Several Halloween-inspired episodes are coming up in the following weeks. The first one is dedicated to the eerie children’s games. Play the episode or scroll down to continue reading:
Halloween and Croatia
It is that time of the year. The sharp cold air in the day turns into the misty evenings full of shadows of darkness. The gates between the worlds are starting to open until they welcome the visitors from the other side on 31 October.
In some parts of the world, everything is already Halloween-themed. Not in Croatia. There are some indications in the stores, but nothing serious. There will be a lot of festive events at the time of Halloween, but a lot of homes will stay pumpkin-free.
Only in recent years have people started jumping on that broomstick that would take them into the fun realm of the undead. Halloween is still not such a big deal, and many people are still very annoyed by what they call “americanization.” Some actually claim their religious feelings are offended by these celebrations of the ghosts and the dead.
Not me! As any genuine witch, I have been celebrating Halloween one way or another since my teenage days. I remember having to steal the pumpkins from the fields – they were nowhere to be found in the stores or even at the farmers’ markets. In a matter of fact, farmers were amused when I asked about buying a pumpkin. Why would you want to buy food for pigs? After all, that is what pumpkins were mainly used for. That, and the pumpkin seed oil. Nobody really cared about pumpkin seed oil back then.
Oh, and the iconic bučnica cake, sort of a strudel filled with pumpkin and cheese. Absolutely yummy. Street vendors, the same ones that I mentioned in the previous episode that sell roasted chestnuts, they also sell salty pumpkin seed, another traditional snack. Now that I think about it, there has always been some use for pumpkin in nutrition. It just wasn’t that appreciated, and most farmers considered it food for pigs.
The situation has changed when it comes to that. By now, pumpkin is known as the queen of the fall, and the farmers’ markets are full of them at this time of the year. Pumpkin oil is sometimes more appreciated than olive oil. I sure love it. I am lucky to have a friend who produces the tastiest pumpkin oil. I can not wait for the next season to get more since I ran out of it too soon this year. It is simply delicious.
Just like pumpkins, Halloween has changed, too. As an old-time fan of the holiday, I am also a bit annoyed by the fact that everybody started having crazy parties on that day. I don’t see anything wrong in celebrating, but I fear that any connection with the spiritual side and the old lore is being lost through massive commercial events. I personally relate to the wicked, dark side of Halloween and love to imagine the long-lost days when people believed they can ward off evil when they dressed up in scary costumes. Do you know there were traces of Celtic culture found in some parts of Croatia, including Zagreb, my hometown? No wonder that in some rare villages in north-western Croatia, people do traditionally light up candles in eerily carved pumpkins. It could be a leftover from Celtic culture.
Long story short, this podcast episode and the accompanying blog post, and the following ones, all the way till the end of October, are going to be Halloween-colored. We are heading down a dark, mysterious, path and we often won’t even have Jack’O’Lantern to light our way.
To start with, let’s hop on the fact that Halloween celebrations in Croatia have become fashionable, but are not traditional. Do you know what else is trendy these days? And will probably mark this Halloween season all around the world with its costumes?
You’re darn right – it’s the Squid Game – the Netflix hit show! Of course, I’ve binged it. And it got my family talking over lunch. The conversation started around the first game from the show: Red Light, Green Light. It quickly took a grotesque turn. We discussed how do we call this game in Croatian, how do other nations call it. Eventually, we agreed that it’s quite a relief that nobody got the idea to shoot something similar in this part of Europe. It’s just that, there is a tiny problem with some games for kids around here. The problem is – unsolicited creepiness.
Croatian Creepy Children Games
Really, do you know how many of us still get the eerie goosebumps when we think about some of the games we played as kids?
The worst part was, those games contained some kind of a script, we repeated certain chants. Imagine kids roleplaying ghastly characters and spookily chanting. One, two, Freddy’s coming for you… is nothing compared to games we used to play!
We’re not alone here in Croatia, stuff like that has been around the entire region. If anyone familiar with the games I’m about to talk about is listening to this, please share your sweet memories! Or maybe you have an even better… or worse one?
It was a long time ago when I played the games, but I’m going to try and remember the exact rules. I have three games as an example of perfect creepiness. Those are the three that I know for sure from my own, my friends’ and my kids’ experiences, that they have the power of leaving the kids in terror. They worked like storytelling – creating images in your mind, and afterward you would fear that those imaginary creatures would get you in real life, too.
Let’s start with the Red Light, Green Light. We already had a chance to meet the dark side of the game in the movie Orfanato – Orphanage almost 15 years ago. The Spanish version is Un, Dos, Tres, Toca la pared. One, two, three, knock on the wall. See? It’s a game that kids play all over the world. We agreed over that lunch as a family that Croatia rules with the name of that game.
I often mention this game on my Secret Zagreb tours, too. I like to check with the visitors from all over how do they call it. Sometimes, it’s a perfectly logical name, just like in the case of Red Light, Green Light. Sometimes it’s kind of cute, as in the Korean case. I discovered that the Korean version of the chant, that we all got to see in the Squid Game, has something to do with the flowers that bloom. But it also has to do with counting. Very cute and, again, makes some educational sense with the counting. If I got it well, in some parts of America, they simply call the game Freeze. Ehm.
Black Queen One, Two, Three
We call it Crna kraljica jen’ dva tri! It’s Black Queen, one, two, three! You have to freeze when the Black Queen turns around or else… Or else you go back to the beginning of your line. Or, in some especially creative versions of the game, your arms and legs fall off! Not for real, luckily enough.
It turns out that something like that would actually happen to you if you dealt with the true Black Queen. I mentioned her in a few other episodes – it’s a mythical sorceress known for her cruelty. She supposedly still exists in her secret tunnels, in the shape of a cursed serpent. So, why call the game “freeze” when you can indicate the intimidating invisible dark presence that has been rumored about for centuries?
In Eastern Croatia, they sometimes call the game Crvena kraljica – Red Queen. That’s after another cruel queen who put a curse on the whole area. Oh, the innocent kids’ games!
The actual Korean squid game is very violent, as we learn in the first minutes of the show. Don’t worry, we have those covered, too. For instance, there’s Trula kobila, or Rotten Mare, another picturesque name of a game, isn’t it?
It’s a beautiful game, indeed. The players form a line, and the first one in front bends down – that’s the mare! The others are trying to jump over the mare, and kick him or her in the butt while they’re jumping. If they don’t manage, they become the mare. If they do, they go to the back of the line. Continue until your cheeks (not the ones on your face) turn red, and who knows what happens to your spine.
Lanca probijanca is a game of a name that sounds cute and is very descriptive. We could translate it as a break-through chain. Indeed, one group of kids forms a chain, firmly wrapping their arms together. The other group rushes towards them and tries to break through. Oh, the fun!
Those are just a few examples and reminders of the good old days. However, the last two are not creepy, just fun, I guess, at least Croatian children thought so. Parents these days often hold back these tales and miss out on the opportunity to share their lovely childhood memories with their children. I don’t know why, really. What kind of a parent wouldn’t want their child to go through this significant stage in the child’s development? I have to admit that I haven’t seen kids playing Trula Kobila for a while now. They don’t know what they’re missing, right?
But they do play my top three suggestions when it comes to Croatian children this Halloween season. The first one is the Black Queen. Just keep in mind the story behind it and keep imagining the infamous creature coming after you as she turns!
The other two follow. This one is something that will most probably be unfamiliar. And you’ll most likely wish for it to stay that way.
Frozen Old Hag
Ledena baba. Frozen grandma, or something like that. It’s hard to accurately translate it. Baba indeed means a grandma. This is how some parts of Croatia indeed call their grandmas. However, in most parts, the word sounds rather harsh and insulting. It can also sound witchlike, almost like an old hag. In other words, the name of the game Ledena baba sounds a bit intimidating to start with.
It’s one of those games with awkward scenarios that I mentioned. One child plays the Baba, and the others are children. They all stand in a circle with arms reaching to the middle of a circle. The children ask “Bakice, bakice, što si nam kupila? / Granny, granny, what did you get us?” And she gives a random answer, usually something that can fit other things inside. For example, a house.
- What’s in a house?
- A room.
- What’s in a room?
- A table.
- What’s in a table?
- A drawer.
- What’s in the drawer?….
This particular example makes some sense, but it doesn’t need to make sense at all. It can be any noun, and it can contain anything, whatever word comes to your mind. You know, a fish within a girl, cotton candy within a key, anything. In suspense, they wait for the answer that triggers the game, and that’s:
- Crni otrov! / Black poison!
When she says the words, everyone runs away in panic and screams, and whoever she touches, they freeze, until another child touches the frozen child and sets it free. Baba wins when she freezes all of the children.
Smrt Bijela Kost
Ledena baba and Black Queen, step aside. The first place goes to…. Smrt bijela kost! Death White Bone in literate translation. I don’t know why should I even bother to try and translate it any other way than literally. It makes as much sense in Croatian as it does to English – it doesn’t make any. It does sound scary as hell, though, and triggers unwanted images in your mind when you’re a kid.
How do you play it? One child is Smrt Bijela Kost. Then there’s Mom. The rest are the children.
Smrt Bijela Kost hides in some corner away from Mom, in a part that they imagine as a basement. It could be an actual basement if you’re playing this game inside of a house, but it can be any other space a bit further away from Mom. Trust me, in my memory, it feels like it was a dark basement full of spiderwebs and old rotten furniture even if we were playing out in the open.
Now, bear with me here as the screenplay is quite elaborated.
Mom sends her kids to fetch something from the basement. They come back screaming – Smrt Bijela Kost is there! Mom doesn’t believe them and sends them again. This choreography repeats a few times until Mom finally decides to go and check for herself. She keeps her cool and calmly speaks to Smrt Bijela Kost. She asks it when it’s coming. It tells her the exact hour.
Then the kids gather in a circle. Only mom knows when the Death is coming to get them. The Death is in the middle of the circle, waiting.
They make a circle around the Death White Bone and start traveling around in a circle, chanting:
-Prva ura tuče, Smrt Bijela Kost. Druga ura tuče, Smrt Bijela Kost. / One o’clock chimes, Death White Bone. Two o’clock chime, Death White Bone.
And so on, they chant… imagine a group of children chanting these creepy words. You can sense their fear behind the words because only Mom knows the exact time when Death is coming. When they mention the hour, it will run after them from that dark basement and try and get them all! And you know what happens when Death gets you!
Doesn’t this bring a whole new dimension to the good old playing tag?
I’ve read a little bit of theory behind the children’s games, but I haven’t found any researcher who pointed to the seemingly unnecessary scary otherwordly elements in some of the games. I would love to know why on Earth, why on Earth did they choose them? Black Queen is kind of a cool take on a game that’s played around the world. Frozen old hag gave some kids, especially those prone to visualizing descriptive things in their minds, the heebie-jeebies. And then Death White Bone, Smrt Bijela Kost, now that’s the ultimate scare.
I hope this look back at the everyday spooks and chills of childhood in Croatia was a lovely introduction to a series of Halloween-special episodes. This was just a little warm-up. Stay tuned for next week, when things are taking an even darker turn. Time for the real deal. I’m preparing stories about Croatian witches!
I also hope that now, if you ever feel like some of my comments and the views are a bit awkward and dark at times, you won’t blame me. Blame it on the games we played!
I think I hear something. Mom, there’s something in the basement!
Prva ura tuče, smrt bijela kost.