10 Common Urban Legends and Where They Came From
What Are the Most Popular Urban Legends?
They 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."
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.
What Makes a Great Urban Legend?
- They are often told as stories, framed with plots, settings, and characters.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- People who hear these tales often feel compelled to warn their families or friends.
- The most classic hallmark of an urban legend is that it lacks any specific details. There are no names, dates, or locations given.
- 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 leave 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.
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.
1. "Organ Theft" or "The 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?
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.
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 “Rabbit 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.
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.
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.
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. "The 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!