Esta Matveeva
Once upon a time, there were folk horror stories

This issue of Sreda online magazine publishes a text dedicated to the phenomenon of horror stories. Have you ever wondered how popular characters in children's horror stories came about, or why ghosts are depicted in white sheets?

Folklorist Esta Matveeva analyzes the connections between collective experiences and the emergence of well-known folktales, offering a look at popular horror stories from different angles. Matveeva analyzes how psychologists and scientists from different disciplines study the nature of fear and the role of folk horror as an effective therapeutic too.

Folklore is traditionally understood as the oral or written expression of a particular culture. There are no concrete authors in folklore and, because of this, variations in its performance create a wide variety of plots. This said, there is much more meaning in the phenomenon itself. Adam Dundes, one of the most well-known American folklorists, describes folklore as the “mirror of culture.” A reflection of the societies and people who create and transmit folkloric texts, folklore contains not just collective ideas and experiences, but also collective fears.

What fears are we speaking of? On the one hand, a reaction to a natural signal of danger. Our phobias are “hardwired” into our phylogenetic memory, which retains information about the early stages of our development as organisms. If we imagine that man evolved in an environment of poisonous ducks, then a fear that aided survival in such conditions would be met with far more frequently today, had there truly been poisonous ducks. One of the hypotheses surrounding the emergence of arachnophobia (a fear of spiders) relates to the peculiarities of man’s evolution in the savannah, which was inhabited by dangerous crawling creatures, which would, in turn, have formed firm behavioural patterns. Through the images that appear in rock paintings and folkloric texts at the first stages of the emergence of culture, one can trace the strengthening and transmission of “horror” from generation to generation (Flannery, 2008).

Fear, however, is not always a consequence of adaptation to an aggressive environment. Folktales contains many truly unsettling characters whose images are different from the appearance and behaviour of those predators we were once afraid of. Behind the formation of modern horror folklore stands a complex of social and psychological factors, and defining these is no simple task. The similarity of fears expressed in the cultures of different countries leads one to the question of their relationship to concrete experiences. Does a faceless person frighten us because we have never encountered such an anomaly or because a conceptual understanding has been formed within us that eyes, a nose, and a mouth are necessary for life? Or do the reasons for the penetration of this image into mass culture lie in a recasting of historical events important to society? This text seeks to understand how our fears relate to folktales.

How can we study fear?

Various academic disciplines analyse the origin of figures in horror folklore. Allen Dundes, already mentioned above, proposes an interpretative (psychoanalytic) approach: in his view, the primary function of folklore is its provision of a socially sanctioned outlet for fears, needs, and desires repressed by society for social or political reasons. Transformed into symbols, images, and motifs, they create material for researchers. In this case, their task is to decipher the meanings within the allegorical folkloric language.

One of the most well-known examples of Dundes’s interpretative approach is his analysis of the American teenage legend about Bloody Mary, a popular character in children’s’ “summonings.” Examining the main stages of the ritual, Dundes interprets this folkloric plot as an expression of the real fears of young girls before the onset of their first menstruation. Dundes draws attention to the key conditions and attributes of the ritual: the “summoning” takes place in solitude in a bathroom and is principally carried out by young girls of early pubescent age, with the culmination of the action being the sudden appearance of Bloody Mary. Curiously, this name is not infrequently used as a euphemism in conversations about oncoming menstruation, about which it is not socially acceptable to talk about openly, especially at an early age. The other obligatory component of this ritual is the mirror in which the summoned character appears—and where, in Dundes’s opinion, the young girl looking at it is met with a renewed and adult image of herself.

Despite a certain logic in the analysis and comparison of folkloric motifs and childhood fears, Dundes overlooks important considerations. For example, the similarity of this phenomena to the “summoning” of “demonic” characters in other traditions. A fairly close analogue exists in Russian culture: the meeting with the Queen of Spades. Typically, children between nine and twelve years of age look into a mirror in a large room and repeat the name of the Queen of Spades three times in the hope of seeing her appear. In the Russian version, however, the blood motif from which Dundes builds his “menstruation interpretation” is absent. Some researchers point out that the bathroom where Bloody Mary is “summoned” can also be viewed in a broader context—from the point of view of urban mythology, where the toilet and bathroom act as locus bordering on the “other world” and, as a result, the most suitable location for summoning a demonic character.

Another way of analysing folklore is the historical reconstruction approach. Unlike the interpretative approach, historical reconstruction is founded upon a search for the sources of folkloric images in the realia of the past, which, for one reason or another, have established themselves in collective memory. The American folklorist Sylvia Grider suggests that the traditional image of a ghost in a white sheet refers back to events of the time of the great plagues of the fourteenth century. Going by the stories of eyewitnesses, funerary shrouds along the streets of Europe in the Middle Ages may have made such an impression on the first onlookers and later generations that fear in the face of them was translated into the folkloric conception of ghosts (Grider 2007, 114).

Another example of this approach is the analysis of classic Soviet horror stories. Take, for example, a popular story of that time—the story of the mysterious Black “Volga” (Black car, Black bus, Bus with black blinds), in which adults and in particular children were abducted and driven away to unknown destinations. The Soviet writers Eduard Uspensky and Andrei Usachev were among the first to consider changes in child folklore and the reasons for the appearance of so many unusual figures. They related the appearance of this story about a mysterious car with the Stalinist political regime, during the time of which “Black Funnel” cars transported prisoners: children had to be told where their parents and neighbours were vanishing away to from the stairwells. This is also the opinion of the authors of the book Dangerous Soviet Things, where the image of the Black “Volga” is connected to the “lived experience of repression and collaboration with the secret police” (Arkhipova, Kirzyuk, 2019: 375–397).

Let us now to turn to a popular horror story about a piano:

There was once a Mother, a Father, a Son, and a Daughter. The Daughter says: ‘Mama, mama, buy me a piano.’ The Motherbuys her a piano in the shop. She begins to play at night. Plays, plays, hands stretch out—strangled. The next day the Brother begins to play. The hands appear—also strangled. The following day the Father begins to take apart the piano. He takes it apart: and there are the magical hands hanging on needles. The Father takes them, breaks them, and throws them away. He goes to the shop to return the piano. And look—the old woman, the seller, has no hands.

The figure of the sinister piano on which the heroes of this children’s horror story play could be an analogue of the reaction to Soviet reality, and refer to aspects of musical education. Many children were sent to musical schools against their wills, (which could have) cultivated a fear of the hated instrument.

Features of the time may also have found expression in a horror story about a radio:

A Little Girl is home alone. Suddenly, the radio begins to broadcast: ‘Little Girl, a coffin on wheels is coming for you. It is driving down your street. It is approaching your building. It is approaching your entrance. It is going up the stairs. It has arrived to your floor. It is by your apartment.’ The doorbell rings. The Little Girl opens the door and hits the coffin on wheels with a hammer. A skeleton crawls out and says ‘And there’s a new car broken again!’

The appearance of the “coffin on wheels” is usually associated with the pre-existing folkloric and literary traditions (in this instance, Gogol’s Viy is worth mentioning). However, one also meets different explanations. The Russian folklorist Nikita Petrov sees a connection between this character and the appearance of crematoriums—where coffins would move along conveyor belts deep into cremation ovens—in the 1920s and 1930s, and suggests this could have made a strong impression on children’s collective consciousness.

As well as the interpretative and historical approaches to the analysis of folkloric plots, one can identify another—the psychological approach. If in the previously cited examples researchers worked with vivid impressions, associating them with figurative comparisons or analogues in history, psychologists put greater emphasis on more universal experiences. Maria Cherednikova, a Russian specialist in children’s folklore, turns to child developmental psychology, and searches for possible predecessors or analogues in traditional adult culture, placing an emphasis on archetypal imagery. She relates the appearance of the “black sheet” character to the feelings and images produced by the texture of fabric: “Fabric, as in the case of curtains, has a fluidity of form, the ability to take on various shapes: sheets hung out to dry and swaying in the wind, for example” (Cherednikova, 1995: 99). Cherednikova emphasises the traditional role of the sheet in the funeral rite, covering mirrors and the corpse of the deceased. This could have strengthened its negative associations and provoked the creation of corresponding texts.

Representatives of a fourth discipline analyse horror folklore and popular images of contemporary mass culture through the frame of cognitive theory. The Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb and the Austrian scientist Wolfgang Shledit ran experiments on fear in animals and discovered it not to be a preprogramed phobia of particular predators but rather to emerge from accumulated knowledge of the surrounding world. Humans also have similar cognitive categories. The experiments of the American psychologist Mary Ainsworth have shown that these categories become fixed at about six months, after which children are more often scared by “weird” things. According to Ainsworth’s theory, it is precisely the disparity between what we expect to see and what we see in reality that causes fear and excitement (Asma, 2014: 948–949).

The image of a man without a face, of flying hands, or of a speaking doll leads to mental confusion, an impossibility of categorising the object, of defining its place. When the habitual, expected model of appearance, behaviour, or character does not match the real picture, we lose a sense of control over the situation and, consequently, experience fear. Werewolf-characters belong to this group—beings that turn out not to be those they seem to be—as do people with superpowers or who are characterised by deviant behaviours.

How did fear, which served as a defence mechanism and helped our ancestors survive dangerous situations, come to perform functions of an utterly different, secondary character?

How can we overcome fear?

A number of researchers see folklore as an effective therapeutic instrument that helps us overcome fear. In psychologically safe circumstances, the level of strain at the moment of the description of terrible events noticeably decreases, a certainty appears in a person that at any moment they will be able to as it were “leave the game.”

The feeling of “play fear” is an important element in folklore therapy. A number of mechanisms come together to help here—for example, speaking through and the anticipation of confrontation. The more we speak about an object of fear, the sooner we cease to be afraid of it. The American researcher Robert Krell spent a number of days in a hospital for children with serious illnesses and wrote down horror stories related to the theme of death. Among them was a story about a child who was forced to clear up an attic as a punishment and died of loneliness and asthma. In Krell’s opinion, it is easier for a child to manage fear of their own death through such stories about other people (Krell 1980).

Apart from the speaking through described above, the anticipation of a direct encounter with the object of fear can help in the fight against fear. A traditional example is visiting horrifying or forbidden places (cemeteries, abandoned homes, “cursed” streets). However, in these cases, it is important to believe the legend to be something greater than just a made-up story. The mechanism of confrontation and anticipation of confrontation is founded on a demonstration of one’s own courage before the object of fear. Such an overcoming of oneself is an important step on the path to social maturity. The “summoning” of frightening characters and “creepygaming” (frightening computer games) might be mentioned here as modern analogues to visiting horrifying places.

Another instance of this mechanism occurred with the spread of folklore in online children’s communities—this changed traditional practices in many ways and brought them to a new, digital format. Towards the end of the 2000s, the term “creepy pasta” became popular in modern online culture. The term sometimes designates “modes of digital storytelling” (Balanzategui 2019: 187), at others, “creepy-texts” (texts in the horror genre) that are published on thematic sites and spread through reposts across various internet platforms, taking on their structures and forms (Rustad, 2015). In parallel with the large number of texts of oral folklore crossing over to an online format, unique plots and characters are beginning to actively replicate themselves online—gradually, they are coming together and entering into various relations with one another, thus creating new stories.

Folklore therapy can also take place through plot. Children’s horror stories often end badly, but there are exceptions in which the horrifying character is defeated or the hero themselves enters the fight, sometimes receiving help from the police, parents, or a magical specialist. Playing out a frightening situation through a plot with a positive ending is another way of working through fear.

Another type of folklore therapy is founded on the elimination of fear through the means of a brief, vivid experience that is followed by a release of emotions. One could describe this as a kind emotional catharsis. The telling of horror stories— “shockers” or “catch-end spine-chillers”—helps achieve such a result During the performance of these texts, it is important to have an unhurried, insinuating, half-whispered presentation of the main part of the story, and an unexpected cry accompanying the last remark. A Soviet horror story about a little boy living with his parents in a communal apartment ends with the following lines:

—Mama, Papa, Sister, are you devils?

After which everyone is frightened and catharsis takes place, followed by laughter, calm, and the elimination of pent-up fear. A similar mechanism is at work when we watch horror films or short “video-screamers,” and tremble with fear at unexpected scenes.

Alongside classic horror stories, there exist a number of parodic variants—“anti-horror-stories” or “funny scary stories”—in which the ending destroys almost the entire structure of pent-up fear. In such cases, the battle against fear takes place through laughter. Take, for example, the story about the Yellow Spot:

A Yellow Spot appears on the ceiling of an apartment. The Mother sees the Spot and dies of fear. The following day the Spot has become larger. The Father sees it and also dies. The Elder Sister then dies. Then the Little Boy goes to the attic and sees a little kitten making puddles.

Such texts travesty the subjects of classic horror stories, softening their sacral meaning for children. Therefore, with age, when the experience of the genre has increased, more and more parodic forms appear in the children’s repertoire.

How is fear related to collective entertainment?

Plays on the theme of fear in the mass entertainment market bring it closer to its antipode—laughter. A number of researchers propose that “parodies of themes connected to death, violence, and suffering” help lower horror through “glamourisation of the terrible.” One example of such playing on fear in popular culture is the 2010 American series Monster High (featuring the daughter of Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula’s adopted daughter, the daughter of a werewolf, and so on). Video games based on characters from this series would go on to be developed, as well as further television series (Romanova, Smirnova, 2013).

A similar function is fulfilled by dressing up for Halloween. Traditionally, on All Hallows’ Eve, children dress up as witches, ghosts, skeletons, and other popular characters. They go from house to house demanding sweets with the question: “Trick or treat?” On this day, a mild form of vandalism is even permissible: in the guise of supernatural beings, children symbolically attack houses and their owners. In Russian culture, such rituals take place every year during the Christmas period and are in many ways similar to those of the Western tradition, though it goes without saying they have their peculiarities. As an example, ritual Christmas excesses/atrocities are primarily characteristic of village tradition (in large cities the young tend to prefer Halloween), which means that the choice of frightening characters to dress up as is limited to the traditional folk demonology of the region: walking dead, witches, sorcerers, goblins, brownies, and so on. Describing such practices in American folklore, the American folklorist Linda Degh notes their therapeutic potential: terrible masks and costumes not only allow children to preserve their anonymity, but also provide effective protection against evil forces through self-identification with them (Degh, 1983: 10).

Fear—control, status, or cognition?

Horror folklore can also function as an instrument of social control. Parents, camp counsellors, nannies, and grandmothers in villages tell children horror stories to warn them of potential danger or to control their movements. The American researcher James Leary describes stories about the “Boondocks Monster” or “Swamp man” who inhabits the territory of the Wapehani camp in Southern Indiana and who, according to the legends of local guides, lives in the swamps, avoids dry areas, and kidnaps children who venture beyond the limits of the camp (Leary 1973).

One of the primary functions of such stories is to force children to follow rules and not to venture beyond the bounds of the camp territory alone. However, in practice, the result can be either that a person is scared, and does not venture into the forest, or, on the contrary, wants to experience strong emotions through the expectation of an encounter and sets off in search of a monster.

This includes stories composed by adults for children. They are related to censured behavioural habits, control over which is maintained through folkloric texts: “Don’t go out on the street with wet hair— you’ll catch lice,” “Don’t accept food from strangers—you’ll be poisoned,” “Don’t sit on pillows—your head will hurt,” “Don’t eat food with stones—a tree will grow in your stomach,” and so on.

A cognitive function can be traced in children’s horror folklore: when at a particular developmental stage a child realises the inevitability of death, they can feel nervous and agitated. Horror stories, in these cases, become “collective searches for answers to questions that the individual consciousness of the child is not in a condition to resolve” (Cherednikova, 1995: 9).

A person has many fears, but certain themes and characters penetrate folklore and become popular, while others do not. What provides a narrative with the tenacity to become a part of our repertoire?

A story is highly likely to be passed on if it contains elements of “the rhetoric of truth”—that is, a system of techniques that makes the story plausible (Oring 2008). Some of the most common of these techniques are references to personal experience or to the experience of acquaintances, references to expert opinion (“doctors proved,” “I read in a book”), and the use of many details irrelevant to the main plot.

Besides this, a story should address topical themes. The vitality of folklore largely depends on the acceptance of an idea or an emotion in society. Folklore will be successful if it enables the spread of moral panic or general fear, which people begin to actively express through legends and rumours, amplifying the level of emotional tension. It was in the wake of such panics that stories spread about poisoned or spiked sweets handed out near schools and about HIV-infected needles in public places (handrails on public transport, in cinema seats).

The plot should have a mnemonic potential, a kind of aggregate of instruments that facilitate the remembering of necessary information (simplicity, unexpectedness, details, emotional presentation and so on). One might recall here the classic plots of horror stories, in which a daughter doesn’t listen to her mother and wears her beads to the disco, and in the morning only the lower half of the girl comes home. Following the reaction—“What is this nonsense? How is this possible?”—the mechanism of remembering is activated.

The end of the story—and of fear?

Fear is the body’s natural adaptive response to danger. It formed over the course of evolution to make it possible to save oneself in situations of real threat. This said, in psychology, fear is considered a negatively coloured emotion. The closely related “phobia” is understood as a psychological condition in which certain situations or objects, often not actually dangerous, cause severe anxiety in the affected person.

To borrow the well-known American sociologist Erving Goffman’s term, folkloric fear might be said to “transpose” emotion into a play-reality, thus transforming it into a surrogate for fear which fulfils not a defensive but rather a therapeutic, socialising, cognitive function. This is the vitality of folklore—and of children’s horror stories—and the reason for its increasing popularity in contemporary culture. In part, we observe a process in which fear is transformed into a commodity. Today, “Soviet horror stories” are becoming the objects of museum exhibitions and performances, their recognisable images are used by market analysts for the to improve their services, popular readers are setting up “nights of horror stories” where stories on classic “pioneer” subjects are told. Producers of mass entertainment have learned to exploit this attraction to everything terrible, frightening, and unusual, at the same time supporting the interest in old subjects and practices and allowing the older generation to follow their transformations.

And here the following question arises: will it become even more horrifying to accept reality?

Translated by Charlotte Neve

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