USC Digital Folklore Archives / Life cycle
Life cycle

Ghost Mom and her Daughter: Car Guardians

Tim is a father of 3 children, and he currently lives in northern New Jersey. He went to Iona College in New York where he studied mathematics; after graduation, he worked for the family printing business before breaking off and starting his own. Now, he lives about 15 minutes from where he grew up, so many of the local legends he heard while growing up still apply. He told me this story while I was growing up.


Jack: “Dad, do you remember that road we used to drive down, the one that you said was haunted by a little girl and her mom?”

Tim: “Yeah, what about it?”

Jack: “Can you explain how that story goes again, and where you heard it?”

Tim: “Of course! So my dad actually told me and my siblings this growing up. The legend goes that this mom and her daughter were driving down that same road when suddenly their brakes gave out, but the problem was that the mom didn’t realize that until it was too late. When she got to the bottom of the hill and tried to brake, nothing happened, so they kept rolling into the middle of the road. Since it was early, there were some trucks going onto and off the highway, and one of them didn’t see the car so it smashed into it. The mom and daughter both died.”

Jack: “So how does the haunting come into play.”

Tim: “Oh, yeah. So the rumor goes that if you roll down that same hill, the mom and daughter will stop your car and hit the brakes for you, and if your brakes don’t work, they’ll just hold your car back. They’re basically trying to protect people from the same thing that happened to them. So these aren’t really your typical ghosts, I guess, because, you know, they’re nice. I guess ‘haunting’ is the wrong word. They’re more, like, lurking there and protecting the area or guarding the people that go there.”

Jack: “Can you see them?”

Tim: “I’m not sure about that. I haven’t seen them, but that doesn’t mean someone else hasn’t.”

Jack: “So you said that they’re guarding the area and the people there. Do you still think that they’re ghosts, or do you think that they might be something else?”

Tim: “You know, I’m not sure. They could be ghosts, but they also might be guardian angels. But then again, they’re both just spirits, so how different could they be?”


This was one of the first stories I had ever heard about a ghost possessing or controlling some sort of machinery. Since I was young when I first heard this, it’s possible that my dad made the entire thing up just to scare me or give me something to believe in, but the fact that he mentioned his dad telling him the same story gives it a bit more truth/realism. Also, my dad and his father are both very religious, so I doubt they would lie and I also doubt they would make something up about ghosts until he really thought it was true. The parallel between ghosts and angels, however, was very interesting. It is true that they are both entities, and I guess both could be characterized as spirits, but it’s strange that they could both be categorized as this considering they both carry such different connotations. Angels have a positive and friendly connotation while ghosts have a malevolent and scary connotation, but as my dad said, not all ghosts are bad.


Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays


You are supposed to light up a candle, so that the spirit of a recently passed family member or loved one can be guided to heaven. The candle is supposed to keep away the bad demons and evil itself from guiding the spirit away from the path to heaven. If the candle gets blown out, you need to restart the process and pray so that the spirit can also use your voice as a guide to “the light.”


Ruby is a young Mexican-American woman who truly connects to her Catholic roots and leads her way of life through that method. She is also a single mom who works at a Non-Profit feeding the homeless of Los Angeles

Tales /märchen

The Drop Bears of Camp Orkila

Artist's rendition of a drop bear

Artists rendition of a drop bear

The summer camp councilor describes the legend of the Drop Bears at Camp Orkila, a traditional overnight summer camp on Orcus Island, WA.

When I was in middle school I went to Camp Orkila three summers. And the second time I was there, we had this councilor called Jim who had me completely convinced that drop bears are real.

Drop bears are a dangerous cousin of the koala bear. Jim described them as looking like koalas except with razor-sharp teeth. They live in trees and at night they drop onto your head, knocking up unconscious. Then they eat you. And he wore this skate helmet at night for protection. He warned us not to leave the cabins at night without a flashlight and he said even with a flashlight we still might be eaten. 

The source explained that the story was that the bears had been brought to the island by the Seattle Zoo in the 1930s after the zoo couldn’t contain them. The helmet is what convinced the source that the councilor wasn’t lying. After all, why would he bring a helmet and wear it every night if the threat wasn’t real.

All the other boys in our cabin didn’t believe Jim at all. They knew he was them but I totally bought it and I was really convinced and I would argue with them about it.

Well long story short, last summer I was the lead Grey Wolves councilor at Orkila—councilor for boys aged ten to thirteenand I brought my bicycle helmet and I told them all about drop bears.

Did they believe you?

[laughs] Well… they said that they did not but I know I scared some of them.

From internet research, it’s clear that drop bears are usually are typically an Australian story. Typically, Australians tell foreigners about drop bears as a prank. The drop bears at Camp Orkila function exactly the same way. The camp councilors and experienced campers are in on the joke and they try to trick newcomers. Because original camp councilor brought a helmet with him a prop, it’s possible that he heard about drop bears on the internet or elsewhere and planned to bring it to Camp Orikila. The camp is an ideal place to spread folklore of this kind because the campers are away from home in an unfamiliar place without access to cell service or the internet, making them much more likely to believe. As with other pranks, the drop bears story at Orkila can also serve as an initiation, or a mild hazing of newcomers.

Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Christmas Predictions

The source of this folklore describes a tradition her family does every year: writing down predictions for the next year at Christmas. It’s something the source’s mom did with her own mother as a child and passed down.

We write down predictions on a piece of paper at Christmas. We don’t read them until the next year. And usually you forget what you wrote. One year we all predicted if we’d be living in the same house in a year. I predicted we would and my brother predicted we wouldn’t. He was right.

Are they are predictions about the whole family or are some of them personal?

Some are personal. You write personal ones on one side of the paper and on the other side it’s usually a question we all ask each other and try to guess–like about the house.

Do you share the personal ones with the other people?

Umm… I don’t. You don’t have to. My mom definitely doesn’t either. Actually we all keep the personal ones to ourselves.

What’s the feeling you have when reading them?

I usually think my handwriting looks really weird. Like how much it’s hanged in a year. [laughs] I guess that’s not a feeling.

Well… sometimes things turn out better than you predicted or something really good happens that you would have never predicted, and you’re happy.

But sometimes things don’t go as well… you know… What’s the feeling? That’s hard to answer…

Of course. But it’s not an insignificant thing?

No, no. Right it feels very significant. Yeah for sure. It’s always felt very significant to me.


Life cycle

Filipino Birthday Tradition


June is from Chicago, Illinois and is a current junior in college.


So a family tradition that we have is for all of our birthday’s um instead of baking a cake, my mom would cook a traditional filipino dish called pancit. It’s basically like noodles with like vegetables, chicken meats. All the things you would want. It’s a very healthy dish and it’s supposed to be that instead of a cake which is very fattening and sugary um something that’s healthy so you can live a longer life. There are various i guess different noodles you can use, but my parents always use i guess these same very thing ones.

Collector’s thoughts:

The idea of eating healthy food at one’s birthday in order to guarantee another year of good health is an interesting idea that makes a lot of sense. Not only does the yearly meal work as a good luck charm for good health, but also connects the informant back to his filipino heritage.


Blonde in the Bathroom

Informant: My friend who is from Brazil

Original Script: ” A girl with platinum blonde hair was murdered in the bathroom. She looks super pale with bloody cotton ball in her nose, she looks like a corpse. You go in the bathroom and switch on the lights and flush the toilet three times and she appears.”

Background: The Brazilian version of the children’s game Bloody Mary


Folk Beliefs

Ghosts for Naughty Children

I interviewed my grandmother who is from Colombia and asked about any superstitions about ghosts. Below, she described how her grandparents got a household of thirteen children to get to bed early by scaring them about ghosts.

In spanish, followed by a full english translation below:

Ay aver…sobre los fantasmas. Pues eso era lo que nos contaban nuestros abuelos. Como no había luz, entonces ya a las siete se ponía escurecicimo y ellos se sentaban a contarnos historias para que nos diera miedo y para que nos dormiramos temprano. Entonces, ellos siempre decían que en las casas y en las fincas viejas habían era fantasmas de gente que no habían podido poder cansar nunca después de la muerte. Le ponían nombres distintos como el guerrero cojo, o el patasola, o la llorona. Era gente que no podían descansar porque habían cometido un error grave o habían echó alguna cosa mal echa. Entonces contaban eso y decían que ese espíritu estaba viviendo ya en la finca, y que o sí nosotros habíamos echo algo malo como, por ejemplo, comer nos unas naranjas que estaban para los huéspedes, o cualquier cosa que se crecía en la finca, las papas, los plátanos, eso era pecado comérselo por que era para que nosotros lo comiéramos como la familia. Entonces si uno de los niños se había comido un banano o un maduro o una naranja sin permiso, se moría del miedo, que el espíritu de algún fantasma lo cogiera. Entonces en cada instancia inmoral los abuelos tenían un cuento, como uno nuevo para decir nos a no robar, o cualquier cosa incorrecta. Y la manera de castigarnos no era ellos los abuelos, si no Dios, porque la gente que se moría después no podían descansar y venían a vengarse de las casas de los niños que hacían lo mismo que ellos hicieron. Por un lado ya estábamos en la oscuridad y nos daba mucho miedo de un espíritu, y los abuelos eran terribles entonces hacían que se cayera un plumero, o un libro, o que sonarán unas campañas que habían puesto listo para que suenen más sustosas. Como nos daban tanto miedo nos acostábamos temprano, nos tapábamos con las cobijas y nos durmiéramos rápido. Éramos trece niños nosotros y generalmente mi mama y mi abuelita. Ella venía mucho a ayudar por que éramos tantos niños! Casi cada año había un niño nuevo en nuestro casa, y éramos nosotros cada tipo de niño — los gritones, los locos, los felices, los que lloraban mucho. Te puedes imaginar por que hicieron esas historias de los fantasmas. Como más nos hubieran haber puesto a dormir!


Ah, let’s see, about the ghosts. Well, those are the kinds of stories our grandparents would tell us. Since there was no electricity, well it would get very dark in the house around seven and we would all sit around together and they would tell us stories so that we would get scared and so that we would go to bed early. So, they would always tell us stories about how in old houses and ranches like ours there were the ghosts of people who couldn’t leave earth after dying. They would give them different names, like the crippled soldier, the one-footed man, and the crying woman. They were all people that couldn’t rest in peace after death because they had committed some fault, or had done something quite sinful. So they would tell us these stories and would tell us that those spirits were living on our ranch, and that if we are ourselves had committed a sin, such as eating the oranges we had reserved for guests, or anything that grew on our land that was off limits, such as our potatoes, the plantains, touching any of those was bad because al that food was to eat as a family, not to steal individually. So if one of us kids ate a banana or an orange or anything without permission, one would be incredibly frightened, that a ghost would come and get them for stealing. So for everything immoral like that our grandparents had a story, like some new one to remind us not to steal. And in that manner it wasn’t ever the grandparents that would punish us, but God himself, because the people that died couldn’t find peace after their loss of life, and they would come to reap vengeance in the houses of those children that also committed their sins. On one hand we were already in the darkness of night, and we would be so frightened of a vengeful ghost, and yet our grandparents were so mischievous that they would make a broom or book fall randomly. Or even worse, they would make some bells they had chime in a way that was more eerie. These effects would make us so frightened that we would go to bed early, and we could cover ourselves with our blankets, and we went to bed quickly. We were thirteen kids in my household and generally it was my mom and my grandmother looking after us. My grandmother would come often because we were so many of us kids. Almost every year for a long time there was a new child in my household, and we were each of us every kind of kid – screamers, wildcats, the joyful ones, those who cried very much. You can imagine then, why they used these ghost stories; how else would they have put us to bed!

Analysis: I found this story very touching, even if my grandmother and her siblings’ experience must have been tough. I can imagine why the grandparents used these tactics to keep the children morally just and from staying up al night and over-running the ranch. My father actually used to do similar things late at night – he would tie up objects with fishline and make them fall and tell me there were ghosts in the house. I got very frightened and would go to bed very early as well. There seems to be a widespread tradition surrounding ghosts in childhood in Colombia. Often enough, these beliefs are intertwined with the predominantly catholic belief system.


Growing up in Homs, Syria

The informant is from Homs, Syria, living in the U.S. for twelve years now. She came from Saudi Arabia. She was interviewed at my family’s home.

“I miss everything about Syria. Nothing here tastes as good as it did there, where everything was natural, made with real butter, real animal fat, with fruits and vegetables grown organically, the food was so good you can not even imagine it. We had thriving, bustling cities, where community was vibrant. I loved that as I was growing up, we had neighbors and they would just jokingly show up, spooking me and my Mom, but that was normal, traditional and expected.”

What do you mean by that?

“You could come visit a neighbor, uninvited, anytime. Here, you have to call, make plans, call before and make sure you are still invited. I feel lonely here even though I do have friends. In Homs, when I was bored or lonesome, just walking the city was entertaining, seeing the people selling things, talking, stopping to eat something, to buy crafts, everything was handmade, and everything of exquisite quality, the craftsmanship was excellent, the result of years of practice and work. The textiles, the weaving, the beading, the pottery, our crafts were art! On fridays people do not work, so we visit relatives. The people were very family oriented, our values are community, sharing, helping and being in solidarity. What is happening now in my country is an unimaginable tragedy, what humanity has lost cannot be described in words.”

Here the informant is obviously very nostalgic about growing up in Syria, in what is now lost to endless war and aggression. She described to me that the marketplace of goods and cuisine in Syria was far more limited than anywhere else she has been, but that although restricted, everything was local and home cooked or home made. Particularly interesting is her emphasis on collective community. She described her living situation as a collection of one-story brick houses and that neighbors one often hop among houses, visiting neighbors and chatting casually. This is quite different than the private and individualized neighborhood lives that we live, although of course, we have different needs. I hope Roola gets to visit a peaceful Syria someday. She was very distraught discussing it.


Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Ritual Of Coffee Service Employees

The informant in question is a barista with one of the most popular and well established coffee companies in Los Angeles. The ritual in question is, in the informants experience, company wide. Every employee does it.

“Working at a coffee shop with constant, bustling lines and loud talk Is really tiring. Getting really good coffee to thousands of people in one day is a difficult task. Our service line is like a manufacturing line, and we have to also retain a certain level of quality. We start at six in the morning and some of us work far, far into the day. The work is good though.

Mid shift, when the shift is halfway over, we all take a shot of water from our espresso cups. It’s something we all do, right in the middle of the day. It’s like taking a real shot, you know? To celebrate, to get you through it. It’s like ‘the day is halfway over’ and it’s a nice tradition. It helps us keep working and get over the halfway bump”

How long have you been doing it?

“Oh, ever since I’ve been at the company. Always. It’s something we came up with as a team to motivate ourselves. At first we thought, maybe a shot of beer. But there’s lots of us that shouldn’t and can’t do that so we take a shot of water instead. It’s great”

Analysis: This is a cool little ritual that must be helpful for gathering some energy. These baristas are standing all day, constantly pulling shots and servicing people. At first, the informant couldn’t think of any pieces of folklore to share with me. But he got quite excited in sharing this little ritual of theirs.


Bath Time – Japan

My informant was born and raised in Japan, but moved to America to finish her college degree at the University of San Diego. She told me about a childhood custom that is common among Japanese families.

“In Japan a little daughter and dad shower and bath together is normal–with son too. People from other countries say that’s disgusting. (But) it’s because normally dads don’t have time to communicate with their kids cause the work, so bath time is perfect time to have kids time to them. We did until I was 7 or something.”

I knew she had an older brother, so I asked if her dad would shower with both of them simultaneously or one by one. Her response was:

“Both! But that’s only when we’re little like 3 or 4. After that let’s say probably when I’m taking the bath my dad join me after. We just talk and play in the bathtub. Maybe he help me wash my hair, but not the body.”

I thought it was interesting how my informant pointed out how other countries saw this custom as strange, and felt the need to provide an explanation (almost in a defensive manner). I think it is because in Western culture it is more commonly heard of for mothers to take baths with their children since they are the ones to have given birth and are the “caretakers” of the family. A father  taking a bath with his child–especially a daughter– could be interpreted as inappropriate or even as sexual abuse.

However, baths are a huge part of Japanese custom. Japan has numerous public bathhouses located all over the country, varying from rural to urban areas. These bathhouses have large communal baths that are typically segregated by gender. Visitors comfortably bathe and walk around nude in front of complete strangers. With this information in mind, I was not surprised to hear that it is typical for children to bathe with their fathers.