Scary FolkloreScary Stories to Tell in the Dark

The Origins of Scary Stories: The Babysitter

Where do these Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark tales come from? Where do they originate? Well, the answer to that is as diverse as the stories themselves. Let’s look at one of the scary stories The Babysitter.

First off though, I do get into the answer to that quite a bit in the documentary. But I also acknowledge that unless I’m making a 10-part series on the topic or somehow deciding on a completely different format, a single documentary can only go so far with a book series that includes nearly 100 different stories.

What I found probably the most interesting (and I do discuss) are the trends that are seen in the origins. How are stories that took place in the southwest United States similar and different than stories that originated in Great Britain or Ireland or Asia? And what about that location and history might tell us about why such a scary story took shape and thrived in that particular community and culture.

Scary Stories The Babysitter Scary Stories originsLet’s take one example from Scary Stories The Babysitter. It has become a classic tale that IS part of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, but it is also an urban legend that existed before and isn’t entirely dependent on it’s existence within Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories books. The story goes that a babysitter is home alone with a child and she begins to get phone calls. Sometimes the phone calls are just heavy breathing, other times it may be some creepy voice telling her that he is going to GET her. The phone calls continue, and after some time she calls the police. The person on the other line says that they will trace the call to see where the phone call is coming from. And of course, as so many people know because they have heard a variation of the scary story many many times, the call is coming from inside the house. The creepy killer is upstairs or in the other room or whatever the case may be.

The “babysitter and the man upstairs” urban legend has existed about as long as things like phone “tracing” has existed. It was adapted into many films in different ways, including Black Christmas (1974), When a Stranger Calls (1979), and that film’s subsequent sequels and remakes.

Janett Christman: An Origin of Scary Stories’ The Babysitter

There is a very real case that happened in 1950 that for many people is the basis of this urban legend. It happened in Columbia, Missouri and resulted in the death of a 13-year-old girl named Janett Christman. Many of the details of the urban legend are not consistent with this case. There was a phone call, but there wasn’t any tracking of that phone call. And there is no reason to think there was a killer upstairs at some point, like how the story is often told.

When a Stranger Calls (1979)
I lived in Columbia, Missouri for years, because I went to college there. It is a college town. And so that means there are a lot of young adults who get extra jobs like babysitting. Along with that, there would be a lot of young adults who gossip and spread fears like what many of these urban legends are dependent on. I’m reminded of the story of Oh Susannah in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which similarly is bound to be spread best in colleges and universities where young adults are going to spread fears based on the lives they live. A death in Columbia, Missouri seems like an ideal location to birth an urban legend based around young people surviving (or not surviving) a killer. Not only do you have a huge amount of college-age people who are there ready to spread these tales, you have a lot of parents employing them and turning the story into a cautionary tale. “Hey, young adult. If you’re ever home alone and you get a creepy phone call, make sure you call 9-1-1 immediately. They could be inside the house!”

So a sad story about a young girl being murdered, whatever the details, is bound to be amplified into an urban legend in such a location. Pretty soon, every college town and university becomes the backdrop for pretty much the same story, the same cautionary tale.

Here is an article about the murder of Janett Christman.

Here is a Snopes article that touches on a different but similar case.

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