ST. PETERSBURG — My husband pointed at the empty foundation where the house once stood.
We were in Childs Park, where he grew up, and now all that remained of this house was a grassy lot next to a watershed with a small bridge over it. The house, he believed as a child, was once home to a witch, and following her orders, something called the Mini Lights.
The wind blew over us. We walked across the street to the Childs Park Recreation Center. Shay Johnson, 26, was picking up her 6-year-old son, Chas. She'd grown up near Booker Creek and knew what we were asking about.
"I thought it was a story that my mom made up because she didn't want us to go down to Booker Creek. So she told us there were Mini Lights ... small people that will kill you if you go down there."
She would not be telling her own son about the Mini Lights.
• • •
Everyone grows up hearing urban legends. They're global, like Bloody Mary. They're regional, like the Florida Skunk Ape. Sometimes they're internet-created, like Slender Man. They can be a device for keeping children out of danger, are sometimes fact-based and tend to have a mix of the believable with the unbelievable. Experts say they're important in popular culture, acting as a mirror to society.
In St. Petersburg, one piece of folklore is part of the fabric and culture of the city. And for as long as I've known my husband, I've heard him talk about the Mini Lights.
Michael Alexis grew up in the 1980s in Childs Park. When he was out riding bikes and the street lights came on, he knew he had to get inside or the Mini Lights would get him.
"They were these short, green creatures that would come get you if you were out past dark," he told me. "They lived with a witch, and they were very strong and very fast. If you say, 'Mini Lights, Mini Lights, come out tonight' three times in a row, they'll come out and get you. They used the drainage system to get around town to come find you."
Now, at 45, Michael doesn't believe the story. Not really. But he still refuses to say the line three times in a row.
"Do you think other people remember this?" I asked.
He put up a Facebook post asking. More than 20 people commented.
"I heard about them in 1978," one posted. In his telling, a woman died in her house and her sons kept her body until it mummified.
"I've seen the Mini Lights," posted Aaron Bond, a Realtor in Tampa. His story happened in 1994.
"I was living by Crescent Lake. There was a side porch that had louvre windows and a hedgerow. I was walking from the kitchen to the living room and saw something looking at me out of the corner of my eye."
It was bluish-greenish-gray, bald and small, he said, and it ducked under the hedge and took off.
On urbanlegendsofflorida.com, several people posted their versions of the story. One described a woman who lived in Campbell Park in a nice house, but the city turned land in front of her home into a park and she was angry. She was somehow affiliated with the circus, and had some little people living with her, two men whom she would send out after dusk to ward off trespassers.
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In this story, the men would turn into balls of light. Other posts say the Mini Lights lived under the bridge at Booker Creek in the Roser Park neighborhood.
A few weeks after my husband posted about the Mini Lights, my friend Johnny Vitale posted on Facebook asking if anyone remembered them. He hadn't seen Michael's post. Another 40 people commented, some who knew of them, some newer to St. Pete who didn't.
In some versions, the woman was a voodoo priestess who lived in Roser Park who had the Mini Lights under her control. In other versions, she was named Minnie Lightning.
Johnny, along with his brother Paul, is a muralist. The Vitale Brothers are attempting to make a fictionalized movie about the Mini Lights.
"It's going to be told in a Blair Witch style," Johnny explained.
The movie tells the story of a hipster from Brooklyn who designs a Pokemon Go-style app to track urban legends. He comes to St. Petersburg, starts partying with locals and encounters the Mini Lights after falling down a long staircase in Roser Park.
The Vitale Brothers are using interviews to help build their story, putting out a call for personal stories about the Mini Lights. They plan to crowd fund the production.
"You can take an urban legend that started somewhere and then write the story about it and everyone believes that story. We thought, why don't we write the story for St. Petersburg?"
• • •
Most people who knew about the Mini Lights were from Generation X, though some versions of the legend date it back to the 1940s.
I wondered if anyone older knew the story. And I wondered if kids today still heard about the Mini Lights.
In Campbell Park, we met 66-year-old Dennie Smaro sitting with some people at a picnic table. A few of them had heard about the Mini Lights, too, and their versions included the woman whose land was sold off. Smaro heard the Mini Lights legend around age 10.
"I seen a lot of things coming up as a child," he said. "I seen a small creature and it was like, floating and I don't know what it was. And I never did go back and tell anyone about it."
At the playground, 32-year-old Alexis Walker sat on a swing while some of her children ran around. Like Shay Johnson, she'd grown up near Booker Creek and was forbidden to go down there because of the "mini people that will jump out and chase you."
Did her children know the legend?
"The younger ones don't, but my 11- and 13-year-old boys do. They want to go find them."
We went to Roser Park and wound our way down to Booker Creek. The creek sits way in the bottom of a ravine-like street, with terraced hills on either side. While beautiful, it would be treacherous to navigate if you were being chased by tiny green people.
Not a soul was down there.