#18 – “Whispers”

Children know that ghosts are real. That faeries dance in waste-ground scrub. Playground whispers re-tell centuried tales. The untenanted house remains haunted. Clowns should never be trusted. He said, she said, they said. From ancestors’ lips into babes’ ears.  


Children are natural storytellers. They weave tales, but they also absorb them in a way adults often fail to. Mistakes in re-tellings are corrected by older kids, or by kids with older siblings from whom they have already heard the stories. Because of this Children’s Folklore – the folklore of the playground – survives through the oral tradition. Games and rhymes acted and chanted out in modern tarmac school yards are survivors from generations, sometimes centuries past.   

Lizzie Borden took an axe  

She gave her mother forty whacks,  

After she saw what she had done,  

She gave her father forty-one.  

Lizzie Borden got away,  

For her crime she did not pay.  

This 19th century children’s skipping rhyme (Jump Rope rhyme) records the murder of Sarah and Andrew Borden at the hands of their daughter (a crime for which Lizzie Borden was acquitted) at Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892. The grisly words are still chanted in school yards across America on a daily basis, one-hundred and seventeen years after the crime was committed.  

In November 2018 BBC Radio Four aired a programme called “A Sailor Went to Sea Sea” in which singer-songwriter Emma Lee Moss (aka Emmy the Great) explored the world of modern playground clapping games and rhymes. These included Yankee Doodle Dandy (itself based on a 15th century Dutch harvest song), which, despite originating in 18th century America, has become a popular clapping game in Japanese playgrounds.   

Much of what we call Childlore is, however, unknowable to adults. It shrinks away to nothing under the harsh lens of academic or critical analysis. Children see things and believe things which we, the grown ups, are positive they cannot be right about, even though we saw and knew them too when we were kids. The internet gives us a strange glimpse into some of those ideas though, because it amplifies rumours which adults pick up from children.  

In the 1980s there were school yard whispers of Killer Clowns across America, the UK, and beyond. I remember them first hand, but they were mostly just child to child tales barely noticed, or quickly dismissed by any adults who caught a whiff them. In 2016 however, we had what was called The Great Clown Panic in which, spurred on by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, hundreds of creepy clown sightings were reported around the globe. Why? Because it’s very easy to take a picture of yourself or your friend in a clown costume and post it out there for millions of people to see. Hoaxing has never been so simple and effective. 

Although these clown hoaxes were not perpetrated by children, those responsible were certainly immature in the truest sense of the word; they were functioning at a level above that of childish magic, and awe, and below that of genuine adult responsibility and stoic realism. Many were, in truth, trying to recapture that thrill of believing, by making others believe. Yes, it was crass and often deliberately nasty, but there is something tragic about the idea that the closest those people could get to the wonder and reverence of knowing monsters were real as a child, was to become the monsters themselves.