USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘scary’
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Informant is a 19 year old female who was born in Chicago and currently lives in Los Angeles. She is my roommate.

Informant: So there’s this bedtime prayer and it goes like “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.” When I was younger, I had a doll and every time I squeezed her, she would say that. And when I went to bed, my mom would squeeze the doll, and the doll would say it and I would say it, and then it became a ritual that we would have. And in my mind, as a child, I didn’t think that it was scary until it started being incorporated into American horror movies. So when I was 10 or 11, I remember watching a horror movie, and this very scary doll saying the same lyrics. So now, it’s a common prayer that started to be associated in multiple horror movies, and the origins are definitely from the bible, but it’s not a typical religious saying. In my generation, it was common that stuffed animals or dolls would say it. But now they don’t really sell these things anymore, because it’s turned into a creepy symbol in American culture, and it scares people.

Collector: Who gave you this doll originally?

Informant: My mom gave me the doll. I just remember having it. In my mind, it was like a protection spell, like it protected me in my sleep. Like in my mind, it never registered as something that was scary, until I started seeing it in horror movies, because of the way that they made the dolls say it. It was in such a creepy manner. It still exists in some parts of culture. I’m not saying it’s completely a horror movie thing, but in my perception I’m very scared of it now. The earliest version was from 1711 I think, like it dates back that far. It technically is a prayer, but it turned into this ritual between my and my mom when I was a kid. And I know other of my friends who had that said to them, when they were kids, mostly because I was also raised by a Christian family and went to a Catholic school.

Collector: Does this particular piece of folklore have any special significance to you?

Informant: It has meaning to me because it’s a big representation of my youth. That like, when I was younger, it was this comforting thing to me, and it’s shown me like how, as I got older, my perceptive of the world has changed.

For another version of this myth, see “Standard Publishing Editorial Staff. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. N.p.: Standard Pub, 2011. Print.”

Because I have personally never watched a horror movie, I cannot say that I find this particular phrase creepy. However, I can see why it has been used in multiple scary stories, as it is very suggestive of death. I think it’s interesting how people actually manufactured and bought dolls with this saying inside of them, and I think that might have been something that contributed to the rise of this saying in horror movies. When I actually think about the prayer though, it makes sense as a protection spell, and really isn’t scary at all. Basically, it asks God to protect your soul while you sleep, and if anything were to happen to you at night, then to at least bring your soul to heaven. I think it is the particular phrasing and word choice of the prayer that has made it such a creepy horror icon today.

Festival
general
Legends
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Stump Murderer

Folklore Piece

“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.”

Background

“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”

Context:

“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.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Turn The Fan Off

The Main Piece
It is common especially in Korean households for people to turn their fans off before they sleep. Despite incredibly high temperatures, there are some superstitious people who refuse to leave their fan on. Elizabeth is one of those people. She refuses to leave her fan on because she is afraid that the air circulation will cause her to die from lack of oxygen. Although she does not believe that will literally happen, she does acknowledge the supernatural world and believes “magical things could be at work and you never really know, so it’s best to be safe.” She was told from a young age that there is a chance that when one leaves the fan on, the carbon dioxide one exhales is trapped in the spinning of the fan. It is because of the accumulation of carbon dioxide Although this belief has never been scientifically proven, many people such as Elizabeth abide by this belief.
Background Information
My informant was my close friend Elizabeth Kim. She is a Korean undergraduate student, born and raised in California. Her father told her this story at an early age, and her father was told it by his parents. Although she suspects this story of simply being a way of them attempting to save electricity, she was extremely scared of not being able to breathe as a child. This childhood fear stuck with her until this present day.
Context
I first learned about Elizabeth’s hidden fear when I slept over at her house. It was extremely hot because it was during the summer, but luckily we had the fan on. When she turned it off as we were about to go to sleep I was confused as to how she could be possibly cold in this kind of heat. When I asked her to turn it back on she replied “no.” When I asked for an explanation she went on to explain the superstition and why she would rather simply just leave it off.
Personal Thoughts
When I first heard Elizabeth’s superstition I thought it would make a superb ghost story, but nothing more. At first I was upset because I was dying in the summer’s heat, but what could I do but abide by her rules. Looking back at it, I find it intriguing that a scientifically unsupported superstition such as that could have that much of an influence on my friend. For more superstitions having to do with fans and death, one can read: Why every Korean kid knows not to keep the fan on over night.
Works Cited
Lee, Kyung Jin. “Why Every Korean Kid Knows Not to Keep the Fan on over Night.” Public
Radio International. N.p., 4 Nov. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Legends
Narrative

Man With the Hook

The informant (my grandmother), loves Halloween and all things spooky. I remember that as a child, I could always expect to hear a horrific legend or other form of narrative when visiting her house. I asked the informant if she would be able to hold a video call with me over FaceTime, and during the call I asked her which of these narratives was her favorite to tell. She said it was a legend almost everyone had heard in some fashion, called “The Man With the Hook.”

“We would always tell this story on the way to Clear Lake. We’d stop the car and park on the side of the road when we got close to Napa State Hospital, then start to tell the story to whichever kids were in the car. It goes that some teenagers were parked near the hospital the night before doing something they were not supposed to be doing, listening to music and making out. Suddenly, the music stops and an announcement comes on the radio that a mental patient who had a history of murdering young girls just escaped from Napa State Hospital. We chose this hospital because in those days, it was the closest place where crazy people were put, and there was a prison part to it. He was distinctive because he had lost one hand and had a hook. The girl got scared and said she heard something outside, but the boy dismissed her saying that she was just paranoid. She yelled at him, and he got mad so he peeled out from where they were parked and sped away. Right when the car started moving she asked if he heard something, and he said no. When they got back home and stepped out of the car, there was a bloody hook on the door. They never found the man, though, and rumor has it he is still out searching for his next victim.”

This is a classic scary narrative that most Americans will say they have heard in some form. This particular version was adapted to a particular location that was convenient to the informant, so that the fear of the children who heard it was amplified by the supposed proximity of the man with the hook. The legend functions not only as a way to playfully elicit paranoia in children, but also to warn them against misbehaving. It is implied that the teenagers in the narrative are doing something that they shouldn’t be by kissing in the car at a remote location so as to not get caught by their parents, and as a result of this behavior the man with the hook almost gets them. No part of this narrative must take place in a specific geographic location, so it can easily be told by those who know it wherever they happen to be.

general
Legends
Narrative

Spring Break in Mexico

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.

general
Legends
Narrative

“People Can Lick Too”

INFORMANT: “So this is a scary story I used to get told all the time as a kid on camping trips or sleepovers or what have you. I’m totally going to mess it up, but bear with me. Okay, so there was this little girl who lived in a house with her family and her dog, and her dog would sleep right next to her bed each night. And she liked this, it made her feel safe to know her dog was there with her, especially when it got dark and she got scared like kids sometimes do in the dark. So whenever she got freaked out at night, she would hang her arm off the bed and the dog would lick her hand, and she would know he was right there with her.

So one night, the house seems eerily quiet, and she gets scared. She hangs her arm off the bed, feels the lick, and tries to go to sleep again. But something just doesn’t feel right, so in a few minutes she hangs her arm off the bed again. Another lick. So she goes to sleep, and eventually in the middle of the night she wakes up and needs to go to the bathroom. So she gets out of bed, walks into the bathroom, and turns on the lights. The whole bathroom is covered in blood, and the mangled body of her dog is crumpled on the floor – every bone in his body is broken. And she looks in horror up at the bathroom mirror, because there, written in dripping red blood, is the sentence ‘People can lick too.'”

 

When the informant told me this story, I wasn’t surprised because I’d definitely heard variations of it before. Ghost stories and scary stories are great examples of folklore because there are so many different variants of each story. Certain defining elements remain the same, but details change based on where you hear the story or just who’s telling it. This story in particular seems to utilize the rule of threes: the girl gets one lick, two licks, and the third time she wakes up, the time she goes to the bathroom, is when she discovers the dead dog and the eery message. This is an effective scary story because it makes you go back and think – it’s not showing you the monster, he doesn’t kill the girl or anything. But the listener automatically backtracks and realizes that it was the dog murderer that was licking the little girl’s hand the whole time!

ANNOTATION: Several other versions of this particular story can be found on the scary story website Creepypasta, including this one: http://creepypasta.wikia.com/wiki/Licking

Narrative
Riddle

Halloween House

The riddle:

Informant: “It was a dark, Halloween night, and a boy was walking alone. There was a house with no power, like in the woods, in the back of the woods, like there was a pathway up to the house, there was no power. And he went in alone, and he goes, and he was walking through it all, and he kept on hearing creaky sounds, and then he finally got to the back, and this voice over the house just was like, ‘You walked into this house, and now you have to die,’ and he said, ‘but I’ll give you five choices on how to die.’ And it was like, ‘You can take a pill, and you won’t feel anything at all, and you’ll just die peacefully. Or you can, um, I can cut your neck off’…there are like two other ways, I can’t remember, and then, um…oh and then, ‘You can sit in a rocking chair and you’ll die by the…electric chair.’ And he…what would you have chosen? The pill where you don’t feel anything?”

Informant’s mom: “No, or the electric chair, or what?”

Informant: “Getting your head chopped off.”

Informant’s mom: “I don’t know, I wouldn’t do the pill, because I would think that I might have a chance to escape. So I wouldn’t do that.”

Informant: “Alright, well, he picked the pill, but if he would’ve picked the electric chair, he wouldn’t’ve died, because remember at the beginning, I said there was no power.”

Informant’s mom: “Ohhhhh (laughs).”

 

The informant, a sophomore in high school, told this to her mother. She says that she learned this from a classmate in second grade. The riddle doesn’t seem to be that clever, but I think it was probably very clever for second graders once they knew the right answer. It probably amused them while also skirting around the taboo of death and violence at such a young age. While effectively harmless, it was fun for young children to sort of trick one another.

Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

The Devil will pull you under the bed by your feet

Informant (“M”) is a 52 year old woman from Bogota, Colombia. She moved to the United States in 1992, at the age of 30. She has two kids, a boy and a girl, who she raised in the United States. She has four siblings, two brothers and two sisters, she was the second born. She has a 102 year old Grandmother. Collection was over Skype.

 

Transcript:

“M: Cuando nosotros uh… youngers, uh…. younger? Okay and we lied, my mom said to us when you go to sleep tonight… that was scary… the devil is coming and grab you from your feet and taking you with him. Usually we went to sleep and we covered our feet very well, and wore socks, and the next day sometimes we lost one of ours socks. She would say the devil took the socks but didn’t grab us from our feet.

Me: So what this supposed to happen when you were in bed?

Yeah, because we was wearing socks and took our socks instead.

Me: Did he like stay or live under the bed?

M: Yeah! I believe he did, he was under the bed or under old blankets. Later we’d find the socks lost sometimes and believe “oh god the devil was here”. We’d later find the socks sometimes.

Me: So she said that only happened when you lied?

M: It’s only when we lied, ‘’I know you’re lying tonight and the devil will come get you from you feet’’ [imitation of mother].

Me: Was there any way to stop him, like could you confess that you lied or pray to stop the devil?

(Did not address question as I interrupted)

M: That was like 40 something years ago, I believe that was similar in the United States in the 50s. I don’t think it a very funny way to teach to behave.”

 

Analysis:

The monster pulling you under the bed by your feet piece of Folklore appears to exist in the United States, as was noted by “M”, often tied to the boogeyman. There are multiple references to the ‘under the bed monster’ and in American popular studies journals being cited in one article as “…so universal that we no longer stop to think about their origins. “(Shimabukuro, 2014). As identified by “M” at the end of the transcript, it was used as a method to convince her, by her mother, to tell her if she had been lying. This could be used to scare the truth out of a child, or if the child would not tell no matter what, as a way to negatively reinforce such behavior.

“M”s use of socks to protect her from the devil living under the bed appears to be used as a protection charm from the devil, similar to when children hide their heads under the blanket. It was also used as an indicator of the devil’s presence, as the disappearance of the socks may have indicated to “M” that the devil had tried to grab her and grabbed her sock instead.

Work Cited

Shimabukuro, K. (2014). The Bogeyman of Your Nightmares: Freddy Krueger’s Folkloric Roots. STUDIES IN POPULAR CULTURE.

Game
general

Scary Hide and Go Seek

“D” is a 19 year old female student at The University of Southern California. She is a Chemistry major and interested in pursuing Pharmacy after college.  She is Vietnamese on both sides of her family and describes herself as very close with her sister, whom she shares many Folkloric traditions with. She played soccer up through high school and is currently active in the rugby community.

 

 

Transcript:

“D: So when we were little we used to play hide and go seek tag, kind of, but we were supposed to in bed. All four of us, our bedrooms are in the same wing of the house and so, we had to play when we were supposed to be sleeping and it was all dark and we had to be completely silent. So what we would try to do instead of actually just hiding, we would find the darkest clothing or blanket and just crouch in a corner and pretend we were like a rock or the wall. So the majority of the time it started off as hide and go seek, and  we’d try to find the other person, towards like, as we got older, it was like ‘who can scare the other person to get them to scream the loudest so they can get caught’.

Me: So the point was like, to not wake up your parents but still be able to play?

D: Yeah, yeah!

Me: Do you remember when you first started playing?

D: My brother and sister were older so they started playing first, I would say I was about six, so my sister was eight, my brother was ten.

Me: So from that other piece of Folklore you told me about before (titled “Siblings tapping though walls to talk to each other “, also in this database), you would tap on the wall with you sister to communicate without your parents knowing, she would come over there or you would go over there and you would try to scare the shit out of each other by pretending to be  rocks and stuff?

D: It started out as hide and go seek, than it was like ‘scare the shit out of each other!’ ”

 

Analysis:

Coupled with “D”s tapping through the walls to communicate with her sister, as featured in the other piece of Folklore mentioned above in bold, this game appears to be an attempt to extend play past when was dictated by her parents. By attempting to scare each other, they both acknowledged that they were in a situation they were not supposed to be in, and also implemented it into their game play, building a game around the environment provided to them. The use of scaring both allowed implementation of the taboo aspect of the game, while taking advantage of the lack of awareness provided by the dark, as the dark is conventionally very scary for children. “D”s being pulled into game play despite being one of the younger siblings allowed to bonding to take place by showing the younger sibling she was allowed to participate in her form of play.

 

Game
Kinesthetic

Dead Woman game

Context: The informant is an 11 year old girl of Pakistani descent. She is a 6th grader at a public school in Torrance, CA.  Her social groups include friends of many different religious and ethnic backgrounds. The following game is a modified version of tag she learned around third grade from her close friends of Indo-Pakistani descent.

The game starts by choosing someone to be the Dead Woman:

Me: And how do you choose who’s It?

Inf.: Well sometimes–like, i like to be It because I’d rather be the one chasing other people than getting chased myself.

Me: Ok, but what if no one wants to be It?

Inf.: Then you could…then everyone goes “Not it!” and whoever says it last–or actually what me and my friends do is we’ll do Nose Goes?

Me: Yeah, i know what that is, ok, and then?

Inf.: And then whoever’s It lays down on the floor, and everyone runs around them going,

“Dead woman, dead woman, come alive,

when i count to the number five

1,2,3,4,5, come alive!”

and then the Dead Woman gets up and starts chasing us, and she can’t open her eyes, so it’s like, she has to–or he, he or she has find us and catch someone without seeing, and whoever gets caught has to be the Dead Woman.

Analysis: Like many childhood games, ‘tag’ being the prime example, this game is basically a chasing game. The interesting variation in this version is that there seems to be a backstory to this particular game: the Dead Woman who comes alive with the enacting of a special incantation and comes after the ones who have revived her. Death holds a certain fascination for all humans, and children are no different. The added fear factor of having someone come back from the dead, when everybody supposedly “knows” that such a feat is impossible, is probably part of the appeal. In this game, then, kids are literally running from death, something that is very representative of Western society as a whole–its obsession with youth and how it refuses to deal with or accept the prospect of death in any form. The fact that the Dead Woman is brought to life via an incantation is also an interesting reflection on society’ s obsession with control and wanting to be able to recreate life of imitate it in the very least–how many incarnations of Frankenstein have there been? How hotly is the issue of cloning and genetic engineering debated?

In my childhood, we played a similar game, but it was called simply “Mummy”. The Mummy had to lie down on the floor, and the other kids would enact a “discovery” of the Mummy (“Oh, look! It’s an ancient Egyptian tomb! I wonder what’s inside!”), only to “realize” that all their poking and prodding had brought the Mummy to life. The Mummy would then get up with an eerie groan and chase after the kids, stiff-legged and blind, until s/he caught someone. Here we see similar themes of bringing someone back from the dead and having them be vengeful because of it, though this time there is no deliberate life-giving incantation. Is the change in the newer version a reflection on humanity’s intensifying urge to (re)create life?

[geolocation]