Urban legends are great. I would do more posts on them, but Snopes kinda has me beat no matter what I do in that regard. I’m gonna go ahead with this one today, though, partly to see how it goes and partly because it’s one of my favorite urban legends. The best are the ones that are told as if they could really happen to you. Those are the ones that make it all around the playground at school, get whispered about in church, and, these days, are e-mailed to you by your Great Aunt Cecilia.

“Obama admitted to being a Satanist on last week’s Glenn Beck? I have to tell everyone.

But even better are those that say something about our cultural norms, and more specifically, what our culture fears. For example, the legend about muggers hiding under cars in mall parking lots, slashing women’s (and, apparently, only women’s) ankles. That one used to crop up every Christmas season back in the 80s and 90s, and occasionally you still see it today. But look a little closer at that creepy legend and you see just how much has changed between the time the myth was at its peak and now.

Notice that the story is typically very specific in its mention of shopping mall parking lots. Now, this may not be true where you’re at yet, but in most of the United States, malls are on the decline, with many shuttering their doors one after another. But in the 80s and 90s, malls were booming. Everyone shopped at malls, if they could. People went out of their way to go to the newest and nearest mega-shopping centers, sometimes driving dozens or even hundreds of miles. Now you can’t drive longer than an hour without tossing a $20 bill at a gas pump and, thanks to discount stores and internet shopping, malls seem like near-empty hulls full of overpriced shops and shady looking kiosks. And that’s not even touching the deeper fears you can take from the tale, like “greed/spending is bad for you”, “poor, frail women should always be aware of their surroundings” and “moral corruption runs rampant during what’s supposed to be a joyous holiday season.”

“Wassail this, motherfuckers.”

This is just a very small example taken from a 30 year period. Now think about what legends from centuries ago would be like. More than likely, we wouldn’t even be able to relate to those stories anymore. Our world has changed too much. They would seem strange, maybe quaint, and possibly kinda stupid.

“There’s the one about the demon of the old swamp, the demon of the woods… pretty much it’s all demons.”

That’s what’s interesting about the story of Kuchisake-Onna, the slit-mouthed woman, a legend only found in Japan and parts of South Korea. Kuchisake-Onna is actually two stories, in a way. First, there’s the original story, told several generations ago, which goes something like this: Back in the days of feudal Japan, a jealous samurai had a beautiful wife. (Or concubine, depending on the telling.) When he caught her with another man, he flew into a fit of rage and used a knife to cut her mouth from ear to ear. “No one will find you beautiful, now,” he told her. But the story doesn’t end there.

You see, this woman decided (for some reason that only makes sense in legends) to begin wandering at night with a mask covering her lower face, asking men if they thought she was pretty. If they answered “Yes,” (as they most certainly did), she would lower the mask, revealing her disfigurement, and ask them, “Am I beautiful now?” If they said “No,” she would kill them. (“Butterface!” probably counts, too.) However, if they said yes once again, she would call them a liar and kill them anyway. That’s right, you’re fucked no matter how you answer in that situation.

Sometimes, there is no optimal solution.

But then, there’s also a modern rendition of the tale: Instead of the jealous samurai husband (or john), Kuchisake-Onna had a different origin.. That story goes like this: Not long ago, there was a beautiful woman, but she was very vain. Her face was perfect in every way, but, according to her, it still wasn’t good enough. She refused to concede her own beauty, considering herself flawed no matter how perfect she looked to everyone else. One day, an acquaintance who had grown tired of her vanity told her she should see a plastic surgeon she had met, whom the acquaintance claimed was the best in the whole country. The beautiful woman jumped at the chance and went to the surgeon’s office. But the acquaintance had played a trick on her.

There was no surgeon. She had actually paid a criminal, a former butcher, who had recently escaped from a nearby jail to play the part. The man drugged her and disfigured her horribly. The story is mostly the same from there out, but with a slight difference. The more modern legend says that if you tell Kuchisake-Onna that she’s average or so-so, she’ll become confused long enough for you to run away. (Please note that this does not work on the majority of women.) Not only that, but if you tell her you’re late for an appointment, she’ll actually apologize for her rudeness and leave you alone.

One day, this could save your life.

Notice how it evolved from a warning story about a man who went too far in his anger (though spousal abuse still wasn’t exactly a big concern in feudal Japan) to a modern morality tale about vanity. Since beating your wife wasn’t common practice anymore by the time the modern re-telling came about, that version of the story was alien enough to not really speak to Japanese cultural norms. As women became more liberated though, as they did in the Western world, excessive female vanity became more of a fear to the culture, and the legend changed its tone appropriately, while the fear of being alone at night and getting attacked by a stranger was still there.

In fact, if anything, that fear became stronger in the intervening years, as back in olden times, you didn’t go out at night unless you absolutely had to. At several points in recent history, stories claiming real-life copycat attackers on the loose have cropped up every few years, leading to wild sensationalism and mass panicking. So far, though, all have turned out to be hoaxes. (You know, just like that story about the kid who found a razor in his apple.)

Kids who eat razor apples grow up to be Kuchisake-Onna. It makes perfect sense.

Er… none. Original research, I guess.