Urban legends are stories that travel from person to person by means of direct communication such as word of mouth, email, or social media. Urban legends, although almost universally fictional, differ from other fiction in that they are told as true stories that happened to a thirdhand party–the apocryphal “friend of a friend.” This gives them an air of realism that makes them more believable to the listener, who then passes the story on to another party.
Urban legends are usually built around some sort of morality lesson or “punchline.” The stories often contain elements of horror and/or surprise. A couple examples of non-supernatural urban legends include the scuba diver who is inadvertently scooped up by a firefighting plane and deposited in a tree, and needles, snakes, or other dangerous objects being hidden in the ball pit in McDonald’s. Such stories are often told as cautionary tales.
Urban legends are very common in the arena of the paranormal. If you have any interest in ghost stories, you’ve most likely heard an urban legend or even passed one on yourself. Following is a rundown of the most popular legends containing an element of horror or the supernatural.
Ghostly Urban Legends
Haunted Train Tracks
There are dozens of old railway locations across the United States and Canada said to be haunted by headless railroad conductors. (See All About Ghost Lights on ghosts.org.) Almost always, the conductor was killed while trying to avert a train accident, and now his ghost roams the tracks hunting for his head with his lantern. A variation of this story has the victim placed in a car or motorcycle instead and the haunting takes place on a normal road. Either way, the ghostly light and the lack of a head are the common elements.
There are several corollary details or offshoot tales that frequently present together with the haunted train track legend. In many versions, the ghosts must be “called” by the viewer by flashing your car headlights. Other variations have you park your car across the tracks or road, whereupon ghostly hands will push your car out of the way to spare you the fate they suffered so long ago. Sometimes, the handprints of the ghosts can be viewed on the outside of the vehicle after this experiment; in some cases the observer is instructed to sprinkle baby powder or dust on the car to facilitate this.
A tangential variation on the above is the “mystery spot” phenomenon whereupon a parked car in neutral will appear to move uphill. This is by no means exclusive to haunted train tracks or roads; however, it is a frequent enough correlation to be mentioned here. You can read more about this subject on ghosts.org here: How Things Appear to Roll “Uphill”.
Lastly, quite a few haunted train track locations have an associated haunted bridge or trestle, often called “Crybaby Bridge.” Most versions of this legend tell the tale of a child or group of children who met with an untimely demise on the bridge and now their ghostly cries can be heard. These stories may be tied in with the handprints on the car story mentioned above, as often the handprints are said to be those of the phantom children. The Crybaby Bridge urban legend may also appear independently, not related to a railroad setting. Here is an example of this legend.
La Llorona is the legend of a woman who has lost her children, and who can be heard, and sometimes seen, weeping in the night as her spirit searches for them. La Llorona means “she who weeps” in Spanish, and the story is popular in Mexico and the American Southwest.
As with most urban legends, there are many variations of La Llorona, but the central plot remains intact: the woman has lost her children, usually because she herself has killed them because she wants to marry a man who doesn’t want any children. She is so anguished over the depressing circumstances that she kills herself as well, and is thus doomed forever to roam her native land, weeping and wringing her hands. Sometimes she is said to be searching for her children, and sometimes she is said to appear as a warning to those who see her.
La Llorona is often conflated with similar legends of women lost to tragic circumstances, including prototypical “White Lady” hauntings by cemeteries as well as The Vanishing Hitchhiker. More on La Llorona on ghosts.org.
The Vanishing Hitchhiker
The Vanishing Hitchhiker is one of the world’s oldest “modern” urban legends. The story typically proceeds as follows. It is a dark and stormy night. A person driving sees a forlorn figure at the side of the road and decides to give him or her a lift. Usually the hitchhiker is a young woman in some sort of trouble; perhaps her prom date dumped her, or her car broke down. The driver gets to her house only to discover that his passenger has disappeared without a trace from the back seat of his car. He knocks on the door to the house, maybe to make sure the girl is okay, and the door is answered by the girl’s parent. Eventually it comes out that the girl died some years ago, and every year on the anniversary of her death (or her birthday), the girl hitches a ride back home with a stranger.
There are many variations of this legend. Sometimes the girl appears to make it home safely, but the driver finds something the girl left behind in his car, and goes back to return it, thus learning the truth about her. Sometimes the driver lends the girl his jacket or sweater, and goes back the next day to retrieve it. The Vanishing Hitchhiker story is often connected to local cemeteries and in those versions, the person who picked her up finds their jacket hung over the grave of the dead girl.
It is interesting to note that this legend has made it into many regional folklores. In Hawaii, for example, the hitchhiker is often said to be the goddess Pele. It has already been mentioned that La Llorona has also been connected with the story. In the Chicago area, the vanishing hitchhiker takes the form of Resurrection Mary.
This is a popular urban legend that you may remember from your childhood. The Mary Worth story, also known by such names as Bloody Mary and Mary Margaret, is popular at sleepovers. As the story goes, a beautiful young girl named Mary Worth suffered some sort of terrible, disfiguring accident, or occasionally the wounds are inflicted purposely by a jealous party. From then on, other people shun her due to her ugly face. In some versions she becomes a witch.
Now for the scary part. Supposedly if you say Mary Worth’s name a certain number of times while looking into the mirror, she will appear and scratch your face off or kill you. She is exacting a hideous revenge on the undeformed people who made fun of her in life. The Clive Barker movie Candyman is based on this sort of legend. See also: Bloody Mary info on ghosts.org.
Non-Supernatural Horror Legends
The Hook is an urban legend about a killer with a hook for a hand who stalks young people in their cars after they park in a remote location to make out, or sometimes because their car breaks down. The first verified publication of this legend was in a Dear Abby advice column in 1960, although the story must have existed for some years before that.
Although small details can vary considerably, there are three basic tracks the story follows. In the first version, the young couple in the car hear a radio report about a crazed killer on the loose. This is sometimes accompanied by the sound of scraping at the car door, at which point the couple skedaddles, and when they arrive home discover the killer’s hook hanging off the handle of the vehicle’s door.
In the second version, the male partner leaves the car to check on things, or fetch gas, while the girl remains inside the vehicle. After hearing a series of scraping sounds or thumps, she looks outside to find her boyfriend has been murdered by the hook killer. His corpse has been hung over the car and the thumps are the sound of his body hitting the car as it sways. The third version plays like the second, except the male partner returns to the car to find his girlfriend has been murdered while he was away.
Killer in the Backseat
The legend of the killer in the backseat will be familiar to most readers. In this story, a woman is driving when a truck behind her starts flashing his lights at her. He follows her for miles, tailgating her while flashing his high beams, terrifying the woman. In the end, it turns out that the reason he was following her so closely is because he could see a murderer hiding in the backseat of her car. Each time the killer tries to sit up to hurt the woman, the truck driver flashes his lights, thus forcing the killer back into hiding.
In another version, the person who warns her about the killer is a gas station attendant, who cajoles her into getting out of her car and going with him into the store so he can run her credit card, or for some other contrived reason. In both versions of the story, the “twist” is that the person she thinks is trying to hurt her is actually her savior. The legend of the Killer in the Backseat has been extant since at least the 1960s.
The Licked Hand
In this story, a girl watches the news and hears about a killer on the loose. Frightened, she goes to sleep with her dog lying under her bed. She wakes in the night and hears a dripping sound from the bathroom but is too scared to investigate. However, her dog licks her hand from under her bed, reassuring her. In the morning, she goes into the bedroom to find the hanging corpse of her slaughtered dog with a message written in blood on the mirror: “Humans can lick too.” The earliest recording of this story dates to the early 1980s, making it significantly newer than the other urban legends covered in this article.
This story involves a babysitter who puts the children to bed and begins receiving phone calls advising her to check on them. After several of these calls, the babysitter becomes frightened and calls the police. They trace the call and inform her that it’s coming from inside the house. She leaves the house, sometimes managing to rescue the children, but more often the police enter the home to find them murdered by the phone call killer. This urban legend, which dates back to the 1960s, has been featured in many films and television shows, and is so infamous that “The call is coming from inside the house” has become a punchline of sorts.
Movie Urban Legends
Three Men and a Baby Ghost
This urban legend was extremely popular in the 1990s and part of the 2000s, until high quality digital media became common. It still persists today, although it’s not nearly as well-known as it once was. This is probably because it’s so easy for the average consumer to clearly freeze frame movies.
There is a scene in the 1987 movie Three Men and a Baby in which some people claimed to have seen the ghostly figure of a small boy who was killed in the house in which the scene was filmed. In some variations, the boy’s parents are said to have sued the movie studio, or the owners of the “house,” for letting their boy’s name be released to the press. There are also tales of other ghostly objects being seen throughout the movie, most notably a rifle pointing at the head of the “ghost boy.”
The scene in question, however, was not shot in a house, but on a soundstage in a professional movie studio. The “ghost boy” is in fact a life-sized cardboard cutout of star Ted Danson. The cardboard figure has been left in the background, partially showing from behind the window curtains. This cutout is seen in full view in another scene in the movie.
No one appears to know how this legend started. Some have suggested it was a promotional scheme perpetrated by the producers of the film to get people to buy or rent it or to go see the sequel. Most likely the flub was simply noticed by one or more innocent movie goers, who told a friend, and the story spread by word of mouth and via the early internet. During the first half of the 1990s, I received weekly inquiries on this topic, and the “ghost boy” had many passionate proponents convinced of his existence.
This urban legend was most recently addressed by Ted Danson on an episode of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in 2017, in which Danson once again denied the presence of a ghost and talked about the cardboard standees.
The Wizard of Oz Corpse
In one scene in The Wizard of Oz, a black form can be seen moving in the trees in the background of the shot. Over time, an urban legend developed that this was the swinging corpse of a stagehand or dwarf/little person who had committed suicide on set and been inadvertently filmed. This, of course, is rather preposterous, but the rumor persisted for decades. A closer examination of the footage reveals that the movement in the background is that of a large bird “rented” to walk around the set and make the forest scene more authentic.
The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project is a 1999 movie based on a Bell Witch style mythos invented by the film’s director/writers Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez. To make their movie, which was shot in pseudo-documentary style, seem more real and thus scarier, Myrick and Sanchez created a legendary figure called the “Blair Witch.” They even crafted an elaborate history to surround the Witch. They then gave this invented legend to some hired actors, set them loose in the woods with a minimal supply of food, and filmed the actors (who ad-libbed all their lines) as they reacted to scary surprises set up by the two directors. The result is a quite frightening and completely fictional film.
As word of the movie and its mythos spread, however, many people began to believe that the Blair Witch was a real legend and that the film footage was an actual documentary shot by students doing a real project. I spent a large part of 1999 and 2000 combating this rumor via my website. However, for those who don’t know, there is not and never has been a Blair Witch legend in or around Burkittsville, Maryland. A town called Blair has never existed in that spot.
This was an interesting urban legend because it unfolded before our very eyes on a still-maturing internet. To put things in historical perspective, The Blair Witch Project was the first wide release “found footage” film and it enjoyed a massive breakout success that is rare for low budget films today. Many viewers had never seen anything like it, making it easier for them to believe it was “real.” In addition, there is no doubt that the popularity of the Bell Witch legend contributed to the spread of the Blair Witch story. Indeed, some believers in the early 2000s concluded that the Blair and Bell witches were “related.” Still, with the numerous sequels and reboot of the film, this urban legend faded out rather quickly as viewers became more savvy.
The Poltergeist Curse
The Poltergeist “curse” alludes to a long streak of bad luck that plagued the cast of the Poltergeist film series. The centerpiece of this legend is the premature death of the film’s child star, Heather O’Rourke, who passed away from an acute bowel obstruction in 1988 at the age of 12. This death followed the 1982 murder of costar Dominique Dunne, who was strangled by her boyfriend. Other deaths include Julian Beck of Poltergeist II in 1985, and Will Sampson (also Poltergeist II) in 1987. Since no other deaths have been recorded since 1988, it seems safe to proclaim this “curse” is moribund.
Internet Urban Legends
Black-eyed kids, sometimes abbreviated as BEKs, have been a staple of paranormal internet folklore since the late 1990s/early 2000s. The first story depicting the black-eyed children was posted to the ghosts.org Ghost Discuss mailing list and the alt.folklore.ghost-stories USENET group by Brian Bethel in 1998. The story describes a pair of boys with unnatural, entirely black eyes who attempt to persuade Bethel into giving them a ride home, using overly sly language atypical of children. When refused a ride, the children become agitated and aggressive, then seem to vanish as Bethel drives away in fear.
The well-written, nonfiction firsthand account very quickly gained popularity and spawned a host of imitators and eventually an entire internet mythology (at first ironic but later serious) centered around the “black-eyed kids.” Most of the early stories followed the same general format as Bethel’s original tale, but later entries show greater variation in the appearance and behavior of the children and contain more speculation about who they might be.
Although Bethel’s story is the genesis of this lore, Bethel himself has been historically ambivalent towards the popularity of his story and the urban legend it inspired. In the early years after his first posting of the story, he somewhat begrudgingly but openly answered questions about the experience. Later, he seemed to tire of the often negative attention the story brought him and stopped addressing queries. However, in recent years Bethel has had a change of heart and has participated in interviews for several podcasts and television shows about the BEK phenomenon.
You can find Brian Bethel’s original story as well as the “BEK FAQ” he wrote around the year 2000 on the Black-Eyed Kids information page on ghosts.org. Also included is an updated article Brian wrote for the Abilene Reporter News in 2013.
Slenderman is a fictional character created for a Photoshop contest on the Something Awful message boards in 2009. True to his name, the figure is depicted as a very tall, thin humanoid dressed in a dark suit, and was intimated by its creator Eric Knudsen to be involved with the (fictional) disappearance of about a dozen children. Despite the easy-to-trace origins of this character, it was rather quickly spun into an urban legend, with some claiming actual sightings of the creature or insisting that Knudsen must have based it on a true story.
In 2014, the Slenderman legend took an abrupt and tragic real life turn when two 12 year old girls obsessed with the story stabbed their best friend 19 times, nearly killing her. The girls claimed they were directed in this act by Slenderman. Since that time, the story has understandably lost most of its popularity and it remains to be seen whether it will be remembered in the future for anything other than the crime it apparently inspired. A 2018 film based on Slenderman did poorly and received little notice.
Black Stick Men
The phenomenon of black stick men emerged on the internet in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The figures are described as tall, thin, and dark with rudimentary proportions similar to a drawing of a stick figure–hence their name. Most of the sightings of the creature take place outdoors, where it is seen along a roadway or in a clearing or field some distance away from the observer. The stick man is often reported to move very quickly from one point to another, or sometimes disappear. Rarely, the figure may approach the observer, but there are no credible claims of physical contact that I could find.
Although there was a rash of interest in black stick men in the 2010s, the hype seems to have died down, and it is rather difficult to find non-apocryphal sightings. Many of the available accounts online seem to be either copied from each other or invented wholesale. It could be that this was a failed attempt at generating a modern urban legend a la Slenderman, or it could be that sightings are just not frequent enough to maintain a high profile. You can read more about the black stick men, including several reader experiences, on ghosts.org: The Black Stick Man Phenomenon.