Urban legends and creepy folklore were staples for those growing up in post-Soviet states. Since these countries had long remained closed to Western horror films, these stories offered some much-needed everyday spookiness. They were first told around fires at Young Pioneer camps in the Soviet Union, and then later migrated to summer camps in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and beyond. While Western urban legends like Bloody Mary and Slenderman have also become popular recently, Soviet and post-Soviet kids were always more likely to creep their friends out with coffins on wheels, red pianos and (for whatever reason) various shades of curtains.
Many of these have been collected as part of studies of modern folklore — for example, by the folklore faculty of the Russian literature department at Nizhny Novgorod State University, who published their archive online (in Russian). Children’s author Eduard Uspensky, who gave the world the famous Cheburashka, also published two archives of children’s spooky stories. And while literary historians now say we have entered a dormant phase of scary children’s tales — the need for creepiness is now satisfied by modern horror films and video games — we still get to enjoy the existing ones, all of which have countless versions.
They might not be the scariest thing you’ve ever read, but they present a phantasmagorical world where Ivan Tverdovsky’s Zoology meets Nikolai Gogol’s short stories and Soviet faith in figures of authority. Read on, if you dare.
The Red Piano
A little girl who really wanted to start playing piano got one as a birthday present from her parents. As it was delivered, the store gave the parents the contacts of the only person in town who could fix the piano — an old lady.
The girl was excited to start practicing, but a few weeks later she started complaining to her parents that her fingertips hurt. She was told that this is normal — she was just bruising them through over-practice, but if she kept going her fingers would get used to the pressure. The girl continued to practice but started growing thinner and paler.
Then, after a month, the piano broke. The old lady was invited over to fix it. When she arrived, she told the parents and the girl they needed to stay out of the room as she was working as she didn’t want any distractions. She shut the door to the room, and soon after emerged. The piano was fixed.
The girl went back to her daily practices and continued to lose weight and colour in her cheeks. She was so weak she could barely walk across the room. Then the piano broke again.
The old lady arrived again to take a look at the piano, and again told the parents to stay out of the room. The parents were curious about how such a frail old lady managed to fix such an instrument, and decided to peek inside the room through the keyhole.
They saw the old lady open the piano and take out a glass jar filled with what looked like blood. Then she started to drink it.
The parents rushed to call the police, who got to the house just in time to arrest the old lady. As they examined the piano they discovered that the keys had tiny needles built into them, so small they were practically invisible to the naked eye. As the girl played the piano she suffered tiny cuts which drained her blood, drop by tiny drop into the jar. The piano was also designed to “break” when the jar was full, so that the old lady could arrive and drink the blood.
The Black Curtains
A girl’s mother once sent her to the store to buy some curtains for the house. She told her to not get black ones under any circumstances. But the shop that the girl went to only had black ones, so she decided to get them rather than go elsewhere.
Later, the mother was annoyed but still put the curtains up. During the night, the girl’s father was strangled, and the night after the same happened to her mother and her brother. The girl ran to the police, who decided to set up an ambush to investigate the murders. They hid in the flat as the girl pretended to go to bed as normal. Then they saw the black curtains stretch, reaching for the girl’s bed to strangle her. The policemen opened fire on the curtains, which started screaming and bleeding as the bullets hit them. Then they fell to the floor, dead. The girl survived.
The Coffin on Wheels
A little girl’s mother was very sick and told her daughter that if she died, the daughter should never ever, under any circumstances paint her nails with red varnish.
The girl’s mother died and after some time had passed the girl forgot about the ban and started painted her nails red. As she finished, the radio in the flat suddenly turned on and announced: “Hey, little girl! Remove the varnish from your nails! A coffin on wheels has found your town and is looking for your street.”
The girl was confused, thinking that she had misheard the radio presenter. She turned on a TV show to take her mind off it, but the television took up the refrain: “Hey, little girl! The coffin on wheels has found your street and is looking for your apartment block. Take off your nail polish!”
The girl had definitely heard it right this time, and, growing scared, grabbed nail polish remover and began rubbing her nails. She rushed to the phone and dialed her friend’s number to ask for help. But instead of her friend’s voice on the other end of the line, she hears the same voice: “Hey, little girl! The coffin on wheels has found your apartment block. Now it’s looking for your flat. Take off your nail polish!”
The girl threw the phone down and attempted to clean her nails but the polish on the last nail wouldn’t come off. She heard a knock on the door, looked out of the peephole and couldn’t see anybody. Assuming there was no danger, she opened the door. The coffin on wheels was standing in front of her door. The coffin opened and her mother stepped out. “Why didn’t you listen to me?” she asked. Then she strangled her daughter.
The Black Tram
A little boy lived in a small town. He knew the town quite well but once, on the way home from school, he suddenly found himself in an area he didn’t recognise. The strange, empty streets were lined with unfamiliar buildings and trees. It was also getting dark very fast, even though it was afternoon.
He saw a tram stop and decided to catch a ride back to somewhere he knew. The route numbers on the board were confusing: there was one tram numbered 1932-1958, one numbered 1983-1995, and so on. They reminded him of the dates on gravestones, but he had no time to think as a tram was approaching. It looked very old but moved almost silently. It was also completely black, like a hearse. As it came to a stop and the doors opened, the boy felt something drawing him inside, like a gust of wind pushing him forwards. But something made him take two steps back into the street.
Suddenly, he was on a lively street that he knew, and the black tram was gone. He stood confused, thinking about what had stopped him from boarding it. Then, as he started walking home, it suddenly dawned on him: the route number on the black tram had been 1982, the year of his birth, and current year had been flickering, as if waiting for him to step inside.
The Yellow Curtains
A family of four moved into a new house which needed new curtains. As they went to the market they remembered that their recently deceased grandma had hated yellow curtains and always told them never to get yellow curtains even after her death.
As they were walking around the market, all they saw were yellow curtains. Tired, they decided that since grandma was no longer around it was OK to ignore her warning. They brought them home and put them up in the room where their children — a boy and a girl — lived.
In the middle of the following night the curtains moved and woke the boy up. “Hey boy, get up,” they said. The boy got up. “Hey boy, go wash your face and eat breakfast,” the curtains went on. The boy did as he was told. “Hey boy, come to the window and see how your grandma’s hanging up the laundry outside,” the curtains ordered. The boy was puzzled but approached the window. The curtains then grabbed him and threw him out of the window to his death as the family slept.
The following night the curtain did the same to the girl — she washed her face and had breakfast in the middle of the night. “Hey girl, come to the window and look at your brother playing outside,” the curtains ordered. As she approached the window, the curtains hurled her out as well.
Shocked by their young children’s midnight suicides, the parents invited investigators into the house. The police became suspicious about the curtains, which seemed to come to life when they were handled; several officers tried to get a hold of them to take them off the window, but they failed. They decided to go and find the old lady who sold the curtains at the market.
The old lady said that the only thing these strange curtains were afraid of was a particular magic scalpel hidden inside the giant star that tops the Kremlins. The policemen climbed the Kremlin to open up the star, and indeed they found a scalpel inside.
They brought the scalpel to the bereaved family’s flat and decided to cut a bit of fabric from the curtains for examination. But as soon as they touched the scalpel to the curtains both exploded, and after the dust had settled down there was no trace of either to be found.