"Johnny I Want My Liver Back”: revisiting a teenage folktale in the digital age

2015-10-05T13:01:16Z (GMT) by Michael Wilson
In the early 1990s, whilst conducting fieldwork for doctoral research into the oral narrative traditions of teenagers in Britain and Ireland, I collected many versions of a story called ‘Johnny, I want My Liver Back’. The story was particularly popular amongst younger teenagers and was a ‘jump’ story, a tale that employs a closing formula that increases the tension of the narration and ends with the storyteller shouting the final words in order to give the listener a start. The story tells of a young boy (Johnny) who is sent on an errand to buy some liver for tea. On the way he gets distracted and spends the money on sweets, so instead goes to the graveyard and steals the liver from a freshly buried corpse. That evening the ghost of the deceased returns to reclaim the stolen organ. It is a story that is primarily a variant of ‘The Man from the Gallows’ (ATU 366), but also draws heavily from some versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ (ATU 333), formerly ‘The Glutton’ (AT 333), notably the story of ‘Uncle Wolf,’ as published by Calvino in Italian Folktales (1980). This chapter provides an analysis of the story, but also explores how the story has fared in the hands of a new generation. Since then we have witnessed the arrival of the internet, Web 2.0 and self-publication via platforms such as YouTube. This chapter explores the story in the online space and its modern presentations in the global storytelling space. Through examples it shows that oral narrative traditions appear to be alive and well amongst today’s teenagers.