Children tend to create stories in their social circles, often stories intended to scare their friends before daring them to touch the haunted house or look in that window. Every group (whether societal or cultural) shares familiar stories, experiences, riddles, etc. – what we might call folklore. According to The American Folklore Society, folklore is defined as: the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example. Many more definitions can be found on the website, with varying definitions that all add further depth the study of folklore.
Halloween seems like an appropriate holiday on which to discuss folklore, even though folklore goes far and beyond shared spooky tales of children. Yet, the antics of children are included, so I’m going to share some of the tales from my neighborhood when I was in elementary and middle school.
The Witch’s House
A brown, dreary looking ranch house, just two houses past mine, had been unoccupied for a few months and it was starting to look rather creepy. My good friend Sara and I would routinely sit on the edge of my neighbor’s property and peer through the hedges just to get a glimpse at the house. We wanted to get as close as possible without actually crossing the property line.
One gloomy, cloudy day, Sara and I decided to walk past the house. She stopped me in the middle of the street and swore that she saw someone’s hand on the window sill. And then she saw something move! Always easily scared, I believed her and we ran back to my house. We were convinced that a witch lived in the house.
Sara had likely imagined her vision and exaggerated it because she knew that I would believe her, but I avoided that house thereafter. This is the same friend who later told me she saw a ghost in my other neighbor’s window.
The Woods behind Norwood Avenue
Now the property is a gated community of town houses and swimming pools, but 15 years ago, the woods behind my elementary school yard were filled with garbage and the creepiest thing imaginable to my nine-year-old self. These woods scared me so much that if I was at the school yard on a weekend with my sisters and we were swinging on the swings, I wouldn’t face my back to the woods.
Two of my friends, Elisabet and Amy, and I always played together at recess and we would often talk about how scary the woods were. One day the girls told me that one of their brothers had actually gone into the woods. And he saw all sorts of garbage. But then, he saw a gun leaning against a tree and he was chased out of the woods!
The story has since faded from my memory (i.e. I’m finally over it), so the details are fuzzy, but the images of a gun and a psycho killer living in the woods hung in my imagination for a long time and I wished that I had never heard the story. I would never walk near the fence separating the school yard and the woods.
Elisabet and Amy either also found me very gullible or their brothers passed along an exaggerated, scary story to a couple of fourth graders.
One winter afternoon, Sara and I were playing outside in the big maple tree in front of my house, which was a common activity for us. We heard noises that sounded like gun shots from far away. (Of course, I didn’t really know what gun shots sounded like since I was growing up in a house full of girls who didn’t watch such things on television. Regardless, we assumed the sounds were gun shots.)
We froze. Sara and I looked around, wondering what was happening. Suddenly, Sara told me that she saw someone in a car parked on the side of the street. And she said that she saw a gun. (Sara had a wild imagination.) So we didn’t move. It felt like forever. We thought that if we just pretended to be part of the tree, then no one would see us. However, there were not any leaves on the trees and we probably had on brilliantly colored early 1990s jackets.
I think we spent most of our afternoon frozen in the tree. I don’t remember how we finally convinced ourselves to go inside.
Sara was not an evil friend, just to clarify this. I think she just liked to pretend. It’s probably caused some damage and can attributing to my distaste for scary movies, but it was always an adventure with Sara.
The Old Man’s House
Around the bend in my street, there is a house that has always been a mystery to my sisters and me. It’s a large lot, mostly hidden by tall maple trees and large shrubbery, and barricaded from the public by a four foot chain link fence and a really tall mailbox. For the longest time, there was a hole in the roof and cats would come and go as they pleased, through the hole. It often smelled like cat urine around that bend. Occasionally I’d see a light through the window or the front door would be open just a crack.
Needless to say, it was spooky. Probably after years of gazing at the house as I passed on my bike or in the car, I finally saw a tall, skinny old man who lived there. I asked my mom many questions. But what did he do? Where did he go? Did he ever leave the house? Why did he have so many cats?
This man and this house is still a mystery to us, but the roof has since been replaced, following the tarp that protected it for a while. However, it’s still a dark and hidden house with cats all around.
These stories are vaguely tied to folklore, but I do think it’s interesting to hear the stories that children tell each other and how these stories affect what they do. I think it can be categorized as folklore because it can help to define a certain group (in this case children of one neighborhood) by how they play and what they believe. I wonder if children younger than my friends and I believed the same stories, years later.
What do you think about the folklore of children? Should it be studied? Can it be studied? (Or has it been?) Or am I off the mark? Please feel free to share your thoughts.
I’m still easily scared.