Baby Sitter and the Man Upstairs
Many children, young people, and adults (especially Americans) are likely to be familiar with this story about the babysitter menaced by the maniac that has gripped the popular imagination for the last half century. First appearing in the early 1960s, the story spread spontaneously among friends, family, and neighbors who claimed it to be a "true." Scholars of modern folklore have since identified it as an urban legend that, like other second-hand stories of its kind, expresses anxieties and contains moral messages.
This urban legend, that by the 1970s became the basis of slasher movies (e.g., Halloween; When a Stranger Calls) and horror fiction, reflected the intense anxieties of: (1) parents worried about the safety of their children while under the care of babysitters; (2) mothers apprehensive about leaving the home for work; (3) fathers frustrated by their decreasing authority; (4) society growing increasingly uneasy about girls’ accelerating rejection of conventional feminine expectations set into motion by the counter culture, second-wave feminism, and the sexual revolution); (5) girls uncertainties about the dangers they faced in their pursuit of independence; and (6) children’s fears of strangers in an increasingly mobile society.
Among the many morals this urban legend issued were those directed at girls. (1) As babysitters girls were exhorted to behave responsibly. (2) Girls were informed that they should conform to gendered expectations (e.g., submission, maternity and domesticity) or else. (3) Girls were warned about the high cost of pursuing independence.
Different versions of this urban legend and many others that involve children and young adults are widely accessible. Students and teachers are likely to serve as a good source for many. Who told them and why? How did different listeners understand the tale? As with folktales and other fictional works, urban legends can be analyzed for the light they shed on children and childhood, generation and gender, among other topics. Urban legends can also be compared across cultures that feature boogey men. Longnose was a Seneca Indian boogeyman who threatened to consume unruly children. Similarly, the pre-Christian folk figure, "Krampus" or "Grampus," has threatened generations of badly behaved children in Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Slovenia, and Italy. In these countries, it is often young men who dress up as the devil figure, rattle chains and scare children on December 5th.
There was this girl babysitting in a two-story house in New York and she received a phone call from a man laughing and he tells her she better go check the children. She doesn’t believe him and she goes back to watch TV. She receives a second call and the man with a deeper voice is laughing and tells her she better check the children up stairs. And then she gets scared and calls the police and the police tell her if it happens again that they’re going to trace the next call. So, the third time, he called and he was really laughing hard and she got more scared. The police call her back and tell her to leave the house right away without going upstairs or anything. The police come over and told her the call was coming from upstairs and the man had been calling after he killed each child.
Baby Sitter and the Man Upstairs, File I B3 M2, Folklore Archives, University of California, Berkley. Annotated by Miriam Forman-Brunell.