Urban Legend: The Fatal Hairdo

The "Spiders-in-the-Hairdo" Tale Dates Back Centuries

Woman Does Her Hair
Harry Kerr/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

A viral rumor has been circulating for years about a very stylish teenage girl who grew tired of spending hours carefully "ratting" (teasing) and spraying her hair to attain an extreme beehive hairdo. 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. Read on to find out the details of the rumor, what folks have been saying about it, and the facts of the matter.

Analysis: A Legend With a Long History

This urban legend is a variation of the "spiders-in-the-hairdo" tale that dates back to the 1950s. There are also similar frightening urban legends, such as ants in your brain or a pus-filled tumor in your chicken sandwich, which are sure to keep you up at night. But this spiders-in-the-hair tale is guaranteed to give you shivers.

The most familiar versions of the creepy-crawly tale started circulating when "beehive" hairdos were popular, but the urban legend is much older than that; indeed, at least one version dates to the 13th century.

In her 1976 paper, "Three Medieval Tales and their Modern American Analogues," reprinted in J.H. Brunvand's "Readings in American Folklore," 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.

Apocryphal Warning

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. Other versions of the urban legend center around a 10-year-old girl with unwashed braids, touching on another popular theme in contemporary folklore: parental neglect.

Fatal Hairdo

As early as 1964, Kenneth Clarke, in an article titled "The Fatal Hairdo and the Emporer's New Clothes Revisited," which was published in "Western Folklore," wrote:

"The tale of the 'fatal hairdo' has received some casual attention from folklorists, who are familiar with the brief horror narratives, which are usually found circulating in student groups. Unfortunately, this tale has not received careful scholarly attention ... hence, the full implications of its importance have not been brought to light."

Clarke tells the story of a girl who was sitting in class when her teacher noticed blood dripping down her neck. The girl soon passed out and was taken to a hospital, where she died. It was later discovered that the girl had used so much hairspray to get her hairdo to stay in a place that she never washed her hair.

Cockroaches eventually took up residence in her hairdo, where one roach apparently ate right through her skull into her brain.

The moral of these tales seem to be: Practice good hygiene and wash your hair regularly. Failing to do so could be a fatal decision.