I made a documentary about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. (Now available to watch.) The three books consisted of over 80 stories of folklore and urban legends. It was impossible to appropriately address each and every story in a single documentary. This website, in part, is a chance to look at individual stories that I researched, tales in which I learned about their origins and social contexts. It’s a chance to examine stories that I ultimately found to be fascinating in some way or another.
This is The Babysitter.
Where do these Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark tales come from? Where do they originate? Well, the answer to that is as diverse as the stories themselves. Many are just plain lost to time. With likely many origins, plenty of them very different from what we think of when the story comes to mind.
Let’s look at one of the most talked-about in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. This is one of the tales that has become the most pervasive over the last 50 years. One that has been adapted for numerous movies and has been told, re-told, and parodied countless times. That is, The Babysitter. It is often referred to as the “babysitter and the man upstairs” story, or the “phone caller” legend.
Maybe you remember it parodied in commercials…
Maybe you think of the opening of the classic 1996 movie Scream, which is an homage to an even earlier film When a Stranger Calls (1979). Both clearly allude to this common urban legend of the “babysitter and the man upstairs”… whether the girl is in fact a babysitter or whether the killer is in fact hiding upstairs. Ultimately there is a sinister caller and a scared woman who isn’t sure where the phone call is coming from.
What I found probably the most interesting in the documentary are the trends that are seen in the origins of the tales. How are stories that took place in the southwest United States similar and different than stories that originated in Great Britain or Ireland or Asia? And what about that location and history might tell us about why such a scary story took shape and thrived in that particular community and culture?
The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs
It has become a classic tale that IS part of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, but it is also an urban legend that existed before and isn’t entirely dependent on its existence within Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories books. The story goes that a babysitter is home alone with a child and she begins to get phone calls. Sometimes the phone calls are just heavy breathing, other times it may be some creepy voice telling her that he is going to GET her. The phone calls continue, and after some time she calls the police. The person on the other line says that they will trace the call to see where the phone call is coming from. And of course, as so many people know because they have heard a variation of the scary story many many times, the call is coming from inside the house. The creepy killer is upstairs or in the other room or whatever the case may be.
The “babysitter and the man upstairs” urban legend has existed about as long as things like phone “tracing” has existed. The earliest adaptations of the story into films include Black Christmas (1974), When a Stranger Calls (1979), and that film’s subsequent sequels and remakes.
Here you can watch me go into detail in my JoBlo-hosted series Scary Studies, where I dissect the many uses of phone calls in horror stories.
Janett Christman: An Origin of The Babysitter Urban Legend
There is a very real case that happened in 1950 that for many people is the basis of this urban legend. It happened in Columbia, Missouri and resulted in the death of a 13-year-old girl named Janett Christman. Many of the details of the urban legend are not consistent with this case. There was a phone call, but there wasn’t any tracking of that phone call. And there is no reason to think there was a killer upstairs at some point, like how the story is often told.
I lived in Columbia, Missouri for years, because I went to college there. It is a college town. And so that means there are a lot of young adults who get extra jobs like babysitting. Along with that, there would be a lot of young adults who gossip and spread fears like what many of these urban legends are dependent on.
I’m reminded of the story of “Oh Susannah” in the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books, which similarly is bound to be spread best in colleges and universities where young adults are going to spread fears based on the lives they live. A death in Columbia, Missouri seems like an ideal location to birth an urban legend based around young people surviving (or not surviving) a killer. Not only do you have a huge amount of college-age people who are there ready to spread these tales, you have a lot of parents employing them and turning the story into a cautionary tale. “Hey, young adult. If you’re ever home alone and you get a creepy phone call, make sure you call 9-1-1 immediately. They could be inside the house!”
So a sad story about a young girl Janett Christman being murdered, whatever the details, is bound to be amplified into an urban legend in such a location. Pretty soon, every college town and university becomes the backdrop for pretty much the same story, the same cautionary tale.
Last Updated on May 2, 2021.