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.

Where Exactly Is Anne Boleyn's Body?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anne Boleyn had a pretty rough 1536. First, a pregnant Anne discovered her husband was having an affair with Jane Seymour, one of her ladies in waiting. Some believe the shock and betrayal caused Anne to suffer a miscarriage in early February—and at least one report says it was the boy Henry VIII so desperately wanted. The birth of a healthy baby boy probably would have saved Anne’s life, but since she was unable to produce a male heir to the throne, her husband decided to simply replace her. Anne found herself imprisoned in the Tower of London on May 2, accused of adultery, incest, and high treason. Her marriage was annulled on May 17, and she was relieved of her head on May 19.

To add insult to all of this injury, no one bothered to give Anne a proper burial. Though the execution itself was meticulously planned, it hadn't occurred to anyone that there was no coffin until after Anne’s head rolled. After rummaging around the grounds, someone eventually scrounged up an old arrow chest to cram the corpse into.

She and her brother were then buried in an unmarked grave in front of the altar at St. Peter’s ad Vincula, within the Tower of London, and then completely forgotten about for the next 300-plus years. It wasn’t until Tower repairs in 1876 that Anne resurfaced—maybe.

Bones were discovered under the altar during the renovations, and based on the circumstantial evidence of an arrow chest coffin, bones belonging to a slender woman between the ages of 25 and 35, and a decapitated head, it was assumed that the remains belonged to Anne. However, Henry VIII disposed of his fifth wife Katherine Howard in the exact same manner, and had her corpse thrown in with the pile of bodies accumulating under the altar. Still other women were decapitated and buried in the same place, including Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury; Lady Jane Grey; and Lady Rochford.

Despite the fact that five headless women were buried there at one point, only four bodies were uncovered. The remains of Katherine Howard had seemingly disappeared, perhaps due to the quicklime found in the graves. Regardless of the uncertainty, Queen Victoria had the bodies exhumed and placed in individual coffins. A plaque with the name of the person thought to be inside was affixed to each coffin, and each one was given a proper reburial underneath the altar.

Is it really Anne Boleyn who lies beneath, or did workers really find someone else, giving credence to the theory that Anne Boleyn’s relatives had her body secretly reburied elsewhere? Unless DNA testing is performed on the remains, we’ll probably never know.

Updated for 2019.

The Very Real Events That Inspired Game of Thrones's Red Wedding

Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham's After the Massacre of Glencoe
Peter Graham, Google Cultural Institute, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Ask any Game of Thrones fan to cite a few of the show's most shocking moments, and the so-called "Red Wedding" from season 3's "The Rains of Castamere" episode will likely be at the top of their list. The events that unfolded during the episode shocked fans because of their brutality, but what might be even more surprising to know is that the episode was based on very real events.

Author George R.R. Martin has said that the inspiration for the matrimonial bloodbath is based on two dark events in Scottish history: the Black Dinner of 1440 and 1692's Massacre of Glencoe. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly in 2013. And he’s absolutely right. See for yourself.

The Massacre of Glencoe

The West Highland Way in 2005, view from the summit of the Devil's Staircase looking south over the east end of Glen Coe, towards Buachaille Etive Mòr with Creise and Meall a' Bhuiridh beyond
Colin Souza, Edited by Dave Souza, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

In 1691, all Scottish clans were called upon to renounce the deposed King of Scotland, James VII, and swear allegiance to King William of Orange (of William and Mary fame). The chief of each clan had until January 1, 1692, to provide a signed document swearing an oath to William. The Highland Clan MacDonald had two things working against them here. First of all, the Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, was a Lowlander who loathed Clan MacDonald. Secondly, Clan MacDonald had already sworn an oath to James VII and had to wait on him to send word that they were free to break that oath.

Unfortunately, it was December 28 before a messenger arrived with this all-important letter from the former king. That gave Maclain, the chief of the MacDonald clan, just three days to get the newly-signed oath to the Secretary of State.

Maclain was detained for days when he went through Inveraray, the town of the rival Clan Campbell, but still managed to deliver the oath, albeit several days late. The Secretary of State’s legal team wasn't interested in late documents. They rejected the MacDonalds's sworn allegiance to William, and set plans in place to cut the clan down, “root and branch.”

In late January or early February, 120 men under the command of Captain Robert Campbell arrived at the MacDonalds's in Glencoe, claiming to need shelter because a nearby fort was full. The MacDonalds offered their hospitality, as was custom, and the soldiers stayed there for nearly two weeks before Captain Drummond arrived with instructions to “put all to the sword under seventy.”

After playing cards with their victims and wishing them goodnight, the soldiers waited until the MacDonalds were asleep ... then murdered as many men as they could manage. In all, 38 people—some still in their beds—were killed. At least 40 women and children escaped, but fleeing into a blizzard blowing outside as their houses burned down meant that they all died of exposure.

The massacre was considered especially awful because it was “Slaughter Under Trust.” To this day, the door at Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe has a sign on the door that says "No hawkers or Campbells."

The Black Dinner

In November of 1440, the newly-appointed 6th Earl of Douglas, who was just 16, and his little brother David, were invited to join the 10-year-old King of Scotland, James II, for dinner at Edinburgh Castle. But it wasn’t the young King who had invited the Douglas brothers. The invitation had been issued by Sir William Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland, who feared that the Black Douglas (there was another clan called the Red Douglas) were growing too powerful.

As legend has it, the children were all getting along marvelously, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table, symbolizing the death of the Black Douglas. The two young Douglases were dragged outside, given a mock trial, found guilty of high treason, and beheaded. It’s said that the Earl pleaded for his brother to be killed first so that the younger boy wouldn’t have to witness his older brother’s beheading.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e'en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein."

This article has been updated for 2019.

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