Skip to main content

10 Common Urban Legends and Where They Came From

Stephanie is a student who enjoys accumulating books and recipes. She wants to be a Wizard when she grows up.

"Beauty and the Beast" by Warick Goble, 1913

"Beauty and the Beast" by Warick Goble, 1913

Urban legends are widely known and believed, and they can’t be traced back to an author. They often play on fears that are generally held by society, such as fear of being lost, fear of being alone, or fear of death and ghosts.

Some scholars study urban legends in order to learn about modern cultural ideas on crime, women, children, food (especially fast food), and medicine. These scholars often find that similar themes are present in urban legends and traditional folklore, such as the "Grimm Fairy Tales."

Urban Legends on Societal Fears

Sometimes the fears that the legend plays on can be very specific. For example, many people have heard the “Gang Initiation” tale, in which an innocent driver passes a car at night whose headlights are turned off. If the innocent driver flashes his headlights to warn the other driver, the other driver must then kill the innocent driver as part of a gang initiation.

There are also many urban legends that elaborate on fears that women are more likely to become victims of violent crime than men. Who hasn’t heard the tale of the sicko who snuck into the house to murder the female babysitter while the parents were out? Or the man who got into the car of a lone woman driver at the gas station one night?

Though urban legends are basically false and based more on fear than fact, belief in an urban legend can be so strong that some people will become upset if the legitimacy of the legend is challenged.

For example, a police officer that I worked with at my former job once became very angry and argued with me when I casually remarked that people have no reason to be afraid of poisoned Halloween candy. He challenged my belief, but could not cite one documented instance when someone had poisoned trick-or-treaters with Halloween candy.

A flyer meant to warn parents that drug dealers were passing out tattoos laced with drugs to children.

A flyer meant to warn parents that drug dealers were passing out tattoos laced with drugs to children.

Are Urban Legends Real?

Below, I’ve included a few of the most common urban legends. Some deal with real-life occurrences, such as organ theft, and others deal with the supernatural, such as Bloody Mary. I heard all of these legends at some point when I was a child, and you probably have heard most of them too, though the details may be a bit different.

10 Urban Legends and Their Origins

  1. Organ Theft
  2. The Hitchhiker Ghost
  3. The Goatman
  4. The Car-Pushing Ghosts
  5. Doppelgangers
  6. The Cursed Video Tape
  7. Buried Alive
  8. Flashing Headlights
  9. Bloody Mary
  10. The Babysitter

1. Organ Theft or Kidney Heist

A business traveler stopped in the hotel bar and was befriended by a beautiful woman. They began flirting, and she invited him back to her hotel room. The next thing the man remembered was that he was lying in the bathtub of the hotel room, covered in blood. Terrified, he called 911, and the operator seemed to know what was going on. She asked him if there was a tube protruding from his back, and sure enough, there was. He went to the doctor, who confirmed that both of his kidneys had been stolen. The man was dependent on dialysis for the rest of his life.

This is a very famous urban legend that I have heard many times. This rumor is common in the United States, but I have heard it mostly from Eastern Europeans. Sometimes they involve other organs, but the most common ones are the kidneys and eyes.

The 911 operator knows what has happened to the man, which is evidence that this sort of thing happens quite often, and the fact that there is a drainage tube proves that the surgery was done by a professional.

There have been several legitimate cases of kidney theft, though most of them have been taken illegally from dead bodies. I have also been warned about traveling through Eastern Europe, especially Hungary. Many Hungarians have told me that people with blue eyes are targeted because the blue eyes are sold to plastic surgeons in Japan.

Whether or not this really happens, the idea is quite frightening. And since similar cases have been documented, it begs the questions: Which came first, the urban legend, or the crime?

"The Chinnery Photo" allegedly shows a ghost sitting behind the driver. 1959.

"The Chinnery Photo" allegedly shows a ghost sitting behind the driver. 1959.

2. The Hitchhiker Ghost

A man is driving alone at night. He sees a young girl standing on the side of a quiet country road, and he pulls over to assist her. She tells him she needs to get home, and being a good samaritan, he offers to give her a ride. He takes her to her house, drops her off, and watches her go inside. As he is driving away, he notices that she left her sweater in the car, so the next day he goes back to drop it off. An old woman answers the door, and he says “Your daughter left her sweater in my car last night.” The old woman sadly says “I’m sorry sir, but that is not possible. She has been dead for 30 years.”

I have heard variations of this story countless times. It appears that each city has its own beloved hitchhiker ghost, the one from Chicago being the most famous.

The Goatman Bridge, a popular spot where people often go in search of the legend, also known at The Bunnyman Bridge.

The Goatman Bridge, a popular spot where people often go in search of the legend, also known at The Bunnyman Bridge.

3. The Goatman

The Goatman is the result of a horrible science experiment gone wrong, the mistake of a top-secret CIA laboratory. He is half man, half goat, and he carries an ax that he uses to attack teenagers who go out to woods alone at night.

This is an urban legend that my aunts and uncles heard about when they were growing up in Maryland in the ’70s, and I heard about it as a teenager. The Goatman is a vicious monster, but his situation elicits sympathy—he was driven insane by the fear and shame of what was done to him.

The story plays on fears of technology (which were very widespread in the ’70s!) and of heartless scientists. It also gives you a legitimate reason to be afraid of the woods at night or serves as a morality tale for teens who get the urge to experiment.

As I understand it, this urban legend developed in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Several teenagers reported that they were alone in the woods at night, usually in a car kissing their boyfriend or girlfriend, when a man dressed up in a pink rabbit suit jumped onto their car and smashed the windows with a small ax.

Yes, you read that correctly. There are even newspaper articles confirming witness reports of this strange string of attacks. The “Bunny Man” never actually hurt anyone, but it is said that his image evolved into the urban legends of the Goatman.

4. The Car-Pushing Ghosts

Back in the ’30s, a school bus full of children broke down right over railroad tracks. A train crashed into the bus, killing all of the children and the driver. The ghosts of the children are still there, and if you put your car in neutral, they will push the car up and over the tracks so you don’t meet the horrible fate that they did.

This is the legend that is usually said to happen in spots where gravity creates an optical illusion. If you put your car in neutral, it will appear to roll uphill. Versions of this legend are told all over the world, and people claim that if you put baby powder on your car, the handprints of the children will show up in them.

5. Doppelgangers

Popularized recently as a harmless facebook fad, doppelgangers show up in many cultures all over the world, sometimes as an evil twin, a frightening omen of death, or simply a strange belief that everyone has an exact double somewhere in the world.

In Germany, the doppelganger is the evil ghostly double of a living person, who spends all of its time preying on its human part. Other cultures theorize that everyone has a body double and that one of you is evil and one of you is good.

How many times has someone said to you “I saw you walking yesterday downtown”, and you’ve replied, “That’s impossible, because I was in the house all day”, to which the person says “Oh, must’ve been your evil twin.” Such statements are usually written off as confusion, but do you know anyone who hasn’t had this happen to them at least once?

A quick Wikipedia search proves that there have been several accounts of people who claimed to have met their double, and none of them are positive experiences. There is a Norse myth that the doppelganger does all of the actions of the real person just before the real person does them.

The Ring movie poster

The Ring movie poster

6. The Cursed Video Tape

A few girls were having a sleepover and went to a video store to rent a movie. When they got back to the house, they popped in the tape and were horrified to find that it was not the movie they thought they rented, but a video of a woman being burned for practicing voodoo. She cursed all who witness her death, saying that they will die in three days. Three days later, all of the girls had died in the most tragic and unlikely ways.

Stories about cursed videotapes have been around for a long time, and were made famous with the horror movie from Japan, Ringu, as well as its U.S. version, The Ring. My mom reports having heard stories since she was little about videotapes that will kill you if you watch them.

Photo of a vault meant to protect people from accidentally being buried alive, built c. 1890.

Photo of a vault meant to protect people from accidentally being buried alive, built c. 1890.

7. Buried Alive

My great-great-grandfather told this story to his children, who have passed it down through the generations. When his wife died, he was heartbroken. The night of her funeral, he awoke to a horrible vision of her scratch at the coffin lid. He had this nightmare every night for a week, until it finally drove him to dig up the coffin and see for himself. When he did, he found his wife’s fingers covered in dry blood and worn down to the bone. The inside of the coffin had been torn apart by her scratching.

These stories have been around for centuries and probably stem from the fact that in the past, many people actually were accidentally pronounced dead and buried alive. Edgar Allen Poe has a very scary short story on this topic!

8. Flashing Headlights

A woman is out late driving one night and pulls into a gas station to fill her tank. She goes inside the convenience store to pay. When she gets back on the road, she notices that a car is following her and periodically flashing its lights. She gets a little nervous, and pulls onto some deserted roads to see if he continues following her, which he does. This was before everyone had cell phones to call the police, so she winds around on abandoned roads, hoping to lose him, and the whole time this car keeps following her and flashing its lights. Finally, she speeds home and pulls into the driveway. She jumps out of the car and begins screaming “Help! Call the police!”. The guy calmly gets out of the car and says “I saw a guy get into your car before you, so I followed you to help you. I kept flashing my lights because I could see him reach up with a knife!”

9. Bloody Mary

The legend states that going into the bathroom, turning off the lights, and chanting “Bloody Mary” will summon the evil spirit of a woman in the mirror. Some variations of the legend say that Bloody Mary will pull you into the mirror, claw out your eyes, or that you’ll either go insane or die within 24 hours of seeing her.

Some sources say that Bloody Mary is a woman who was disfigured in a car crash, that she is a witch who was burned in the Salem witch hunts and has returned to take revenge, or that she is the devil himself, coming to steal your soul.

Most children have heard about the legend of Bloody Mary. I for one did, and one of my friends actually went into my bathroom to test out the legend. Nothing happened to her, but I was scared to use that bathroom for a week!

10. The Babysitter

A teenage girl goes over to babysit for her neighbors’ kids while they go out. After the kids are asleep, the girl is watching TV when she gets a phone call. She answers and hears some breathing at the other end, then the other person hangs up. This happens several times, and then finally a voice at the other end says“I’m coming to get you.” She is scared, but dismisses it as a prank call. The phone rings again and the man says “I’m getting closer." The girl hangs up and calls the police, who say they are on their way. The phone rings again, and the girl is now shaking. She answers and the man says, “Have you checked on the children?” She runs upstairs and finds the children lying in pools of their own blood. The police arrive to save her, but it is too late.

This story scared the wits out of me when I was a kid!

What Makes a Great Urban Legend?

  1. They are often told as stories, framed with plots, settings, and characters.
  2. Many are cautionary or morality tales. For example, the urban legend about the "Flashing Headlights" cautions women who are getting into their cars alone at night. The urban legend about a woman whose elaborate hairstyle became infested with spiders, which then ate her alive, teaches a moral lesson about vanity.
  3. They circulate via a variety of means: they are sent around in e-mail chain letters, told about campfires or at children’s sleepover parties, and sometimes even newspapers and news channels pick up on them and report them as fact. There have been many cases of police departments issuing warnings on urban legends, or schools sending notes home with students. (see: Halloween Hoaxes)
  4. The people who tell the legend will often say they knew someone who had it happen to them, or will say they heard it from a credible source, such as an older sibling, a police officer, a doctor, or a parent, in order to give the story legitimacy.
  5. People who hear these tales often feel compelled to warn their families or friends.
  6. The most classic hallmark of an urban legend is that it lacks any specific details. There are no names, dates, or locations given.
  7. Another hallmark is that the story will resurface several times, with small changes in details. The teller of the story will usually embellish it with his or her own details. For example, many cities have a story of a “Hitchhiker Ghost," a beautiful woman who hitches a ride home with a good samaritan, then leaves a possession in the car. The good samaritan returns the possession to the home the next day, only to find out from the woman’s family that she has been dead for years.


Karrie on November 02, 2019:

I love all legends and scary stories But these Legends were awesome.I’ve read the legend The Flashing Headlights before but it was still good to see someone tell it .Thank you!

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on June 08, 2019:

Thank you to everyone who offered supplemental information and corrections to my facts! @Rick, @Ashley

Thanks @whowas for the alien abduction! That is a huge one...can't believe I left it out!

And thank you @Sherilee Swaity for the kind suggestion

Rick on September 01, 2017:

The Babysitter

That is the plot of a horror movie from the late 70s or early 80s.

qazi on May 09, 2017:

Really awesome

i loved it

Shelby Williamson on March 07, 2017:

Really amazing stuff right here. I love every myth and fairy tales and people believes them. They are not real but they are interesting when everybody believed them and made them into movies.

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on May 15, 2013:

Hi Ashley! You are certainly a native! I like those details that you add and I appreciate the correction. I have heard him described interchangeably as the Bunnyman and the Goatman and the Rabbitman. In fact, I am still trying to get to the bottom of this legend. I will make the correction- thank you for the comment.

Ashley on April 08, 2013:

Just one mistake I noticed....

The photo of the Goatman bridge is actually a photo of Bunnyman Bridge (previously mentioned as Rabbit man) in Clifton, Virginia. I live down the street from the tunnel and am very familiar with the legends.... some saying he escaped from a nearby mental institution and hides near the bridge with an axe, watching and waiting. It has also been told that he hangs rabbits from trees around the forest near the bridge, which is a sign he is ready for his next kill.

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on November 08, 2012:

thanks, mitch! on October 13, 2012:

i like it

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on May 30, 2012:

@lilz- glad you like it! Sorry it couldn't be of help, but its super interesting!

@buckleupdorothy- You're right, they are still terrifying in a way, but so much fun to read. Thank you for the wonderful comment!

@whowas- Wow, you have some good insights. I agree with you about how religion is formed. Sometimes notoriety is so powerful that it doesn't matter was science says. It is amazing how the human mind works- we are so predictable in so many ways. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

buckleupdorothy from Istanbul, Turkey on May 20, 2012:

I LOVE these stories - fascinating *and* somehow still terrifying, even though I'm no longer a child. Thanks for a great collection!

whowas on April 30, 2012:

What a marvellous hub! Beautifully written and very interesting material. I really enjoyed it very much.

I was just reflecting on all this and it is so interesting to note the way in which people will become so attached emotionally to a myth that they will make any number of unreasonable defenses for its veracity, even in the face of overwhelming evidence attesting to the fact that it is just a story. Not only that, but there can be a huge socio-cultural collusion going on that further empowers the tale until it becomes considered as fact. When the origins of the tale are far enough back in the past, there can be no reasoning with those who have faith in the truth of the story.

I'm pretty convinced that this is exactly the same process that starts religions and other superstitions and maintains their potency. Miracle stories abound and surely began (as the weight of scientific evidence is against them being true) in just the same way.

There's a guru in India today called Sai Baba and the stories abound about his various miracles: turning water into wine, 'manifesting' objects, walking on water, raising the dead (ring any bells?) and his millions of followers believe that he is an incarnate god.

Once one of these myths really gets going, usually aided by social and political timeliness, there's no telling how extreme it can become.

I'm also put in mind of the modern myth of 'alien abduction'. I was at a myth conference a few years ago and I had a very interesting discussion with a mythologist by the name of Patrick Harpur who made a fascinating case for the psycho-sociological origins of these stories, pointing out along the way that the specific details of 'alien abduction' stories map almost perfectly onto the older folk stories of 'faery abductions' and recurring archetypal dream symbols. So, in a way, UFOlogy is a contemporary, space age expression of the faery mythology which is, in itself, an expression of the structure of the psyche.

Well, thanks for a great hub - it certainly got me thinking! Just what i love about the best of hubpages. Very happy to follow your writing, vote up and score highly.

lliz on April 09, 2012:

Srry typo!

lliz on April 09, 2012:

Im doing this reaserch for a school project i haven't found what i was looking for but this is awesome stuff!

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on November 14, 2011:

@prairie princess- I know, I got goosebumps all the time when I was researching this hub! I even had to stop a few times because I was alone in the house and started freaking out every time the wind blew! Thank you so much for that suggestion, I will do it shortly. Honestly, I have gotten lazy about Amazon capsules and I need to go back and add them to my hubs again.

Sharilee Swaity from Canada on November 14, 2011:

Wow, Stephanie, I was getting goose bumps. These are pretty eerie! I really like this hub. You have made some excellent points about the similarity between urban legends and fairy tales. I had never made that connection but it's so true! Modern fairy tales. Fairy tales were pretty scary, in their day, too.

I was going to suggest that you could, if you wanted, put an Amazon DVD from the TV series "Urban Legends," into this hub, too, if you so desired. Take care!

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on November 14, 2011:

Whoa, that sounds scary, but you had no idea what it was? You are lucky that your mom heard the noise too, so that people are more likely to believe you. I never know what to believe when it comes to supernatural things, but I certainly believe that there are a lot of things that science has yet to understand. Thanks for sharing your creepy story, I hope it wasn't too uncomfortable for you!

Bharat Thapa from NEW DELHI on November 13, 2011:

Writing a hub!!!!! No way at least not for write now. I'd be writing these hubs and for that only i am here. My interest is in language learning and language learning materials, so i can find out how effective and how ineffective these materials are.(For me of course =P )So that's why i don't even have a single hub yet but most probably very soon, i'll come up with something =P

And about my story sure....i don't mind sharing it. 0=)


enough of jokes, well nothing serious happened however it changed my beliefs and made me think that there is something, don't know whether they are good or evil but they do exist. I don't know if they are ghosts or some sort of ultimate energy from other dimensions(Too much science fiction...thanks to hollywood) =P

So it started like this:- I was maybe 12-13years old, all of us were returning back from one of our relative's party. It was some sort of get-together party, which only my dad, him and his friends they enjoyed. I was getting bored there X( (No video game, nothing!!)

When we returned back then my mom said let's go to the terrace and sit there(Actually my mom wanted to have head massage-I was the champion of these extra curricular activities =D =D )

But i told my mom that in one condition,i'd massage if you'll tell me some real horror stories and my mom nodded her head in agreement.

When she was about to begin her story all of a sudden i heard some sound, sort of chewing or mumbling, i don't know what exactly it sounded like hmmm chheeewer jweherjhejrh maybe lol. =P

So my mom stopped and i too didn't utter a word at that time and after 5minutes pause i stood up and went to that direction(How daring kid i was XD )

There was a small park(now they have constructed some building i guess, as i've heard from others.)

Then again my mom continued her story and when my mom was about to finish her story both of us heard that sound again but this time with lot of anger and it was rapidly moving towards us. When it was almost 4-5ft closer to us, we instantly moved our ass and went downstairs and called everyone. We went back there again in short span of time and found nothing.

That stupid house was haunted, i experienced stupid things happening many times and thought maybe these are some kids or might be rat or etc etc but this time it was real. We heard it, we felt it but we didn't see a thing.

Whenever i think of that incident. I get spine chilling cold , though i am a sorta adventurous guy, anyway later we also planned to visit one of the INDIA's most haunted place also(After six 'o'clock you are not allowed to be in that location or to enter it.)

But my parents they refused my idea and i got myself into language learning =D.

lol lol =P

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on November 12, 2011:

Well now I'm really curious! If you decide you want to let me know, you can get in touch with me, or else write a hub about it :)

Bharat Thapa from NEW DELHI on November 12, 2011:

..and that too in a city like "New Delhi" which is highly populated, no better to say over-populated =P

Bharat Thapa from NEW DELHI on November 12, 2011:

I know many but if i'll start then it'd be hard for you to stop me.

Reminds me of my school days. In fact thrice i encountered something weird and extra-terrestrial.

I really can't say it that was my imagination or reality but i did feel something wasn't right.

And once it happened when i was along with my mom around 1am in the morning(Guess i was 12-13yrs old that time)

That was the scariest experience i have ever had.

I was nearly to shit on my pants(Forgive me for using that word but it explains how frightened i was. =P )

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on November 12, 2011:

@Kittythedreamer- I didn't know there were various locations associated with the Goatman! I am really fascinated by the Goatman, as it seems to be a really popular legend right around D.C. Also, it puts little Maryland on the map! Thank you for the comment :)

@Bharatthapa- Yes, some of these are very scary and actually gave me goosebumps when i was writing about them! I'm sure that you have a lot of these urban legends where you live. I would be interested in hearing about them, if you know any.

Bharat Thapa from NEW DELHI on November 12, 2011:

oooh...scary ehhh!!

Kitty Fields from Summerland on November 11, 2011:

Yes, I wrote a whole story about two urban legends in Maryland - the goatman and crybaby bridge. Goatman bridge isn't just at the one place you have posted above...there's a couple different bridges in MD that are said to be "goatman's bridge". Really creepy stuff! Thanks for sharing...this hub was awesome!

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on November 03, 2011:

I haven't heard of that book, it looks like its funny. Nice exchange :)

leann2800 on November 03, 2011:

No I haven't heard of it but, I have red multiple versions of fairytales and ready the Politically Correct Fairy Tales. I will have to find it. Thanks for sharing.

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on November 02, 2011:

@leann- I'm glad you share this interest. It is true, fairy tales are like windows into our psyches. Have you heard of the book Women Who Run With Wolves? The author dissects fairy tales from various cultures. you may find it interesting.

leann2800 on November 01, 2011:

I love it! This is my favorite topic to research lately. I totally agree. Urban Legends today are fairy tales tomorrow. :)

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on November 01, 2011:

They are scary, aren't they? That's why I did it in time for Halloween. I really appreciate you takin the time to read and leave a comment!

carriethomson from United Kingdom on October 31, 2011:

Ya a lot of work stephendias!! some of the legends are really scary!! compiled them up all very nicely, looking forward for more:)


Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on October 31, 2011:

That is a nice comment, I did spend a bit of time researching for this hub, but I enjoyed the research. I started with legends I had heard when I was little, and then the list expanded. I had dozens, and I decided to narrow them down to the ones other kids had told me, and the ones that would be most relevant for Halloween. I appreciate you visiting my hubs, homesteadbound, and I'm glad you like them.

Cindy Murdoch from Texas on October 28, 2011:

You put a lot of work and research into this one. I'm glad that I didn't hear some of these when I was younger and more likely to believe them. Great hub!

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on October 25, 2011:

Thank you, Brooke. That is the funny thing about urban legends...they resurface and disappear all the time, and sometimes circulate just in certain areas. I'm glad you enjoyed this hub. I think the topic of urban legends is fascinating.

Brooke Lorren from Mesa, Arizona on October 25, 2011:

Excellent hub! Like Jjackson, there were some legends that I had heard of, and some that I hadn't. I guess that not all urban legends are universally known.

Stephanie Das (author) from Miami, US on October 24, 2011:

Thank you jjackson! That means a lot, I'm glad you liked this hub. I had so much fun writing it.

Jennifer from Pennsylvania on October 24, 2011:

Really awesome stuff here! I love urban legends and you've touched upon some that I know, and others that I've never heard. Nice work. Voted up and awesome.