The babysitter and the creepy phone calls. The woman followed home by someone flashing their headlights. The “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the lights?” message.
I only recently discovered that not everyone’s childhood innocence was ax-murdered by these stories. For me, all you have to say is “urban legends” and I experience a mixture of emotions I can only describe as…nervous horror-glee.
As a kid, I loved scary stories. I took those Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books into the dark closet (the title’s instructions were clear, people) and would read them by flashlight. Most would leave my creepy little heart unsatisfied. I felt un-scare-able.
Some of the urban legends are apparently in those books, but I remember my introduction to them coming when some family friends stayed the night. In the room of kids in sleeping bags, the oldest girl asked, “Have you ever heard any urban legends?” She shared a couple with us and due to the world having a sense of humor, the house alarm went off, and all of us screamed and screamed from the primal core of our being.
For those of you less familiar with these stories, I’ll start you off with the mildest one I know. For those of you who like to close your eyes during the scary parts of movies, feel free to skip past the next couple paragraphs.
A couple goes to a secluded lookout point for make-out funtimes. But, over the car radio comes an emergency bulletin—a patient has escaped from the local asylum. He is highly dangerous and can be recognized easily—he has a hook for a hand. The girl announces that make-out funtimes are OVER and asks to go home. The guy lock the car doors and assures her they’re perfectly safe. But the girl is not having any of that nonsense, pushes him away from her, and demands to be taken home. The guy, annoyed, peels out and drives her to her house, steaming the whole way. But when the girl gets out and goes to close her car door behind her, she shrieks. Hanging from her door handle is a bloody hook.
(I like to think this story has an epilogue in which the girlfriend waves the hook in her creep of a boyfriend’s face in the ultimate “I told you so,” then dumps him to look for a boyfriend who respects her boundaries and comfort. The hook might even remain on her shelf, baffling her parents, as a reminder to herself to always trust her instincts.)
Any research on what makes Urban Legends like these ones tick will tell you they’re morality tales, warning young people against all sorts of bad behavior. I’d argue they mostly warned me against babysitting. I’d also argue the morality part wasn’t what kept me staring wide-eyed at the ceiling all night long.
The thing about the classic urban legends is that in most of them, the main character makes it through unscathed. In other stories, the main character might be going through something terrifying, but they know what’s happening. And we can then look around our living rooms and say, “Well, I’m not being chased by a hooded figure, I guess I’m good to go.”
The way urban legends hook us (*wink*…yes, I’m a nerd) is by landing a twist where the main character realizes that danger was close without them knowing it. They tickle our spines with scenarios of people who feel something is off, but only later are shown how sickeningly off their situation really was. Someone was in the back seat the whole time. Someone was in the house. That clown statue wasn’t a statue at all.
So, when we’re trying to sleep, these are the stories that make us ask, “Are you sure there’s nothing in the closet?” “Are you sure that creeping sense of unease should be dismissed?”
“Are you sure—really, really sure—you should turn on the lights?”
If you’d like to walk down a dark and twisted memory lane, or if you’re new to urban legends and want to not sleep for the next few days, here are some links to some classics if you don’t have a creepy friend to whisper them to you at a sleepover.
(Warning, a lot of the titles of the actual articles behind the link give away the twist, so if you’re really new to them, ask someone to tell you them without clicking.)