B is a 17 year old Taiwanese-American high school student who is from Northern California.
This happened online through a discord call after I brought up things we learned in elementary school. This was sparked by a TikTok I had seen criticizing what many kids are taught in the US education system.
B: Wait did you guys also learn about the- like giant earthquake that we’re like super overdue for?
Me: YEAH NO I remember that it was crazy and like… the fact we’re still waiting on it
B: No it’s terrifying I always forget about it and then remember it like.. randomly. Didn’t the teachers like… call it the Big one or something like that? It was weird we were all just like told that California was mad overdue for a giant earthquake from the San Andreas fault.
Me: No exactly, it made me so paranoid as a kid and like- we definitely also watched that movie called like San Andreas or something with the Rock in it after we learned about it… like why would you show a bunch of 5th graders that, I was terrified.
As someone who has lived in California all my life, it is so interesting that this is a shared experience with others who grew up here. While it is a scientific fact, the way that it is told to children as “The Big One” makes it a sort of inside joke to those who know about it. I remember bringing it up to college friends who did not grow up in California and they are always horrified to hear about it. On the other hand, because I have known about it for so long, I am noticeably more numb to how concerning the threat actually is.
“So this is a story about- nearby where I grew up in Connecticut there’s a little teeny town in the southern part of Connecticut called Moodus and its where my first cousins lived and we used to go visit around the holidays, Christmas in particular I remember visiting for Christmas Eve because we would trade on and off every year, one year we’d come visit them, one year they’d come visit us and they’d host a big dinner. And they had this big farmhouse and it backed up on this lake and this farmhouse had a hill, a grassy hill, sloping down to the lake and it was extremely old it had extremely dark wooden floors that were rough because it was a farmhouse. Anyways, so I remember the Moodus noises, I don’t really know if its true or a myth, but it’s basically in this town you can hear these noises coming out of the ground and, doesn’t always happen but it can happen and scientists have looked into this and the most likely explanation is that there are micro-earthquakes that are shallow in the ground and that’s the cause of the noise. That’s something everyone talks about in the town, the mascot for the high-school sports team is the Moodus noises and so I remember being with my cousins in this creepy farmhouse and them telling us the story about the noises and then trying to startle us with noises the entire night.”
My informant is a man in his early 50s originally from Hartford, Connecticut. He lived there through his teens and had extended family in the nearby areas. The cousins described here were present for a lot his childhood and they often shared scary stories. The Moodus Noises are well documented phenomena that remain ambiguous and have little physical ties but it serves to unite the town with a common legend. While my informant did not live there, his interaction with his cousins put him in conversation with this legend.
My informant told me about this story when I was asking a group of family and friends about scary stories or legends from their childhood. He told the story in front of the group and I recorded it during that telling.
What I find fascinating about the Moodus noises is the complete lack of any form of the topic from the folkloric perspective. This natural phenomenon serves the primary function of folklore, it unites the town with a common experience. However, there is no supernatural explanation of the noises. They are not tied to spirits or cryptids, they are just ambiguously there. This is fascinating to me, as more often than not, folklore takes some physical form but the Moodus noises are just noises. In my opinion, this is the result of the fact that the noises have a very clear explanation. Compared to other strange phenomena such as Will o’ Wisps, the Moodus noises have a clear explanation of why they occur. As such, they occupy a liminal space between science and folklore, wherein they have an explanation but they still count as community legend.
My mom, who grew up in Los Angeles, recalls a folk belief from her childhood that California would break off from the US and float away:
“So when I was growing up there would be these periodic panics or rumors that on a certain day, California was gonna break off and float out into the ocean. And I remember being- it would’ve been the year that um, the Elton John song ‘Crocodile Rock’ was out because I can remember listening to that song with [my cousin] Robert–maybe 1971 or something?–and being terrified, knowing that it probably wasn’t going to happen but just having a fear in the back of my mind that maybe there was some truth to this rumor…”
I asked if she remembered where she had heard the rumor first. She said, “well that’s a good question. It certainly wasn’t in the newspaper, it wasn’t like fake news and it wouldn’t have been- we didn’t have the internet, so how did that spread? And it seemed like it was mostly kids who knew it, i mean it wasn’t- adults weren’t, y’know, propagating this rumor. So where it came from, I have no idea. That’s always fascinating to me.”
This piece of folklore falls somewhere between the genres of folk belief and legend. It concerns something frightening that could happen, as many legends do, but it is not a narrative, and is believed to be occurring in the future, rather than the past. It could thus be classified as a “folk rumor” in the same category as conspiracy theories. This folk rumor likely stemmed from the reality of the San Andreas fault and the resulting frequency of earthquakes in Southern California. It spread, particularly among kids, because it seemed plausible and because it fed off of fears about natural disaster.
It looks like earthquake weather today.
This is a phrase that Charlenes grandmother used to say to her some mornings when the weather looked a certain way. Charlene grew up in the city of San Francisco, as did many f her relatives before her, including her grandmother. In 1906 there was a huge earthquake in San Francisco, which caused a huge fire that destroyed most of the city. Charlenes grandmother was living in San Francisco at the time. She remembered that the weather was very grey and muggy that day. So, every time the weather was similar, she would say it looks like earthquake weather today.
Charlene said it would scare her because she knew exactly what that meant. Since Charlene had grown up in San Francisco she knew all about the earthquake, plus she had heard all of the stories that her grandmother had told her. The phrase relates to two different identities. The fact that her grandmother would say it and Charlene knew exactly what she was talking about, identified both a residents of San Francisco. They were both well aware of the history of the earthquake in the city. The fact that her grandmother was able sense earthquake weather showed identified her as part of the group of people who had lived through the 1906 earthquake.
When Charlene described the weather she said it was very muggy and foggy. I have spent a lot of time in San Francisco and it is muggy and foggy most days. But, Charlene said that it was a very specific type of weather that only people like her grandma could recognize. It seems quite difficult to distinguish between one foggy day and another, but Charlene said that one of the days that her grandmother said, it looks like earthquake weather today, there was an earthquake.