Scary Folktales and Ghost Folklore

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Scary Folktales and Ghost Folklore

Some of the best scary stores come from American folklore and legend and could be adapted to fit the time and place of the storytelling.

American folklore is full of stories intended to scare and titillate. The storyteller can adapt many of these stories to fit the local geography, thereby making the story seem more personal and more scary.

Here are shortened versions of some scary folktales that are fun to tell:

Black Umbrella

This story is an African-American legend from South Carolina. It is a story that reminds people that the living may forget the dead, but the dead never forget the dead. There was an elderly woman who worked as a housekeeper and who always had a black umbrella that stood in the corner, near the door – but it was not for lending.

One rainy afternoon, she heard the songs of a funeral wafting over from the nearby cemetery. She loved to sing in the church choir and the rain wasn’t going to keep her from sharing her lovely voice with the mourners. She walked to the cemetery and heard them singing:

“No more rain gonna wet you – no more

No more cold gonna cold you – no more

Oh Lord, I want to go home.”

The mourners continued to sing for a long time, as the wind picked up and the rain poured harder. A tall man dressed in black came over to the lady and gave her a black umbrella, telling her that her beautiful song should be kept dry. Eventually, the preacher said a prayer and ended with Amen. The lady put down her head to pray and when she picked her head up, all the mourners were gone. The cemetery was totally silent.

She was scared and ran home. When she got there, she realized that she still had the black umbrella in her hand. She put the umbrella in the corner and it has stayed there ever since.

The Missing Man

The tale of Peter Rugg, the missing man, hails from 19th century Boston. Peter Rugg was said to be a very stubborn and angry man. One night he took his daughter Jenny to town in a carriage driven by a black horse. On the way home, it started raining and they took shelter at the house of some friends. The friends told them to stay the night, but Peter Rugg stubbornly refused, saying “I’ll make it home tonight or never.”

It turned out that he never did make it home. His wife saw him flying past the house in a carriage that would not stop and she died soon after. And it seemed every time there was a thunderstorm, someone would spot Peter Rugg in a carriage that would not stop.

This tale could be adapted to fit current times by placing Peter Rugg in a sports car.

A Yellow Ribbon on Her Neck

This folk tale is fun to tell because it falls into the screamer category of scary tales. It is an American version of an older European tale of a red ribbon.

Johnny loved Jane ever since first grade. He thought it was strange, however, that she always wore a yellow ribbon around her neck. One day he asked her why. She told him she would explain in second grade. When he asked her about the ribbon in second grade, she said she would tell him about it in third grade. This went on year after year. Finally, Jane and Johnny were seniors in high school and they went to the prom together. Jane wore a beautiful yellow dress that matched her yellow ribbon perfectly. At the end of the evening, Johnny said, “Jane, won’t you tell me now why you wear the yellow ribbon?” Jane replied, “We had such a good time, don’t worry about the ribbon now.”

Jane and Johnny married soon after and on their wedding night, Johnny asked Jane about the ribbon, again. Jane replied, “Johnny, you love me, the ribbon doesn’t matter.”

Johnny and Jane raised a family of four children and every now and then, Johnny would ask Jane about the ribbon and she would put him off.

Johnny and Jane grew old and Jane got cancer and was on her deathbed. Johnny asked Jane, “Jane, won’t you tell me now, why you wear that yellow ribbon?” Jane removed the ribbon from her neck and . . . Her Head Fell Off!

The storyteller should scream that last line.

American folktale literature is full of haunting tales and legends for every region of the country. Many tales can be personalized to fit the region of the country where it is being told, or details can be changed to bring the story up to date. Libraries offer many folklore collections and there are also some good websites. Here are a few:

Leach, Maria, The Rainbow Book of American Folk Tales and Legends, World Publishing, 1958

Schwartz, Alvin, In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories, HarperCollins, 1985