Creepy Corner: Hearse Songs, Drums, and Forerunners of Death -- Behind Some of the "Scary Stories" We Tell in the Dark

As if "The Drum" could get any creepier. (It can)
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Louise Hung
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As if "The Drum" could get any creepier. (It can)

I'm going to show off my mad third grade memorization skills for a moment:

Don't you ever laugh as the hearse goes by                              

For you may be the next to die

They wrap you up in a big white sheet

From your head down to your feet

They put you in a big black box

And cover you up with dirt and rocks

All goes well for about a week

Then your coffin begins to leak

The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out

The worms play pinochle on your snout

They eat your eyes, they eat your nose

They eat the jelly between your toes

A big green worm with rolling eyes 

Crawls in your stomach and out your eyes

Your stomach turns a slimy green

And pus pours out like whipping cream

You spread it on a slice of bread

And that's what you eat when you are dead

In case you don't recognize it, that's "The Hearse Song" from that classic of Creepy Corner "required reading," Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collected by Alvin Schwartz. Thank you Mr. Hayes for not only introducing me to all the Scary Stories books, but also for having the humor and creativity to make your third graders memorize and perform this song at the all-school Fall Assembly. 

Your Creepy Corner Certificate of Honor is in the mail. 

SSTTD cover image pic

Hello, old friend. Illustration by Stephen Gammell. Source, Creative Commons. 

I don't think I have to waste too much word count telling you Creepy Corneristas why the Scary Stories books are the bee's knees (the creep's pajamas? the corner's mourners?). Schwartz's no frills storytelling doles out just enough of a legend to send your morbid little mind swirling, there's an uncanny familiarity to the stories that keeps you looking over your shoulder, and THE ILLUSTRATIONS — sweet Slithery Dee! — THE ILLUSTRATIONS. 

SSTTD montage

HOW COULD THEY CHANGE THE ART WORK?!? Illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Source, Creative Commons. 

Curse you (and bless you) Stephen Gammell for having the ability to crawl inside our collective childhood brains and draw the stuff of our nightmares. 

Before we had the Internet (gather children and ye shall hear of a dark time...) Scary Stories gave me the first taste of what falling down a spooky rabbit hole could be like. I needed more! MORE scary stories! While Harry Potter compelled the next generation to read more books, it was "Harold," "Clinkety-Clink," and "The Thing" that made me want to read every ghost, haunting, or folklore book I could get my hands on. 

Even now I want to know more. What are the stories behind the Scary Stories? What's the stuff that Schwartz left out to give our terror room to grow?

Take for example, "The Hearse Song." There are many versions of "The Worms Crawl In, the Worms Crawl Out" as it's often called, but all deal with the gruesomeness of death (some versions more graphically than others). Another version includes:

They take you out/To the family plot/And there you wither/Decay and rot

and also

Your eyes fall in/And your teeth fall out/Your brains come tumbling/Down your snout

The song can be traced back to 19th century British soldiers in the Crimean War. The rhyme became popular amongst children as a deceptively sing-song way to teach children about the reality of death. Just like so much of frightening folklore, there's always a lesson!

Going even further back to the romantic ballad "Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogine" from the 1796 gothic novel The Monk, there's a hint at "The Hearse Song's" more famous line:

The Lady is silent: The Stranger complies.His vizor lie slowly unclosed:Oh! God! what a sight met Fair Imogine’s eyes!What words can express her dismay and surprize,When a Skeleton’s head was exposed.

All present then uttered a terrified shout;All turned with disgust from the scene.The worms, They crept in, and the worms, They crept out,And sported his eyes and his temples about,While the Spectre addressed Imogine.

While it can't exactly be proven that the two have a connection, it's an interesting coincidence considering the imagery in the ballad. 

It's history like this that make Scary Stories the tales that just keep on giving. So to satisfy your craving for "more tales to chill your bones," here's some background I dug up on two more of my favorite stories. 

Forerunners of death and "The Thing"

"The Thing" tells a story of two friends who see some "thing" crawl up out of a turnip field. It keeps appearing and reappearing before it starts coming toward them. Not sure what human or animal "thing" they saw, they decide to get a better look at it. 

When they look into its face they see a skeleton with "bright penetrating eyes sunk deep in its head." A year later one of the boys gets sick, and when he dies he looks just like the "thing." 

SSTTD The Thing pic

Illustration by Stephen Gammell. Source, Creative Commons. 

Forerunners of death are documented around the world. In folklore and legend, three knocks on a door or wall by an unseen presence, church bells only heard by one person, a picture inexplicably falling off a wall, and seeing the "doppelganger" of a living person are all portents of death. 

Take note Creepy Corneristas, if you see your own doppelganger, or double, don't speak to it. According to legend, doing so is inviting death. The two boys daring to look the "thing" in the face might have not only invited death, but sealed their fate. 

Nova Scotian folklorist Helen Creighton tells a version of "The Thing's" forerunner story in her book Bluenose Ghosts

In Creighton's telling, set in Nova Scotia, a husband and wife are going to bed one night when the wife asks her husband to shut the bedroom door. 

Thinking he already had, but obliging his wife, he gets up and shuts the door. It comes open again, and once more the man gets up to close it. But this time, when he comes back to bed he is visibly shaken. 

The woman asks him what he saw outside the door but he is too frightened to say. Soon the wife falls ill and dies. When her body is prepared for burial, the husband admits that that was what he had seen outside the door: his wife "laid out in her grave clothes."

"The New Mother" and "The Drum"

As if "The Drum" could get any creepier. 

SSTTD The Drum pic

Illustration by Stephen Gammell. Source, scaryforkids.com 

One of my favorite of the Scary Stories, "The Drum" is the story of two sisters who are tricked by a mysterious girl into forcing their mother away, all for the sake of a magical drum (that they never get anyway). In their mother's place is a monster-mother of sorts with glass eyes and a wooden tail. For the full story go here

Though "The Drum" is pretty chilling, the story it's based on, "The New Mother" written in 1882 by Lucy Clifford is even more sinister. 

Lucy Clifford pic

Lucy Clifford

"The New Mother" has many elements of a Victorian children's story from the rather whimsical way the story is told to the way the mother is portrayed as the keeper of morality or "the angel of the hearth." At times it's easy to mistake it as another instructive nursery story. 

But darkness thunders into the idyllic world. When the mother leaves, the girl with the drum comes dancing toward the sisters' now empty home with a man "playing on a flute that had a strange shrill sound; they could hear it plainly above the jangling of the peardrum. After the man followed the two dogs, slowly waltzing round and round on their hind legs."

When the sisters cry out to the girl (by some sources, suspected to be the Devil) asking if they can finally see the secret of the drum, and if their mother will ever return, the girl keeps dancing past their house saying:

"Your new mother is coming. She is already on her way; but she only walks slowly, for her tail is rather long, and her spectacles are left behind; but she is coming, she is coming — coming — coming."

The girl and the man slowly fade off into the distance. 

The horror doesn't end there. In the hope that their mother might return, the sisters clean up the house in an attempt to be very good. However, their hopes are destroyed when they hear a "loud and terrible knocking at the door." 

Peeking out the door and seeing that it's the New Mother — "a black satin poke bonnet with a frill round the edge, and a long bony arm carrying a black leather bag. From beneath the bonnet there flashed a strange bright light" — the girls shove themselves against the door to try and stop the Mother's entrance. 

The sisters hear the mother say, "I must break open the door with my tail," and before they know it she smashes the door down. The sisters flee into the woods and, says Clifford, "They are there still, my children."

Sometimes the sisters creep back to their house to peek in the window, only to be met with the flash of the New Mother's eyes in the fire and the thump of her tail on the floor. 

If that doesn't add a new level of horror to "The Drum" for you, you're made of stronger stuff than me. (Do you have a wooden tail?)

Which are your favorite tales from the Scary Stories books? I'm doing more digging, so tell me where to look next!