A ghostly column on using folklore in tabletop RPGs
It’s the witching hour, and you’re standing on a bridge.
In theory, disused bridges are a great place to loiter after dark. You feel safe knowing you’d be able to see anyone approaching from either direction. You’re completely alone. Then, as you stare out into the inky blackness of the night water, you hear a noise. A baby’s cry; a voice floating up from beneath the bridge. Instinct tells you to flee, but what if there’s a baby nearby, one that’s in distress? You lean over the side of the bridge, shine the light of your phone down as a torch.
You don’t see a baby. You see something far, far worse.
I. Haunted Bridges
Bridges are a popular destination for hauntings. They might be built to protect and facilitate travel, but one wrong move and you could plunge into the dangerous waters below. Even if you do everything right, what if the bridge collapses underneath you?
Bridges are an open, liminal space, floating atop another liminal space (a body of water). They’re a tenuous connection to somewhere else. What better place for the manifestation of spirits and demons? It’s no wonder bridges are often associated with the afterlife.
Unlike many liminal spaces, however, bridges aren’t so easy to avoid. They typically exist for an important reason—allowing humans to cross otherwise unsafe obstacles. Even if you wanted to avoid one, how far out of your way would you have to go? Isn’t it better to just take your chances?
Indirect signs you might be on a haunted bridge include your car stalling halfway across, glowing eyes in the dark, splashing in the water below, and, of course, strange voices crying out. If you’re particularly unlucky, the bridge might lead somewhere it’s not supposed to—the past, another location, or a sinister dimension.
To narrow our focus, let’s look at a special kind of haunted bridge that can be found across America. Let’s look at…
II. Crybaby Bridges
Put simply, Crybaby Bridges are bridges where the sound of a crying baby can be heard as you cross it. This ghostly phenomenon is usually accompanied by an urban legend explanation:
“And so the story goes that there was a woman […] driving at night, and she either became possessed or got sick of her kids or something, but she stopped at the bridge and threw her kids over the bridge and then jumped off herself and drowned and died. The other version I’ve heard is she became possessed and drove the car off the bridge, killing her and her kids.”
— Cry Baby Bridge, USU Student Folklore Fieldwork1
Sometimes the baby wanders away and accidentally drowns, while in others there is malevolent intent23. Sometimes the baby's cries are accompanied by those of a woman, presumably the lost baby's mother. These bridges can allegedly be found throughout the United States, including in Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, and Texas.
At this point, you might be thinking that this story has a lot in common with other folktales like La Llorona and the Woman in White. You’re not wrong, and if you like, it’s easy to link these tales together to add a more active presence to your sinister bridge. I’ll definitely write an article on these spirits in the future, however, so for now, let me present you with another angle.
There are very few true stories that explain Crybaby Bridges. There usually aren’t any records of women or babies dying at them; rather, these stories come about as a retroactive explanation for why someone heard a baby crying at the bridge. People are spinning tales to explain something inexplicable. In real life, of course, the simple conclusion is that these bridges just aren’t haunted. But a fun alternative to consider is this:
What possible explanation is there for the baby cries at Crybaby Bridges if we rule out the presence of a normal ghost?
Using Crybaby Bridges in Your Game
At this point, you might be thinking:
“Well, that’s a great spooky story, but I’m not sure I want to put dead baby ghosts into my relatively light-hearted role-playing game.”
And it’s a good point! Even if you’re dealing in horror, dead children (especially babies) are often a line that people aren’t interested in crossing. You might accidentally unearth real-life trauma, or it might just be a real buzzkill at the table.
The easiest approach is to pivot to using White Lady-style folklore, focusing on the dangers of a ghostly mother figure. If you want to stick with Crybaby Bridges in particular, however, here are several unorthodox ways you can use one in your game.
A baby has been stolen out of its crib by a fairy. Locals pursued the creature, but it disappeared as it fled across a nearby bridge. If you listen carefully, however, you can still hear the baby’s cries when you stand atop it. Can our heroes figure out how to use the bridge to cross into Faerie and rescue the stolen baby before it’s too late?
II. It’s Not a Baby
Locals speak of a Crybaby Bridge and its rumoured haunting. It wasn’t considered much more than a tall tale, however, until people recently started reporting real baby cries. Perhaps it’s warranted a small article in the local newspaper, or the recordings have shown up on YouTube. It’s spooky, but the fun kind of spooky—at least until the disappearances start. Because something is wrong with the bridge, but it’s not the ghost of a deceased child. That’s just the sounds ‘it’ makes to lure you in.
Whether they’re investigators or curious teens, quickly present the PCs with definitive proof that there haven’t been any child deaths at the bridge, and let their paranoia spiral from there.
Many Crybaby Bridges are arguably fakelore—that is, fiction invented by someone on the internet that’s been given legitimacy by claiming to be an older story. In the real world, there are plenty of reasons why someone might lie about something like this (e.g. the author is bored). In our fictional world, however, perhaps the PCs are tasked with investigating who’s behind these stories. In this case, it might be a Scooby Doo-style plot to distract from a mundane crime, or perhaps whoever is spreading these rumours is actually trying to manifest a supernatural presence in the real world….
And that’s it for Crybaby Bridges!
Thanks for reading and bearing with Mythoi through our short hiatus. We’ll be back again soon for another fantastical piece of folklore to use in your role-playing games!
Penny for your thoughts: Have you ever had a bridge act as a major set piece in one of your games?
~ A.C. Luke
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