Tag Archives: medical

Haunted Hospital Stories Among Nurses

Informant Context:

Stella is a traveling ICU (intensive care unit) nurse who currently work in Atlanta, Georgia.


STELLA: Nurses believe their hospitals are haunted, oftentimes. 



INTERVIEWER: Do they believe that the hospital *you* work at is haunted? 

STELLA: I mean like, when I worked at a different hospital, like—there were certain rooms that like, had really weird, like—vibes. And like, people—nurses would be like, “Oh yeah, like, I worked in that room”. And like, you know, lights would flicker and like, things would be moved. I just, like—it was always cold like, I just felt really weird. And like, there were definitely times, like… like before they would even mention that to me, like—I would walk down to that side of the hallway or like, near the room and I would like… like I felt different and then they like, told me about it later and I was like, “that’s so weird, like—I like, felt that like… [kinda(?)] that way or there’s like certain rooms like, in ICU or something where like… the patients like, always do bad and like… it’s kinda like the “cursed room” sort of thing.

INTERVIEWER: Wow… that’s really interesting and really takes the form of ghost stories [laughs] kind of in—in general, the—

STELLA: Oh, yeah. I mean, I was like, working on like, a neuro ICU at night one time, and there was like… this like, curtain that just like—kept moving. And me nurse were just like, “what the heck? Like, what’s going on?” And there was like no draft in the room and like, there was no reason for there curtain to be moving, but it was just like, fluttering. And like, it was in like the “haunted corner”. You know, it’s just like… it’s like, super spooky. 


INTERVIEWER: Yeah, because of all places to be haunted—I hadn’t thought of hospital rooms. But it does make total sense now. Um—

STELLA: Oh, it’s a thing. Like, all these nurse Instagrams that I follow online like… especially around Halloween, like—people will send in their like, haunted like, nursing stories. And it’s like, ICU nurses and they like… will be like “Yeah, like—this like, hospital used to be like, a psych hospital, and patients would like, jump out the window. And it—you know, it’s—like, it’s haunted. Or like, they’ll have multiple patients in the same room like, see like, the same kid in the red dress. Or like, the same like, patient who like, died there tragically will be like “oh, like—the lady with like, the blue shoes.” And it’s like, multiple patients like, have… have like, said that they see this person and like, stuff like that.

Informant Commentary:

The informant seemed to relate beliefs in ghost stories among nurses to community. Shared experience is powerful, and the experiences Stella relates from her time travelling between units and hospitals served to bond her with her new, and ever changing, fellow medical professionals.


The prevalence of ghost stories among medical professionals might be explained by a common association of hospitals with death. Transience of people (coming-and-going) is also a factor, which might also explain the prevalence and proliferation of ghost stories among professionals in the hospitality industry (hotels, theme parks). One of Stella’s accounts also follows a common pattern seen among ghost stories: a person has a moment of discomfort or a brief paranormal encounter (without being told about any possible paranormal activity beforehand) which is later fleshed out by others who already know about the phenomenon. Perhaps the most interesting thing that Stella notes is the belief, not only in ghosts in the building, but in a supernatural force which acts upon the physical world, such as malevolent forces which cause a room to become “cursed”, and patients to “do bad” when assigned to them. This might suggest a search for comfort by members of the folk group, seeking to attribute unexplained medical tragedies to forces outside of their own control. There is a strong desire among medical professionals to exert control upon illness and suffering, thereby ending it with scientific means. When this fails for no clear reason, and seems to follow an uncanny trend, it makes sense for medical professionals to replace their own uncertainty with a conclusion which gestures towards the metaphysical, beyond science. 

Dark Humor in the ICU (“Celestial Transfer”)

Informant Context:

Stella is a traveling ICU (intensive care unit) nurse who currently work in Atlanta, Georgia.


STELLA: I feel like people in the ICU especially have like, really dark humor. Um… like, dark kind of like—twisted humor? And I think like, you kind of like, have to be that way. Like, it’s like, it’s kind of the saying of like, “If you’re not laughing you’re crying?” Like, the things that we see are so tragic that like, we kind of just have to like, make light of them? And it’s not ’cause like, we’re like, making fun of people is just like… “Wow, the situation is like, so bad… like, this is just ridiculous that I’m watching this” kind of thing. Um…

INTERVIEWER: Can you give an example of… maybe a joke that you’ve heard or something people frequently make fun of in the ICU?

STELLA: Um… like, I don’t… like [laughs]… if a… like, it’s like—this is like, so bad. I don’t—like, I kinda don’t, like, feel super comfortable like, saying… like, like—so I’ve heard people say like, um… you know, like—oh, like, so-and-so made like, a “celestial transfer”. And so, it’s kind of like—kind of like a jokey way of saying like… if the patient died… and it’s like, instead of transferring them to the floor or like, discharging them from the hospital they were like, transferred to the sky. You know what I mean?

INTERVIEWER: Right, right. 

STELLA: Like, to heaven. And so it’s like, “Oh… like, you know, so-and-so… you know, had a ‘celestial transfer’”, and everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah”. Um… but yeah… I mean, I don’t know. I feel like it’s… it’s not something that anyone outside of that profession would understand nor think is funny [laughs]. 

Informant Commentary

Stella displayed some apprehension, even guilt, when sharing this particular joke. She feared that those outside her folk group would characterize the humor of medical professionals in the ICU as “heartless”, in her words. For her, the meaning of the humor lies in replacing pain with levity. She went on to describe this folk practice as an absolute necessity to cope with the constant displays of suffering which surround this folk group.


Certain experiences and responsibilities breed jokes which are not considered humorous or even relevant to people without the same experiences and responsibilities. In the case of this specific joke, the experiences and responsibilities shared by those within the folk group are ones closely associated with death, particularly death within a hospital setting. This is why the joke directly references hospital terminology (“transfer”). In addition, references to the word “celestial”, or the movement of a patient from the “terrestrial” to the “celestial” suggests that even within this example of so-called dark humor, there is an implicit hope of peace for their shared patient.  

Urine Sample Joke


My informant learned this joke from his dad, who himself was a doctor. It was passed to my informant when he was a young man. His father claimed he was the originator of the joke and that he really performed it himself, as the doctor in the joke was a colleague and friend. While my informant can’t validate that claim, he says that he tends to believe it because his father was always a prankster during his life.


This occurrence is supposed to have originally happened sometime in the 1950s during a physical exam that was being performed on my informant’s father. While I was an interview for USC’s folklore collection, my friend (and the informant’s grandson) entered the room and said something about how he had a doctor’s appointment the next day. This reminded my informant of the joke, and he proceeded to tell it.

Main Piece:

“My dad went in for a physical. When he went to the bathroom to give a urine sample, he had snuck in a flask of warm, flat beer. So instead of peeing in the cup he poured the warm flat beer in the cup. So when he came back out he put it on the counter… When the doctor stuck the litmus paper into the cup–that’s how they used to test pee samples–he says “wow your alcohol levels are off the charts, we’re gonna have to run the test again.” As my dad knocked the cup of beer back he announced, “let’s just run it through again.”


Personally, I think this joke is hilarious on its own, but I would also consider it to be a stunning example of how workplace folklore is created. Assuming that my informant’s father actually did play this prank on one of his doctor colleagues, it shows that getting to know people in a work setting often opens a door to real friendship. My informant’s father probably chose to get a physical from this doctor because they had spent time in close quarters getting to know each other first. While the man performing the stunt may not have been on duty at the time, the interaction between the two likely became something that was frequently talked about and shared between their fellow medical professionals–my informant made it a point to mention that his father loved telling the joke.

“Eat garlic and see it rise, Eat onions and forget what happened.”

My informant heard this proverb in Lebanon, his home country.  He did not recall the first time he heard it or who he heard it from.  He said it is simply an Arabic folk saying that he picked up from friends and family.
This is not the first proverb I have heard that speaks of onions and garlic as aphrodisiacs.  Unfortunately, my informant was uncertain of the exact meaning of the second line of the saying.  It could mean that eating onions causes one to lose his erection, or that onions cause poor memory.  My reaction was to interpret “forget it” as something like “it won’t be going away for days.”  In effect, “garlic works, but onions work better,” was my immediate interpretation.  On the other hand, it could be a mnemonic (much like our “yellow on black, venom lack; black on yellow, kill a fellow”) for remembering which of the two related herbs is the one that does the trick.  As it rhymes in Arabic (Toum, bikoum, Basal, hasal), the proverb incorporates an element of appropriateness, one of the features of most any joke; and obviously, the proverb is for humor and entertainment rather than any kind of edification or instruction.