Strange Tales and Modern Legends

This semester I taught a seminar called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” (You can find links to the syllabus and course materials here.) A major element of this class was our study of how folkloric traditions have influenced literature. My specialty is contemporary fiction, so we spent a good amount of time talking about what urban legends are and how they work.

I believe that urban legends have the following three characteristics:

First, these stories are specific to a time and place, and they’re generally tied to a specific person as well. This person is someone known to the storyteller, and they’re either a reliable source of information or a direct witness to the event or phenomenon in question.

Second, the story is understood to be “real” and therefore nonfiction. In fact, it often isn’t much of a story at all. Unlike creepypasta, which is shortform fiction, the characters in an urban legend don’t have interiority, and they’re often not attributed with motivation. Rather, the story is stated as a simple fact. At the core of these stories is a statement like “you’ll die if you eat [a certain type of candy] mixed with soda” or “a child was once murdered in [a certain department store] bathroom.” The purpose of additional details is to add authenticity.

Third, urban legends almost always have a cautionary element, and the unfortunate events of the story are related to social and cultural anxieties. These fears tend to be politically sensitive and thus can’t be discussed openly, so urban legends function as a sort of pressure release valve. In the United States, for example, a lot of urban legends reflect racial tensions, while there are a lot of urban legends about bullying and social ostracization in Japan.  

This isn’t really a defining characteristic, but I find it interesting that an urban legend need not necessarily be untrue. Rather, the act of making something into a “story” adds an element of speculation. This means that, even though the story is stated as fact, both the teller and listener understand that the veracity of this fact is debatable. In other words, the story could be true, but both parties acknowledge that there’s no way to prove it.

Having provided the students with these criteria and a number of examples to use as potential templates, I asked them to write their own urban legends. I was absolutely blown away by the work they submitted. I promised that I wouldn’t spread their stories outside of class, but I decided to make a class zine so that they could share their work with each other. The image at the top of this post is the cover I created for the zine, which ended up being a 76-page book.

I like to think that Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell would be proud.

Spirit Hunter: NG

Spirit Hunter: NG is a 2018 visual horror novel about the urban legends that come out after dark in a sleepy Tokyo suburb. You play as Akira Kijima, a 17-year-old delinquent whose young cousin has been captured by a spirit named Kakuya. Kakuya challenges Akira to a game, promising that she will return his cousin if he manages to confront a series of monsters local to the neighborhood of Kissouji.

The overarching story of Kakuya’s game is somewhat silly, as are the protagonist and supporting characters. The stars of the game are the urban legends that form the core of each of the seven chapters. As far as I can tell, these urban legends are all original, and it’s a lot of fun to slowly gather the details of the stories. The monster artwork is very creative and very gruesome, while the scenes depicting the monsters’ victims are horrible, explicit, and intense. There are no jump scares, but I was genuinely shocked by some of the deaths.

The gameplay is simple. You investigate your environment by shining your flashlight on objects embedded in the background artwork, and you collect various odds and ends that you use to solve simple puzzles. You’ll occasionally find yourself in life-or-death encounters with monsters who want to kill you, as well as overzealous police who will end your adventure early by arresting you. During these encounters, you’re presented with a timed series of dialog choices, and you’ll receive an instant “game over” if you select incorrectly.

Unfortunately, you can only save at certain points, meaning that you may have to replay an entire extended encounter sequence if you mess up. It’s possible to speed through previously read text, but I became so frustrated by an early-game confrontation that I started using a walkthrough to help make the gameplay a bit smoother. Although most of the puzzles and dialog choices are self-explanatory, others can feel entirely random. Still, if you don’t mind consulting a walkthrough before you play through the monster encounter sequences, the story flows smoothly, and the exploration elements are enjoyable and fairly intuitive.  

NG has “good,” “bad,” and “normal” endings based on whether you treat the monsters with violence or compassion. Other than that, there don’t seem to be any branching paths, and your choices don’t have anything more than minor cosmetic effects on the story. You can raise the level of affection that the named NPCs feel toward you, but this doesn’t seem to affect anything other than a few throwaway lines of dialog.

The game also includes a few sidequests that involve solving simple riddles to find D-Cards, trading cards that contain information on bonus urban legends with marginal connections to the main plot. These sidequests give the player an opportunity to explore the environment with a greater attention to detail, and the cards showcase some of the most interesting writing in the game. None of this card collecting is mandatory, but it’s nice to have an excuse to walk around the Tokyo suburbs late at night when all the sources of light are artificial and vaguely eerie by default. The atmospheric sound design is excellent as well, and it’s a pleasure to listen to your character’s footsteps echoing on concrete against a backdrop of city traffic, buzzing streetlights, and convenience store chimes.

If you use a walkthrough to progress smoothly through the confrontations with monsters, NG takes about fifteen hours to complete, and it’s easy to get sucked into the story. All of the urban legends are fascinating, and the game has a fairly progressive worldview on corporate violence, corrupt law enforcement, and the ways in which wealth and power facilitate the “othering” of people who are different. NG isn’t misogynistic or gross about its female characters, and there’s no sexual violence or lolicon.

All but one of the urban legend monsters are female, and NG is a treasure trove of themes and imagery to anyone interested in the intersections between gender and horror. The mystery at the core of the overarching story is tied both to real Shintō traditions and to real urban legends about (hopefully fictional) Shintō traditions, so there are a few extra layers of the narrative that players familiar with Japanese religion and folklore will be able to appreciate and enjoy.  

I definitely wouldn’t recommend NG to anyone who can’t handle graphic R-rated horror, but it’s visually striking and thematically satisfying. I respect and admire the game’s creepy demonic women, and I gradually came to sympathize with a few of the monstrous male characters as well. NG is so rich in narrative detail that it would be a fun game to write an in-depth academic research paper about… and who knows, I might even write this paper myself!

How to Board the West Philly Ghost Bus

(1)  It needs to be after dark.
(2)  You should be standing at a bus stop.
(3)  You need to be horribly, desperately lonely.
(4)  You can’t have a specific destination in mind.
(5)  You’ll see a bus with no route number on the display.
(6)  It will slow down but not stop, so you need to chase it.
(7)  You probably won’t catch it, but if you do…
(8)  The driver will let you on without asking you to pay.
(9)  You’ve made it this far. You might as well sit down.

I’ve recently found myself asking people I meet in West Philadelphia if they know any urban legends. Most of what I’ve heard are rumors about real people who have become local characters or stories about bodies being buried under public places. (Because Philadelphia is a relatively old city, the stories about buried bodies are mostly true!) A few people also told me about a ghostly SEPTA bus, which is famous enough to be mentioned a few times online.

According to the stories I’ve heard from university students and friendly strangers I’ve spoken with at local bars, the ghost SEPTA bus picks up people late at night, but only if they have nowhere to go and no one to miss them once they disappear onto the bus. 

There are actually a number of non-supernatural SEPTA buses that drive back along their routes through West Philly when they aren’t in service, and I occasionally see them pick up city maintenance workers and hospital staff late at night. What’s different about the ghost bus is what happens once you get on.

Apparently, there are three possibilities. The first is that the bus vanishes, and you’re never heard from again. The second is that you’re now trapped on the SEPTA bus along with the other desperate and unlucky souls who boarded before you. The third is that the bus travels back in time, albeit within a span limited to the history of the bus, and that you can signal the driver to stop when you’ve reached your desired destination in the past. 

The third possibility seems the most likely, as no one who has vanished or become trapped on the bus would be able to tell other people how this process works. Then again, it may be that a person who boards the mysterious SEPTA bus seems to vanish or sit in stasis from the perspective of someone who’s still in our timeline. There’s only one way to find out for sure…

Crosswalk



This comic was drawn by Frankiesbugs (@frankiesbugs on Tumblr) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

This actually happened to me in Philadelphia in 2012. It was super creepy, and I still think about it sometimes. Maybe this is just me, but I’m not entirely sure that Philadelphia exists in consensus reality.