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One Potato, Two Potato
The Folklore of American Children
by Mary and Herbert Knapp

Children's traditional customs, rhymes, games, jeers, songs, superstitions, stories,and pranks help kids deal with feelings and taboo subjects that they can’t understand or talk about and to cope with the stresses of their lives. That’s the serious theme. Readers also find the book an amusing blast from the past as they recall their own childhoods. Remember cooties?

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From Chapter 5, “Coping with the Unknown”
Being scared—but not really—is a feeling children love. A child may overindulge in fear, just as he may overindulge in ice cream, and as a result may weep hysterically or wake up with nightmares. But children soon learn their capacity. One girl told us she was always too chicken to summon Mary Worth. She said, “I knew I’d really be scared.” And really being scared is no fun.
       A child summons Mary Worth, alias Bloody Mary, alias Mary Jane, by going into the bathroom alone at night, turning out the lights, staring into the mirror, and repeating “Mary Worth,” softly but distinctly forty-seven times. She comes at you out of the mirror, with a knife in her hand and a wart on her nose.
       Children, though they don’t know it, have many good practical reasons for scaring themselves. Obviously, flirting with fear is a way of learning to control it, a way of learning to empathize with others who are frightened, and a way of embellishing one’s life with a little dramatic fiction. There are also other, less obvious benefits.
       In all societies, the storyteller holds a position of respect. By listening to scary stories, a child learns to tell them, and by telling them, he gains respect. He also learns confidence in his ability to control and direct others. At Girl Scout camp (a real testing and training ground for the tellers of scary stories), at slumber parties, in a tent set up in the backyard for an adventurous all night sleep-out, or just sitting on a curb at night, after most of the gang have been called inside, the story teller does his work. He may tell a widely known traditional tale like this one:
Once there was this little girl who lived on a farm that was way, way, from anything. And her parents had to go to town. So they left the little girl with this big collie dog to protect her. The mother said, “Now be sure to lock all the windows and doors.” So when the mother and father were gone, the little girl and the collie went around to all the windows and locked them. Down in the basement there was this one little window that wouldn’t shut tight, but the little girl thought, “Oh, well, I’ve got the collie dog to protect me.” So she went to bed. In the middle of the night, she heard this drip-drip sound and it woke her up and she was really scared, but she put her hand down beside her bed and the collie licked her hand, so she felt better and went back to sleep. Then she heard this drip-drip-drip again, but she put her hand down and the dog licked it and she went to sleep. It happened again! Then in the morning she went into the bathroom and there was the collie dog hung up on the shower with its throat cut and all the blood had run out of it. The little girl screamed and screamed. When her parents came home, they found a note under the bed, and do you know what it said? It said, “Humans can lick too, you know.”
       This is a cautionary tale—a modern fairy tale—reminding little girls to lock the house up tight. Similar tales about the perils of parking in lovers' lanes, visiting graveyards, taking drugs, and baby-sitting are widely known to grade school-girls. The favorite of those we talked to was “Drip-drip, Scratch-scratch”:
A couple in a lovers’ lane heard on the car radio that a maniac had escaped from the asylum. The boy tried to start the car. Out of gas. He left to get some. The girl locked herself in. The boy didn’t return. All night, she heard drip-drip, scratch-scratch. In the morning, she got out of the car and saw her boyfriend hanging upside down in a tree. His throat was cut—drip-drip. And his fingernails were scraping the car’s roof—scratch-scratch.
       Another couple—the story goes—drove away from a lovers’ lane just in time. The maniac had only one good arm. When they got home, they found his hook wedged into the door handle.

       A boy told us about the time when some boys were sitting around telling scary stories and one boy dared another to go to the graveyard and stick a knife into the grave of a man who had just died. And the boy did. And do you know what? When he got up to run, he couldn’t because he’d stuck the knife through his foot.

       Girls tell us that baby-sitter stories are the scariest. One of the best is about the sitter who is on LSD. She bakes the baby instead of the turkey and eats it herself or feeds it to the other children. Another good one is about a sitter who receives several phone calls from a man who says that if she doesn’t kill one of the children, he will. She finally asks the operator or the police to trace the call, and they discover he’s on the upstairs extension!
       Somewhat less popular is the one about a sitter who is in charge of a two-year-old and six-year-old. The six-year-old decides to go down to the basement, and after he is gone, the baby-sitter hears thump, thump, thump....(These stories are big on thumps.) When she opens the basement door, she sees the boy trying to climb the stairs with his legs cut off. “He was in shock.” All the police find is a bloody hatchet.
       Children want to explore their deep-seated fears of murder, mutilation, and cannibalism—the worst things they can imagine; therefore, they often insist that these stories are true. If the stories were fiction, the events they describe would be less horrible and hearing about them would therefore not provide as much vicarious satisfaction. 

       Baby-sitters tell tales of vampires or Frankenstein to children more often than we suspected before we began looking for scary stories. One baby-sitter we learned, would take her four charges into a dark bedroom, tell a vampire story, then use a flashlight to single out the vampire’s next victim. The chosen one would have to bend his head so that the sitter could bite him on the neck. When each of the children had been bitten, the sitter tucked them in and said good night. We asked, “Weren’t you scared?”
       “Oh, no! She was our favorite sitter.”