The Origins of 6 Terrifying Urban Legends and Classic Campfire Stories

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Before Creepypasta, mysterious audio recordings on YouTube, and disconcerting clown sightings, the best way to terrorize your friends was by repeating a popular urban legend. As a kind of oral history handed down through the years, these stories typically feature a hapless protagonist who is oblivious to a threat lurking right under their nose—or in the back seat.

With Halloween looming, we’ve rounded up some of the more frightening examples of modern folklore to do some fact-checking and see just how much truth is lurking behind the fiction.

1. THE KILLER IN THE BACK SEAT

The Story: A woman is driving alone at night when she glances in her rearview mirror and sees a vehicle bearing down on her. The car continues to follow her on her winding route, rattling the driver. The mystery man even flashes his brights every so often. Finally pulling into a gas station for help, the woman goes running out of her car. When confronted by a policeman or pedestrian, the stalker reveals his true motivation: He noticed that a man was lurking in the woman’s back seat and kept flashing his lights every time he reared up to try and strangle her.

The Truth: Versions of this story began appearing as early as the 1960s, with the “victim” alternately a teenager driving home from a school play or a woman coming back from a social engagement. Occasionally, the tail would be a massive commercial truck that seemed ready to run her over. The fake-out savior might be a gas attendant, a husband, or a cop who roughs up the “stalker” before his altruistic intention is finally revealed.

At least half of the tale is grounded in reality. Over the years, there have been several incidences of lurkers who have stowed away in the rear seat of vehicles, emerging to attack drivers or simply to evade capture by police. In 1964, one criminal made the mistake of hiding in a car owned by a police officer: the detective turned and fired on his uninvited passenger. The addition of a good Samaritan who notices the danger and tails the terrified driver appears to be pure embellishment, however.

2. THE VANISHING HITCHHIKER

The Story: Hitchhikers typically don’t make life easy for the characters in folk history, and this one is no exception. Typically, the story picks up when a couple of young men are driving along and spot an attractive woman walking on the side of the road. They pick her up and she tells them she’d like to go straight home. The drivers indulge her—but by the time they make it to the address she’s provided, she’s fast asleep. Not wishing to disturb her, the men go to the door and inform the woman who answers that her daughter is dozing in their back seat.

The woman is perplexed. Her daughter has been dead for years. When they return to the car, the passenger is gone, with only her clothes remaining.

The Truth: One of the most flexible urban legends of all time, the Vanishing Hitchhiker has been traced as far back as the 19th century, where horse-and-wagon rides took the place of a car. In Hawaiian versions, the ghost has even been picked up in a rickshaw. The apparition might have a warning before disappearing; in other versions, she’s known to have died a violent or tragic death while in the process of returning home.

The appeal of a spirit with unfinished business in life seems to have no cultural boundaries: Researchers have found variations of the tale in countries like Algeria, Romania, and Pakistan. There’s even a Swedish tale that was first mentioned in 1602 of a ghostly woman walking along a road who warned two passersby of impending plagues and wars before disappearing.

3. THE LICKED HAND

The Story: In the dead of night, a child (or, in some versions, a young or old woman) hears some strange noises. For comfort, the kid lets his or her hand dangle off the edge of the bed so their dog can lick it in a comforting gesture. The process might repeat itself throughout the night, with the child receiving a few more wet kisses before morning.

When the child wakes up and begins walking around the house, they might find the dog hanging from a noose—or worse, their parents bludgeoned to death. A bloody note reads, “Humans can lick, too.”

The Truth: A particularly grisly legend, the Licked Hand made the rounds in the 1960s as a way to scare marshmallow-roasting campers with a gut punch of an ending. But the tale’s first appearance may have come as early as 1871, when someone wrote of a story they had heard in England about a jewel thief who evaded detection by licking the hand of a man who awoke to strange noises, reassuring him it was only his dog.

4. THE GIRL WITH THE RIBBON AROUND HER NECK

The Story: Two lovers meet and grow consumed with one another. But as their meetings become more frequent, the man becomes curious about the fact that his girlfriend always wears a green ribbon tied around her neck. Time and again, he asks if it’s significant; she always answers that it is, but she can’t elaborate.

Before long, the man grows frustrated at how coy she’s being about the ribbon. Despite his anger, she refuses to take it off, or explain why it’s important. Finally, he takes a pair of scissors to her sleeping frame, snips the fabric—and watches as her head slides off her neck and goes bouncing to the floor.    

The Truth: Unlike many legends, there’s really no pretense that the story has roots in reality. Typically, the punchline evokes laughter and shock; some versions have the woman cautioning that her lover “will be sorry” if he pushes the issue, then admonishes him with a “Told you!” as her head travels across the floor.

In all likelihood, it was writer Washington Irving who got the ball—or cranium—rolling. Irving published a short story in 1824 titled “The Adventures of a German Student” where a young man becomes enamored with a Parisian woman whom he meets while she looks on mournfully near a guillotine. After consummating their mutual attraction, she’s found dead in his bed the next morning. A policeman undoes a ribbon tied around her neck, prompting her head to slide off. Irving’s poor protagonist is quickly committed to an insane asylum. It's believed that Irving heard this story from his friend, the Irish poet Thomas Moore, who had heard it from the British writer Horace Smith.

5. THE HOOK

The Story: Two young lovers are parked in a make-out spot when a news story breaks on the radio: A killer has escaped from custody, with his sole distinguishing feature being a hook in place of an amputated hand. The woman is unsettled and implores her lover to lock the car doors, which he does. But the thought of the hook crashing through the window begins to consume her, and she pleads for them to drive off. Annoyed, the boyfriend agrees. When he drops her at home, she exits the car and notices that a hook is dangling from the door handle.

The Truth: Aside from the hook-hand twist, couples who parked in designated “lover’s lane” spaces had plenty of reason to be terrified. A former military man named Clarence Hill was convicted in 1942 of several murders in Pennsylvania, with Hill creeping up on unsuspecting car occupants and shooting them through the windows. These attacks and others made for ripe stories over avoiding necking in parked cars in the 1960s: even Ann Landers printed the tale as a “warning” to hormonal teens.

6. THE BABYSITTER WHO ISN’T ALONE

The Story: A teenage girl agrees to sit for a trio of young children while their parents enjoy a night out. At first, the evening is almost mundane: With the kids in bed, the sitter chats with friends and finds ways to pass the time. But then the phone begins to ring. On the line is a sinister voice who advises her to check the children. After multiple calls, the sitter finally dials the police, who phone back with a shocking warning: The calls have been coming from inside the house. The murderous caller was upstairs with the children the entire time.

The Truth: Thanks to the 1979 film When a Stranger Calls, which used this story as the premise for its riveting opening sequence, this might be the most infamous urban legend of all time. The story has been widely told since 1960, with some versions indicating both the children and the sitter meet a bloody end.

The emergence of the story seems to coincide with a rash of media reports about babysitters who were assaulted or even murdered in the ‘50s and ‘60s, lending credence to the idea that it likely came out of a fear of leaving a vulnerable young woman alone in a strange house. Some folklore theorists have also observed that the “man upstairs” conceit spoke to a cultural rebellion over women taking increasingly dominant positions in society instead of adhering to their role as domestic caretakers. Left to her own devices, the babysitter fails to protect the children from harm.

Was it anti-feminist propaganda? Perhaps. But the Babysitter Who Isn’t Alone trope also speaks to a pretty primal fear of being helpless to guard yourself or others from unseen forces. And two-line phones.

All images courtesy of iStock.

How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When the last of four relief teams arrived at a lakeside camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains on April 17, 1847 to recover what was left of the Donner Party, the log cabins built by the marooned pioneers were silent. Stranded there since the previous November—when the party realized the snow was too high and their cattle too weak for all 80 or so of them to travel safely over the summit blocking the last leg of their journey to California's Central Valley—they'd had little food on which to survive. First they slaughtered their cattle, then their dogs—and then, when rescue didn't come, they began to eat the dead. According to one account, the last relief team found human remains—battered skulls and bones stripped of flesh—scattered over the area, among other sights "too dreadful to put on record."

The scene was similar at George Donner’s tent, a few miles from the cabins at Truckee Lake. The doomed group’s namesake had been seen by an earlier rescue party on the cusp of death and in the care of his wife Tamzene. Now the tent was empty, and a pot filled with human meat stood at the front of it. George's split-open head, emptied of its brain, was found nearby. The only sign of life was a set of fresh footprints marking the snow.

After a physically and emotionally grueling day, the relief team was exhausted. They decided to make camp for the night, with plans to investigate the tracks further once they'd had a chance to rest. Setting out on the 19th, they followed the prints to Lewis Keseberg, a blue-eyed, 32-year-old German immigrant and the sole survivor at Truckee Lake.

The sight of men bearing provisions should have been a welcome one for Keseberg. But they had found him in a compromising position: Tamzene Donner, who had been in decent health when the last relief team saw her, had disappeared—and Keseberg was preparing himself a meal of fresh human lungs and liver. What’s more, he was carrying $225 worth of gold stolen from the Donners' coin hoard in his waistcoat. To the rescue party, it looked as though Keseberg had violated one of humanity's greatest taboos, one that went beyond mere cannibalism: Murdering a person—Tamzene—to feast on her body.

A SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER

When Keseberg had joined the Donner Party less than a year earlier, pioneers spurred on by the idea of Manifest Destiny were pouring into the West by the thousands. California promised mild weather year-round and fertile farmland—and the Donner and Reed families of Illinois wanted a piece of the bounty. Keseberg, his pregnant wife Elisabeth Philippine, and his 3-year-old daughter Ada were among the people who decided to join their covered wagon train in the spring of 1846 as it rolled through the heart of America toward the Golden Coast.

The stories that would later be told about Keseberg started with his behavior on the trail. He reportedly acted cruelly toward his own family—ignoring his daughter and abusing his wife—and often didn't treat other members of the party any better. On October 5, James Reed murdered a teamster during a quarrel involving oxen, and Keseberg vocally supported Reed's execution. The other men refused to hang Reed in front of his wife and children, and instead agreed to leave him in the desert without food or weapons.

That same week, Keseberg ejected an elderly Belgian man named Hardcoop from his wagon to relieve his tired cattle. The man’s legs had given out just days before, and he was unable to keep up with the party on foot. The last anyone saw him, Hardcoop was catching his breath in the brush, his feet black and bloodied.

Damning behavior aside, Keseberg’s personality wasn’t winning him any popularity contests. In his account of the ordeal [PDF], an emigrant named Jacob Wright Harlan characterized Keseberg as an eccentric, antisocial man who mostly kept to himself. He also struck Harlan as someone "predisposed to derangement of mind"—and this was before the tragedy.

“Keseberg was his own worst enemy,” Michael Wallis, author of The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny, tells Mental Floss. “His overall demeanor set the stage for the eventual vilification of him.”

TRAGEDY AT TRUCKEE LAKE

The Sierra Nevada, a roughly 70-mile-wide mountain range snaking through California and parts of Nevada, presented one of the biggest obstacles of the Donner Party's trip. The mountains become impassable in the winter when the snow piles up; to get ahead of the weather, the group should have departed from Missouri in mid to late April. But the first members of the Donner expedition didn't leave Independence, Missouri, until May 12. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-1847 was especially brutal in the area: About 20 storms pummeled the mountains that season, adding up to 25 feet of snow.

By December, winter had crept up on the travelers and immobilized them under its weight. Unable to continue any further with their belongings, most of the emigrants, including the Kesebergs, made camp for the season at Truckee Lake, while the strongest among them formed what would come to be known as the Forlorn Hope Party, strapped on snowshoes, and set out in search of help. Though they were just 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort in California, a wrong turn set the Forlorn Hope fatally behind schedule.

Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
Donner Lake (formerly Truckee Lake) as viewed from Donner Pass.
© Frank Schulenburg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Weeks passed, but the peak over which the Forlorn Hope Party had disappeared remained white and still, and the remaining members at the lake camp began succumbing to the cold and hunger. Those who died early on provided a shot at survival to the people around them: With starvation gnawing at their insides, a source of fresh meat—even if it belonged, as it did in many cases, to their closest kin—was often impossible to ignore. Roughly half the party, including most of the Forlorn Hope, engaged in cannibalism that winter. Those who did were haunted by their actions for the rest of their lives.

Lewis Keseberg never denied cannibalizing Tamzene Donner. When the final rescue party interrogated him on her whereabouts, he admitted to eating her flesh to survive, but he rebuffed any accusations that he had murdered Tamzene rather than waiting to butcher her only after she died of natural causes. As for the gold lining his trousers, and the bundle of stolen silks, jewels, and firearms found in his cabin, Keseberg eventually confessed to taking George Donner’s goods—but only upon request from Tamzene herself. As he told it, Tamzene left the tents after her husband died and slipped and fell into a creek on her way to his cabin. When she arrived she knew she didn’t have much time left, and asked Keseberg to gather up the money George Donner had hidden and return it to her children at Sutter’s Fort. She died later that night.

The rescue team didn’t fully buy his story, but they begrudgingly decided to lead him back to the central California valley where the rest of the party had ended up, so that a jury of his peers could decide his fate. After a slog across the Sierra Nevada, Keseberg reunited with his wife—who had been rescued by the first relief party (their daughter Ada and a child born on the trail both died of starvation)—and for the first time in months, sat down to enjoy a hearty meal that didn’t consist of dog, cattle, or human meat.

"BETTER THAN CALIFORNIA BEEF"

After Keseberg's return to civilization, news of the “Donner Party Tragedy” rippled across the nation by way of newspapers and word of mouth. The cannibalism aspect gripped the American consciousness, and Keseberg was cast as the savage who ate humans not just for sustenance, but for pleasure. Journalists dubbed him the “human cannibal” and began reporting the murder of Tamzene Donner—which had never been verified—as fact. Gossipers added their own embellishments to the account. According to one telling, which allegedly came from the surviving Donner Party children, Keseberg had taken a young boy to bed with him one night and killed him by morning, later hanging his carcass on the wall like a slab of game.

The most persistent rumor may have come from Keseberg himself. The story goes that after settling in California, he would frequent the local bars and brag about his escapades in cannibalism to anyone who would listen. In this version, Keseberg claimed human meat was more delicious than California beef, and described Tamzene Donner’s liver as the sweetest bite he had ever tasted.

It's easy to see how rumors like these could snowball. But according to Wallis, even if Keseberg did say these things, they don’t necessarily prove his guilt. “To people who know about the human mind and know what starvation and hyperthermia can do to you, it’s not too much out of the ordinary for him to say something like that,” he explains. Post-traumatic stress disorder is known to provoke psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, although it's unclear whether this was the case with Keseberg.

Whatever the source of the grisly stories, they led to legal trouble. Keseberg was ultimately accused of murdering six of his fellow Donner Party members, including Tamzene, but was acquitted on each count due to lack of evidence. He later returned to court, this time as the prosecutor, to sue members of the relief party who had found him at Truckee Lake for fueling the vicious rumors attached to his name. Again the jury sided in his favor, but his reward was modest: just $1 for the damages, and he was still expected to cover the court fees.

LAST CHANCE FOR REDEMPTION

Life never got easier for Keseberg, but he was granted one last bit of closure around age 65. A journalist named C.F. McGlashan was writing a book called History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra when he reached out to the surviving members to interview them. Finally, Keseberg had the platform to tell his version of the events that transpired that winter, and address the rumors that had dogged him for years. His first-hand account was a stark departure from the infamous stories of his barroom braggadocio:

“The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment. It is like feeding straw to horses. I cannot describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse. It makes my blood curdle to think of it!”

Keseberg’s greatest chance for redemption came when McGlashan arranged for him to meet Eliza Donner Houghton, Tamzene Donner’s youngest surviving daughter. Eliza had been only 4 years old at the time of the Donner Party tragedy, and when Keseberg saw the grown woman standing before him, he collapsed to his knees. He didn’t deny eating Tamzene’s remains, but he swore to Eliza that he hadn’t murdered her. Hearing the sincerity in the voice of this man she barely remembered from childhood, Eliza decided to take him at his word.

Despite earning validation from the courts and a descendent of the Donners, Keseberg’s reputation continued to shadow him wherever he went, whether in the towns where he lived or aboard the supply ship where he eventually worked. Toward the end of his life, he gathered enough money to open his own inn in Sacramento, but even this endeavor failed. “People thought, ‘Well, why would we stay there where this cannibal lives?’” Wallis says. The inn burned to the ground, and the cause of the fire was undetermined.

An internet search of Keseberg today still pulls up results related to his alleged crimes. The story’s stubborn presence through the decades becomes more notable in light of certain facts concerning the Forlorn Hope Party: During that trek, two Miwok men, named Salvadore and Luis, were murdered for their flesh by William Foster, but because they were Native Americans their story was ignored by newspapers. Tamzene Donner's death, and the gossip surrounding Keseberg's alleged involvement, however, received plenty of coverage.

Lewis Keseberg's wife Elisabeth Philippine died in 1877, and the widower lived out the remainder of his life poor and struggling to care for the couple’s children—both born after the Donner Party saga—who had intellectual disabilities. He died in 1895, nearly half a century after the events that defined him in the public eye. “He took his last breath in a hospital for the poor. The only thing in his pockets was lint,” Wallis says. “Keseberg is just one of the many great tragedies of this whole story.”

Additional Source: The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of the Donner Party

Madelyn Pugh Davis, the “Girl Writer” Behind I Love Lucy

It was February 11, 1954, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were waiting nervously at the Emmy Awards. Their costar on I Love Lucy, Vivian Vance, had already won a Best Series Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of landlady Ethel Mertz. And now, Ball and Arnaz stood on stage at the Hollywood Palladium to accept the Emmy for Best Situation Comedy for I Love Lucy.

“It wouldn’t be right to call our writers up here, and give [the Emmy] to them, would it?” Ball asked the audience. “But I wish we could.” Arnaz also gave a nod to the importance of the show’s writers: “I just want to say this—and I really mean this—I hope that next year, the Academy does not forget the writers.”

Without I Love Lucy’s three main writers—Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh Davis—television would be missing some of its most famously funny scenes. Davis, the only female writer on I Love Lucy, wrote for all the episodes of the six-season show. She often tested the slapstick herself, becoming key to the visual gags that made the series so memorable, from a chocolate factory assembly line cranked to an impossible speed to a giant loaf of bread overflowing from an oven.

Born on March 15, 1921, Davis (originally Madelyn Pugh) grew up in Indianapolis, where her father worked at a bank's real estate department. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was a child, and crafted her first play—performed in her living room—at the age of 10. Later, she co-edited her high school newspaper alongside fellow student Kurt Vonnegut [PDF].

In 1942, she graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree, determined to become a foreign correspondent. "Somebody pointed out that there were very few women foreign correspondents, but there were very few women anything, so it didn’t bother me," Davis wrote in her 2005 memoir Laughing With Lucy. After failing to find a job she wanted in journalism, she began working as a copywriter at an Indianapolis radio station. She was one of only a few women to work behind the scenes in radio back then—an opportunity she attributed to the relative dearth of men, who were off fighting in World War II.

The next year, she and her family moved to Los Angeles, where she found work as a staff writer at NBC Radio. She met Bob Carroll Jr. at her next staff writer gig, at CBS Radio about six months later, where she was often referred to as the "girl writer." She and Carroll became writing partners, working on comedy scripts for radio shows including The Couple Next Door and It’s a Great Life. While writing for My Favorite Husband on CBS, they got the chance to work with Ball, the star of that show. Davis would later describe Ball as fearless, someone willing to "do anything" for the sake of comedy.

It was after about two and a half years of writing for My Favorite Husband that Davis got her big break. As she tells it in Laughing With Lucy, the then-network vice president of programming for CBS West Coast, Harry Ackerman, and Ball's agent decided to give the red-headed star a try on the then-new medium of television. Ball insisted on a show featuring her real-life husband, Arnaz, but "the network didn't feel the audience would believe Lucy was married to a Cuban band leader. Lucy told them stubbornly that she was married to a Cuban band leader, and the audience would like it fine," Davis wrote.

To prove it, Ball hired Davis and Carroll to write a stage act that she and Arnaz would perform during his show on the road. Audiences roared with laughter, and the network ordered a television pilot based on the act. Ball requested that Davis, Carroll, and Jess Oppenheimer (the producer and head writer on My Favorite Husband) write I Love Lucy’s first episode. “And so we said 'I guess we better learn to write for television,'" Davis said in an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation.

Besides brainstorming funny ideas, pitching storylines, and writing dialogue, Davis also typed the scripts and acted out some of the show’s visual stunts, making sure that a woman of roughly Ball’s height and size would be able to perform them safely.

“We’d wrap Madelyn in rugs and strap her into swivel chairs and hang her out of windows, and she came through nicely,” Carroll recalled. “So I said, ‘If it works for Madelyn, it will work for Lucy.’” (Not all the gags worked, however; after one perilous trip on a unicycle resulted in Davis running into a wall and hitting her head, she "decided it was too dangerous for Lucy.")

In the scripts, Davis typed the step-by-step instructions for these physical gags in all caps, leading Ball to call them “the black stuff.” Rather than improvise these stunts, Ball relied on Davis’s detailed, highly choreographed writing to know how to move her body and when to make certain facial expressions—all for maximum comedy.

To come up with enough ideas to write hundreds of funny episodes, Davis drew on her own life for inspiration, writing jokes about her experiences picking which movie to watch or what entree to order at a restaurant. “All writers do that. You use your own experience and pretty soon, when you're doing a weekly show, you just use everything you can,” Davis told the Writers Guild Foundation.

After I Love Lucy ended, Davis continued working with Carroll, writing for other Ball productions such as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life With Lucy, and the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours. During their 50-year working partnership, Davis and Carroll also wrote The Mothers-In-Law (which was executive produced by Desi Arnaz), produced the sitcom Alice, and co-wrote Laughing With Lucy. They were nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Davis, who married twice and had one son, died in Los Angeles in 2011 at 90 years old. Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, described her as a class act. “A very private person, very soft-spoken, genteel, feminine—all those lovely words you associate with great ladies. And yet she had the ability to write this wacky, insane comedy for my mother.”

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