American Ghost Morality Tales

This may not be a ghost story, but it’s a scary one we used to tell around the campfire, the flashlight held up under our chin so our faces took that eerie, scary red glow. For those who don’t know, Shawno is a town in Northeastern Wisconsin, not too far from where I grew up, but far enough away to run out of gas and get lost…

A few years ago, my sister’s friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s sister and her boyfriend were driving home from a fish fry in Shawno and were running low on gas.  They turned off the main road in search of a gas station and preceded to get more and more lost. The radio was running a never-ending report because a psychokiller had escaped from the prison, so they were getting pretty nervous. But the couple was out of gas, so they had to stop. They parked the car under a tree and the guy got out, telling his girlfriend to lock all the doors and that he’d be back soon.

Pretty soon, she started hearing a scracth scratch scratch noise on the car. She closed her eyes and told herself “It’s just the wind, it’s just the wind, it’s just the wind.” Sge waited and waited, but her boyfriend didn’t return. Then she heard it again, scratch scratch scratch. She closed her eyes tighter and thought “It’s the tree, it’s just the tree, it’s just the tree.” She waited and waited and her boyfriend didn’t return. She kept hearing the scratch scratch scratch. All night long she heard scratch scratch scratch. Scratch Scratch Scratch.

Her boyfriend never returned, but when the sun rose, the police found her there, her eyes closed tight. They told her that her boyfriend’s body had been found next to the car and they had arrested the psychokiller.  She got out to identify the body and then she saw what had been making that scratch scratch scratch.  All night long, the psychokiller had dangled down from a tree branch and scratched at the roof of her car with his fingernails. When the police arrested him, she was just a few more scratches away from getting her.

Never mind that the ludicriousness of the story. It was scary, especially when someone good told it. The repetitive scratch scratch scratch helps build the suspense. It seems to be a version of The Boyfriend’s Death (and we all know its cousin, The Hook.)

But why do we tell these stories? Yes they’re scary, but really, it’s a morality story. Don’t go be caught in a parked car late at night with your boyfriend or bad things will happen. We don’t want the squicky parental discussions of STDs, pregnancy or date rape. Nope, these aren’t the bad things that will happen. Instead, a psychokiller will kill your boyfriend. And problaby totally jack up your car in the process…

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4 Responses to American Ghost Morality Tales

  1. Dana says:

    Huh. I can honestly say that I never thought about stories in this vein as morality tales. It’ll make me reconsider all the common childhood ghost stories I heard.

    What about the one about the ghost girl in her prom dress hitchhiking back to her house, only for the driver to find out she’s dead, and the sweater/jacket he loaned her is on the tombstone? I suppose I could see that one as a “don’t hitchhike” kind of thing.

    I’m stumped on the one about the decapitated girl who wore a ribbon around her neck to keep her head on, though. I think that one was just gross.

  2. Jennie says:

    Oh, I don’t think they’re ALL morality tales. Some are just scary or gross. The ribbon one might be along the same lines as Hawthorne’s (was it Hawthorne?) The Birthmark–sometimes it’s best just to accept an imperfect situation because making them “perfect” will make it worse.

    At last year’s National Book Fest, Holly Black gave a most excellent talk about urban legends as the new fairy/folk tales. If you’re really nice and good, your prince will come. Or, if you park in your car late at night with a girl, you will die!

  3. Dana says:

    Oh, I knew you didn’t mean they were all morality tales. I just thought it would be interesting to think about which ones might be construed that way. That sounds like an interesting talk!

    Ooh! What about “The Cat’s Paw”? I’m inclined to think that one’s just supposed to be scary, although it does have the misogynist witches slant.

  4. Sonetka says:

    The one I remember hearing a lot when I was ten or so was the story about the evil china doll which killed its owners – does anyone else remember that one? Whoever was telling it always made a point of the fact that while all the other china dolls in the store had blue eyes, this doll had *green* ones. The only moral I can think of there is “Don’t trust foreigners because they’ll bite open your jugular while you sleep.” Of course, creepy doll stories are a whole category unto themselves.

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