A Glimpse into Suburban Anxieties as Revealed by Obscure American Folklore
by Tom Garback
The only time my childhood babysitter got away with telling me a scary story was when I was too young to know what was good for me. Amy and my sister had discussed the tale before and figured it to be about time I got my fair share of the creeps. What none of us picked up on at the time was the truly unsettling subtext within the tale soon to be told; after all, we weren’t the originally intended audience. Rather, being born somewhere north of us, in small eastern Pennsylvanian towns more isolated and quaint than our own, this tale spoke of the disillusionment with an “ideal” white, middle class, suburban community. By the time it reached my area—over forty years later, in the mid-2000s—knowledge of the story’s themes were lost, as it had seemingly never gained any particular following, leaving me to discover them for myself. Sure, as a child, social critiques weren’t exactly in my wheelhouse; they’re certainly not even today. But, having grown out of the paralyzing fear this legend once fashioned within me, and having left my own small town for college in a major city, it is the more sinister suggestions of Amy’s folklore that haunts me.
As she put it, a teenage couple comes to a gas station outside their neighborhood after spending the evening alone by the edge of town. Just across the road is their county mental institution, and as they pass it the girl sees one of the window’s bars are bent outward, the glass behind them shattered. In the station’s lot, a heavy fog makes the car windows (illogically) cloudy, and there’s only one street lamp lit. After some waiting to no avail, the boyfriend leaves in search of an attendant. He tells the girl to listen for three consecutive knocks on the door—that means it’s him, that she can unlock the car. Some time passes before she hears the wind howl, causing tree branches to scratch the roof. Worried, she turns on the news for comfort, but is troubled to hear a newscast about an escaped mental patient. She tries to look across the road, but the fog is too thick, the windows overcome. Eventually, there’s a knock on the driver’s door, but the girl doesn’t open. Next comes four consecutive knocks; she stays still. Then three, and she opens to find a policeman standing there. He quietly, carefully tells her to go downtown with him, and as she exits the car through the driver’s side, he commands her not to look behind her. Just before getting in the backseat, however, she gives in and turns around. There, just above the car, she sees her boyfriend hanging from a tree by his legs, his fingernails scraping the roof as the breeze blows, which is quickly drowned out by her screams.
I am interested in seeking out the social implications of this story, which can be gained by a modern consideration, thus stepping away from what the original intent of the story may have been—for there is certainly a problematic disconnect between my seven-year-old self and this 1960s story, widened by the eleven years since I heard it. Deprived of online resources, out of touch with my babysitter (who could have changed or misunderstood a significant portion of the original tale), and faced with my sister’s inability to recall the tale at all; I have my memory alone to guide me. In essence, my aim is to explore the messages of the story most applicable to the types of suburban communities in which I grew up. All in all, my babysitter’s urban legend illuminates the underlying anxieties of a small-town faced with its own flaws, those of insufficient gender expectations, an incompetent police force, and the dangers of the desolation brought by late-night hours. These are the flaws many suburban neighborhoods might consider today, especially as societal views on gender, the police, and being alone at night have changed immensely over the past five decades.
Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvard, who mapped out the concept of “urban legends” in The Vanishing Hitchhiker, sees this genre as driven toward delivering a warning to young adults that acknowledges the issues of the times. Naturally, my babysitter’s story is grounded in a message on the dangers of the outside world for the teens who are just beginning to explore it, such as on romantic dates late at night. The young men and women of this narrative’s particular location would have been brought up modeling their parents’ traditional expectations of gender roles: the girlfriend listens to her boyfriend obediently and modestly, who is solely responsible for taking care of their goodwill—as “manly” boys do. But such concepts have become unsustainable in an increasingly unsafe world. No longer can a girl depend on her boyfriend, not if he’s hanging dead from a tree or (more realistically) incapable of fighting predators. Modern suburbia would learn from this story by taking pressure away from growing boys to feel capable of handling and obligated to confront strangers.
Similarly, the current feminist influence across the States and much of Europe allows us to apply the pitfalls of gender roles in the story to reaffirmations of female empowerment today. The girlfriend is portrayed as too obedient and mannerly for her own good; she never speaks up about the suspicious window, doesn’t drive off after hearing the newscast, stalls in opening for the cop, fails to consider calling for help. Indeed, all she does is stay put. At first glance, her inactivity seems to be precisely what keeps her safe—by never leaving the car and waiting, she’s found and brought to safety. However, Brunvand might urge us to consider the boyfriend’s fate. By demonstrating his masculinity in leaving the girl alone to get assistance, he ends up dead. It might seem so innocent, the act of finding an employee. However, the circumstances are key; due to the inclement weather and broken curfew, he shouldn’t even be outside. His daringness puts him in danger, as well as the community’s trust in the safety of night. Here lies what Brunvand would make to be the warning: gender roles work against us in dangerous environments, something of which this community is only starting to gain awareness. Changing times bring out the issues of misogyny. The girlfriend’s inclination to keep silent stops her from suggesting they don’t park across the street from a mental hospital’s broken window. Her passivity allows the boyfriend to leave the car, allows herself to never call for his return. The cop finding her is chance; the patient would have soon gotten to her had they not been likely scared off by the police officer’s car. The girl’s just as much a victim of her gender expectations as the boy. Once she finally does reject obedience, it results only in the discovery of her lover’s dead body, showing she’d acted only when it was too late. To follow Brunvand’s model, we might suppose this story’s message—that which is useful now, rather than that which was intended back then—aims at getting teen girls to be independent and take charge of their own fate.
Most urban legends call for a coming to terms with the dangers of the outside world, and this one is no different in that regard. As Brunvand puts it, “the world’s dangers may close in…as the adolescent moves…into the larger world.” The couple is facing the adult task of filling a car with gas. They don’t have their parents to drive them or guide them, and they’ve been out alone all night—when it’s dark and mentally ill people are lurking about, their institution having failed to ensure maximum security. Such is another anxiety in this story: the failure of community leaders, like security guards and policemen. After all, the officer shows up only after the boy’s been murdered in quite a public fashion, takes a longer than necessary to get the girl’s attention, and even fails at keeping her eyes off of the corpse. Therefore, teens aren’t the only source of trouble in this case; the story carries a commentary on policemen, the archetypal guardians of any community, the professionals being trained and paid to keep residents safe. Increased media coverage on today’s police brutality positions the story’s inadequate cop as preluding violence to come, as pointing out holes in the abilities of law enforcement; both the story and current events explain a growing distrust for policeman. Additionally, if they fail to protect, what does that say about the legitimacy of a suburb’s infrastructure? Perhaps the capabilities of the adult population are proving weak against the dangers of the outside world. After all, these teens aren’t home, either resulting from disobedience (failed parenting) or negligence on the parents’ part. We can learn of folklore’s role in developing parent-to-child relations from Farhad Manjoo, who argues that creepypastas (a modern, online equivalent to urban legends) are risky because the writer’s authority can be corrupted to steer kids toward unhealthy thematic realizations. The article’s closing point is crucial when considering the couple’s familial tragedy. Manjoo believes that parent advising can give children the tools they need to responsibly navigate the internet. Applying this darker side of the internet to the 1960s, we have the darkness of night—in both the experience of reading creepypastas and the couple’s situation, youth are separated from adult influence and possibly rejecting it.
Brunvand would add that this conveys a warning against the disregard for mom and dad’s rules, be it restrictions on computer access, or a curfew and dating parameters. In the days of Amy’s urban legend, Manjoo’s advice would have been quite helpful. Regardless, he manages to expand the story’s scope, from recognizing flaws in policemen to recognizing those of adults as a populace responsible for (but not succeeding in protecting) the youth, who are beginning to explore grownup activities without those tools Manjoo discusses so earnestly. Likewise, the concept of creepypastas reveal that folklore evolves to suit the (often unrecognized) anxieties of its audience. Manjoo exposes the implicit concerns of family relationships in creepypasta’s culture as the couple’s separation from family and consequent tragedy exposes the repressed angst of leaving the household.
The idealistic image of a small-town falls even farther from grace through the story’s recognition that suburbia, half a century ago and today, simply isn’t prepared for the reality of a crumbling infrastructure and outsider threats—which is ironic in that the mental patient actually lives within the physical boundaries of the town; his identity, however, is not accepted by the residents. One needs to understand that a suburban community doesn’t really have a nightlife, nor a sufficient population size to provide a sense of security after curfew. This means that the location is inherently flawed, the most challenging source of anxiety thus revealed. Paranoia rests at the heart of this story’s creation. The girl’s real trouble, aside from the confines of gender roles and the ineptitude of adults, is her isolation in a killer suburban landscape, where everyone’s gone to bed and crimes can be more easily committed without notice. Patricia A. Turner’s research into African American folklore brings due focus to societal paranoia, which she classifies as the inspiration behind popular rumors, such as KKK conspiracies. While Brunvand likely never had paranoid rumors in his repertoire, Turner’s knowledge on the subject allows for the recognition of suburbia’s most obscure anxieties: if they are to protect themselves from predatory figures, the community’s very structure must change, stripping away their very culture. This difficult proposition suggests why their paranoia is tucked away in legend: no one wishes to face the fatal nature of small-towns, and that might be reason for the story’s unpopularity. Nowadays, that refusal remains. Most of the time, teens want warnings they can handle, those they can possibly succeed in adhering to, so they can go about their day feeling proud of what they’re able to accomplish rather than feeling lost in what they—and their community—will never be able to overcome.
To consider the adolescents of a 1960s small-town, great strife comes in growing up and learning the life you’ve lived has so far been sheltered by doting parents. At least, this is the truth for white, middle-class American teens; their privileges make them susceptible to the shocking facts of insanity’s prevalence and the shortcomings of adult supervision. Amy’s story dares to confront its fragile audience, the one it originally addressed and the current (absent) one that could stand to benefit from the implications, with deep-rooted systematic defects. Many in these communities typically turn blind eyes to less fortunate lives, such as those of the mentally insane. This narrative shows, in a display of irony—the ignoring of a broken window—what can happen when perceivably inferior people are blatantly ignored and just how they can hurt the community in its weakest spots. Somehow, Amy’s urban legend has remained, even if only in the mouths of a few, and this could suggest that a minority of storytellers recognized the utility of such critical material. Unlike the girlfriend, who saw a broken window and said nothing of it, modern writers have the opportunity to speak up and point out their suspicions. One can only hope that the most critical tales circulating today don’t move so faintly through the teenage masses, lest the opportunities to act upon broken windows go wasted and communities perish in the silence of their fears.
About the Author:
Tom is currently pursuing a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, where he is a Reader, Copy Editor, Staff Writer, and Blogger at various on-campus magazines. His fiction, poems, and essays have been featured in Teen Ink and Oddball Magazine and printed in Generic and Gauge magazines. Tom has been recognized by the National Committee of Teachers of English and has received several top accolades through the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.