Session 1: What Doesn’t Kill You
This is how the story begins …
On a dark dark hill
there was a dark dark town.
In the dark dark town
there was a dark dark street.
In the dark dark street
there was a dark dark house.
In the dark dark house
there was a dark dark staircase.
Down the dark dark staircase
there was a dark dark cellar.
And in the dark dark cellar …
Whether it is in the pages of a children’s book or the campfire whispers of a ghost story, we humans have a primal fear of the dark. The darkness provides cover for the malevolant and hides unspeakable acts. The darkness is where our nightmares reside. This fear served a purpose in our ancient ancestors. Early humans would have been left exposed in the dark, open to nocturnal hunters with little way to navigate their night time surroundings. A rolling shadow or a rustle in the vast empty night most likely meant something was readying itself to strike. Those instincts may not be necessary anymore in our modern world but that primal fear is much harder to lose. It is hardwired in us to tell ourselves that something sinister is lurking just around that dark corner.
This is Scary Stories.
Take a seat and let me tell you about this thing that happened to a friend of a friend of a friend.
I want to tell you something interesting. something you probably don’t know, or maybe it is just something that slipped you by. In the early 90’s a fast food staple changed its name to use a shortened acronym. Yes, you guessed it Kentucky Fried Chicken decided to rebrand itself KFC. I know, fast food is not the scariest topic, but just bear with me because KFC didn’t just decide to rebrand itself, it was forced. The FDA, the Food and Drug association for those of us not in America, prevented the company from using its full name. The reason? The use of the word chicken, because the little known fact that is buried deep in the FDA archives, is that KFC doesn’t just use any chickens it uses genetically modified chickens. Yes, KFC uses chickens modified to have extra wings, extra legs and no bones. The result? Higher profits, but technically not a real chicken. And so when we’re all tucking into our KFC buckets, what we’re not doing is eating anything close to Kentucky Fried chicken.
Of course, none of this is true. It is nothing more than mere legend. An explanation of an innocent rebranding concocted by our paranoid psyche’s as we fumble around for answers in the dark. But an urban legend like this has staying power because we believe it could be true. Why did KFC change its name? Maybe we don’t know but when we hear this explanation it plugs the gap by playing on our imagined fears and our ignorance
The rebranding all has a somewhat tedious explanation. In the early 90s there was a move across several well known brands to use their acronyms. And it makes sense, they’re snappier, easier to say and therefore easier to market. And with this there was indeed a move to take chicken out of the equation, not because they were serving mutant birds but because they wanted to branch out and serve other meal options too. In fact they did the same process of elimination with the word Fried at a time when many were becoming distinctly health conscious.
But in the absence of real knowledge, humans tend to grasp for the sinister. Our fears get the better of us and like children settling down to sleep in their darkened rooms, we let our imaginations run wild in the shadows. So we make up and we believe explanations like this — ones which feed off of our guilt and paranoia over new technology and feels wary of the big corporations that we buy from but of which we know little about the inner workings. And with this legends are born and grow arms and legs, so to speak.
As the communities we live in have become more urbanized, we have become less and less involved with the basic elements of our lives. We buy foods in packets and jars, or maybe we eat out, we drive home in a car we don’t know how to fix, perhaps talking to someone on a piece of technology so advanced that most of us have such little knowledge of its inner workings it may as well be powered by magic. We will open our doors which will have locks that few of us fully understand, turn on our lights and heating using power with rudimentary knowledge of the processes which bring it all into out homes. Maybe we will read the news which most likely has been chosen for us by an algorithm of which we are unaware. Cook our food in more appliances which we don’t understand, watch TV, listen to music, have a shower or a bath, set our alarms and at every turn have little real comprehension about how our modern lives truly work. And such is the modern complex. Perhaps we understand some of these things, maybe we’re a tradesman, an engineer, a programmer, a factory worker but even then that knowledge will be limited to one area. If you stop, right now, and look around you you would most likely be hard pressed to find much about your life you could replicate independently.
And so in the face of this ignorance humans transpose their fears onto these big impersonal complex structures to make sense of the world in which we live. There is a name for this urge to completion, to see shapes and patterns where there are none. Apophenia is the human desire to perceive connections and meaning in completely unrelated things or coincidental events. Apophenia is the reason why gamblers think they can devise a system to win, why conspiracy theorists believe they have discovered some hidden plot and why we see faces in random rock formations. Urban legends are often an example of this same urge to completion where we use out limited knowledge in an attempt to explain the world around us and we let our suspicions consume the places we live. Urban legends are when our minds transform the world around us from a place of comfort to somewhere deeply unsettling.
In the not so distant past, this feeling of disquiet was often understood as something quite otherworldly. When we lived in smaller communities and perhaps held more steadfast to our religious traditions, our world was consistently acted upon by the supernatural. Witchcraft and vampires were often the root cause of illness. Humans blamed changelings for infant mortality rates. Sleep paralysis and night terrors were real life experiences of the old hag or the black dog on your chest. Of course we know so much more now, the supernatural is no longer needed to offer up explanations.
But that doesn’t mean humans have stopped looking for answers in their unease. There may be vast amounts of knowledge readily accessible in books, on TV and at out fingertips but that doesn’t mean we will look there for our answers and it certainly doesn’t mean we will understand what we are being told. So we will do what our past counterparts did and offer up our own explanations and connections — ones that are borne out of fear and ignorance and perhaps a natural bent for the sinister.
After all the darkness still lurks in hard to reach corners, at the end of our street, in our doorway, down the staircase, under the bed. And we tell ourselves stories in hushed tones looking for the dark secrets hidden in the most obscure of places. From the routes we walk to the things we eat humans have a knack for turning the mundane into the extraordinary.
Korea is replete with fears and anxieties about the modernised world and equally paranoid explanations one of the most widely known of these is “Fan Death”. Urban legends about electric fans in Korea date back as early as 1927, with a warning that this new technology came with a risk of nausea, facial paralysis, and in the extreme, asphyxiation. In 1970s, a newspaper reported that a 20 year old man was found dead in his room after going to sleep with the window and door closed and two electric fans on. And so the “Fan Death” urban legend was cemented, the theory being that the stale air being circulated round the room with no means of escape would cause enough carbon dioxide to build up in the room as to asphyxiate the sleeping person.
To those outside of Korea this may seem like a strange belief that could be easily disproven, but if you grew up there or had Korean relatives, there’s a high chance you have never kept a fan on at night no matter the temperature. Every year there are slew of news reports highlighting the supposed dangers of running an electric fan while you sleep. Every summer from 1990 to 2004 about 10 stories would appear reporting someone dying in the presence of an electric fan. And that is a compelling legend to believe. An example of our desire to attribute false meaning to events around us and our suspicion of what lurks around the dark corners of our homes. Tha anxiety attempts to create the sinister behind the most innocuous of modern necessities, even something as simple as an elevator stop button.
Haruko was a young Korean woman who went to University in the capital. One night, with a deadline for an assignment looming, she stayed late at the library to finish her project. By the time she left, the library had already emptied and the sky had darkened.
As she arrived home, Haruko bolted for the door to her apartment building. She hated coming home alone so late in the dark, so the flood of light from the lobby always came as a welcome relief.
Haruko lived on the 14th floor of her apartment building and as she stood in the entrance and pressed the button to call the elevator she could feel herself begin to relax and think about getting changed and making dinner once she got in.
When the elevator came, she stepped inside and pushed the button for her floor. But just as the doors were about to close, a handsome man came running up and put his hand out to stop the doors. He stepped into the elevator and stood beside her.
Seeing the button Haruko had pressed, he asked her if she lived on the 14th floor.
She visibly stiffened, unsure of the man’s intentions and keen to get home and settle herself in for the night. She replied yes.
The man, perhaps sensing her unease, smiled and said that was funny - he lived on the 13th floor.
As the elevator ascended, he pressed the button for the 13th floor and Haruko relaxed and let down her guard. As she watched the floors go by through the elevator windows, she stole a few glances at the man standing next to her. With her guard now down, she noticed how handsome he really was. She thought he must be new to the building and she wondered whether to ask him out.
When he happened to look at her, she batted her eyelids and smiled sweetly at him.
Just then, the elevator stopped at the 13th floor. The doors opened and the man stepped out.
Haruko decided not to let the opportunity bye and said “maybe I will see you again.
As the doors of the elevator began to close behind the man, he turned around and smiled. As he looked at her his smile turned ever more menacing and he said in a deep voice “yes I will see you … upstairs” And as he did so he pulled a large knife out of his coat.
As the elevator began to ascend, Haruko could see the man turn and run for the stairs up to her floor.
Terrified, she desperately hammered the buttons with her fist, trying to get the elevator to stop, but it was no use.
When it reached the 14th floor and the doors opened, the man with the knife was already standing there, waiting for her.
Apparently the worst part was not her death itself, but rather the sheer horror she experienced in between those two floors, when she was trapped in the elevator and knew there was no escape from the inexorable ascension towards her own death.
It is said this is the reason that all elevators in Korea now have a stop button.
Perhaps if you stop and think about it, the prospect of a homicidal maniac running between floors seems like an absurd reason to install universal elevator stop buttons. Maybe if you think a little harder many other perfectly logical reasons for a stop button may spring to mind. Perhaps in case an item of clothing gets caught in the doors or maybe for something as simple as the ease of loading on and off when it is used as a freight elevator. And then you might think even harder and decide that an alarm button is a much better alternative to a stop button. After all an alarm is more useful if you get stuck in a broken elevator. But push yourself further. Really think about what it involves when we get into elevators every day. We walk in and maybe we are followed by a crowd of people or maybe just a few or maybe just one. Just one stranger. And probably this stranger is just trying to get to their office, to their home, to their car. But what if they’re not. What if they are not to be trusted. What if they mean us harm. For however brief that elevator ride may be we are stuck in it and we have no real way of knowing with whom we are stuck. Just because we filled in the blanks for ourselves does not mean that there is no truth to it. So next time you go to hold the elevator door open for an attractive stranger, you might do well to check for that emergency button.
Scary stories is a biweekly podcast written, narrated and produced by me, Verity Clayton.
This episode features music by Chad Crouch you can check out his work at soundofpicture.com and Blue Dot Sessions who can be found at sessions.blue. A full track listing can be found at the episode page.
The Episode artwork is by Grace Duncan, she can be found on instagram @graceduncanart
You can find that and more at the website scarystoriespodcast.podbean.com
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I also love hearing from you all and even more hearing your urban legends so please get in touch. You can send an email through the scary stories podcast page or to firstname.lastname@example.org, you can also catch me on twitter and instagram. So drop me a line.
And as always, it can be a dark world out there, so please, take care.
Credit to Ms-Smiley-Face whose retelling of the “Man in the Elevator” urban legend was recorded with minor changes.