There was once a boy who was never frightened—for he had not enough sense to be scared.
One day, Hans and his big sister were walking home after dark. The wind howled, and the trees creaked and groaned. The road led past a graveyard, where the moon lit up rows of tombstones.
Hans’s sister began to quiver and quake.
“Ooh!” she said. “This place gives me the willies!”
“The willies?” said Hans. “What are the willies?”
“Do I have to tell you everything? The willies are when you get so scared, you shiver and shake.”
“Well!” said Hans. “I never had anything like that! I wish I would get the willies, so I’d know what they’re like.”
The more Hans thought it over, the more he wondered about the willies, and the more he wished he could have them.
One day he told himself, “If I want the willies, I’d better go look for them.” So he said good-bye to his family and started down the road.
Hans walked for many days. Everyone he met, he asked, “Can you give me the willies?”
Many tried, but none could.
At last he came to the King’s castle and stood before the King. “Your Majesty,” said Hans, “can you give me the willies?”
“Of course I can. I’m the King!” The King waved his royal scepter. “I command you to have the willies!”
Hans waited, but nothing happened. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, I still don’t have them.”
“Oh well,” said the King, “at least I know where you can get them. On the other side of my kingdom is a haunted castle. If you spend the night there, you are sure to get the willies.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty!”
“There’s just one problem,” said the King. “No one who goes there ever lives through the night. But, if you stay alive and break the spell, you’ll find the castle treasure!”
“That’s fine with me,” said Hans, “as long as I get the willies!”
It was midnight when Hans reached the castle. The towers cast eerie shadows under the full moon. The drawbridge lowered itself at Hans’s feet. Creeeeeeeeeeeek.
“Seems like a friendly place!” said Hans.
As Hans entered the great hall, a fire sprang to life in the huge fireplace. Hans pulled up a chair and settled himself to wait.
“Now I’m sure to get the willies,” he said.
The clock in the great hall struck one. Bong.
“Velcome!” boomed a voice behind him.
Hans looked around and saw two men playing cards. One had a long, black cloak, and the other had a furry face.
“Vould you care to join our game?” asked the man in the cloak. “It’s been so long since ve had anyvun to play vith.”
“Certainly,” said Hans, taking a seat. “It will pass the time, while I’m waiting for the willies!”
“I vill explain the rules,” said the cloaked man. “If my furry friend vins, he vill rip you to shreds. If I vin, I vill drink your blood. If you vin, ve vill let you live.”
“Sounds fair to me!” said Hans.
The furry man snarled and dealt the cards. They played for almost an hour. In the end, the cloaked man won.
“I vant to drink your blood!” he said, moving closer to Hans and showing two long, pointy teeth.
“I think you cheated,” Hans said. He reached for the pointy teeth and broke them off—Snap!
“YEEE-OWWWWWWWW!” howled the man as he ran from the hall.
The furry man roared and leaped at Hans, but Hans sprang away and the man flew past—right out an open window. Hans heard a piercing scream, then a dull thud.
He settled himself again before the fire. “I enjoyed the game,” he said, “but when do I get the willies?”
The clock struck two. Bong. Bong.
Hans heard a rattling, and into the hall marched a long line of skeletons.
The first skeleton snapped its fingers. Click. Click.
The second skeleton knocked its knees. Clack. Clack.
The third skeleton drummed its skull. Clock. Clock.
The fourth skeleton tapped along its ribs in a little tune. Clackety, click clock. Clackety, click clock.
“Nice beat!” said Hans.
The other skeletons formed a circle and started to dance. One skeleton stretched a hand toward Hans.
“Don’t mind if I do!”
Hans took hold of two bony hands and danced in the circle around the hall.
The music got faster. Clackety, clackety, click clock clackety. Clackety, clackety, click clock clackety.
“Hold it, I can’t dance that fast!” shouted Hans over the clatter. But the skeletons gripped his hands harder and danced even faster.
Clackety clickety, clackety clockety. Clackety clickety, clackety clockety.
“I said HOLD IT!”
Hans gave a yank and—Pop!—the two skeletons’ arms came right off. The music and the dancing stopped.
“I think you lost something,” said Hans.
The skeletons rushed at Hans and started jumping on him. Hans grabbed a chair and swung it, this way and that.
Bones flew here, there, and everywhere, till the skeletons lay all in pieces on the floor.
Hans gathered them up and tossed them out the window. “I like a little dancing,” he said, as he settled again before the fire, “but I wonder when I’m going to get those willies!”
The clock struck three. Bong. Bong. Bong.
From up the chimney, a deep voice called, “LOOK OUT BELOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWW!”
Something huge came falling down, swerved to miss the fire, and—thump—landed before the fireplace. It was a giant body, with no arms or legs or head.
“LOOK OUT BELOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWW!”
Thump thump thump thump. Two giant legs and two giant arms landed next to it.
“LOOK OUT BELOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWW!”
Thump. A giant head landed by the rest.
“I get it!” said Hans. “It’s a puzzle, and I have to put it together!”
Hans heaved the two giant legs and stuck them onto the body. Snap. Snap.
“Hey!” thundered the deep voice, close by. It was the giant head. “You got the shoes pointing out!”
“Oh, sorry,” said Hans. He switched the legs. Then he stuck on the arms and the head. Snap. Snap. Snap.
The giant jumped up. “The spell is broken! You’re the only one ever to get me together. The others all died of fright long before this! Now follow me to the castle treasure.”
Hans followed him to the doorway. The giant said, “You first.”
“After you,” said Hans.
The giant led him to the courtyard and pointed to a shovel under a tree. “Dig there!”
“You dig there!” said Hans.
The giant dug till he uncovered three pots of gold. “Take them inside!”
“You take them inside!”
The giant took the pots of gold into the great hall. He said, “One is for the king, one is for the poor, and one is for you.”
Then he fell into pieces again and flew up the chimney—first the head, then the arms and legs, then the giant body.
“Some folks just can’t keep things together,” said Hans. He went back to his chair before the fire, curled up in it, and sighed. “It’s nice to be rich, but when will I ever get the willies?”
* * *
And that is how Hans stayed alive, broke the spell, and found the treasure. When the King heard the tale, he let Hans live in the castle, and when Hans grew up, he married the King’s daughter. Within a year they had triplets—three fine sons. Hans named all three of them Willy.
“And now,” he said, “at last I have the Willies!”
About the Story
The story of the fearless lad in the haunted castle is known throughout Europe—from Spain to Russia, from Scandinavia to Italy—and in North America as well. In the Aarne-Thompson index, it is tale type 326, “The Youth Who Wanted to Learn What Fear Is,” named after a particularly well-developed version in the collection of the Brothers Grimm.
For this retelling, I have drawn most of my basic plot structure from Grimm, but have incorporated motifs from the Italian and other versions as well. Still other motifs were suggested by audiences during my time as a professional storyteller, when I performed this tale as a participatory improvisation. The ending was supplied in part by a student of Pinedale Elementary School in Pinedale, California.
Though I have skirted perilously close to anachronism, I hope to have sustained only minor injuries. Count Dracula and Wolfman have a modern cast, but they are based on European folk archetypes of the vampire and the werewolf.
In the same vein, “the willies” as a description of fear may be an English-language expression—and not too old a one at that—but it is derived from German legend. According to Heinrich Heine, the “Wilis” are “maidens who have died before their wedding day, because of faithless lovers.” They rise from their tombs at night to seek vengeance, and if any man is unlucky enough to encounter them, he is forced to dance till he drops dead from exhaustion. This legend formed the basis of the popular 19th-century ballet “Giselle.”