USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘urban legend’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Legends
Narrative
Signs

The Bay Area: The Toys R Us Ghost

Context:

My informant is a 21 year old student from the University of Southern California. This conversation took place in a university dining hall one evening. The informant and I were in an open space, and the informant’s significant other was present and listening to the conversation, as well. The SO’s presence, is the most likely reason that the informant was much more dramatic and told the legend quite jokingly, as if for the purpose to get laughs out of both me and the SO. In this account, he explains a legend of a ghost in his town that he doesn’t remember who he learned it from: “Everyone just seems to know about it.” This is a local legend, and has also been reported on Mercury News, SFGate, and a series of blogs. This is a transcription of our conversation, where he is identified as A and I am identified as K.

 

Text:

A: Before the bustling suburb of Sunnyvale grew to its imminent heights that now houses Amazon and Google offices, it was once a sleepy little farm town in Silicon Valley, where tech was replaced by fields and farms and orchards. One day, this man (as it was explained to me) was out in the field, in one of those like, you know, he has some kind of labor agreement with the farm… So he’s hacking away with his hoe, and this guy injures himself. Turns out he bleeds out into the field and dies. Decades later, there’s now a Toys R Us here… long story short, this guy who self-maimed himself with a hoe and bled out… he hunts, this uh, Toys R Us. Even though Toys R Us just got bought out, before that, all the ghost hunter people would come into Sunnyville to see this ghost. He would come into the aisles at all hours of the night, pretty crazy stuff… You can say Sunnyvale’s not sleepy anymore!

Don’t sleep on Sunnyvale….

K: Ok, what did you take away from this story?

A: Um, I think especially in areas like suburbs, when there’s not traditionally a lot of culture, people latch on to certain stories, just to impart some kind of history onto a town that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be that notable.

K: What effect did this story have on you?

A: I still shopped at Toys R Us, but honestly I heard it after I stopped shopping, but I still do play with Legos just as a disclaimer.

 

Thoughts:

I thought this story was particularly interesting and ended up looking it up to find out more about this ghost. As it turns out, this ghost has made quite a name for itself in the Bay Area. Just like my informant said, this ghost worked the land as part of a labor agreement, where he would have housing in exchange for his work. However, what my informant didn’t mention was the fact that this ghost fell in love with the daughter of the family that owned the land; she eventually ran away with a lawyer, breaking his heart. Distracted by the pain of his broken heart, the ghost ended up hurting himself with one of his tools and slowly bled to death, thus leaving his unsettled ghost to roam the land.

Years afterwards, many people came to the newly built Toys R Us that was constructed on top of the land that he worked to ghost hunt for him., but it seems that this story has re-emerged under the new context that Toys R Us is now shutting down. It seems that this story has a new relevance, where people can now interpret this story in the death of people, but also in the death of companies. Many of the new articles wonder whether or not the death of Toys R Us will also result in the disappearance of the ghost. However, the ghost’s story is separate from Toys R Us’s: he was clearly wronged by a member of the family that owned the land, and his haunting is meant to instill guilt in the owners of that land. Furthermore, ghosts are believed to be tied to the soil, not the structure that they resided in, so it’s most likely that the ghost will remain and that for those that were hopeful that he would leave, they will have to continue to remember the wrongdoings of the daughter that broke his heart.

 

For more on this ghost story, please refer to this article below:

Dowd, Katie. “Will the Death of Toys R Us Kill off This Famous South Bay Ghost Story?” SFGate, San Francisco Chronicle, 17 May 2018, www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/haunted-toys-r-us-sunnyvale-ghost-store-12750779.php.


general
Legends
Narrative
Protection

The Witch of Yazoo

(Setup)

Storyteller:

“On my dad’s side of the family…he grew up in a town called Yazoo City, Mississippi. And did you ever see a movie called My Dog Skip?

Me: “No”

Storyteller: “Okay, so it’s a movie..based on a book about an author who grew up in the same town as my dad did. A white author who grew up there. And in the movie, they portray this legend which is the Witch of Yazoo. And supposedly, people are like ‘well he invented that for the book.’ On the black side of town…because it is Mississippi so there is still a very distinct black side of town. On the black side of town, the Witch of Yazoo was a preexisting legend. And again, whether it was a story he coopted or whatever, I don’t know. But I know that I heard about this form my aunt and uncle before I ever heard of this author or My Dog Skip or anything.”

(Here is the chunk of the story)

Storyteller: “And so, basically the story is that there was this woman and she was…and I’m going to try to remember it as accurately  as I can. I believe she was having… an affair with a man in town and it was either an affair…or some sort of family drama. I don’t remember specifically that part of it. But she ends up being murdered essentially by the man in her life in a fire. And then they bury her and everyone forgets about it. And then at a certain point fairly soon after…or it may have bene close to the anniversary of the death, half the town burnt down. And everyone was like wtf, like what happened. And her grave had been dug up.”

Me: “Oh My God!”

Storyteller: “And so people were like…’It was her! She came back and she did it’. And of course people were like ‘that’s crazy.’ But also people were like ‘um maybe?’ So they built a chain that goes around her grave that is supposed to keep her inside.”

Me: “Oh My God, that’s terrifying”

Storyteller: “And in the movie, if you see the movie My Dog Skip, it’s like a crypt that’s there…but in the black cemetery there was a grave because we went to see my grandmothers grave and I asked about it and my aunt was like ‘oh girl lemme tell you this story.’ So either there is one for the black side of town…because you know it used to be very segregated. Or it was a thing that happened on the black side of town originally and it just got coopted on the other side of town…I have NO idea. But it is this hilarious thing because it was this chain with GIANT weights and I was like ‘what the hell is that?!’ And yeah, so the inspect the chain…or at least they used to supposedly…they inspect it so she couldn’t come back.”

Me: “So this was true and it became a movie? Or what?”

Storyteller: “The thing is I have no idea…my aunt tells that story as if it is gospel truth right? But then when the movie came out and I looked it up, all this stuff online said it came from the book. But my aunt told me that story without ever having read that book. Because I asked her and she was like ‘what are you talking about?’ And she knew the guy (the author) but she had never read the book. So I don’t…I have no idea if it’s just one of those local stories that people know so he used it in the book or what…But it’s the south and it’s full of ridiculous scary stories. Really I think all these stories are made to just keep us from doing bad stuff or whatever.”

 

Background: The storyteller is form the south and her dad’s side of the family is from the city where this legend takes place. After listening to her other story that she shared with me, it is clear that her family has passed down many stories that are unique to the south. The storyteller is a professional writer and has used some of these stories and filled in the gaps to write short stories upon the narrative.

Context: I asked her if I could interview her for this project. I knew that she was from the south and after collecting a couple stories from people who grew up in the south, I was fascinated with them and wanted to hear more. She gave me three stories…a couple were stories from New Orleans and the other was this one. Both occurring in the south. I drove back home to meet her for some coffee before diving into the interview (along with another storyteller who is in a different post)

Thoughts:  I think that the stories that come from the south are fascinating. I don’t know what it is that draws me and so many other people to them. Perhaps it’s because the stories are incredibly rich or perhaps it’s the stories’ attention to details that make the stories so real. There are a lot of stories about revenge in the south and once again, I believe that this is the case because there is a lot of unsettled business. There have been a lot of wrong done in the south and the only way for people to cope with what happened may be to create stories that serve a small percentage of justice to those that were killed or unfairly harmed.

 

 

Legends

The Winchester Mystery House

The informant is middle-aged family friend who grew up in New Jersey. He heard this legend while in medical school in the Bay Area.

Note: The initials DW denote the informant, while A refers to me, the interviewer.

——————–

A: Okay. So what is the Winchester Mystery House?

DW: Yes. So the Winchester Mystery House is this ginormous, sprawling mansion somewhere in the Bay Area. I think it’s in San Jose. Um, so Winchester is actually the family that made Winchester guns, made an enormous fortune manufacturing firearms. Um, and so, I believe it was … the or one of the heiresses to this fortune, I think back in the late 1800s or early 1900s? I think she was involved in mediums, and seances, which was really en vogue all across English-speaking world back then. She became convinced that there were evil forces that were out to kill her, and the only way to prevent that from happening is to continually keep building her house, to never have construction stop. Twenty-four hours a day.

A: [laughs] Huh. That’s interesting. Why would that keep them away?

DW: I have no idea. That was, like, her delusion. I guess we would call it a delusion. Who knows? Maybe it was real. But she did end up dying eventually.

A: Oh! Of… supernatural causes?

DW:  [laughs] I don’t think so. Unlikely. I don’t know of what. Not killed by demonic forces.

A: [laughs] Okay.

DW: So, this huge house is… it’s like a… you can visit as a tourist today. It’s huge! And lots of rooms. But what she started doing also is just building, like, hallways that stop at nothing, staircases that go nowhere, doors that open to nowhere. Just building for building’s sake without any purpose or function.

A: How big did the house end up being?

D: I don’t know, like, in square feet, but really big.

A: Where do you think the lady got that idea?

D: I don’t know… It kind of reminds me of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Obviously, the spirits were her obsession, and then her compulsion was to keep building the house.

——————–

The thing I found interesting is the fact that the legend centers around the widow’s motives for building the house rather than the house itself. The house exists, and the fact that there was so much construction is true (though I could not verify that it was actually twenty-four hours a day). But when I did further research on the house, I found that no one actually knows why the widow undertook so many bizarre renovations. I think that the fact that a legend arose from this is an interesting demonstration of the human need to rationalize the things we don’t understand–for example, when we hear phonemes (or single-syllable sounds) in another language that we don’t recognize because they don’t exist in our language, our brains interpret them as the closest phoneme in our own language. Because there is no reasonable explanation for why someone would do something so bizarre, it makes sense that a legend would arise suggesting that the house was haunted, or that spirits or psychics instructed her to keep building the home. To me, it was an example of how folklore can arise to meet our needs or to explain things to us.

Childhood
Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Game
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Magic

Don’t Get the Cheese Touch

Piece:

Interviewer: “What about games? Any you remember from childhood?

L.F.: “Lemme think…. Oh yeah haha the cheese touch.”

Interviewer: “What is the cheese touch?”

L.F.: “It was kinda like the elementary school bully version of tag. Basically when someone had the “cheese touch” no one would speak to them out of the fear of getting it.”

Interviewer: “What was it though?”

L.F.: “hahahaha… I don’t know… It was just like cooties. No one knew what they were but you definitely didn’t want it.”

Informant:

Informant L.F. is a teenage boy who recently became an adult. He is half Japanese and half Jewish and has spent his entire life in Northern California. During the summers, L.F. likes to attend away summer camp, and had attended the same camp for the past five summers. The camp is ranges from three weeks to 2 months and L.F. will be returning this summer as a counselor.

Context:

I asked informant L.F. to sit down for a formal interview on young adult folklore and if he remembered any weird games from his childhood or now. This is what he thought of.

Interpretation:

To L.F. the cheese touch was a childhood game used to ridicule and scare kids into bullying one another. And, while her has fun memories of playing the game, he admits it was a representation of childhood bullying. L.F. does not remember who he learned the game from, but it was the sort of game that never really ended and all his school friends were apart of it. It reminds him of simpler times and of his youth.

 

general
Legends
Narrative

Legend of Hicks Road — Albino Colony

Text

The following piece was collected from a nineteen-year-old female during a road trip from Los Angeles to San Jose, CA. As we were driving, she yelled out and pointed at an exit sign to “Hicks Road” leading off the freeway. Girl hereafter referred to as “Informant” and I will be referred to as “Collector”.

Informant: “Look, look! There’s an old ghost story about that road! Have you guys ever heard of Hicks Road?”

(Chorus of negative responses)

Informant: “So, the myth is that at the end of Hicks Road there’s an albino colony. The albinos all live up there in really creepy trailers. They say that the albinos really hate outsiders, or, like people that aren’t albino. So its supposed to be that if you ever are routed somewhere and you’re supposed to go through Hicks Road, you should reroute because if you go through there, the albinos will get you.”

Collector: “Do they just live on the road? What will they do to you?”

Informant: “No, they live in the dead end, basically a cul-de-sac of albino people. There are some parts of Hicks Road that are okay, but if you turn right at the dead end part, it will take you right to the albinos. Nobody knows what they’ll do to you, all you know is that they don’t take well to strangers.”

Context

It was obvious that my informant found this story to be highly entertaining. While the Informant made it very clear that she did not truly believe that there was an albino colony living at the end of Hicks Road, she was still very adamant that we did not venture near it when I suggested we make a quick detour. The informant lives in San Jose and claims to have known the story for a very long time; she believes she heard it at school. When I asked her when she learned of it, or from whom, she couldn’t recall but remembers it as always being present. She remembers it because it is one of the signs she always sees on the drive from her home in San Jose to USC. She heard a theory that the story originated from a couple of people who were out at Hicks Road one night when they stumbled across a man. The kids ran away because they were scared of being caught trespassing, and apparently during an account of what they had seen, one of the kids claimed that one guy had been “very white”. Thus, the myth of the albino colony.

Interpretation

I was very interested in hearing this story. I similarly do not believe that there is truly a colony of albino people living on Hicks Road in San Jose, CA. Like my informant, I am inclined to believe that the myth began when the story passed from friend to family member after one of the originators claimed to have seen a “very white” man up at Hicks Road. I love the idea that whole myths begin by one person’s account of an event, that childhood horror stories can be created by a simple phrase.

Legends
Narrative

West Virginia Blue People

Text

The following piece was collected at a dinner table with a group of girls out celebrating a friend’s birthday. One of the girls, the “Informant”, was discussing an upcoming trip to visit her brother at West Virginia University. Laughing, the Informant launched into a story of the “West Virginia Blue People”, a story about a genetic condition the resulted from intermarriage.

Informant: “So, what my brother told me is that there’s a story that there are people in the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, near the campus I guess, and there is skin is blue. It’s blue, and their people have always had blue skin because of all the intermarrying and incest. So you can tell if someone is a product of incest if their skin is blue! Sometimes, it can be really faint though, so you have to look closely at their lips or fingernails. Apparently, it shows more easily when they’re cold!”

Context:

            The Informant learned this information from her brother, when he returned home after his first semester at school. From California herself, the informant was very curious to hear about what the people of West Virginia were like. She remembers the story very easily, most often humorously, because she remembers the manner in which her brother told her. He recounted how, after hearing the story for the first time, he and his roommates would make a show of continuously checking to see if their other friends’ lips or skin ever looked blue. Finding it ridiculous herself, the Informant told me that she still enjoys being a part of the joke.

Interpretation

            My first reaction to this story was wondering whether there was a scientific reason, or condition perhaps, that acted as a precursor to this belief of a skin condition that was a result of incest. Upon further research, I saw that the original story was based on a specific family that was said to be suffering from blue-tinted skin. Researchers believe this to truly be the case, a result of the family suffering from a genetic condition called methemoglobinemia, which is an excess of methemoglobin in the red blood cells of the body. This condition does, in fact, cause blue-tinted. Hearing this story and conducting some research of my own led me to believe that people love to come up with their explanation for things they cannot explain, no matter how perplex.

Customs
Magic
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Coffee Grinds – Predict the Future?

The informant was telling me how Greeks used the dregs from coffee grinds to read the future:

Informant: In some cultures they read tea leaves, but in some cultures they read coffee grinds.

Me: huh

Support: dregs from the coffee

Informant: They took the dregs turned over a little cup and turned it three times, and then they read the inside of the cup – what dripped out – and read what they would see “oh your gonna take a trip, oh you’re gonna get married, oh this or that”

Support: they always said I was going to get married, but here I am!

 

Context: 

The Informant is a Greek woman who was born in the United States. She currently lives in Carmel-By-The-Sea, CA. Though she was not born in Greece, her parents immigrated to the US and she was born into a very Greek community in Phoenix, AZ. The performance was held during an Easter party, in front of her younger sister, who provided supporting information, as well as me.

Analysis:
This was completely new to me, as I had never heard of this ritual and only faintly heard of the tea leave predictions. I think it is really interesting how different cultures share so many similar traditions and patterns, and while they are similar they are also very different. It also raises questions about why cultures come up with these practices, seeing that they are not always accurate, but fascinating nonetheless.

Legends

Underwater Body at Oakwood Beach

The following urban legend was performed in the USC Village on April 12th, 2019. The informant grew up in Rocky River, Ohio, which is nearby Oakwood beach. At the end of the pier lays a large, sunken metal tube.  The legend was that earlier generations “used to swim through the tube and the someone got stuck and died inside. Kids would try and see but nobody wanted to swim through [the tube] because you wouldn’t make it without getting attacked by the dead person inside.”

The informant first heard of the tube-lore in fifth grade. “Everyone comes back to Rocky River so there was this 5th grade teacher who went to Rocky River High School. The teacher Mrs. Quigley told us “yeah there’s this tube and when we were younger people used to swim through all the time”. Somewhere in the middle of Mrs. Quigley growing up and the informant reaching 5th grade, someone supposedly died inside.

“The pier was very dangerous because there had been many piers that were built and then sunk. People would jump off but there was sunken cement surrounding the area”

The legend of the dead body underwater was probably a mix of scare tactics from adults to prevent their kids from jumping into the area full of sunken cement and the willingness of young kids to share scary stories.

general
Legends

Little Mikey, Killed by Pop Rocks

JC: “Alright, so one of the most common and commonly repeated commercials on television when I was a child, in the 1970s, was a commercial for Life Cereal, in which three boys are depicted, basically at table height. And the first two boys are clearly friends, and a little older. And one of them asks the other, ‘what’s this stuff.’ And the other kid says, ‘dumb cereal, is supposed to be good for you’ (dismissively). And the one kid says, ‘well, you try it.’ And the other kid says, ‘nah, I’m not gonna try it, you try it.’ And then one kid says, ‘yeah, let’s get Mikey. He won’t eat it, he hates everything,’ his little brother. They slide the bowl of cereal  over to his little brother, and he just starts chomping it down, just like shoveling spoonfuls of it into his mouth. And then the kid who’s basically trying to punish his brother and get out of eating the cereal says, ‘He likes it! Hey Mikey!’ So Mikey, even though it wasn’t a common name, became a thing we said like all the time.

“And then we heard, maybe ten years later, that Mikey died from, um, eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda. Yeah, it was a shame. And it was one of those stories that, like, came both with people who would say, like, “I know somebody who knows somebody” or whatever attestations, and it also came, like, pre-marked as fake. But then there’d be like weird spin-offs, like ‘it wasn’t really Mikey but it was this other kid’ or, like, the actual urban legend-ness of it didn’t die, it was a real weird vibe. There was a fear underlying it, that this would happen to you. And I think at some point Pop Rocks stopped being sold for a while, and so we attributed it to the death of various children. Like some marketing decision a candy manufacturer makes turns out to be, ‘they’re killing children with Pop-Rocks and Soda!’ The Pop Rocks and soda challenge wiped out a whole generation of Midwestern boys. Yeah we all tried it. Dude, when Pop Rocks were around we put them in everything, of people’s unsuspectingly. Put them in their cereal, you’d put them on your tongue and have to like go to class with it and not open your mouth and have to let the stuff come out your nose and that was really awful. Um, yeah, Pop Rocks… the candy of death.”

So, did you have any other traditions you did involving Pop Rocks?

JC: “I mean, not really? I mean we poured them in people’s food at lunch and stuff. So we definitely messed with people with them. And we tried various things. We all, like, threw a handful of Pop Rocks in and then, like, took a swig of Mountain Dee or whatever… Mello Yello, just to see what would happen.”

Was the messing with people, was it limited to high school or middle school, or did it continue through college?

JC: “Ohh, it totally continued through college. You have to remember, our college coincided– our college years coincided with the great sort of peak in American prank phone calling culture. Like, the Prank Yankers show was on television with puppets reenacting prank phone calls. And, like, people thought this was the peak of humor. So we messed with a lot of people.”

Background:

JC grew up in Ohio. He remembers the commercial because he watched a lot of television as a child. The urban legend about Mikey and the other shenanigans involving Pop Rocks, from JC’s description, were just part of the middle American zeitgeist during the 1980s and early 1990s. The legend has no particular significance to him, other than as a memory.

Context:

The story of Mikey (or some other kid) dying from eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda is an urban legend which would be told in many situations.

Interpretation:

The story of Mikey dying has variations involving other kids, but generally involves the same story: a kid eats Pop Rocks and drinks soda, and the combination causes his stomach to inflate, somehow killing him. Among JC’s circle, the story was entirely recognized as fake, to the point where they fearlessly tried the combination which allegedly killed Mikey. It may have been the type of story to scare older, more gullible people while younger people either knew better or did not care.

general
Legends
Narrative

Backseat Butcher Horror Story

Informant:

J, a 22-year-old, Caucasian male who grew up in San Francisco, California until he turned 16. He now lives in Boise, Idaho. He spent his summers at summer camp with his friends.

Background info:

During summer camps, counselors and children would sit around a fire-pit at night and tell stories. While some of these were positive, most of them would be told with the aim of scaring people. This is one of the stories told to Jacob during one of these sessions.

Context:

This was told among a group of friends sitting in a circle around a fire-pit late at night, slightly intoxicated, telling each other their favorite scary stories they heard as children.

Main piece:

“A young woman spent the night out on the town. As she decides to come home, she takes the back-roads to avoid having to stop at lights. That, and she can speed a bit haha…. It’s quite a far drive in the dark, so she decides to listen to music on the radio to stay awake. A few minutes into her drive, she notices a large truck driving up behind her. She slows down to let them pass, but the truck just drives directly behind, matching her speed…Nobody else is on the road and the truck flashes its high beams. No matter how fast she drives, or which turns she takes, the truck stays right behind her. Terrified, she speeds home and pulls into the driveway. The truck is still there… She considers locking her doors but opts to get out and run to her house. She opens her car door and starts to run. The driver gets out of his truck, as well, and aims a gun. Time seems to stop… She can feel her heart beating… *Thump*… *Thump*… *Thump*… Silence… *Bang*… The shot echoes in her ears as she looks down at her chest to inspect the wound. As her ears stop ringing, she hears a thud as a body falls out of her car, a butcher’s knife in hand…”

Thoughts:

Having someone follow you is a common trope in folklore that invokes fear in everyone. It rattles your nerves and using it in this story subverts expectations. The final part of the story utilized a lot of sound effects to make the listeners feel calm, despite being the crux of scariness. The ambiance of the environment in which it was told played into it with the cold, quiet, dark night with the flames casting shadows around us. It was obvious that some of the people in the circle were nervous of the shadows, thinking someone was behind them. It was interesting to hear that this was a campfire story told during summer camps due to it being set more in a cityscape. However, I think it works well in that setting because often back-roads had to be taken to get to/from the camps. There are many stories in which events happen in sets of three. This story utilizes it for the sound of the woman’s heartbeat. The sound effects that J used during the story really made it come alive, which is why I believe most recounts of live stories like this do not capture the actual experience of the story.

[geolocation]