Urban legends have long been included in our culture as traditional stories that often provide a moral conclusion cultivated and spread either orally or written on paper. Many of these tales are often misunderstood as a false story, however these tales are derived from real life events, and are exaggerated and modified as time passes. Urban legends commonly reflect the fears of a society and often include warnings that prevent a certain action or else something unfortunate will happen to the person.
One familiar urban legend that has propagated through people’s minds for decades is the tale of a group of school children having been slaughtered in a devastating accident on a railroad. Although this legend dates back to the mid-1900s, the tale is still a popular story to be told around campfires and slumber parties. In this essay, I will be delving deeper into the origins and psychology of this legend and why it is still such a well-known legend today. Similar to many urban legends, this tale is based on an actual, real life event.
The tragedy dates back to the 1930s-1960s when a school bus full of children was stuck on a railroad. The red lights signaled the oncoming arrival of the train, yet the bus kept on stalling, regardless of how hard the frantic bus driver tried to step on the brakes, the bus would not budge. A split second later, the rapidly approaching train collided with the bus, utterly destroying the bus and all the people in it. Although the city of San Antonio had widely claimed this legend as their own, evidence proved otherwise.
In fact, “No similar accident took place in San Antonio, but in 1938 that city was subjected to about ten days’ worth of gruesomely detailed coverage in its local newspaper of the Salt Lake City crash, memory of which afterwards served to convince later generations the tragedy had taken place locally. ”(http://www. snopes. com/horrors/ghosts/handprint. asp) One of the earliest forms of the legend appeared momentarily after the tragic accident. Two women were said to be driving on the same road and similarly, had gotten accidentally stuck on the tracks.
Once again, the signal that the train was approaching flashed, however they could only helplessly watch as the train barreled closer and closer. Right when they were about to meet their untimely fate, their car began to mysteriously move, without them even stepping on the brakes! The train had just barely missed the rear of the car. The two grateful women went back home and when they began to open the trunk, they noticed small hands imprinted among the dust of the trunk. From then on, numerous variations of tales of such began to circulate among the community.
Another account of this story came shortly after the rumor of the “helping hands” started. A man who was traveling alone beside the tracks, decided to investigate the validity of this rumor. He purposely stopped his car in the middle of the tracks, setting it on neutral and at the same time, sprinkled baby powder on the rear of the car. He immediately hopped back in his car and waited until the bright lights of the train poured into view. He sat, frozen for a moment, afraid that his life might end then and there!
Suddenly, the car began to slowly inch forward, as if a mysterious force was compelling it to move off the tracks. Once again, the train had just missed the car by inches. The man drove home in complete shock. When he arrived, he cautiously opened his car door, and to his horror, there were tiny handprints implanted on the back of his car trunk. To this day, when people encounter this railroad and set their cars on neutral, their cars would automatically creep off the railroad to safety. Many conclude that the spirits of the dead children are the ones pushing the cars out of the path of the train to safety.
In fact, it was rumored that if one dusted baby powder on the trunk of their car, tiny baby hands would be imprinted on the trunk, reflecting the children pushing the car out of the way. Some have even said that no baby powder was needed, and instead one could sprinkle flour or a bit of dust and both will work just as well. In another case, prints could also appear in the dew on the car in the mornings. The legend also included variations of a demon, assisting the schoolchildren with moving cars out of harm’s way. There were also rumors of the frantic bus driver, ushering to children to get out of the bus.
Some even made it out alive, however many did not and the children that did not make it out alive had streets parallel or perpendicular to the railroad named after them. Although many have said that there were children’s prints shown own their car, some have even claimed of an adult hand, possibly the bus driver’s own print. The legend also provides a longer extension to which locals have claimed to have heard strange noises at night, coming from the tracks that sound like laughter or screaming or of the ghosts of the dead children strolling alongside the railroad.
This extension of the story came from a young woman driving home, who unintentionally passed by the supposedly “haunted railroad. ” As she was driving, she suddenly spotted a young girl, walking up and down the rails. Curious the young woman stopped the car and asked if the young girl needed a ride. The young girl got in the car and pointed straight ahead. The woman started the car and asked to girl her name, to whom she replied, “Sally. ” She then began driving in the direction of where the girl had previously pointed to. After a moment, they approached a house.
The woman stepped out of the car and knocked a few times on the door. An old lady opened the door and the woman told her that she had just driven a young girl by the name of Sally to this house. The old lady, startled, claimed that Sally had died a few months back in a train wreck. The woman looked back at her, and to her surprise, the young girl had disappeared but the seatbelt remained tightly fastened. Similar to the young woman, numerous reports have declared of seeing the ghosts of the dead children, wandering on the street that they were named after.
The phenomenon of the unintentional moving ghost cars puzzled a countless number of people, however investigators later discovered that the railroad was actually settled on a slight downward slope, which was the true reason of the mysterious movement of the cars. Although we know this, we are still infatuated with this captivating story…. but why? We are astutely aware of what an urban legend is when we hear or read them. We often also see recurrent legends that continually pop up as we search for them, very similar to the legend you just read. However, what makes these legends so compelling to listen to?
Folklorist Mikel J. Koven explains to us that urban legends are so appealing, especially the one that have lasted for decades, due to the fact that they are both emotionally captivating AND cultural sensitive: “‘It’s a lack of information coupled with these fears that tends to give rise to new legends… When demand exceeds supply, people will fill in the gaps with their own information…they’ll just make it up. ’” Many folklore, including urban legends provide morals or lessons to conclude the story. Likewise, in the legend of the school bus children haunting the railroad seems to teach us not to drive over train tracks.
The lesson also proves to have a larger perspective. Although, the children were definitely not paying around when the bus had collided with the train, the lesson that one should not be playing near train tracks also comes up unconsciously. For example, two girls had been killed 3 years ago in Missouri in a dangerous railroad game. Both teenagers jokingly “waited” for the “ghost train” to come when instead, they foolishly collided with a real train. Similarly, a group of ghost hunters was allegedly reported searching for a “phantom ghost train”, however, instead was met by an ill fated “real train”.
Although the majority managed to escape, one man had died. Besides the lessons that come from frightening urban legends, urban legends can also be very thrilling, when recreated correctly. Urban legends can show a reflection of our society’s fears and one way of coping with the fears is to recreate a story with a punchline that excites people, makes them doubtful, and more aware of the dangers of our society. Besides the ill-fated death of these children, many people still visit the tracks, littering the ground with roses, beads, candy, and children’s toys in reverence to the dead children.