‘This is a song my mom would always sing to me and my siblings when we were little. She’d place us on her lap and move them up and down while she sang “Trot Trot to Boston / Trot Trot to Lynn / Look out little [T.R.] / You might fall in!” and then pretend to drop us between her legs. The second first was “Trot Trot to Boston / Trot Trot to Town / Look out little [T.R]/ you might fall down!” Then repeat the dropping motion. Finally, “Trot Trot to Boston / Trot Trot to Dover / Look out little [T.R]/ you might fall Over!”
“Yeah, I learned it from my Mom. I mean, I don’t really remember learning it, and I certainly don’t really remember her performing it, but I’ve seen her do it with some of my younger cousins, and I have too. Uh, I don’t know, I just, I like the piece because it’s catchy, and it makes me nostalgic about Boston and my Mom and stuff, you know? You’ve probably heard it too, right?” ( I have)
He certainly did not bounce me on his lap, however he did say that he “would definitely do this with his kids when he’s older, no matter where he lives. I just like the way I hold on to something from my home town, you know? Being 3,000 miles away, like, you lose a lot of that. I think I wanna move back eventually, but who knows?”
My mom also performed this song for me when I was younger. I, too, perform it with my younger cousins and babies from the Boston area. I’ve always found it so interesting, because growing up in a town north of Boston where most people move to from all over the country, we don’t have too many unique traditions or pieces of folklore that bring us together as a town. But this song, even though it’s about Boston, is shared amongst almost all of us in the metropolitan Boston area. I tried to find the origin of this story, and was unable to locate a direct source. However, the book Trot Trot to Boston, published in 1987 is referenced as saying that it is a Mother Goose poem. Additionally, there are a number of variations of the poem I found. An online forum found here has at least 8 variations of the song.
The informant said that it reminds him of his mother, too. It’s funny how songs that are performed to us when we are children – often before we can even remember – make us so nostalgic. Certainly we can’t remember the circumstances under which these songs were performed. However, we know that our mothers took care of us at a time that they sang this song, and it’s so embedded within us, associated with childcare and motherly love, that it’s hard not to look at it so fondly.
“So this is just an old ghost story from camp, in northern Wisconsin. But this guy who was an old janitor at the camp went out to the woods to start chopping trees to make room for this new court they wanted to build. So he started chopping down trees with an axe and he cut off his leg. So he only had one leg after that, and um, so he uh, filled that with a stump that he had found and used that as his leg. This scared the campers so much that the camp fired him and sent him away. But what ended up happening that next summer, a boy was taking a shower on his own at the shower house at night. And then he would hear footsteps and a log kind of dragging. The story is that each year he comes back once and takes one kid and buries them in the back.”
“Yeah I like the story, It’s pretty morbid actually. I mean, like, here we have these pretty young campers, talking about someone chopping his leg off and stealing children, and yet, like, it’s totally OK, because it’s summer camp. How crazy is that, when you think about it, really? Like, ok, if I went up to some kid at a school, and I told the same story about a janitor working in the woodshop, like, I’d probably be arrested! It’s just funny to me. But, uh, yeah, I love telling this story”
“We’d usually do the whole campfire thing. You know, uh like we would get all the campers around at night and go around telling stories. We would tell this story one of, like, the first nights. It’s actually a pretty clever way to get them to, like, stick together”
Analysis: Upon first listen, I didn’t think much of this story. It seemed like a hodgepodge of a number of different classic folk-tales: the peg-legged pirate, the axe murderer, the former camper turned raging homicidal maniac, etc. However, I think there is something deeper to be found here. At the centerpiece of the story is this rivalry between the janitor and the camp. The camp’s work is what made him lose his leg, and yet the camp are the ones who banished him. Then, when he comes back, he takes retribution upon the camp in the form of taking kids that are alone. This serves two functions. First, it teaches the kids to respect the camp and its dangers, but more importantly, and implicitly, to never wander off alone. The informant mentioned later, once I prompted him with this question, that it is why they tell this story, for fun but also so that they don’t go wandering out at night alone.
As someone who did not grow up going to sleepaway camp, it was also intriguing to me that these nights of sharing scary stories around a campfire during summer camp actually happen. It sounds like a modern ritual to me if I’d ever heard one. The ambiance of the night time, the fire, and the stillness of the forest all provide the perfectly eerie ambiance for a scary ghost story, and now because of its association, one cannot come without the other.
“So I’m from Culver City, and it’s kind of “The Heart of Screen Land” is what it’s called. So a lot of the movies, productions that were made in the earlier 1900s that were said to be made in Hollywood were actually made in culver city. And since we didn’t have a lot of entertainment life around us, we had a lot of entertainment related happenings. So we have this hotel, called the Culver Hotel, and it’s said to be haunted, of course, cause why wouldn’t it be. But also, there’s this story about the munchkins from The Lollipop Guild, from, uh, The Wizard of Oz. So The Wizard of Oz was filmed in Culver City, and so to house all of the people, the stuck them all in the Culver Hotel. The Hotel is really small, so I don’t even know, how they even, I don’t know. That’s like a clown car, like, hotel I guess. But the munchkins were said to be, like, really, really, rambunctious, and just like crazy Lollipop Guild kids. But they were adults! And so they were on the top floor, or something like that, and they got raging drunk, and destroyed the room, threw stuff out of windows, jumped off of stuff, and it was just crazy. And like, I don’t know if it’s true or not.
“Well, the hotel is in Culver City, like downtown Culver City, so I spent a lot of my childhood there. Movie theaters there, and a lot of eateries there and stuff. So any time I walked past it, not like anytime, but like when I asked ‘Oh what is that?’ because I never really knew what it was, it was just kind of a nondescript building in the middle of downtown, they would say “Oh, that’s the Culver Hotel, did you hear about the time when The Lollipop Guild just wrecked it.” I think I just accepted the story because it’s a funny story, if the story was like ‘The Lollipop Guild was just awesome, they were just pristine visitors’…”
“I think this is one of the first times that I’ve actually told this story. I’m not, like, that culturally diverse or anything and there aren’t many things from my hometown so I’ve never really had to think about it. But yeah, I mean, I guess that’s one of them.”
This legend about The Lollipop Guild is hilarious. In the movie, sure, they can seem creepy and adult-like to a viewer, but they’re dressed up in little kid outfits doing a jig and singing along with the rest of the crazy characters. It’s clear even in the movie that these are full grown men, both by their voices and their faces, but they’re also clearly not dressed in the manliest attire.
Oftentimes, legends and humorous stories are so funny because they subvert the preconceived notion of what that person or figure should be acting like. In this circumstance, it is that we wouldn’t expect The Lollipop Guild to get blackout drunk and destroy a hotel room. If a group of college students, or a rock band, were to do it, then who cares? But The Lollipop Guild? Now that’s good.
Also interesting is the type of folklore that this participant shared. I asked her if there were any traditions, or cultural artifacts, or jokes, or anything that she could tell me. “I mean, we’re funny people. But we don’t believe in pre-written jokes.” She’d also say “I mean, I’m American, I don’t have anything like that.” She almost seemed to begrudgingly give this story, because she said she felt she “lacked a cultural identity or ethnicity.” In this sense, folklore can be exclusionary of some people entirely; not in that they don’t have folklore to share, but that they don’t have any that they identify with or take pride in.
This participant performed this story as if he was on a college tour, since he learned it in his training to become a tour guide.
“I don’t really know it that well, but I’ll try. So this right here is the School of the Cinematic Arts courtyard, and here you’ll see two buildings: the George Lucas building and the Steven Spielberg building. Now, does anyone know who actually went to USC? … It was actually George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg was actually denied from USC, legend has it, not once, not twice, but three times. And um, so uh, the reason why the building is here, you’re probably wondering why this building is here when he didn’t go here. Well, legend has it that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had a bet a long time ago, when Lucas was working on the first Star Was. The bet was, whoever’s movie did worse in the box office would have to donate to a building, or at least a large sum, to the others’ alma mater. So they agreed to this bet, blah blah blah, time goes on, and guess who’s movie did better? George Lucas’ because it was the first Star Wars. So Steven Spielberg, unfortunately, had to donate this building to George Lucas’ alma mater, which is the University of Southern California. Now we have two buildings at the School of the Cinematic Arts, well many buildings, but two facing each other the George Lucas building and the Steven Spielberg building.”
This legend is told on tours to prospective film students. The participant doesn’t know if it’s actually true, and prefaces the story on his tours by saying so. This would be told in the cinematic arts school, in the courtyard between the Spielberg and Lucas buildings. In my collection, it was performed while working in the office.
There are a lot of legends in the Tour Guide’s office, both that are brought up by the tour guides and brought up by guests. If you were to ask tour guides to tell you about the legend of the Lucas and Spielberg bet, you would probably hear 100 different versions. Just like you might hear 100 different tours all together, each of us have nuanced performances of each of our informative tours.
This legend is interesting because of the dynamic between the tour guide and the guest. The guest comes to USC to get an informative experience that will aide them in their decision of what college to go to. While tour guides do not claim to know the true validity of this legend on their tours, it is still interesting in that it leaves an impression upon the student.
The tour guides also are taught these legends, either formally or informally, through their training to become a tour guide. So while the validity of the bet remains a mystery, its perpetuation year after year, through the teaching of new workers, gives the story credit in it of itself.
“There’s this house in my hometown of Castro Valley, California called the Proctor House and it’s near Proctor Elementary School and it’s also near my house. It’s empty now, like no one lives in there, and it’s mostly populated by homeless people or drug addicts. But, basically like teenagers are dared to go in there and there’s this room that you go in and there are all these dolls lined up on the mantle. And the story goes that there was this couple that used to live there together and they um they’re foster parents, like they would bring in kids every so often, and one by one these foster kids would kinda just disappear from the foster system and no one knew why. And it was discovered that this couple had just kinda murdering their foster kids and they murdered like four kids. I heard this story when I was in the 7th grade from my friends when I went in the Proctor house. But I heard it throughout my teenage years. The dolls, like, had the spirits of the kids inside of them, or something.”
This story would mostly be performed by children around the playground or in social situations near his school and the house. As our informant mentioned, he learned this story first from his friends. He would later also tell me that all the parents knew about this story and wouldn’t let their kids go near the house. He said while this was probably because of the aforementioned homeless and drug addicted populations, many kids like the informant would interpret this as an affirmation of the mystic dangers of this house.
The dynamic between the children that recount this story and their parents are what I find to be most intriguing. The children believe the tall tale of the haunted house and the clichéd dolls-as-murdered-children horror story, most likely as its grandiose details are continuously reinforced in those kids’ social circles and media. The parents, however, know the house’s true nature, and that it is potentially very dangerous and filled with drug addicts and squatters. These harsh realities of life might be too much for a kid to hear, and so they simply say “Don’t go into the Proctor House.” Somewhat unintentionally, this furthers the legend of The Proctor House as being haunted. In my research, I couldn’t find any authored material on the Proctor House; this would suggest that this legend is relatively local and new. Perhaps the house became abandoned and overrun when the participant was young, spurring the rumors. When I asked the participant about the story’s origin, he said that he wasn’t sure.
Also interesting is the house’s role as a legend quest. When the kids are old enough to brave a trip into the Proctor House, it’s viewed as somewhat of a rite of passage, affirming their role as a “big kid”, or young adult. Ironically, though, it is their discovery of truth about the house, either firsthand or from their parents, and the loss of the childlike innocence about the house’s true state, that affirms their role as an adult.