Archive for folklore

The Legend of the Jack-o-Lantern

Posted in General, Non-Fiction, Urban Legends with tags , , , , , , on October 29, 2009 by smilingjacks

Jack-o-Lanterns are an absolute staple of Halloween customs in the United States, the United Kingdom, and many places in the world. Each year, children and adults alike are delighted to paint and carve the faces of pumpkins in unique designs. There are even contests centered around the practice and a number of people who actually make a profit from carving Jack-o-Lanterns.

We’re all familiar with pumpkin carving, but have you ever wondered where the practice came from? Like many Halloween customs, the Jack-o-Lantern originated in Ireland.

There’s an old Irish legend about a delinquent trickster by the name of (you guessed it) Jack. He was a debouched man who liked to engage in sins of the flesh, loved to drink, and made all sorts of mischief. His neighbors considered him an impossible nuisance, but no one could capture him because his lucky turnip always kept fortune on his side. It’s said that he even managed to play a mean trick on the Devil himself.


Jack met the Devil one dark Halloween night on the Irish countryside. The Devil had heard that Jack’s slyness rivaled his own, and he was determined to show the mischievous mortal who the one true hell raiser was.

After they made their introductions, they both went about getting chummy with one another. They bantered and drank and laughed together, both sizing each other up until an opportunity could present itself.

It was Jack who made the first move. Seeing some fruit in a nearby tree, he asked the Devil to climb the tree and fetch some fruit for the two of them. Despite his reluctance to respond to the request of a mortal, the Devil was happy to oblige. After all, there were a lot of cruel things that could be done with fruit. He could poison the fruit, or convince Jack that the fruit could give him magical powers and then challenge him to a flying contest off the roof of a barn, or a whole score of other things. The possibilities were vast.

The Devil made his way up the tree, smirking at all of the treacherous thoughts he was having. He didn’t notice soon enough that he was in fact the victim of Jack’s treachery. While the Devil was up in the tree, Jack took a cross out of his pocket and placed it on the tree’s trunk. When the Devil tried to climb down with the fruit, the cross repelled him. He was trapped in the tree and at Jack’s mercy.

“You wretched mortal,” the Devil said. “Just as soon as I get down, I’m going to make sure you never forget this!”

“I’ll let you down,” replied Jack. “As long as you swear never to take my soul into Hell.”

Jack knew he wasn’t righteous enough to make it into heaven, and he had no plans to change his ways. By forcing the Devil to submit, he figured he could come away with the certainty that he would never be made to suffer for his deeds. The Devil was beyond annoyed, as he would have loved to see Jack face damnation, but he was quite literally stuck, so he agreed.

The Devil didn’t get his revenge that evening. Midnight came too soon, and he had to yield with the coming of All Saint’s Day. Jack had won.

Then, years later, Jack fell ill and died. When he faced Judgment, to no one’s surprise, he was rejected from entering Heaven. Unfortunately, this meant he was forced to go to Hell.

The Devil laughed gleefully at the sight of the dejected Jack.

“I have no place to go but here,” Jack admitted upon seeing the Devil.

“That’s right,” said the Devil. “You have nowhere to go. After all, you won fair and square, and a promise is a promise. I will never take you into Hell”

Jack’s dead heart sank as even Hell wouldn’t have him. He was an orphaned soul with no home.

“Then where will I go?” asked Jack.

“Nowhere,” the Devil replied. “You were hated in life, you’re too wicked for Heaven, and you have no home here. No one wants you, Jack. You’re all alone.”

In a moment of genuine sorrow, the pitiful Jack muttered, “But how will I find my way?”

Just to mock the poor mortal, the Devil grabbed a single ember of hellfire and threw it at Jack. Then, he returned to his pit, leaving Jack all alone.

Jack sat by the light of the ember, wondering where he would go and how he would find his way in the darkness. Then, seeing the glow of the ember, he got an idea for how to light the way on his travels: with his lucky turnip. He took the turnip out of his pocket, hollowed it out, and placed the ember inside to make a lantern that he could use as he wandered about in search of a home.

Out of sympathy for the wandering ghost of Jack, his old neighbors put out lights to guide him on his endless travels. As the story spread, so did the tradition of placing out lanterns for Jack.

Even today, the people of the world carve Jack-o-Lanterns and light them on Halloween. Most of us think of it as just a fun pastime–a way of being festive, but these fun little decorations were originally meant to light the way for Jack and other wandering spirits.

Don’t let the lore deter you, however. In fact, I encourage you to all to set a Jack-o-Lantern out on Halloween. The drifting spirits will appreciate it, I’m sure. Who knows? The home they decide to settle down in might even be yours.

Happy Halloween.



The Walking Woman and the Nice Young Man

Posted in Fiction, Horror, Urban Legends with tags , , , , on October 19, 2009 by smilingjacks

This is a variation on a North American folk tale. It was once a well known legend in Mexico and the Western United States, and it’s still told today.

A young man was walking home from a friend’s house. It was a cold, quiet evening. He didn’t mind the darkened loneliness of the empty road, as he was used to walking at night and enjoyed the silence and tranquility.

He didn’t usually encounter anyone on his walks, but on this particular night he saw a woman walking up ahead. It startled him at first, but she seemed harmless enough–just an old woman in a white dress. A bonnet obscured her face and she carried a basket with her.

He figured it must have been one of his neighbors, and it didn’t seem right to let an old woman walk alone at night, so he approached her to walk alongside her.

She stopped dead in her tracks as soon as he reached her. The bonnet was pulled down too far and he couldn’t see the woman’s face even up close. He couldn’t see the contents of her basket either, as it was covered with a cloth.

He greeted her and asked for her name, but she didn’t reply. She just stood there, not even looking at him. He thought she must be startled by him, so he apologized and offered to carry her basket for her.

“What a kind boy you are,” a soft, shaky voice whispered from under the bonnet.

The woman turned to face the young man. Still, he couldn’t see under her bonnet, and he had a strange feeling about her, but he was sorry for startling her and when she reached her hand out to give him the basket, he politely accepted it.

“So nice of you to carry my basket,” she said before erupting in loud, wailing laughter.

The young man was startled and stumbled back. As he tried to keep his balance, he dropped the basket on the road. The cloth fluttered away in the breeze and something rolled out of the basket and landed behind him. When he turned around to retrieve it, he saw that it was a woman’s head.

He failed at holding back a shriek as the dead eyes of the disembodied head stared up at him. He turned back around to the woman, desperate for an explanation. That’s when he finally saw under the bonnet, and what he saw chilled him so deeply it threatened to freeze the blood in his veins. He saw nothing where a head should have been.

Turning back to the object on the road, he realized then that the head which stared up at him was the woman’s. A scream began to creep up his spine, but before he could get it out, he was grabbed from behind. He looked down and saw the arms of the woman. Her cold grip locked around his chest and trapped him in a paralysis of fear.

“Let me go!” he pleaded, but the woman only continued her shrieking hyena laughter.

He saw movement beneath him out of the corner of his eye. The head was stirring. It rolled over so that it was looking directly up at him, and slowly a smile formed on its pale, dead face.

The woman’s grip released suddenly and the boy fell face down on the side of the road. He rolled onto his back, dreading what he knew he would see–the headless woman and her grinning, disembodied head. He saw neither, however. They were gone.

The boy sat alone on the dark, quiet road. He dared not move until dawn. That was the coldest night of his life.