You probably already know this urban legend, dear reader, but here’s a retelling just to refresh your memory:
One night, a teenage girl got her first babysitting job. The children were already asleep upstairs, and the parents would call to check in. The babysitter has a quiet night. She chats with her gal pals on the phone and watches TV.
Around 10 o’clock, the phone rings. The babysitter picks up, expecting it to be the parents. Instead, she realizes, it’s a heavy breather. Disgusted, the babysitter hangs up and goes back to watching TV.
10 minutes later, the phone rings again. The babysitter picks up, and again hears a heavy breather.
“Creep,” she sneers into the phone before hanging up.
A few minutes later, the phone rings again. The babysitter assumes it’s the heavy breather, but she can’t not pick up. It could be the parents.*
Tentatively, she picks up and answers, “Hello?”
Again, heavy breathing. She almost hangs up again, but this time a low voice on the other end said, “Have you checked the children?”
*Once upon a time, there wasn’t such a thing as cellphones, cordless phones, called ID, or even voicemail. Truly the dark ages.
The babysitter feels a chill go down her spine. She quickly hangs up the phone.
The creepy caller calls a second time, a third time. Each time, asking “Have you checked the children?”
After the third time, the babysitter remembers her senses and calls the police. The police advise her to keep answering the calls so that they can be traced.
The phone rings. The babysitter picks up. The voice on the end laughs and says, “I know you haven’t checked the children.”
The babysitter, terrified, slams the phone back on the receiver. The phone rings back immediately and she jumps, startled. Hoping it’s good news from the police, she picks up.
The dispatcher on the other end of the line says, “Get out. The calls are coming from inside the house.”
The babysitter flees. The police arrive and enter the house. Inside, they find the children massacred in their beds. They find a second phoneline in a guest bedroom.
But they do not find the crazed killer.
He’s still on the loose. Who knows when he’ll strike again?
This urban legend is called ‘The Babysitter and The Man Upstairs’. It’s been an inspiration for slasher movies like ‘Halloween’, most notably played out in ‘When A Stranger Calls’
Urban legends tend to be borne of one or a combination of three elements:
• A way to express societal anxieties
• Morality tales
• Real life events made hyperbolic
The babysitter urban legend is interesting because it involves all three of these elements.
Babysitting as a concept can easily be a source of anxiety for a teenager. It’s in many ways a rite of passage. It could be the first time you’re earning any money on your own. It’s likely the first time you are ‘in charge’. You’re being entrusted with responsibility over someone who is more vulnerable than you. And if you get into trouble, you can’t run away.
Babysitting can also be a real source of anxiety for parents and children. Babysitting is the act of bringing in a stranger to the home. Can this person be trusted to keep the children safe?
These fears are timeless (until Alexa gets upgraded to full-on babysitter AI). But the anxieties and moralities of this urban legend are also deeply tied to historic context. ‘The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs’ legend was reported as fact in some newspapers starting in the early 1970s.* It was likely circulated orally starting in the 1960s.
A lot was going on around that time regarding young women moving beyond the home—both physically and economically. This was the start of ‘career girls’—young women who would move out and go for actual jobs after high school or college rather than staying at home with their parents and focusing on finding a husband. Babysitting was a budding part of that change—teenage girls finding some economic independence through their own enterprise. Shockingly, society in the 1960s wasn’t totally down with that.
*Look, I’m all about ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’, but ‘fake news’ has also been a thing since before any of us were born.
If you wanna be a real nerd like Your Intrepid Host and go down a rabbit hole learning about the history of babysitting, godspeed because there has been extremely little study into it. But the book ‘Babysitting: An American History’ is a comprehensive overview of babysitting as a practice and its depiction in pop culture.
Babysitting is a very Americana institution, budding into common practice in the 1930s and really taking off in 1950s suburbia. Prior to this, wealthier families had servants to watch children whenever, and poorer families had family members who watched children.
In 1950s suburbia, you had:
• A baby boom, so lots of kids needing watching.
• Family members living too far apart for other relatives to be a childcare option.
• Families that were well off but not enough to have servants.
• A solid middle class of parents with money to spare for dates and for a sitter
• Teenagers who wanted money to spend and also something to do with themselves.
While babysitting was/is performed by any teenager, in the 50s and 60s the practice was a good middle ground for teenage girls to have some independence by taking on responsibility and financial gain while still staying in the neighborhood. It was also seen as great practice for childrearing.
Would you believe even that was seen as too much independence?
Then and today, the act of a woman gaining her own finances of any form can be seen as unfeminine. As rebellious. As too much responsibility for her to be trusted with. Even in the very domestic act of watching some kids for a few hours for a few bucks was seen as girls forgetting their place.
For decades, American culture couldn’t seem to really make up its mind about where it sat with the whole babysitting practice. It became very commonly promoted as a way for teenage girls to take on some responsibility and express good old fashioned American entrepreneurial spirit.
But at the same time, ire over these ‘uppity’ girls working outside of the home was largely expressed through disdain and mockery.
“Since spending money seems to be a constant need of teenagers, this new occupation [of babysitting] has become a thriving business.”
Can you hear the eyeroll? It’s the same attitude you’ll hear in old ads and TV about housewives misusing her weekly allowance.
And if trying to work wasn’t bad enough, babysitters were derided for being bad workers. Not satisfied with two dollars for 4 hours of watching the kids? What a crock! Rejecting taking care of troublesome kids? The nerve! Not taking on additional non-childcare tasks like waxing the floor? How lazy!
There were even PSAs all about lecturing girls how to be semi-competent sitters. “If you are serious about earning a few dollars, shape up!”
It remained a common trope for decades to depict babysitters as spending their time yapping on the phone when they were supposed to be caretaking.
And isn’t it therefore clear why the phone is the weapon of malevolence in the urban legend? “Harassing [her] through a device that is her favorite means of communication” (yes one of my sources actually phrased it that way).
In many ways, the babysitter of the urban legend is a character of total inaction. She doesn’t attend to her charges. She doesn’t check the children. And she fails horribly. She doesn’t confront her predator, she just runs when the police tell her to. In other versions, she doesn’t survive the encounter and is found killed as well.
This story is also a warning of what happens to girls who leave home. They’re targeted, subjected to sexual harassment (heavy breathers), and face violence at the hands of strangers.
This was a big serious concern in the 60s. And of course the proper response was to focus on lecturing girls about how to not be reckless by, ya know, existing or whatever.
There were PSA films, some even made by police departments, all warning girls about all the horrible ‘unnecessary’ things that can befall girls daring to watch the neighbors’ kids for some cash. The films focused on girls learning ‘good judgment’ like not letting strangers into the house while babysitting. How helpful!
The message was “Well, girl, if you want to step into the real big world and play at being an adult, fine. But it comes at a price.”
Why can’t you just be happy in your nice secure home, protected by a father, brother, or husband?
Why can‘t you stay in a nice safe house that doesn’t inexplicably have two phonelines?
Why do you have to go out there and bait psychotic maniacs? So irresponsible!
Ha ha ha, historic sexism is so funny and out of control in retrospect.
The babysitter attacked while watching her charges?
The maniac who slips away from the police?
The ‘trope’ of babysitters inexplicably murdered while watching their charges has occurred multiple times. Two notable cases occurred in the 1950s, and were likely the real life stories that were hyperbolized into the babysitter legend.
In 1950, Janett Christman was violently murdered while babysitting at her neighbors’. She was 13 years old. They never identified her killer.*
In 1953, Evelyn Hartley** was abducted from a neighbors’ home in while babysitting. She was 15 years old. She was never found, her attacker never identified.
Similar incidents in later years likely have helped the urban legend stay alive. In the 1970s, Sheila Srock was babysitting when a burglar broke in, viciously assaulted her, and murdered her. She was 14 years old. Fortunately, her murderer was identified.
*At least one newspaper of the time reports a second babysitter being murdered in the area around the same time, but I couldn’t find any additional information.
**Hooray…another good ol’ Wisconsin Is Creepy story.
In all three of these incidents, the children being babysat were never harmed. That’s an interesting disconnect between real life and the legend. In the legend, sometimes the babysitter survives or not, sometimes the children survive or not. When the children die in the legend, it’s not a reflection of reality but just another way to punish the babysitter. In real life, children are more likely to be spared than teenaged girls—even if the age difference between the two is minimal.
On the one hand, women are controlled by being told how scary the outside world is. On the other hand, it isn’t incorrect to acknowledge that women are targeted by random violence.*
*Oh hey, remember the awesome Career Girls being all independent in the 60s? Yeah they got violently randomly murdered and used as societal warnings against women working outside the home too.
There is a risk in being independent. There’s a risk just presenting as a female out in this world. We’re stuck with paying that price regardless of our desires or deeds. But true freedom is acknowledging that, and moving forward anyway. The call is coming from inside the house. But we can’t abandon responsibilities we’ve chosen, wants we’ve decided to pursue, or independence that we have a right to.