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An urban legend, also known as an urban myth or contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true. As with all folklore, urban legends are shared as a means to explain random events, affirm societal norms, share a common culture, or simply to entertain.
Urban legends are often characterized by some combination of humor, horror, warning, or embarrassment. They often include an element of mystery or unexplained phenomenon and are frequently associated with common societal fears. Typically, they are passed on by word of mouth, increasingly so through digital means such as email or social media.
In recent years, Urban Legends have been used as a foundation for many movies and TV shows that fictionalize the actions and history of various characters from folklore and legends. A popular example is ‘The Slender Man’.
Origin of The Slender Man
The Slender Man is an internet urban legend that originated as a creepypasta, a short, user-generated scary story that is shared and spread on the internet. The character first appeared on June 10, 2009, in a post on the forum of the humor website Something Awful. A user named Eric Knudsen (under the pseudonym “Victor Surge”) contributed two black-and-white images of children with a tall, faceless figure in a black suit lurking in the background. These images were part of a photoshop contest where users were challenged to create paranormal images.
The Slender Man is usually depicted as an unnaturally tall, thin figure with a blank, featureless face. He’s typically shown wearing a dark suit and tie, and his arms can stretch or elongate to intimidate or capture prey. He is often associated with forests or woods and is described as a malevolent force that abducts and torments his victims, particularly children.
The character of The Slender Man quickly became a viral sensation, with numerous other users creating their own images, stories, and even video games featuring the character. His mythos was expanded and deepened through collective storytelling, with various accounts describing him as a creature who could teleport, brainwash, and physically distort his victims.
One of the most famous adaptations of the Slender Man mythos is the web series “Marble Hornets,” which was uploaded to YouTube in 2009. The series follows a set of found footage-style videos of a young man being stalked by a creature implied to be the Slender Man.
In 2012, the indie video game “Slender: The Eight Pages” was released, further popularizing the character. The game involves the player navigating through a dark forest while avoiding the Slender Man.
The Slender Man has appeared in various media formats over the years. This includes movies like “Slender Man” (2018) by Sony Pictures, TV shows like “Lost Tapes” on Animal Planet, and numerous online series, indie games, and creepypasta collections. Despite the criticism for its execution, the Slender Man movie was a notable mainstream adaptation of the internet mythos.
The Dark Side of Urban Legends being taken Literally
The Slender Man mythos took a disturbingly real turn in 2014 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, when two 12-year-old girls, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, lured their friend Payton Leutner into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. They claimed they did it to prove their loyalty to the Slender Man and become his proxies. This shocking incident, often referred to as the “Slender Man Stabbing,” prompted a significant amount of media coverage and public discussion about the impact of internet stories and online culture on the minds of young people.
The Slender Man is a prime example of digital folklore, demonstrating how collective participation in storytelling over the internet can lead to the creation of compelling and terrifying myths. Despite its fictional origins, the Slender Man has had a tangible impact on popular culture and, in at least one instance, real-world events.
The Oldest ‘Recent’ Urban Legends
The oldest urban legend is difficult to determine as it depends on how one defines “urban legend”, however if you consider any folklore that’s been passed down through generations and is based in popular culture as an “urban legend”, then they are as old as human civilization itself.
In terms of a story more recognizable to modern audiences as an urban legend, one of the oldest is likely the story of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Variations of this story have been told for centuries across many different cultures. The basic premise involves a driver who picks up a hitchhiker, usually a young woman, who then disappears during the journey, often in the car itself. The driver later learns that the hitchhiker was a ghost — often the spirit of a person who died on that same road years before. There are versions of this story dating back to the horse-and-buggy days, and it’s a concept that continues to persist in modern culture.
Prominent Scary Urban Legends
The Bloody Mary urban legend is a popular folklore tale that has been circulating for decades, possibly even centuries. The legend involves an apparition named “Bloody Mary” who supposedly appears in a mirror when her name is chanted multiple times. The details of the legend vary, but the most common version involves standing in a darkened room, often a bathroom, in front of a mirror, and chanting “Bloody Mary” three times.
The apparition’s appearance and behavior also vary depending on the telling. Some say she’s a harmless ghost, while others describe her as a malevolent spirit who can harm or even kill those who summon her. She’s often depicted as a bloody, spectral woman, but other versions of the legend describe her as a witch, a corpse, or even a demon.
While the exact origins of the Bloody Mary legend are difficult to trace, it has roots in historical figures and ancient rituals. One theory suggests that the name “Bloody Mary” is derived from Queen Mary I of England, who earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” due to her violent persecution of Protestants during her reign in the 16th century. However, this connection is often seen as a later addition to the myth.
The practice of staring into a mirror in a darkened room is an example of a divination ritual, which can be traced back to ancient times. For example, there’s a historic divination ritual, often performed by young women, that involves staring into a mirror in a darkened room to catch a glimpse of their future husband’s face. If they were destined to die before marriage, they would supposedly see a skull or the grim reaper instead.
The Bloody Mary legend has been popularized primarily through oral tradition, often among children and teenagers at sleepovers. It’s also a common trope in horror movies and TV shows, often used as a device to create suspense or fear.
Bloody Mary has been featured or referenced in many films, television shows, and books, often in horror-themed media. A few notable examples include:
MOVIES - “Bloody Mary” (2006) is a horror film that revolves around the legend. The film “Candyman” (1992) and its sequels also feature a similar urban legend.
TELEVISION - The TV show “Supernatural” features an episode called “Bloody Mary” in its first season, where the main characters must defeat the vengeful spirit of Bloody Mary. She also appears in an episode of “Grimm” and “The X-Files.”
BOOKS - In Stephen King’s book “IT,” one of the characters has a terrifying encounter with a form of the creature that resembles Bloody Mary.
There are countless anecdotes of people claiming to have seen Bloody Mary, usually during their childhood or teenage years. However, these are largely unverifiable and generally considered to be the result of overactive imaginations, suggestibility, or the psychological phenomenon known as “strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion,” where staring into a mirror in a dimly lit room can cause one to hallucinate.
The Bloody Mary legend is a compelling example of how folklore can adapt and evolve over time, incorporating elements from historical events, cultural rituals, and popular media. While it might be frightening to some, especially children and young adults, it’s generally viewed as a harmless scary story or party game.
The Black-Eyed Children
These are supposed children who approach people alone in cars or at their homes asking for help. However, their eyes are completely black, and they are often associated with an overwhelming sense of dread.
The urban legend of the “Black Eyed Children” (or “Black Eyed Kids”) appears to have originated in the late 1990s. These children are typically described as having completely black eyes and are often associated with an overwhelming sense of dread or fear.
The first reported encounter seems to have come from a Texas reporter named Brian Bethel in 1996. He reported on a personal experience in Abilene, Texas, where two boys approached his car while he was parked. They asked for a ride home to grab cash to see a movie. Despite feeling an inexplicable fear, Bethel almost let them in his car, until he noticed their completely black eyes. He drove away in fear.
Since then, there have been numerous reports of encounters with Black Eyed Children, mostly in the United States, although the accounts are largely anecdotal and are often shared via internet forums and websites.
For instance, a woman named Sarah from Devon, England, reported encountering a Black Eyed Child in 2014. She heard a child calling for help near a canal, but when she approached, she noticed the child had completely black eyes. The child then disappeared, leading local residents to believe it was the ghost of a girl who drowned in the canal in the 19th century.
Despite these stories, there’s no solid evidence to support these encounters. The phenomenon of Black Eyed Children is often regarded as an internet urban legend, with the caveat that many who claim to have had these encounters insist on their authenticity. As with many urban legends, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction.
The Urban Legend of “La Llorona”, is a widespread legend in Hispanic culture, particularly in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. The name translates to “The Weeping Woman” in English. While there are many versions of the story, the most common one tells of a beautiful woman named Maria who drowned her children in a river in a fit of rage after discovering her husband’s infidelity. After realizing what she had done, Maria is said to have drowned herself as well.
Haunted by regret and trapped between the living and the spirit world, Maria is doomed to wander for eternity, crying and searching for her lost children. It’s said that her cries bring misfortune, and seeing her is an omen of death. Parents often use the story to discourage their children from wandering off at night, warning them that La Llorona might snatch them away.
The legend of La Llorona has deep roots in Latin American folklore, with some versions of the tale dating back hundreds of years. Some researchers suggest the story may have originated in the time of the Aztecs as a personification of goddesses like Chihuacoatl, who, according to Aztec mythology, abandoned her children and cried tears of guilt. The tale has been passed down orally from generation to generation and varies between regions and families.
La Llorona is a fundamental part of LatinX folklore. The tale has spread with the diaspora, and versions of it are known in many Latin American countries and the United States, especially in areas with high Latinx populations.
La Llorona has appeared in many forms of media, often portrayed as a tragic and malevolent spirit.
MOVIES - La Llorona has been featured in numerous films, including “La Llorona” (1933), “The Curse of the Crying Woman” (1961), and “J-ok’el: La Llorona” (2007). More recently, the legend was brought to mainstream American cinema with “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019), a part of the Conjuring universe.
TELEVISION - The legend has been referenced in many TV shows. For example, “Supernatural,” “Grimm,” and “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” have episodes revolving around La Llorona.
CARTOONS - The animated film “The Book of Life” (2014) includes La Llorona as a character, and she’s also featured in an episode of the animated show “Victor and Valentino.”
Over the years, many people have claimed to have seen or heard La Llorona, particularly in rural areas of Mexico and the American Southwest. These accounts usually describe hearing her cries or seeing a woman in white near bodies of water. However, like all urban legends, these stories are generally considered folklore rather than documented encounters.
La Llorona is a powerful symbol in Latinx culture, representing themes of regret, retribution, and the enduring impact of personal actions. Her story continues to be told and adapted, illustrating the lasting power of folklore in shaping and reflecting cultural identity.
A mysterious and much published Urban Legend is that of “The Mothman”. It is classified as a cryptid; a creature whose existence is supported by anecdotes and personal accounts but not confirmed by science, yet. This particular urban legend originates from the Point Pleasant area of West Virginia in the United States, where the first sightings occurred in the mid-1960s.
The Mothman is typically described as a bipedal winged humanoid. Witnesses often report it as being around 7 feet tall, with a wingspan of around 10 to 15 feet or more, and possessing large, glowing red eyes. It’s said to be capable of flying great speeds, with some claiming it can reach 100 miles per hour.
The first reported sighting of the Mothman occurred on November 12, 1966, near Clendenin, West Virginia. Five men were in a cemetery preparing a grave for burial when they saw what they described as a brown human being lifting off from nearby trees and flying over their heads.
The creature was sighted multiple times over the next year, predominantly around the Point Pleasant area. The most famous encounter took place on November 15, 1966, when two young couples from Point Pleasant told police they saw a large, grey creature with glowing red eyes.
Public interest in the Mothman grew rapidly, fueled by media coverage, including local newspaper Point Pleasant Register, which published an article titled “Couples See Man-Sized Bird…Creature…Something.”
The Mothman legend is often connected to the collapse of the Silver Bridge, which connected Point Pleasant to Gallipolis, Ohio. The bridge collapsed during rush hour on December 15, 1967, resulting in the deaths of 46 people. The incident gave rise to the theory that the Mothman sightings were a warning about the impending disaster.
The Mothman has become one of the most famous cryptids in American folklore. Its popularity has been boosted by various books, movies, and TV shows, as well as the annual Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, which attracts thousands of visitors each year.
Many TV documentaries, and movies have used The Mothman as a central theme.
BOOKS - The Mothman’s legend reached national attention with John Keel’s 1975 book “The Mothman Prophecies,” which linked the creature to supernatural events and UFO activity in the area.
MOVIES - “The Mothman Prophecies” (2002), a major Hollywood film starring Richard Gere, was loosely based on Keel’s book. While it received mixed reviews, it brought the Mothman legend to a wider audience.
TELEVISION - The Mothman has been featured in numerous TV shows, including “The X-Files,” “Lost Tapes,” and “Mountain Monsters.” The creature also appears in the “Fallout” video game series, particularly in “Fallout 76,” which is set in West Virginia.
While the initial flurry of Mothman sightings in the 1960s is the most well-known, various sightings have been reported in other places and times. Some reports of large, bird-like creatures in the Chernobyl area before the nuclear disaster in 1986 have led to speculation about a “Chernobyl Mothman.”
More recently, there were a series of reported Mothman sightings around Chicago in 2017, although skeptics suggest these may have been misidentified large birds such as herons or cranes.
The Mothman remains a popular figure in cryptozoology and American folklore. Whether regarded as a harbinger of disaster, an undiscovered species, or a product of collective fear and imagination, the enduring legend of the Mothman continues to be the stuff of nightmares for many to the present day.
When Urban Legends have some Truth to them
Urban legends often have a basis in truth, even if they’ve been exaggerated or distorted over time. Here are a few examples of urban legends that turned out to be at least partially true.
The Body Under the Bed - The urban legend of a hotel guest discovering a corpse under their bed has unfortunately proven true several times. One notable case occurred in 2010, when cleaners at a Budget Lodge in Memphis discovered the body of Sony Millbrook under a hotel bed. Millbrook had been living at the hotel and was reported missing six weeks prior. The room had been cleaned several times and rented to several other patrons before her body was discovered.
The Green Man, or Charlie No-Face - This is a legend from Pennsylvania about a man who was horribly disfigured with a green face who walked the highways at night. The real person behind the legend was Raymond Robinson, who suffered an electrical accident as a child that resulted in the loss of his eyes, nose, one ear, and an arm. His face had a greenish tint due to the skin grafts, and he did indeed take to walking the local highways at night because he preferred to go out when fewer people could see him.
Rats in the Toilet Bowl - The unsettling urban legend that rats can climb up through sewer pipes and into your toilet bowl is, unfortunately, true. Rats are excellent swimmers and climbers who can squeeze through very small spaces, and there have been documented cases of rats ending up in toilet bowls.
The Call is Coming from Inside the House - This terrifying urban legend about a babysitter receiving threatening phone calls that turn out to be coming from inside the house is based in truth. In 1950, a man named Daniel LaPlante terrorized a family by sneaking into their home, hiding in the walls, and making threatening phone calls.
Cropsey - This boogeyman-like figure was rumored to roam Staten Island and snatch children. In reality, a man named Andre Rand worked on the grounds of the abandoned Willowbrook State School and was convicted in the late 20th century for the kidnappings of two children.
Remember, while these legends are based on real events, they’re definitely the exception, not the rule. Most urban legends are just that — legends.