The Fatal Hairdo

An Urban Legend

Harry Kerr/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

A very stylish teenage girl grew tired of spending hours carefully "ratting" (teasing) and spraying her hair to attain an extreme beehive do. She washed her hair in sugar-water, allowing it to harden in the style she wanted. At night, she carefully wrapped a towel around it and slept on a special half-pillow designed not to disturb the hair.

One morning she failed to come down for breakfast. Her mother went to her room only to find her dead in bed. When the towel was removed from her head, it was discovered that she had been gnawed to death by rats (or bugs — I've heard both versions).

— As told by a reader 

Analysis

Can you think of anything creepier than a nest of spiders in your hair?

Okay, maybe ants in your brain or a pus-filled tumor in your chicken sandwich give it a run for its money, but this urban legend about spider eggs hatching in a girl's unwashed hairdo is guaranteed to give you shivers.

The most familiar versions of the creepy-crawly tale date from the early 1960s when "beehive" hairdos were popular, but believe it or not there's at least one version dating back as far as the thirteenth century. In her 1976 paper, "Three Medieval Tales and their Modern American Analogues" (reprinted in J.H. Brunvand's Readings in American Folklore, W.W. Norton: 1979), Shirley Marchalonis shares this ecclesiastical rendition:

There is a sermon story of a certain lady of Eynesham, in Oxfordshire, "who took so long over the adornment of her hair that she used to arrive at church barely before the end of Mass." One day "the devil descended upon her head in the form of a spider, gripping with its legs," until she well-nigh died of fright. Nothing would remove the offending insect, neither prayer, nor exorcism, nor holy water, until the local abbot displayed the holy sacrament before it.

Marchalonis continues: "The high school girl with the nest of spiders in her hair offends contemporary standards of behavior just as the proud medieval ladies offended contemporary belief. In both cases the story acts as warning and example."

That's the very definition of a cautionary tale.

I should add that the forwarded email variant quoted above, which centers around a 10-year-old girl with unwashed braids, touches on another popular theme in contemporary folklore just now: parental neglect.

Not scared yet?
Campfire Tales: The 13 Scariest Stories We Know