Everyone loves a good urban legend. Years ago, when people used to go outside, they would sometimes sit around a campfire and tell stories; the scarier the better. Urban legends, sometimes called contemporary legends, were the very best. Usually tales of horror and violence, urban legends gave an increased sense of excitement to being outside and vulnerable. If you shone a flashlight up from under your chin, you could even enhance the scariness tenfold. In most cases, urban legends involve a lesson in morality for the listeners, similar to the heavy-handed morals in slasher flicks from the 80s. The storyteller incorporates themselves into the real event to make it more believable, commonly done by suggesting it happened to a friend of a friend, but this relation also serves to personalize the story. In the years before the Internet, it wasn’t crazy to actually believe that these legends were true. At least, there was no easy way of disproving the events, so there was always the possibility, however slight, and that was exciting.
The most popular urban legends spread like wildfire. Even though the versions changed over time and with place, the general premises stayed the same. Some tales told cautionary tales, warning about the dangers of a particular place or an event, while others were more of a dare, setting up a scenario, which, if replicated, would end in disaster, something only the bravest of the brave would try. Because these urban legends already proved they could entertain an audience, it makes perfect sense that filmmakers would pick them up and turn them into feature films. We know the films that dealt with the big ones, Urban Legend, Campfire Tales and Boogeyman. The urban legends in these are by far the most popular. But what about the lesser-known legends and their films. Maybe you’ve never seen the film or maybe it deals with a legend that has disappeared with age or was never really well-known to begin with. We’re here to educate. Here are 15 movies you didn’t know were based on urban legends.
15. Alligator (1980)
In the early 20th century, there were plenty of stories circulating about giant alligators in the sewers of many big cities. The best known version of this story comes from New York City. The legend says that New York City residents would travel to Florida or wherever and pick up an alligator with the intention of raising it as a pet. Back at home in the city, the alligator would become either too large or too much of a nuisance and New Yorkers would flush it down the toilet. Over time, after years of eating rodents and waste, the alligators would grow to an enormous size in the sewers. There were many different reports from sewer workers and journalists of real alligators under the city, but there was never really any confirmation. In 1980, director Lewis Teague took this legend and turned it into a film with Alligator (taking in place in Chicago rather than New York). The film shows the scary truth behind the legend, both over the top and really entertaining.
14. Black Christmas
Almost everyone has heard the urban legend of the babysitter and the killer upstairs. Many different films have played with this creepy concept, beginning with the short film, Foster’s Release in 1971, but the one film that popularized the legend and was also one of the first slasher flicks ever was Black Christmas (1974). There’s also the 1977 flick, The Sitter (1977), When a Stranger Calls (1979 and 2006) and even Scream (1996). All films include some variation of someone calling a girl when she’s at home (often alone) with cryptic messages. The big scare comes when it’s revealed the call is coming from inside the house. Dun Dun Dun!
Okay, so the film Crank twists the urban legend that it’s based on, but there are some major similarities still present. In the urban legend, commonly called “Kidney Thieves,” the story goes that a traveller in some random place is approached by a stranger. The stranger buys them a drink, which they, unbeknownst to the traveller, drug. Upon waking up in a bathtub filled with ice, the traveller slowly puts the pieces together. Their kidneys (or other organs) have been harvested and are on their way to the black market. In the film Crank, Jason Statham is drugged but instead of having his organs harvested, his organs are poisoned. He needs to keep his adrenaline up in order to stay alive. In Crank 2, his heart is taken out of chest and replaced by an artificial heart because of the damage done to it in the first film.
12. Dead Man on Campus
It’s unclear where the legend first started, but there is a tale that suggests that colleges and universities will pass any student who comes into direct contact with catastrophe while they’re studying, sometimes called the “pass by catastrophe” urban legend. While there is no documented evidence of this ever happening, the rumor has circulated for some time and two movies have been made around the concept, one was great (Dead Man on Campus) and one was terrible (The Curve). In Dead Man on Campus, two roommates are inspired to find a third roommate who is suicidal and will likely kill themselves while sharing a residence with them. This is done because the protagonists have been slacking and need to get passing grades to keep their lives from falling into shambles.
11. Hold Your Breath
Have you ever held your breath when passing by a cemetery? Well, urban legend says you should. Some say this is done for good luck, while others say that it’s done to keep evil spirits from entering your body. This legend must have arisen sometime after the invention of cars, because holding your breath while walking past a cemetery can be really difficult to do. This legend was turned into a film in 2012 with Hold your Breath, which features a group of young kids who don’t honor this tradition. Well, technically only one of them doesn’t honor the tradition, but all it takes is one rotten apple to spoil the barrel. This guy gets possessed and starts killing everyone in his proximity.
10. The Burning/Friday the 13th
The 1981 film, The Burning, is sadly being missed by an entire generation of film fans. This perfect little camp slasher should be right there with the other great slasher flicks from that age, but, for some reason, this one is rarely discussed and soon it might be forgotten altogether. Yet, even for diehard horror fans, the inspiration for this film, the urban legend of Cropsey is one that many people never knew about. Back in the 60s and 70s, almost every camp in America had their own version of a Cropsey tale. Cropsey was said to be a madman who terrorized and snatched up kids at camp. Even Friday the 13this inspired by the tale of Cropsey, though they changed their plot a bit to separate it from The Burning. The reason we often associate horror/slasher movies with camp all started with this awesome legend.
Several different urban legends are out there about a killer car or a car that death seems to follow around, so it’s unclear which one inspired Stephen King most when he first sat down to write the story of Christine. Some of the cars in this legend serve basically as bad luck, causing whoever owns the car at the time to do horrible things. There’s also been stories told of certain cars that are involved in multiple accidents, killing people inside and outside the vehicle in several different events. It was this type of thinking that King used when he drew up Christine and these same stories that inspired John Carpenter when he directed the film version years later. The car in Christine has a mind of its own and begins to even change the appearance and attitude of its owner. Anyone who messes with the car or the owner gets killed in ways only a car could pull off.
There’s a Japanese urban legend that has been around since the 1970s called Kuchisake-onna, or “the slit-mouthed woman.” The 2007 Japanese horror film Carved, is centered around this very tale. In the legend, a woman in a surgical mask will approach someone on the streets. She always asks the same question, “Am I pretty?” If the person answers no, they are killed with scissors. If they answer yes, she will take off her mask. Now, here’s where the catch comes in—if you ever encounter this woman, there is no escaping her. With her mask off, she will ask something to the effect of, “how about now?” Answer no, and you’re dead. Answer yes and she’ll cut your mouth open like hers since you liked it so much. That’s what you get for being polite.
7. Amityville Horror/Conjuring 2
Though it’s not really considered an urban legend these days, the Amityville Horror story has lingered long enough to become a close second-cousin. The stories all started after the events in the house in November of 1974 when Ronald DeFeo, Jr. killed his entire family (six members in the house). After he was sentenced to life in jail, the Lutz family moved in (December of 1975). For the next 28 days, the family experienced a number of seemingly paranormal occurrences that would become the story in the classic horror film, Amityville Horror. Since paranormal investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren, investigated the Amityville house, some of the same story is portrayed in The Conjuring 2 as well. You almost definitely knew about Amityville Horror, but how do you make a list about movies based on legends and not include one of the ultimate haunted house movies?
In a legend that likely first started in Virginia, the tale of the Bunny Man has spread across many different states over the years. During this time, there have been a number of reports from young adults about a man in a bunny costume carrying an axe who terrorizes the people he comes in contact with. In many of the reports, the victims were in parked cars or were accused by the bunny man of trespassing. The legend states that the Bunny Man was an escaped mental patient who skinned bunnies in the forest in certain areas. The 2011 film, Bunnyman, is a variation of this story, an attempt at rekindling the myth that was once one of the most popular in the United States. The film itself is a little sloppy and the myth really does deserve better.
5. I Know What You Did Last Summer
The urban legend of “The Hook” has always been one of the most popular. Though it varies depending on who and where you heard it from, the basic elements are the same. A madman with a hooked hand is on the loose, a couple (usually parked similar to The Bunny Man legend), gets spooked and decides to leave. When they arrive home, they see that a hook is stuck to their car. The film I Know What You Did Last Summer, plays with this concept, but instead of fleeing from the madman, they accidentally run him over then flee from the scene of the crime. Come to think of it, several films have used a killer with a hook hand for a little extra scare factor, much like the next entry.
The film Candyman is really a combination of several different urban legends. In fact, the entire film is based on urban legends and the realization that one of them proves to be real. It blends the legend of “Bloody Mary,” the tale that suggests if you say Bloody Mary’s name three times in a mirror she will appear and kill you, with the legend of “The Hook”. Candyman is similar to Bloody Mary in that she was a nice, normal person in life but has since become malevolent in death. Many different cultures have a similar legend, but Bloody Mary seems to be the most popular for Hollywood films. Many explanations have been grappled with to explain the origins of this legend. The most common one that people will point to is the hallucinatory effects that staring in a mirror can have on us. Over a prolonged period of staring into a mirror, our eyes and minds can begin to play tricks on us, making us think we saw something we didn’t. Or maybe that’s just how we comfort ourselves at night.
3. The Hitcher
The urban legend of the hitchhiker is one of the most common legends we have. The film, The Hitcher, while based on the legend, does twist it to make it a scarier and more violent tale. The original story goes something like this. A couple is driving down the road where they pick up a hitchhiker. After some time, the hitchhiker either vanishes mysteriously or, later, the hitchhiker is revealed to have been a local ghost, a person identified to be dead by a gravestone or some variation of that. In the film version, the hitcher just starts killing peeps, but that’s Hollywood for you.
Vagina dentata, or, as many call it, the freakiest urban legend on the planet. Seen in the 2007 film Teeth, the legend of the toothed vagina is present in many different cultures around the world. Possibly stemming from actual stories of a dermoid cyst, urban legends about vagina dentata is a warning against r*pe and sleeping with women you don’t know. While the dark comedy film Teeth, exaggerates these stories into one crazy case of vagina dentata, the film is easily one of the best movies on this list. Plus, since it’s an urban legend that many have not heard of, it makes a perfect member.
1. The Mothman Prophecies
After a number of sightings were reported in West Virginia in 1966 and 1967 of a Mothman, an urban legend began to grow and fester. Author, John Keel, took these events and put them into a book, The Mothman Prophecies, in 1975. In the book, he claims that all of these sightings and paranormal events led to the eventual collapse of the Silver Bridge and the death of 46 people in December of ’67. In 2002, the film The Mothman Prophecies brought these events to the masses. Even though it exaggerates some of the details, it paints a fairly accurate and terrifying account of the events. Since the collapse of the bridge, there have been no more reported sightings of the Mothman in the area or anywhere else, but maybe he’s just lying in wait somewhere.