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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.

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Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago
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Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

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The Body
11 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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