Tag Archives: bedtime stories

My Mother’s Favorite Ghost Story


This is a tale that my mother often told me and my sister when we were children. Tales like these are common especially during the Hungry Ghost Month or Ghost Festival. The Ghost Festival takes place on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar and is a time to pay respect to one’s deceased ancestors. The term ‘jie’ refers to my elder sister.



The following is transcribed from a conversation between me, (M), and my mother, the interviewee (I).

M: Can you tell me the ghost story that you always tell jie and me when we were younger?

I: Which one?

M: The one I hated the most.

(I laughs)

I: Yes. So, you used to get a lot of bruises on your arms and legs when you were younger.

M: Why did I get so many bruises?

I: You just ran around a lot I think. But so, I used to tell you that whenever you get a bruise and you don’t know why, it’s because you did something wrong that day, and there’s a ghost living under your bed that comes out during the Hungry Ghost Month and pinches you in your sleep. And you get one pinch for every wrongdoing.

M: That’s terrifying. Why did you tell jie and I that story?

I: It was funny, you girls always get so scared. It also wasn’t real, and I didn’t think you girls would believe me.

M: What things would we do wrong that would warrant the story?

I: Small things like picking up your clothes or finishing your food.



This story has always frightened me as a child, but today I can look back and laugh at the tale and also understand where this myth comes from. The myth of a ghost pinching children at night for their wrong behavior is to encourage good behavior. The behaviors that were encouraged were never significant things of not hurting someone or not lying, they were often smaller things like finishing all the food of your plate or learning to tie your shoelaces properly. I think with smaller behaviors, it’s often harder to justify because there isn’t huge moral reasoning behind it. And thus it can be easier to come up with a myth and use fear to get children to behave well.

Enkoye Totit–Ethiopian bedtime story

The informant is my 18-year-old cousin, who was born and raised in the United States but has Ethiopian parents. She told me about Enkoye Totit, bedtime story her mother and aunts told her when she was little.


“So, Enkoye Totit is this little monkey character who keeps getting in trouble. It’s a bedtime story that parents tell their kids. It’s like, there’s not really one specific story I can think of about Enkoye Totit, but she’s a character that you can insert in any story. Totit means, like, little monkey. It’s like a diminutive of “tota,” which means monkey. That’s what parents call their kids. Like, it’s a nickname for kids when they’re being silly or misbehaving but not actually doing something that bad. Like if you keep annoying your mom, she’ll call you Tota.”


The fact that “monkey” is both a word referring to the animal and an term of affection for young children in Amharic is interesting, because it allows these stories to become self-insert stories for the children they are told to. Because Enkoye Totit is a stock character and not one from a specific story, it allows parents to plug this character, as an extension of their own children, into many different plots that will be vehicles for lessons they want to teach their kids. This is also reinforced by the characteristics of a monkey–small, mischievous, intelligent, inquisitive–most of which are also applicable to children. At the same time, because there are actual monkeys in Ethiopia, this fact might be less obvious to Ethiopian children, since the stories are based on a monkey that they could actually encounter, but because both my cousin and I were raised in the United States where monkeys do not live in nature, the metaphorical nature of these stories becomes more apparent.