K is a freshman at USC. I asked him if there were any stories he exchanged around a campfire. In America, scary stories are often exchanged around campfires and amongst children. Some of them tend to be nonsensical, with seemingly random and almost humorish roots. Still, these stories don’t fail to be passed around.
K: There was a small family in a barnyard – the son of that family decided to go out into the fields to gather food when he saw a toe buried in the ground, like a big toe. He decided to, he wanted to get the toe – I don’t know why, but he wanted to get the toe to serve it up for food. So, he reached down to get the toe and he pulled, and it was really stuck in there for some reason and he pulled with all his might and he was able to get the toe. And later, he showed it to his mom and she decided that she’ll cook it up with the stew. So she does that, and later on they’re eating the stew, and they cut up the toe. And they each eat part of it, I guess. Later that night, while they’re sleeping, the boy wakes up to hear a voice that goes in a very gruff and slow voice, “WHERE IS MY BIG TOE?” And he could hear that phrase over and over as it gets louder and closer, and with nothing to do, he just hides under his blankets, hoping it’ll go away. That didn’t happen. So the figure enters the room asking where his big toe is to the little boy, and then he grabs the little boy by the ankle and drags him outside, and takes him back into the earth where he found that toe to begin with, and he was never heard from again. That story gave me mixed feelings. Like why would you go ahead and take a random toe, like I’m going to grab this toe and go on with my day.
Me: Where did you hear the story?
K: I heard it from a friend in middle school. It was a good story, but definitely gave me nightmares.
When it comes to scary stories, and especially this particular story, it’s hard to say where it comes from. It likely originates in person-to-person narrative, and yet, amongst children, there is a popular book series known as “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.” From my distant childhood memory, that was a story in the text. Another instance of a recorded story was the one about the Mexican pet – the dog that turned out to be a rat with rabies. In these cases, stories like this have become so immensely popular that they have become canonized – decreasing their multiplicity and variation. And despite this, these stories still manage to be exchanged even outside of the purchase of these children’s books. The story’s ability to still retain some of its folkloric nature post-canonization speaks to the strength of both the story and the cultures that continue to retell it.