As American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand has observed, urban legends develop as a way for society to articulate its fears—whether about newfangled technologies like microwaves, which could cook animals inside out, or liberated young men and women driving together in the woods, to name the premise of two of the most famous US legends he cites.
China has no shortage of these stories, though it’s not always clear what lessons they’re supposed to reflect. Below, we’ve excerpted a few tall tales commonly heard around university campuses and internet chat rooms, in hopes that they make your Halloween a little chillier.
Back to Back
A classic ghost story told among university students, it’s not obvious what’s so essentially Chinese about this, unless it’s that Chinese dorms are known to have too many people and not enough space.
It was the winter holidays at the university, and two best friends were the only students in their dorm room who chose to stay at school instead of going home. One evening, one student came back but discovered that her friend had not yet returned. She decided not to wait up ,and climbed up to her bunk to go to sleep.
In the middle of the night, she was interrupted by her phone ringing [note: in the era before mobile phones, she simply has a dream]. Picking up the call, she hears a little voice on the other end saying, “Best friends stay back to back.”
This was creepy. But as she couldn’t understand the message at all, she decided it was just a prank, and went back to sleep.
Then the phone rang again. On the other end, the same little voice said, “Back to back…best friends stay back to back.”
This was creepier. Also, she still hadn’t heard her friend come in. She was growing more and more uneasy and felt couldn’t move from her bed. Eventually, though, she fell asleep, worn out from worrying.
Just before dawn she woke with a start. She’d just realized what the mysterious message meant. Jumping up from her bed, she threw back the curtains around her friend’s bunk bed below hers, her hands shaking. There, she saw her friend’s dead body nailed to the underside of the upper bunk, where she’d been sleeping with it all night, back to back.
The Red String
China has its own day (actually several days) for honoring the spirits of the deceased. Here’s a classic tale involving Chinese cultural traditions on one of these days of the dead:
An intern was taking a late shift in a hospital on the night of the Ghost Festival. Before leaving for the day, his supervisor joked that he’d better not let the elevator stop on the third floor, where the morgue was located, or let in any riders who had a red string tied to their right wrist—that was a charm put on the bodies of the deceased.
The floor was deserted by the time intern prepared to leave. Just as the elevator door was about to close, a nurse came running up and got on with him. The cab began to crawl down the floors…6 – 5 – 4 – 3…it did not stop at 3, and the intern sighed with relief. But then it kept going until the basement, where the door opened to reveal a little girl standing in the hallway.
“Please, may I ride the elevator with you?” she asked, but the intern barred her way and jabbed the button until the door closed. As the elevator began to climb, he felt he could breathe again. His colleague asked, “Why wouldn’t you let her on?” and he explained what his supervisor had said: “And you see, I saw that she had a red string tied around her wrist.”
“I see,” the nurse nodded. Then she chuckled and held out her right wrist. “You mean like this?”
Ghost Bus Revisited
Some of the most famous American urban legends—the Hook, the Calls from Inside the House—have been retold for decades or even centuries, as in a horse-and-buggy variation of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. One of China’s best known urban legends, variously known as Bus 375 or the Bus to Fragrant Hills, also dates a respectable distance back to at least the 1990s. Given how old and well-trod it is, it’s not surprising that youngsters today have made a few retellings with some modern updates—and a nice little twist:
This story starts as all late bus stories do: On a dark night and deserted road, the last bus of the route is making its journey into the outskirts of the city. Just a handful of passengers were left on the bus, and almost all were looking at their phone, the screens glowing like eerie lanterns in the half-light.
A man was standing at the side of the road, and the driver let him on. The man was wearing a hood and long robe that hid his feet.
As the bus drove on into the night, an old woman in the back suddenly leaned over to her fellow passenger, a young man who had been dozing off, and whispered, “Young man, listen to me; we must get off this bus. See the man who just got on? He’s a ghost…he has no feet….”
The young man agreed, as he had clearly heard the Fragrant Hills bus story, and was savvy about the goings-on of late buses and heroic old women who ride them. He did wonder, though: “Why are you only telling me, and not those other passengers?”
“They’re already half-dead…” the old woman declared. “Zombies…glued to their phones…you’re the only one with some qi in you left to drain.”
The bus dropped off the young man and old woman in a particularly desolate stretch of road. As the young man turned to leave, he thanked the old woman and casually asked, “By the way, how did you know the other passenger was a ghost? You couldn’t see under his robe whether he had feet or not.”
“I knew…because I’m a ghost too…” replied the old woman. “You’re the only one with some qi in you left to drain.” And she lunged at the young man on feet that no one could see.
It’s not exactly clear what the moral of this retelling is. Ghosts read urban legends too, so be careful when strange elderly people invite you off the bus late at night (or at least, check if they have feet)? Don’t go around believing people who say you’re a special snowflake, because you’re no better than those other phone-addicted husks (who are, anyway, better protected against ghosts)? In any case, have a happy Halloween, and if you need something to take the edge off these spine-tingling tales, check out Part 2 of our Halloween urban legends collection, where we feature some ghostly Chinese tales that elicit a very different set of emotions.
Feeling scared yet? No? Carry on to Part 2 then.