People always have and always will tell stories.
As far back as the oral tradition of storytelling, urban legends have developed, evolved, and spread for longer than we can track them back. Sometimes they’re silly, and sometimes they’re downright terrifying! From swamp monsters to creepypasta characters, urban legends still spice up campouts, slumber parties, and storytimes for kids and adults alike.
What is an urban legend?
Urban legends are those crazy stories you hear from your friends or see online that are so wild they can’t possibly be true, but they’re still super intriguing. Like the haunted house down the street or the serpentine monster in the pond that’s probably just an overgrown snake.
These stories usually start with a “friend of a friend” or someone vaguely connected to you, making them sound mysterious and close to home. People love sharing them, and they spread like wildfire through gossip, social media, or just chatting with pals.
Think about it as modern-day folklore – a mix of horror, humor, and suspense that gives you chills but also makes you curious. Whether it’s a ghostly encounter, a crazy twist of fate, or a cautionary tale, urban legends tap into our fascination with the unknown.
And, let’s be real, some of them might have a nugget of truth buried in there somewhere, but they get exaggerated and twisted with each retelling. It’s like a game of cultural telephone where the story changes a bit every time someone shares it.
So, next time someone starts a story with, “You won’t believe what happened to my friend’s cousin,” you might just be stepping into the realm of an urban legend. It’s all part of the fun of sharing spooky and mind-bending tales!
Urban legends in fiction
Urban legends find a home in many horror subgenres of fiction. Here are some famous books based on or including urban legends.
“Mexican Gothic” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Set in 1950s Mexico, this Gothic horror novel weaves elements of Mexican folklore and urban legends into a story about a socialite confronting dark secrets in a haunted house.
“Crota” by Owl Goingback
This horror novel draws on Native American mythology and urban legends to tell the story of a monstrous entity unleashed upon a small town in Florida. It combines ancient legends with contemporary horror.
“The Girl with All the Gifts” by M.R. Carey
In this post-apocalyptic novel, urban legends about zombies come to life. It explores a world where a fungal infection turns people into zombie-like creatures, and a young girl with unique abilities may hold the key to humanity’s survival.
“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s novel blends mythology and modern urban legends, featuring gods from various cultures who struggle to survive as belief in them wanes. The novel explores the evolving nature of myths and legends in contemporary society.
“Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s classic dark fantasy novel incorporates elements of urban legends and folklore as it tells the story of a mysterious carnival that arrives in a small town, bringing both wonder and terror.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving
This short story is a classic example of a literary work inspired by urban legends. It tells the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman, blending elements of Dutch folklore with a spooky New England setting.
“Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark” by Alvin Schwartz
This classic collection of spooky children’s short stories presents many urban legends and received a film adaptation.
List of urban legends
Urban legends are plentiful in every community on earth. I’m sure you can think of a few that are unique to where you grew up. In fact, let’s start this list with some of the popular urban legends from where I grew up: Louisiana swamp.
The Rougarou (also called loup-garou, if you’re trying to be real French about it) is a giant wolfman creature who likes to eat misbehaving children. Convenient for parents to mention, of course. If you want to avoid the rougarou, easy peasy! It’s a two step process: 1. Obey your parents. 2. Leave thirteen objects on your front stoop, because the Rougarou can only count to twelve. Legend says he’ll be compelled to count them over and over until the sun rises and he returns to his human form. Classic safety advice—lock your doors, walk home with a friend, and leave a baker’s dozen of literally anything on your front porch.
Grunches are a smaller creature rumored to crawl the swamps of Louisiana. They’re allegedly albino little people who were so ostracized in town that they fled to the bayous to build their own communities. One thing leads to another, and the found family trope gets spiced up with some ritualistic sacrifices.
With local VooDoo practice and countless tragedies, New Orleans is known as a deeply haunted place. One legend might make it hard for you to grab a cab. Ask local drivers which streets they avoid, and you’ll find a lot of overlap in areas they will avoid. Why? Well, because passengers picked up there vanish before paying the fare! Hogwash or reality, you’ll still have to hike to the nearest intersection if you want a ride, because New Orleans cabbies have Seen Enough, and they’re not playing with it.
This story usually features a man and woman near the woods at night, often listening to the radio to hear about a madman who escaped from either a prison or a mental institution—and he has a hook for a hand. Sometimes they both die, sometimes only one does, but there’s always a bloody hook stabbed into the car door.
Here’s my favorite version, which is a ridiculous copypasta and also art:
man & girl go out to drive under moonlight. they stop at on at a side of road. he turn to his girl and say: “baby, i love you very much”
“what is it honey?”
“our car is broken down. i think the engine is broken, ill walk and get some more fuel.”
“ok. ill stay here and look after our stereo. there have been news report of steres being stolen.”
“good idea. keep the doors locked no matter what. i love you sweaty”
so the guy left to get full for the car. after two hours the girl say “where is my baby, he was supposed to be back by now”. then the girl here a scratching sound and a voice say “LET ME IN”
the girl doesn’t do it and then after a while she goes to sleep. the next morning she wakes up and finds her boyfriend still not there. she gets out to check and man door hand hook car door.
Some urban legends have many variations and are passed from person to person for generations. One of which is Bloody Mary. Saying her name three times in front of a mirror in a dark room might summon her! The story varies, but she can either tell you something about your future, or she could kill you. Toss of the coin.
The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs
Another story with many iterations, the babysitter and the Call Coming From Inside Of The House tropes come from an urban legend of the same variety.
New York Super Rats
People are scared of the rats in New York City, and, to be fair, they’re scary critters! But legend grows these rats into man-sized rodents, super geniuses, and/or deeply and intentionally evil. Some of these rumors stem from when nutria rats made their way upstate. Those are some spooky critters if you’ve never seen one before and think it’s a regular rat.
The Black-Eyed Children
Various eerie encounters have been attributed to the black-eyed children. These are exactly what they sound like—children with black eyes. They will approach people, usually at night, and ask them for help. Whether you choose to help them or not, simply encountering one of these children can lead to bad luck and/or ruin.
Slender Man is a classic creepypasta creature who takes the form of a tall, lanky, faceless guy in a suit. He is usually stalking and abducting children. Slender Man has seen adaptations into games, movies, and real-life murder attempts.
Humans Can Lick Too
This was the first scary story I ever heard. It kept me up for weeks when I was five years old. Details vary, but the version I was told is that a blind woman has a guide dog who sleeps beneath her bed. When she wakes up scared in the middle of the night, she reaches her hand down and the dog licks it to comfort her. One night, she wakes to the sound of dripping.
She goes to the bathroom and checks the faucets, but they’re all off. She goes back to bed and, feeling nervous, drops her hand down for a reassuring lick from her dog. Surprise, it was a man under her bed who licked her, and the dripping sound was her dog bleeding out from where he killed and hanged it in the bathroom. Leading with the title of this one does ruin the ending, so keep that in mind when you’re traumatizing your local five-year-old.
Okay, that’s a basic overview of urban legends! Stay safe out there, and remember, man door hand hook car door.