Are Ghost Stories Our Modern Fairy Tales?

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Fairy tales, as I understand them, are a specific form of folklore. They’re the product of oral storytelling, the passing on of tales, the slow metamorphosis of stories as each person adds and omits details. It’s kind of a lost art, really. These days, we have television and books to give us our stories. We use words like canon to discuss which parts of the story are original or correct. Community composition seems limited to gossip.

But I recall telling stories from memory when I was a child. I recall going to slumber parties and having competitions to see who could terrify everyone else the most. One of my earliest memories is of my father telling my sister and I ghost stories while we were camping. So it isn’t totally gone, this human habit. We just don’t call it folklore any more, even though it is. And these stories aren’t all that different from the fairy tales we used to tell. Sometimes there’s magic. Sometimes there isn’t. But there’s always something unusual, something twisted and menacing. There’s always something horrible to drive the story, the moral, the memory home.

So, in honor of Fairy Tale Fortnight, I’d like to tell you one ghost story I’ve never been able to purge from my head. I’ll tell it as I remember it, without looking up a “canon” version because, to me, that’s part of what makes folklore Ours and not Someone Else’s.

Warning: The rest of this post contains a campfire story… a scary campfire story.

Once upon a time, there was a girl—a “latchkey kid,” as my mother would call her—who came home from school every day to a lonely house. The only company she had until her parents got back from work was the family dog: a huge, slobbery mutt she loved more than anything in the world.

Now this girl was a nervous sort, afraid to open her front door before she’d been reassured that all was well inside. So every day, she would hold her hand through the dog door and wait. Eventually, her canine companion would lick her hand, assuring her that everything was as it should be. Then she’d turn her key and enjoy the rest of the afternoon.

CampfireOne day, after receiving the telltale hand-lick, she opened her door and found an eerily quiet house. There were no giant paws ticking on the tile floor, no wet nose sniffing her pockets for treats, no floppy-eared head nudging her hand for affection. All she could hear was a steady drip, drip, drip, like a faucet was leaking somewhere in the house.

She checked the sink in the kitchen, but it wasn’t leaking. Still she heard the drip, drip, drip.

She checked the bathroom, and all was well. But now the sound was louder: drip, drip, drip.

Finally, she gave up and went into her bedroom. There, on her desk by the window, she found a bowl filling, drop by drop, with the blood of her beloved dog hanging dead from the ceiling. But in her shock, horror, and escalating fear, only one question haunted her. Who (or what) had licked her hand through the dog door.

The first time I heard the story called “Drip, Drip, Drip” among slumber-party goers, I stayed up all night tearing paper cups into confetti. It absolutely horrified me, even though I couldn’t exactly articulate why. Now I think it’s a combination of my protectiveness toward animals, the descriptive use of sound, and the unresolved mystery. I can analyze the story and see some typical folklore tendencies: the pattern of three (three drips; three rooms entered), the cautionary moral (beware entering a lonely house, and don’t always trust your safety to one factor), and the corruption of the familiar in order to create horror. All these things came together to make a nightmare of a tale for little, impressionable me.

So that’s my campfire story for you. I wish I could remember more of them. I’ve only hung on to a few, but this one really stuck with me, possibly because it uses the fairy tale patterns so well, despite its not being what one would generally consider a fairy tale. I don’t know where it came from, only that it spread like wildfire when I was a child. It was always a hit when I told it, too, and I was happy to pass on the nightmares it gave me.

I hope this brought back some memories for some of you. If you like, tell me a campfire/slumber party story you remember from your childhood in the comments. Let’s keep the tradition alive!

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