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.

When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

As clouds flitted across the moonlit sky on the night of June 2, 1863, three gunboats snaked up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. The Civil War was raging and the vessels were filled with Union troops, many of them from the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, on a mission to strike Confederate plantations. There to guide them on this perilous expedition was a black woman already famed for her bold excursions into hostile territory: Harriet Tubman.

From Underground Railroad to Union Spy

Born into slavery, Tubman—the subject of the soon-to-be-released movie Harriet—had liberated herself in 1849, fleeing north from bondage in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. Though a fugitive with a price on her head (her former slaveholder promised $50 for her capture, $100 if she was found out of state) Tubman repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of people, both black and white, who facilitated the escape of enslaved people northwards. It is believed that Tubman rescued around 70 slaves this way, and by the end of the Combahee River Raid on that June night in 1863, she had helped free some 750 more.

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, had asked Tubman to head to the South and assist with the "contrabands"—a term used to refer to the thousands of enslaved people who fled to Union camps amid the chaos of the conflict. It was a fitting role for Tubman, since helping African Americans shed the bonds of slavery had become the driving purpose of her life.

She volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, before heading to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves. Disease ran rampant during the war, and Tubman was skilled in herbal medicine. She also oversaw the building of a laundry house, so she could train African American women to become laundresses—a vocation that would prove useful as they embarked on a new, free chapter of their lives. But according to H. Donald Winkler, who writes about Tubman’s wartime exploits in Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, “many believe that the humanitarian aspects of her trip … were a cover for her real work as a spy operating within enemy lines.”

Biographer Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, agrees that it is possible Tubman was sent to the South at least in part to gather intelligence. “Certainly she was someone who was able to go behind the lines and make contact in a way that the soldiers were not, because she had done that on the Underground Railroad,” Clinton tells Mental Floss.

Time and again as an Underground Railroad rescuer, Tubman had proven her cunning, charisma, and steely resolve, slipping into slavery territory and back out again with multiple fugitives in tow. She secretly reached out to enslaved people to encourage their escape, scouted dangerous areas, and cultivated contacts who were ready to offer shelter and support. Tubman liked to stage her rescues on Saturday nights, because Sunday was a day of rest; by the time they were discovered missing on Monday, Tubman had been given a head start.

She also possessed an uncanny ability to avoid detection, often with the help of disguises. In her book, Clinton writes that on one trip through a town near her former Maryland home, Tubman caught sight of a man who had once been her master. Fortunately, she had a bonnet pulled low over her face and two live chickens in her hands. When the man came close, Tubman pulled on strings tied to the birds’ legs, causing them to fuss and flap—and giving her an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Such exploits earned Tubman a legendary reputation among abolitionist circles. She was nicknamed “Moses,” after the biblical figure who led the oppressed to freedom.

Whatever the initial purpose of her journey south, by 1863 Tubman was working as a covert Union operative. She recruited a small but trustworthy group of black scouts, several of whom were water pilots with a thorough knowledge of the coastal landscape. The spies would sail along waterways, take note of enemy positions and movements, and communicate the information back to Union brass. Colonel James Montgomery, a fervent abolitionist, relied on Tubman’s intelligence to stage several successful raids, according to Winkler. The most famous of these was the Combahee River Raid.

Tubman's Turn to Lead

Combahee River basin, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge, Beaufort County, South Carolina
The Combahee River basin in Beaufort County, South Carolina, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge and near where the raid is believed to have taken place.
Henry de Saussure Copeland, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The goal of the mission was to destroy Confederate supply lines, disable mines in the Combahee River, and cripple prosperous plantations along the shore. As Tubman had shown with her Underground Railroad rescues, “the great weapon was to go into enemy territory and use the subversive weapon of the enslaved people themselves,” Clinton says. So if all went according to plan, Tubman and Montgomery intended to free the plantations of their slaves, too.

But first, they would need to plot their attack. Before the fateful night, Tubman and her team of spies secretly sailed up the Combahee to map the locations of rice and cotton storehouses. Tubman also found the enslaved people who had laid Confederate “torpedoes”—stationary mines beneath the water—and promised them liberation in exchange for information. It was important to spread the word about the upcoming raid, so that when it happened, the slaves would be ready to run.

Montgomery, who had worked with Tubman to raise the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, was in command of the several hundred black troops who ultimately set out up the Combahee to execute the raid on June 2. But Tubman was there to guide the ships through the mines, which were difficult to spot on a dark and cloudy night. She thus became, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition.

One of the three Union gunboats stalled after it ran aground, but the other two were able to proceed as planned. John Adams, the lead boat, pushed up to Combahee Ferry, where there was an island, a causeway, and a pontoon bridge. Montgomery’s men burned the bridge. They also set fire to plantations, storehouses, and rice mills, pillaging whatever food and cotton supplies they could carry, according to an account by the U.S. Army. And when the gunboats approached, slaves came pouring onto the shore, where rowboats were waiting to bring them to the ships. Tubman was floored by the scene.

“I never saw such a sight,” she later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”

The scene grew all the more chaotic when it became clear that there were too many fugitive slaves for the rowboats to accommodate at once. According to The New York Times, those left behind held onto the vessels to stop them from leaving. Hoping to restore some calm, a white officer reportedly asked Tubman to speak to “your people.” She didn’t care for the turn of phrase—“[T]hey wasn’t my people any more than they was his,” she once said—but she nevertheless began to sing:

“Come along; come along; don’t be alarmed
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give you all a farm.”

Her voice had the desired effect. “They throwed up their hands and began to rejoice and shout ‘Glory!’ and the rowboats would push off,” Tubman remembered. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board.”

All of this commotion did not go unnoticed by Confederate troops. But their response was sluggish. “With malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox rampant in the [Lowcountry] from spring through early fall, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps,” Winkler explains. A contingent did approach Combahee Ferry, with orders to push the Yankees back, but reportedly only succeeded in shooting one fugitive slave. Major Emmanuel, the Confederate ranking officer in the area, came after the retreating ships with a single piece of field artillery, but his men got trapped between the river and Union snipers. They were only able to fire a few shots that landed in the water.

The raid was, in other words, a tremendous success, and Tubman’s contribution was “invaluable,” Clinton says. For the next year, Tubman stayed in the South, assisting in guerrilla activities and working to support liberated slaves.

Recognition Deferred

During her three years of military service, Tubman had been paid just $200 (about $3000 in today's money). Finding herself in difficult financial straits after the war—she was the sole supporter of her elderly parents, whom she had extricated from the South during her Underground Railroad days—Tubman appealed to the federal government for additional compensation. Her cause was backed by a number of influential supporters who believed that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension, but her campaign for payment would nevertheless span more than 30 years.

It was only in the early 1890s that Tubman began receiving a pension—not for her own wartime work, but because her late husband, Nelson Davis, had served with the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, which entitled her to $8 per month as a veteran widow. In 1899, Congress approved an Act raising that sum to $20, but as the National Archives points out, “the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service.” The government’s resistance may have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that documentation of Tubman’s activities on the frontlines was lacking. But Clinton believes other factors were at play.

“I found evidence that one of the members of the [pensions] committee was a South Carolina politician who blocked her pension,” Clinton says. “And it was really in many ways a point of honor ... that a black woman not be given recognition as a soldier.” Upon receiving the increased funds, Clinton adds, Tubman used the money to “bankroll a charity. That’s who she was.”

When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York. The Combahee River Raid was just one remarkable chapter in her remarkable life, but it left a powerful impression on her. Looking back on that night, when hundreds of slaves rose up and made a dash for freedom, the woman known as Moses would remember them like "the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

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