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10 Old Wives’ Tales That Will Freak You Out

by Estelle
fact checked by Jamie Frater

When you were young, did your mother run around the house draping sheets over mirrors when a thunderstorm was on the way, or yell at you for opening your umbrella inside? These are just two examples of old wives’ tales or superstitions that millions of people grew up hearing about and even if you don’t actually believe in them, it’s hard to shake them off completely. Superstitions often arise around the things that scare people most, so it’s no wonder some of them are as freaky as the following.

10 Pinky Pinky


Photo credit: Penny Siopis

The story of Pinky Pinky is an urban legend and old wives’ tale rolled into one. With the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994, a story started doing the rounds in primary schools about a monster that awaits girls in the school toilet. Girls were warned by their friends not to wear pink to school because this would anger the creature, who would then try to attack or even rape them.

The hysteria grew and sightings of the monster, dubbed Pinky Pinky, were reported at many schools around the country. It was said to resemble a bogeyman or a tokoloshe (an African mythical creature) and had one paw and one claw. Boys could not see the creature but some claimed to have been attacked by it and left scratched and bruised. Naturally, no solid proof of the monster exists.

No one really knows what prompted the Pinky Pinky tale. It has been suggested that it was an embodiment of the fear young girls had of going to school toilets by themselves in a society where instances of rape and other sexual abuse was (and still is) very prevalent.

Pinky Pinky seems to have left the building in most cases, with only one or two sightings still being reported as the years go by. Several books and an art exhibition have been dedicated to the story. Today it is just a scary story that those who went to primary school in South Africa in the 1990s can relate to.

Discover more old wive’s tales, both chilling and hilarious, in Superstitions: 1,013 of the World’s Wackiest Myths, Fables & Old Wives Tales at!

9 Corpses With Open Eyes

coin eyes
It was once popularly believed that if a person died and their eyes remained open, they were looking for someone to take with them to their final destination. This was usually assumed to be someone within the family of the deceased person. To prevent this from happening, the British would close the eyes of the dead person and place two pennies on the eyelids to prevent the eyes from opening again. In Greek mythology, a coin was placed in the deceased’s mouth to pay the ferryman to take their soul across the River Styx into Hades. This reasoning has sometimes spread to the British practice as well.

In earlier times it was also believed that if a person died and their eyes stayed open, it was the work of evil spirits that wouldn’t let them rest or a sign of a life left unfulfilled.

In a creepy turn of events in a small village in north-east Namibia, a corpse halted his own funeral because he refused to keep his eyes closed. The man, who was in his eighties, had had a long, drawn-out illness before he finally passed way. When his relatives gathered at the morgue to prepare his body for the funeral, they were shocked to see it blinking several times.

After asking for advice from a traditional healer, the family decided to bury the man in a blanket and not a coffin. Just in case.

8 Dead Hands

dead hands
Next time you’re at a funeral, make sure to look after your own health. Otherwise you might get closer to the deceased than you may have thought. Folklore has it that the hands of a dead person have healing powers. Regardless of what type of disease a person had, it was thought that laying the hands of a dead person upon them would cure it. In Britain it was believed that a dead hand was especially helpful in reducing swelling. Many times, an Irish household that experienced a death in the family would be overrun by sick people trying to get to the corpse. Ideally, the dead person should be the opposite sex of the sick person. After being touched by the dead hands, the sick person would have to lie down in a bed aligned north to south.

It was also thought that the sheets and other bedding the person was wrapped in when they died would contain some of the magic of their hands. People would wrap the material around the aching parts of their bodies to reduce the pain and cure the underlying disease.

7 Chewing Gum After Midnight

chewing gum
No culture is free from superstitions and many of them are connected with our fear of death. For instance, in many cultures it is still believed that if a baby cries constantly, someone in the household will die soon. If a corpse is brought into a house, three members of that household will die. Taking your socks off and leaving them at the foot of their bed is another way to invite death into the house.

Far more gruesome is an old wives’ tale from Turkey that warns against chewing gum after midnight. In English-speaking countries, the superstition persists that chewing gum remains in your digestive system for seven years, but in Turkey children are told that gum chewed after midnight transforms into rotten, decaying flesh. In some parts of Turkey, the gum wouldn’t wait until the witching hour to turn into dead flesh—any hour after dark would do it.

6 Evil Spirits Follow You

In Korea, folks who take old wives’ tales seriously go to a lot of effort to make sure no bad luck befalls them. For example, it is believed that when you move into a new home, the evil spirits and ghosts from the old home move right in with you. It is thought that they slip into the removal van and hide between your furniture to make sure they also end up at the new address.

There are certain “safe” days every month, when the evil spirits are not present or not paying attention, and Korean removal companies will often mark these days on their calendars. Residents will hastily move into their new homes on these days. To trick the spirits even further, they don’t clean up behind them before leaving for their new home. It is said that this throws the evil ghost guys off track, making them think they haven’t moved, until they’re firmly established in the new house. Only then will the spirits realize their original and unwilling landlords have moved, by which time it’ll be too late to follow them. Luckily the old wives’ tale does not include anything about the spirits haunting the newly moved-in family at the old residence.

5 Seeing Your Future Husband

Now here is an old wives’ tale especially for those women too impatient to wait to find out who their future husband will be.

Wait until midnight on Halloween. Go stand in front of a mirror in the dark and then light a candle. While staring at your own face, take a bite out of an apple and slowly brush your hair at the same time. Concentrate hard. Slowly your face will morph into that of your future husband. Another option is to peel the apple in a single strip and and then throw the peel over your left shoulder. These peels will then spell out the initials of your future husband (a cynical man might change his name to something beginning with C or S). In some versions the woman’s face does not morph—instead a vision of her Prince Charming will appear behind her and stare back at her in the mirror.

This tale dates back to ancient Celtic times and the festival of Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) on November 1, which is the traditional Celtic New Year. Samhain is almost identical to the modern-day Halloween. The Celts believed that during this celebration, time ceased to have meaning and spirits crossed over from their own world. These spirits included ghosts, fairies, and demons. People would light bonfires to protect themselves from them until Samhain was over. It was also believed that apples were magical fruit from the spirit realm—Avalon, where King Arthur is said to lie, means “Isle of Apples.”

4 Doorbells Of Death

If you hear a knock at your front door and you get up to answer it only to find no one there, open the door wide for a couple of seconds and then close it. This will let a good spirit in. But don’t open it again if there are more knocks. Not even if they continue for the rest of the night. You might just be inviting an evil spirit into your home. And if there are three knocks the first time around, don’t open the door at all! If there is a knock at your back door, it is the devil himself looking to come in.

Superstitions surrounding door-knocking abound in many different cultures and it’s no surprise that after the invention of doorbells, they started to be included as well.

For example, in some places it is believed that if a doorbell rings continuously for no reason, something dreadful has happened or is about to happen. Whitney Houston’s mother revealed in a letter that her doorbell had mysteriously started ringing the day her daughter died. She firmly believed that Whitney had come to visit her and was making her presence known by ringing the doorbell.

A woman in east Tennessee claims to have had a similarly chilling experience. After moving into a new house, Emily Miller was woken by the sound of her doorbell ringing at three in the morning. She got up, disgruntled, only to find there was no one at the door. For the next couple of weeks, the bell rang at least every second morning at three o’clock. No logical explanation could be found, even after the installation of a motion sensor camera at the front door and calls to local police. No one was ever there. Weeks stretched into months and then years until finally Emily had had enough. She had her son rip the doorbell out of its mounting and throw it away. That night, the now-missing doorbell rang again . . .

3 Risks Of Falling Asleep

There are many old wives’ tales about the supposed dangers of sleep—not surprising, given a person’s vulnerability in that state. Many people used to believe that having plants in one’s bedroom was a terrible idea. It was thought that the plants sucked up all of the oxygen in the room, ultimately killing the people asleep there. There was also a belief that the soul leaves the body during a deep sleep and so if you’re woken with a start, you could immediately die. This tale is most likely where the urban legend regarding the waking of sleepwalkers originated.

Sleeping in direct moonlight was said to lead to madness and even blindness. Sleeping with a mirror facing you was also a big no-no. Negative energies are supposedly caught in mirrors and reflected back to the sleeping person during the night.

Another creepy old wives’ tale says that whoever falls asleep first on their wedding night (of the bride and groom) will be the first to die.

2 Newborn Babies

Due to the high infant mortality rates in pre-modern times, a vast number of superstitions have sprung up around the months after birth. In Russia there used to be a strong belief among new mothers that you shouldn’t show off your newborn baby to strangers or take it out in public for at least 40 days. This will ensure that no negative energy or evil presence latches onto your little one. Only the mother and father were allowed to see the baby during this time, not even extended family. In many Christian traditions, the period between birth and christening is a particularly risky time, because of the belief that unbaptized babies cannot go to heaven.

A particularly unnerving old wives’ tale from the Dominican Republic warned new mothers to keep a watchful eye on their newborn so that they do not fall prey to the bruja. The bruja is a legendary witch with the ability to turn into a large bird. In order to turn into an avian creature, she has to remove her skin. Then in bird form she can suck the blood of a newborn either through its navel or big toe.

At one point in history, also in the Dominican Republic, there were fears that if a mother rocked her baby boy’s crib when he was not inside it, it would cause the child to become insane. If, on the other hand, they leave a baseball glove hanging above the crib, the boy might grow up to be a talented baseball player. In some parts of the world it is feared that if a pregnant woman gets a fright during her pregnancy and touches her face, her baby will be born with a reddish-purple birthmark on the same place the woman’s hands rested.

Scare yourself silly with more terrifying baby legends in Nightmare Machines: Creepypasta, Urban Legends, and Tales of Madness at!

1 Whistling At Night

The sound of whistling seems to be upsetting for many people around the world and also the focus of many old wives’ tales.

Not only is a constant whistling at night very annoying to those who have to listen to it, but it is seen as an invitation for ghosts and even snakes to enter your home. It seems that this Japanese old wives’ tale developed from the time when child trafficking was very prevalent there. According to legend, whistling after dark was a signal to the sellers that children were ready to be taken. It is thought that by creating a tale around it, children would be afraid of making a noise at night, in theory protecting them from these criminals—although it was probably just to keep them quiet so their parents could sleep.

In Korea, the belief that whistling at night would summon snakes or ghosts also existed, and so people would play the traditional Korean pipe flute instead. In Turkey, people were warned against whistling as it was thought to be a summons for the devil himself.

And whistling at night in Hawaii is not a good idea either, because you might just anger one of the much-feared night marchers in the area.

Estelle lives in Gauteng, South Africa. She loves all things spooky and creepy and is still a little bit afraid of Pinky Pinky.

fact checked by Jamie Frater

Estelle is a regular writer for Listverse.