Monday, 8 August 2011

Indonesian folk remedy: just lie on a train track {Folk Medicine}

Sci-fi and science blog io9 today reported that it has become a trend in Cengkareng, West Jakarta in Indonesia to lie outstretched on train tracks to cure ailments.

According to locals, the low-voltage that courses through one's body when lying on train tracks can trigger a healing process.

The Jakarta Post interviewed a woman about this strange practise:

[A woman named] Kusmiati, who said she suffered from asthma, high blood pressure and diabetes, is one of many locals who routinely undergo a unique alternative "therapy" in which one lies splayed out on the railway tracks near Rawa Buaya train station in Cengkareng, West Jakarta.

The "therapy" involves placing one's hands and feet on the steel rail tracks. By touching both sides of the tracks at once in this manner, one receives a low-voltage electric shock, which locals believe is a potent cure for many diseases.

The locals said the method became popular around a year ago when a taxi driver allegedly recovered after suffering a stroke, by frequently lying on the tracks.

Today, the therapy is attracting more and more people, from locals to people who travel from far away to experience the reportedly soothing effects of the therapy [...] Their growing fondness for the treatment soon saw them adopt the "therapy" into their daily routines. Every afternoon from around 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. there are typically 10-15 people lying on the tracks.

First off, don't try this. There is no evidence that low-voltage will help cure any condition you have and there is a real danger of being killed by an oncoming train.

Secondly, this is a fairly new 'fad' but it's also the beginning of a new piece of folklore. I hope that people stop doing it because, well, it's ridiculously stupid, but it's also an interesting look at how a folk remedy could have its origin.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The origin of Bloody Mary

If you're a horror fan like me then you will probably be acquainted with the Paranormal Activity series - a soon-to-be trilogy of films that 'document' violent hauntings through found footage. I have yet to see the sequel but I thought the first was a good effort from an independent director on a shoestring budget and showed how you can make a horror film without resorting to stupid CGI monsters and torture scenes.

Paranormal Activity 3 will be hitting the cinemas soon and from what I can tell in the trailer it may focus on the Bloody Mary urban legend, in which if you say her name three times in a mirror she will supposedly appear and eviscerate you. Fun stuff. But where did this folktale come from and why is it so prevalent in modern western cultures?

Like all good folk tales, this one comes with a few different variations on the ritual to summon the eponymous Bloody Mary. It is widely assumed that the room must be dark and her name must be chanted, but some lore tells that she will come if you run the tap, rub your eyes, repeat her name thirteen times or say "Bloody Mary, I killed your baby". Any way it's done, the ritual is said to summon Mary, who is widely considered to be a child murderer or someone wrongly accused of killing their child.

The legend was first properly researched by Janet Langlois in 1978 and published in an essay. Back then, the story was prevalent in younger girls and some boys, who would dare each other to carry out the ritual. Mary was called by many different names, but the most popular seems to be Mary Worth.

It's difficult to say whether Mary was a real person. Often Mary I, the 16th century English Queen, is cited as being the inspiration for the story. In 1555, Mary was convinced that she was pregnant, as were the doctors and all who surrounded her. However, in July it was found to be a phantom pregnancy and because of her overwhelming desire to have a child Mary fell into a pit of depression. The Queen gained the name Bloody Mary due to her persecution of the Protestants during her rule, of which she executed 287, and in 1563, only 6 years after her death, she was given the image of a bloodthirsty tyrant in Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

I've seen articles that say Mary Tudor would bathe herself in blood in order to stay young, which is a legend born out of Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who was famously accused of murdering 650 girls. Of course, the propaganda espoused by the Protestants in the 16th century probably went a long way to skewing people's perception of Mary and perhaps that is what remains with us today with the Bloody Mary legend.

Like most folklore, the tale is a patchwork of stories from a variety of cultures and time periods, all culminating in what we have now. Indeed, the Greek Lamia and similar Aztec legends bare similarities with the modern story.

This folktale opens doors to a multitude of research opportunities to the discerning folklorist. For instance, why are mirrors often used for divination practises? Who began this practise? Why should it be a woman who is the killer?