Tag Archives: American South

Moss Back.

L is a 78-year-old Caucasian male originally from Meridian, Mississippi. L is a retired drill sergeant and veteran of the American war in Vietnam.

While visiting Phoenix, Arizona I met with L to discuss folklore, as he had previously helped me collect war stories for an oral history project. I met L at his Phoenix office where he provided me with two scary stories he remembered from his past. The following is the second of these two stories, which he first heard as a boy in the late 1950s.

L: Moss Back, Um.. I think it was a Cherokee Indian… What happened? Trying to think, guess we’ll see, he gets his head cut off.. and uh, then he goes around looking for his head. You know laughs and you could hear him moaning at night when he’s coming through the brush and through the trees. So you didn’t want to go out at night and you didn’t want to hear “Moss Baaack.. Moss Baaack’s coming..” laughs Oh God, probably seven eight years old when I first heard it. It was really funny, uh, so at church we had a group called “RA’s” Royal Ambassadors. So we had a ball team we played softball and that kinda stuff so we had, I’ll never forget him. He was our assistant pastor to church and he did all the stuff with the boys. We had some friends that had a lake out in the country about ten miles outside of Meridian.. and so he fixed up a deal to throw us camping out there and fishing, an overnight stay at the lake. So, we fished that day and you know uh did some swimming and fishing and all kinda stuff. And then that evening, they built a big ol’ camp fire. And they started telling us ghost stories you know laughs and Moss Back was one of ‘em and all kinds, all kinds of stuff and here’s a bunch of boys from.. seven eight, to ten maybe twelve. Um, so we listened to all these stories.. and there was somebody I don’t remember who it was, but there was another man there helping the Pastor out. And they said ok said, uh, “you boys”, uh, you know “go on to bed and do whatever you’re going to do and we’re going to go on and fish for a while there’s good fishing out here at night.” So they got in this boat and paddled out into this lake. Well, they went to the other side and came around through the dark laughs and we’re all sitting around here heard all these ghost stories you know laughs and here they come you know they got right up close to us and they went “Moss Baaack’s a comin Moss Baaack’s a comin!” laughs imitates scream we jump up running in every direction laughs oh my God! laughs boy they got us good. They, they likely scared us out of a year’s growth you know.

Reflection: L provided a great example of a common way folk have historically interacted ostensively with scary stories, pranking. The ”insiders” with knowledge of a scary story tend to prank the ”outsiders” (those without knowledge of the scary story) as an act of initiation for transitioning from ”insiders” to ”outsiders” of the story. As L’s account demonstrates, this often takes the form of the ”insiders” pretending to be the monster featured in the scary story in order to frighten the ”outsiders.” Moss Back as a character appears to be based on racially problematic history, as beheading is a known method of execution that American settlers used to punish Native American populations.

Muscle White.

L is a 78-year-old Caucasian male originally from Meridian, Mississippi. L is a retired drill sergeant and veteran of the American war in Vietnam.

While visiting Phoenix, Arizona I met with L to discuss folklore, as he had previously helped me collect war stories for an oral history project. I met L at his Phoenix office where he provided me with two scary stories he remembered from his past. The following is the first of these two stories, which he first heard as a teenager in the 60s.

L: Ok so this is the story of Muscle White… and Muscle White.. was a really bad man, he was always in trouble and been to prison two or three times, and uh been in a bunch of fights and stuff and he got in a fight where he was hurt really bad one time.. and he lost his right arm. And uh, they fixed him up a hook in prison, so he had this hook on his, on his right arm… Well he was in prison, in Parchman Prison in Mississippi… and he broke out, he escaped. And there was this state wide manhunt for Muscle White because he, he was a bad man. They, everybody was looking for him because uh.. he’d been in fights he’d killed some people I mean, he, he robbed some banks this was a bad guy. So everybody was out looking for him.. So, around Meridian where I lived, there were several places where, uh, teenagers liked to go and uh, park and pad, and.. you know and, and uh.. So, one of ‘em was a place that we called Lover’s Lane. And it was a place out in the country. And so uh, this boy and, and girl went out there, they were I think sixteen years old or so, and they went out there and they’re talking. And.. and uh.. um. The girl said that uh, she thought she heard something. And, the boy said “no it’s just your imagination there’s nothing out here there’s nobody out here” and they look, there’s no other cars out here, so there’s nobody here. And she says “no I really thought I heard something, you know or somebody or something” and he goes “no no it’s ok there’s nothing, there’s nothing out here.” And uh, she says “well, see I’m scared.” She says “I really wanna go.” He says “well no, see it’s ok really no no no” she says she really really wants to go and she’s really scared. He says well ok. Uh.. I, I guess we’ll go. And, and then he heard some—a bump on the car. Just as he was cranking up, and that kinda spooked him, and he threw it in drive and he took off real quick. And went down the road, and he said well “the night is ruined so I might as well take you home.” So he took this girl over to her house.. he got out and walked around to the side of his car to open the door for her, and there was a right arm hanging on the door with a hook on the door handle. Muscle White had been there.

Reflection: I have heard the Hook Man urban legend enough times over the course of my life to assume it offered me no more surprises. Yet, L managed to offer a version of the story that was both compelling in its execution and completely unfamiliar to me. I found it fascinating how fleshed out the Hook Man was in L’s telling of the narrative, as most versions of the story I know reduce the Hook Man to a faceless, nameless escaped convict. I believe the local geographical details that L imbues Muscle White’s backstory with provide excellent insight into Mississippi’s cultural history. Specifically, I believe L’s linkage of Muscle White to Parchman prison (a real prison in Mississippi) speaks to the prison’s historical notoriety in Mississippi. As Parchman prison is linked to a storied past of forced labor and terrible conditions for its inmates, it’s not hard to imagine how the story of the Hook Man and the prison eventually melded together through a shared association with evil in the Mississippian collective conscience.

 “For another version, see Brunvand, Jan Harold. 2014, Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends, Page #1659

Bunny Man Bridge.

K is a 63-year-old Caucasian male originally from Fairfax, Virginia. K is a retired highway patrolman and current polygraph examiner in Phoenix, Arizona.

K performed this folklore while I visited him at his workplace with the intent to collect folklore from police officers. In his office, I asked K if he had any folklore he would be willing to share with me.

K: Well I’m going to tell about you a.. Story that comes out of Fairfax county Virginia where I’m from. Where I actually patrolled as a patrolman. Uh, years ago. Funny thing is, I didn’t learn about this story until I came out to Arizona, uh, twenty five hundred miles from where the story originated from. And I heard about it because it showed up on a documentary on TV about haunted places that uh, would be pretty scary to visit. Uh, and this haunted place in Fairfax Country Virginia is called Bunny Man Bridge. And its actually a railroad bridge, uh, near uh, a place called Clifton Virginia, which is a little tiny sleepy town that is down in a.. quiet area of Fairfax county. And uh, this sleepy little town has this legend of Bunny Man Bridge which is this railroad bridge, and when you go under the bridge it’s cement on the sides but it’s barely wide enough for a car to fit through going one direction, and on the opposite side of the bridge is a dead end road so theres nowhere to go when you go underneath the Bunny Man Bridge but uh, its really quite dark there. There isn’t any street lights, theres uh, lots of trees around, I mean even in a full moon its pretty pretty dark down there around Bunny Man Bridge. I’m familiar with it because, as a patrolman, because its uh, apparently a haunted location a lot of uh, the younger high school uh groups like to go down there and party on the uh, side that there’s no escape from. Uh, in other words, side that’s on where the dead end is at. But, what I learned about Bunny Man Bridge is that this place called Clifton.. uh.. years ago like in the early, like very early 1900s, there was a uh, insane asylum in Clifton. And, I dont know exactly how many prisoners that this insane asylum had housed, but, uh. When.. Fairfax country began to grow up and get larger, they moved this insane asylum to another place called Lorton which is probably, I’m guessing, about, a twenty minute drive away from Clifton and Lorton is far more build up in fact there’s a uh, prison there now from the District of Columbia in Lorton, but uh, the decision was made to transport all the, uh, people in this insane Asylum from Clifton down to Lorton, so they loaded ‘em all on a bus, and started driving away to, uh, Lorton. Well, unfortunately as, uh, the legend has it, the bus ran off the side of the road and crashed and uh all the prisoners, the maniacs escaped and ran into the woods and, the uh, authorities came out and worked really hard trying to round up all these people and they ultimately, uh, were able to round em all up with the exception of two people. Um, and they kept searching the woods searching the woods and they kept finding all these bunny carcasses in the woods. Um, so they expected that these two escapees were actually uh surviving on bunny meat and this went on for a while and they never were able to actually track down these two. But the legend has it that after they searched the entire area for days and days they came to a time where uh they found one of these escapees, hanging from Bunny Man Bridge. And uh, the other one was nowhere to be found and the assumption was that.. uh, apparently they had a dispute or a fight over who was gonna get.. the, the, the bunny leg or the bunny breast or whatever. And uh.. the other one hung his companion from Bunny Man Bridge. And uh, now the legend is if you go to Bunny Man Bridge on uh.. like Halloween or something, uh you can see uh.. this uh, this deceased prisoner hanging from the bridge on Halloween. They never found uh the other escaped individual… Uh, but, periodically they say you can also see bunny carcasses hanging from, Bun-from Bunny Man Bridge. Uh, so they, they believe notwithstanding all of that, that even though this is a hundred and ten years later. Uh, he’s still out there. Uh, uh, eating bunnies and hanging em’ from the bridge on Halloween along with his deceased companion.

Reflection: Despite never visiting Bunny Man Bridge himself, K was extremely knowledgeable about the subject, as evidenced by the length and detail of his performance of the urban legend. The vague version of the Bunny man I am familiar with is of an axe-wielding lunatic wearing a bunny suit, so I was surprised to hear that neither of these two appearance traits were mentioned in K’s telling. The popularity of both the “Bunny Man” and the “Hook Man” urban legends in the American South suggests that the region has a preference for escaped convict stories. Considering the American South has the largest collective prison population in the U.S., it is not hard to make a prediction why this may be the case.

Wooly Worm Weather Prediction

Background: My informant is a 50 year old woman from Tennessee. She first heard about the folklore from her father, but has heard it many times anecdotally since.

J: Wooly worms are funny little caterpillars, I’m sure you’ve seen them before. They’re everywhere in the south. 

Me: I saw tons of them in Maine when I went to summer camp! So, tell me more about them. 

J: Well, I’m no bug expert. I know they’re orange and black, and they’ve got fur! *laughter* I always thought they were funny-looking. They’re usually in the foliage, but some of them come out to uh, say hello at picnics and such. But people think the ones you find in fall can predict the severity of the winter. If the orange band is big, the winter will be mild. A bigger black band means a nasty winter. It’s a common belief. 

Me: I think I’ve heard that before. Do you think it’s true?

J: I had some cousins who really thought so. When we were younger we’d go out and look for them and they’d try to make predictions. I was probably only 6 or 7. I didn’t care so much, I just wanted to hold them, and uh, I suppose I didn’t have a good frame of reference back then. I didn’t really know what was a big band or a small band, they usually all looked the same to me. I think I can tell better now. But I’m not sure myself if it’s real. I remember bad winters, but I don’t remember if I saw big black bands on the caterpillars before them.

My thoughts: This superstition is very common, especially east of the American continental divide, so much so that after our conversation I looked it up and saw that a scientist in the 50’s tried to scientifically prove its accuracy. He didn’t ultimately do that great because his sample sizes were too small. Very similar to this practice is Groundhog day, where Punxsutawney Phil looks for his shadow, and if he sees it, it means six more weeks of winter. The difference is that the wooly worm predictions are more localized and personalized, as anyone who finds a caterpillar can make their own predictions. Groundhog day is mostly endemic to Pennsylvania, though even in California some people take it as a prediction for our own winter, which is quite silly. I think the wooly worm predictions have a better chance of being legitimate than the groundhog prediction, though both are ultimately just longstanding and fun folk superstitions. 

For more info on wooly worms, see https://www.almanac.com/woolly-bear-caterpillars-and-weather-prediction

Mudding

The following conversation is transcribed from a conversation between me (HS) and my mother/informant (SW).

HS: So you had a high school tradition that you would like to elaborate upon, is that right?

SW: So back in high school, when I was still living in Kansas there really wasn’t that much to do. Here in California, you can go to the beach, surf, play volleyball, your options are virtually unlimited. You can take a drive to the desert or go to the mountains. But in Kansas, the options are a lot more limited. So what we would do as entertainment is something that we called, “mudding.”

HS: And what exactly is “mudding?”

SW: Okay, this is going to sound dumb, but there was literally nothing to do in Kansas. That’s why I moved back to California as soon as possible! But anyway, my friends and our guy friend group would take out our jeeps and trucks to the nearest muddy, flat area, and do donuts and drive around. The competition was to get as much mud on your car as possible and the winner would get paid out by all the other drivers.

Background:

My informant is my mother. She was raised in Huntington Beach, California, but she moved to Kansas with her family when she was 16 because a majority of her family was living there and in Missouri. She always dreamed of coming back to California and took the first opportunity she could get to come back. She now lives in Dana Point.

Context:

I was sitting at dinner with my parents and was talking to my mom about why she moved back to California from Kansas.

Thoughts:

This tradition in my mother’s community shines a light on smaller local contexts in which people seek entertainment. Mudding made me realize that traditions are widely confined to their regional context and are cultivated and transformed within those communities. Out of circumstance, individuals are confined to the cultural and regional settings in which they are raised.