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This is Halloween (4): Urban Legends and Ghost Stories

Used to be that telling a good ghost story to a kid would elicit screams of horror and week's worth of nightmares. Now that all the good urban legends have been made into movies, it's getting harder and harder to give a really good fright to a naive child. And isn't that what Halloween is all about? Scaring the piss out of the innocent children? Hey, don't look at me like that, that's what my own mother told me!

If you want to give a good scare, it's all in how you tell it. A low, whispering voice. Anticipatory pauses. And the extended silence at the end of your story to give the kiddies a moment to think about the implications of not heeding the warning the story provides.

The first legendary ghost story I remember (aside from Lonesome Ghosts), was the tale of the ghostly hitchhiker. I read that one myself in a collection of ghost stories I took out of the library - a perfect book in that it kept me up at night, yet I couldn't stop reading it.

This was before dead babysitters and microwaved babies became all the rage in scary stories. I liked the ghosts; they were almost benign in that I was pretty sure (just pretty sure, not positive) that the stories were fake. I didn't have to believe in ghosts, because there was no proof that they existed. But deranged strangers slicing and dicing babysitters? Totally believable. There's different levels of being scared, and the new urban legends going around at the time (1970's) served a dual purpose; they scared the living shit out of us and they also made us hesitant to go anywhere or do anything alone.

The first of the madman legends I remember was the date gone awry. Guy picks up girl. Guy and girl drive out to the country. Car runs out of gas. You know the rest. But do you know it from having it told to you or do you know it from seeing it in a movie? Because let me tell you, when you're no more than ten years old and your babysitter is telling you the story, the scare factor is tenfold that of watching some B-class actress scream her way through a scene.

The guy decided to walk to the nearest gas station. The girl waited in the car, because it was too long a walk to make in her high heels. Soon after her boyfriend left, she heard a sound outside the car. Like a scritch...scritch...scritch...she though the boyfriend was tapping at the window, so she unlocked the door and waited for him to get in. No one opened the door and still she heard the scritch...scritch...scritch...so she decided to see what was making the noise....she stepped out the car, looked around and saw nothing. That is, until she looked up. And there, hanging from the tree was her boyfriend. Dead. His lifeless body swayed in the breeze, making his sneakers slide across the roof of the car. That was the sound she had been hearing. Her. Dead. Boyfriend.

I didn't exactly scream, but I do recall the goosebumps that ran up and down my arms. The babysitter asked if I was scared. Not wanting to disappoint her, I told her no. I didn't want her to think I was a baby. Well, that backfired because she launched into another story. And another. I did build up my scary story portfolio that night, and even if it came at the expense of sleep, it was worth it. For the next few months, I regaled relatives with my repertoire of fear inducing stories.

I missed the real ghost stories. Slice and dice stories are great to an extent, but I missed being scared in the way that leaves you afraid of the dark. Not afraid of masked men with knives or hooks for arms, but afraid of the things you can't see.

Here's some stories I'll be telling my kids and their friends a few spooky stories during this year's Halloween party, using the greatest collection of scary stories ever assembled - the Alvin Schwartz collection. I'm sure they've heard these all before, but sometimes, it's all in the telling. I'm practicing my creepy whisper and dramatic pauses daily. And if, in the end, these kids would rather have stories with homicidal maniacs and dead babysitters, I always have my cache of urban legends to fall back on.

As always, there's a survey attached.

What's your favorite ghost story/urban legend? Think you have one I haven't heard before? I'm always up for some new scare sources.


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» 'Everything happens on Halloween' from Darleen's Place
Something a little different to start today. Michele's continuing October theme of Halloween posts has inspired me to post in kind. This morning she is covering urband legends and ghost stories and has a challenge if anyone can tell her... [Read More]

Michele has a rather groovy post on ghost stories and urban legends we remember as children. The scariest for me was the Chicken-Footed Lady. I'll save that for Halloween night. The next scariest for me was The Girl Who Ended... [Read More]

» Monday Schtuff from What's Brewing
Well, I'm running behind this morning and I need to pull myself together to leave for work. So just random stuff this morning: 1. Go read Amy. She and I are close to the same age, and what she has... [Read More]


Hmmm... I'll get back to you on a scary story you may not have heard before (somehow I think you've heard them all!).

However, I want to relate the scariest ghost story I remember from my youth is the Mary Worth story I heard at my first slumber party. Take about twelve ten year olds high on sugar still up at midnight, in a darkened livingroom listening to one tell the story of the deranged woman who killed her children before killing herself after slicing her own face. As the story goes on about the tortured and damned soul that wanders the earth in search of her children and that she can come into our world through mirrors in completely dark rooms and, hey, girls you want to try that? My sister and her friends did it and they saw Mary, they really did! Her bloody face surrounded by dead babies. And she started to reach through the mirror.

Utter group hysteria as some of the reluctant ones are taunted into a dark bathroom to chant "Mary Worth" 13 times.

It was delicious fun. And it's always stayed with me no matter how many other scary stories I've read or heard.

Hands down (pun fully intended), the first scary story/urban legend that really freaked me out is the one about the escaped homicidal maniac with a prosthetic hook for a hand, which is found hanging from the car door handle after a pair of lovers having a moonlight tryst get attacked while steaming up the car windows.

Back then, we had a joint here on Staten Island called Willowbrook, which was, for lack of a better term, a nuthouse (exposing its amazingly corrupt and neglectful treatment was what put Jerry Rivers (excuse me: Jeraldo Rivera) on the map).

I so believed they were housing loonies like that.

The girl in the lavender dress, a variant of the hitchiker story. Except the house is abandoned and the girl's grave is beside the house, where the driver finds the dress laying.

My personal favorite remark about ghost stories is G.K. Chesterton - when asked if he believed in ghosts, he replied, "No, but I'm scared of them!"

Large Marge!

My natural father used to get piss drunk to tell ghost stories that usually ended up being chilling admissions from his younger life.


Yeah, childhood was fun.

I don't know if "favorite" is the right word but the one that always got to me was the urban legend told at boy scout camp called "the blue lantern"... seems some ax murderer was loose in the woods for years and the people who escaped said he carried a blue lantern. of course, at camp every light in the woods looks like a blue lantern with only a minimal amount of imagination (and trust me, there are lots of nebulous lights in the woods)... wonder how many other kids were going crazy trying to avoid going outside the tent to relieve oneself until dawn?

i did a google search and can't find any references to this so it must have been just local to the the area i grew up in.

I grew up on the grounds of a V.A. Hospital in Wisconsin. It had previously been the site of an Indian reservation, and the original buildings were built of red brick....the setting looked like a college campus, believe it or not. There was a minimal amount of housing available for the doctors and nurses, some dorm style and a few houses, and our family had one of those houses. One building that had previously been a dorm had been converted so that half of the 2nd floor was made over into an apartment, but the remainder of the building; the entire first floor, the basement, the third floor and the attic was empty.

There were few kids living out at the V.A., and we were a close group, although most of them were teens when I was around 9 or 10. One of the kids lived in the converted apartment, and one day we all decided to find out if the rumors were true....that a schoolteacher had written the names of all of his students on the wall of a closet up in the attic....in BLOOD.

The memory of us sneaking up the long stairway, tiptoeing into the expanse of the huge empty attic with the daylight slanting in through dusty windows...whispering to each other and cautiously opening door after door, has never left me.

We never found the names, but that doesn't mean I stopped believing the story. I think we just didn't open the right door....

Growing up, we had a version of the 'Mary Worth' story that Darleen mentioned. It didn't mention her dead children, her name was 'bloody Mary', and you only had to say her name three times to invoke her. Oh, and the room with the mirror didn't have to be dark. All the older girls at my elementary school used it to torment the younger girls -- by locking them in the girls' bathroom. When I have nightmares -- even some 30+ years later -- I often dream I'm trapped in the girls' bathroom at Magnolia Elementary School. That damned story really stuck.

Favorite ghost story collection is probably Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories. Lovely creepy stories. I'll be rereading them, soon.

Creepiest family ghost story: When I was small, we lived in a house rented from an elderly couple. According to my parents, you could often hear someone walking through the house -- from the living room, all the way back to my brother's room. My mother also often felt 'like someone was watching her.' One day, she was watching me play with my toys in the hall way, when she got that weird 'someone's watching me' vibe. So she left the hallway and went into another room -- she left me to play there because she was sure her mind was playing tricks on her, not that there was anyone actually there.

I came out of the hallway shortly after that, and announced that 'I don't like it when that man watches me play.' She asked me 'what man?' Because there was no man in the house. I apparently described a man wearing fatigues and who was bleeding. Later, my mom found out from the elderly landlady that her son had died in the Korean war, and that his bedroom was where my brother's bedroom was. Not sure I buy it, but it makes for a good tale.

It's hard to beat the stories in Thirteen Alabama Ghosts - there's even a picture of the ghost that lived with the author. There's a story about a window in a courthouse in south Alabama that had a guy's face burned into it when he was struck by lightning, and replacing the pane wouldn't get rid of it. There's also the Red Lady, who returns to the dorms of Huntingdon College in Montgomery on the anniversary of her suicide.

My Dad once told a story about tearing down an old house when he was young. He was working in the attic when a man in overalls sat down behind him and told him "he didn't build this house to have it torn down". Then he vanished.

skillzy, was that ghost in the Montgomery courthouse?

The best ghost stories were written from 1880 to 1940, usually in Britain, but with some notable exceptions. It's actually traditional in Britain to tell ghost stories at Christmas, not on Halloween (hence 'A Christmas Carol'). This is my pet genre.
My very favourite ghost story author is M.R. James, a Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge.
James said about writing ghost stories:
"...the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story."

(The sad, kind ghost that must be helped so it can be at peace is a great dislike of mine; it's the reason I didn't much care for The Sixth Sense and loved The Ring.)

I recommend all of James' work, especially Count Magnus; Lost Hearts (GREAT for freaking out kids!); Number 13; Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad; Canon Alberic's Scrapbook; A School Story (another good one for kids); The Tractate Middoth; The Treasure of Abbot Thomas; Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance; and The Diary of Mr Poynter.

Lovely, terrifying, scholarly stories all. Once you're finished with James, I have many, many more recommendations, from E.F. Benson to Arthur Machen to Algernon Blackwood. Anyone e-mail me if they want to discuss ghost stories--I could talk about this stuff forever.

Like G.K. Chesterton, I don't believe in ghosts and have never had any supernatural experiences, but I sure get shivery reading ghost stories late at night.

Scary stories never really worked for me. Scary places, on the other hand, are a completely different story. In my short life I've managed to spend actual years in the outdoors, and listening to stories about the things that go bump in the night pales in comparison to actually hearing the bumps in the night. Even as an adult, the unknown darkness beyong the halo of the firelight still irks me. Some friends and I went to see Blair Witch when it came out in the theaters, we left the cinema and went straight into the woods to spend the weekend. If you weren't scared by the movie, you were scared by the time we got into the woods. Then there was the abandoned hospital...yeeeeeesh. yeah, not muchfor stories, but places...eeeeeeee.

Dave, I grew up in Montgomery and it wasn't the Montgomery courthouse. It was some little town, and the guy that got struck by lightning was yelling down at a lynch mob that was there for him. I'm gonna try to get a new copy of the book today at lunch and see exactly where it was.

Scariest Ghost Story? The Monkey's Paw, by W.W.Jacobs.

Scariest Story? You pick up the phone on the fourth ring. It's the Hospital.
"Mrs Catelano? I don't know how to tell you this, but I've some very bad news for you. It's about your daughter..."

Scariest Event? Watching the CNN broadcast on 9/11, just after the second plane hit, news about the Pentagon being hit, and suddenly the screen goes blank.

It was a long 5 seconds. I was fully expecting a newscast from Boston about a Mushroom cloud appearing to the south.

That's the trouble with being a military analyst, and used to gaming out "worst case" scenarios. A popular one is an initial strike to attract all the emergency service resources, then a big one to take them out and do maximum casualties.

Pleasant dreams.

As I live here in middle TN, I was somewhat fortunate in the fact that I grew up in the shadow of one of the South's most notorious spirits: The Bell Witch.

Everybody in the area (Adams, TN, site of the haunting is only 2 hours oustide of Nashville) has heard of "Kate" and there're all sorts of stories about her.

There's the variation on Darleen's "Mary Worth" story, where if you say "I hate the Bell Witch" in the mirror 10 times you'll wake up in the morning with scratches all over you and if you say "I love the Bell Witch" 10 times, you'll wake up with candy under your pillow (I've never had the guts to try either. Why go borrowing trouble?).

The Bell's family home is no longer there, but there's a cave on the property that is reportedly haunted by the witch these days. There used to tours and such, but those stopped when the property changed hands. Supposedly, there were strange occurrences at the cave. Weird lights, ghostly laughter and sobbing, pictures that either didn't turn out quite right, or captured something or someone that the photographer swears wasn't there at the time.

Pretty creepy stuff.

The story that horrified me the most was Stephen King's
The Boogeyman.

I would have nightmares about it wandering the halls outside my room at night.


Scariest Story? You pick up the phone on the fourth ring. It's the Hospital.

From a scary column by Dave Barry (paraphrased from memory):

Mrs. Mary Brown of Watertown, NY awoke abruptly from a horrible dream. She had dreamt that her son was killed in a car accident in Missouri. Minutes later, the phone rang. It was an officer of the Missouri Highway Patrol, calling to remind her that she does not have a son.

I don't know if it's my favorite, but a story that scared the ever-loving piss out of me when I was seven or eight was the one about the young college co-ed living on campus during a time when some madman is murdering students. One night she hears persistent scratching at her door. Terrified, she makes sure it's locked, pulls the chain, sits up with a baseball bat, and so on, until it stops. She doesn't get the courage to open the door until morning, and when she does she finds her roommate with her throat cut and her fingertips bloody stumps from scratching.

Like shanks, I went camping very shortly after seeing the Blair Witch Project. We set up camp right next to what turned out to be the local watering hole. In case you're curious, thirsty elk blundering through your camp at night sound amazingly like the sound effects from the movie.

Not that it's really scary, but my alltime favorite urban myth is "The Choking Doberman"

skillzy, it may have been Selma. I didn't read the story but I remember my dad pointing at it when we drove past it one night and telling me about it.

There was one, which has several variations, about an initiation prank gone awry. I can't remember the details (it was forty years ago and I've repressed them), but it involved a severed arm from the local morgue/medical school and some cannibalism.
The counselor at the summer elementary school program told it to us. When I was still up at 1 am, my mom tossed Herman Wouk's "The City Boy" up the stairs to me. I spent the rest of the night reading this charming novel, so that was good.
I used to read to the sixth-grade classes at my kids's school. "The Monkey's Paw" kept them totally silent, quite a feat.

The face in the window is in Carolton, Alabama. I've seen it several times, it's plain as day and no mistaking it. Supposedly the window pane has been changed several times and the face keeps comeing back.