The informant told this story when recounting the local legends of her rural upbringing in Eastern Tennessee. Ghosts are a big part of the local, little traditions that are passed down between family members.
“Okay so there’s another place in Bullsgap that my mom used to take me after we visited my great-grandmother who lived there still, um, and it’s a little, another background that cuts through a bunch of cornfields and there’s a cemetery i think used during the civil war, i don’t know, but it’s old a shit and theres a bunch of unmarked graves there, and once you go past the cemetery there’s a huge drop in the road and it leads to what used to be a train tunnel I think, I don’t know like, if it had a train running through it or what, but it was this concrete thing and the train would pass over it I guess, under it people could walk through. So there’s a legend that because one night, because it drops down really low, like it goes below the water level in the town, when it floods, when it rains, the river floods up and fills the like the road under the tunnel. So there’s a rumour that there’s a family that like, the 50s 60s something like that, and they were driving at night and they had an accident and crashed into the tunnel or something like that, or the tunnel wall, all of them died. and they say if you go into the tunnel at midnight, and turn off all the lights and your entire car and just sit there in the dark in for five minutes when you get out of the tunnel you’ll see handprints from children and the adults, who you know, had an accident there, and the legend is that they’re trying to push your car out, because they think that you’re car is stopped. It’s kinda scary. I don’t know I’ve never done it because my mom was like we can do it, but I was like no, no, no, k, but that one was another [local legend] that i fell in love with the local flavour of where I lived and appreciated it for the quirky little place that it was.”
Although spooky, it seems the ghosts are trying to help push the car out of the tunnel. This tale also serves as a warning to those who drive recklessly during the night and rain, showing the consequences of what could happen if one was to crash.
The informant explained this game they often play on road trips: “Whenever I go driving with my family, we all hold our breaths whenever we reach a tunnel. Though it often turns into a competition for them, it has become a tradition.”
Me: “When’s the first time you heard this game?”
Informant: “I don’t remember exactly… I just remember someone said, “There’s a tunnel, hold your breath!” and somehow we all started doing it. I think you were supposed to make a wish, but in the end we just saw who could last the longest! I remember my little brother would just puff out his cheeks so it looked like he was holding his breath when he was just breathing through his nose (laughs).”
Analysis: This game is common-practice, however it is hard to pinpoint the exact origin online. In the 1980s, it was thought that tunnel air would cure whopping cough, so mothers would bring their children to tunnels to cure them. In order to keep from contracting the respiratory disease, the people with the infected children would have to hold their breaths when accompanying them into the tunnel.
Another interpretation is that the air pressure may change when one goes through a tunnel at fast speeds, and holding your breath cures the pain in your ears. It’s is interesting that such a practice to prevent pain has developed into a superstition or game.
Annotation: This cure for whopping cough is mentioned in Arthur Beavan’s book “Tube, Tram, Train, Car” in the chapter about the London Railway.
“Tube, Tram, Train, and Car” by Arthur Beavan
The informant, at the age of eight or nine, heard of this belief from her father as the family of four was making a road trip to Las Vegas. She was a sheltered child who was used to getting her way, so she was complaining about the boring road trip they had to take that had lasted for hours already. Her father then told her that only if she could hold her breath for the entire time the car was inside the tunnel, then she could make any wish and it would come true. Coming from her father, a credible source up until then, she believed him and held her breath so that she could wish that the ride would be over soon. Ever since then she has been holding her breath under tunnels and competing with her younger brother to see who could hold it in through the longest tunnel. Because it was so much fun when she was younger, she still sometimes holds her breath and makes wishes, although she has outgrown the stage in her childhood when she would believe that her silent wish would somehow come true. She thinks that it is just a great form of entertainment when one is bored. Now she likes to tell her younger cousins the same belief, hoping it will bring them as much fun and entertainment as it did her all those times before.
Around Orange County there aren’t many tunnels to drive through. In fact, the only time I have ever driven under a tunnel was during my own family road trips to Colorado, when we had to drive through mountains. However, I stumbled upon this same belief in almost the same way the informant did, that you could make a wish if you held your breath for the entire time you went under a tunnel. This wishmaking does not have to occur during road trips or during a family vacation. It can occur at any time. I also believe that this wishmaking is just another form of entertainment for young children, and nothing to take seriously. I believe it is retold to spread information that is fun and enjoyable for everyone.