Urban legends balance on the thin line between fact and fiction and often convey lessons of morality, societal compliance, or simply the macabre. Like folk tales, urban legends vary from region to region, person to person. They evolve and contemporize like a mighty game of telephone that transcends the ages to get children to eat their vegetables, scare promiscuous teens into celibacy, keep housewives clucking, and maintain general xenophobia between creeds, races, and economic classes.
Though we may have left the scary campfire stories behind for video games and Saw movies, and we may have stopped telling old wives' tales because the term itself sounds sexist, or even rebranded folklore into Creepypasta’s. Urban legends have survived over the eons in many forms and continue to elicit reactions from the dismissive to explicit.
From NASA disclosing all the moon landing pictures amidst countless conspiracy theories, to the Slender Man Stabbing, where two 12-year-old girls took a third out to the woods and repeatedly stabbed her (she survived), in order to appease a character from a modern day urban legend the two perceived as real.
Being the super adulty adults that we are, most of us can distinguish the outlandish from the probable and over time put many urban legends to rest because they sound ridiculous. Yet our basic fears always outweigh the reasonable and urban legends don’t derive from the reasonable. So there stands to be unreasonable circumstances at the point of origin for just about any urban legend, especially those with a foundation of truth.
This mind controlling video game from the early 80s is said to have existed for only a short time, in a few arcades around Portland, Oregon. There were reported lines leading down the block to play this game. People became possessive, addicted, and fights would break out in arcades. People suffered seizures, hallucinated, and experienced missing time. Several kids went into comas and died before a group of "Men in Black" came and carted the games away, never to be seen again.
In reality, there was no such game and versions of this story can be found all over the web. There’s even a strong enough cult following for the phantom game to have several fan generated renditions floating around out there.
The story of Polybius has some possible roots in a real life case of the game Berzerk. Two kids died within the same year, immediately after playing this early Atari game. Jeff Dailey and Peter Burkowski, both in good health, dropped dead of heart complications right after adding in their initials to the high score list. Over time the story evolved, someone added Men in Black, a secret mind control agenda, and youth gone wild to the mix, making it a contemporary urban legend.
14 Killer In The Backseat
A classic urban legend and favorite around the campfire back in the racist misogynistic 1940s and 50s. A woman drives along a lonely road at night and decides to let her guard down for a split second. Another car appears and begins flashing their brights, honking, and tailgating. Hysterical, the woman speeds to a nearby gas station, and runs inside locking the door. The car in pursuit arrives and man gets out, runs over to the woman’s car and pulls a knife wielding maniac out of the backseat, shocking everyone and reminding women everywhere to never leave the house.
Unfortunately, this story’s basic premise is not an uncommon one. Neither are the sexist undertones.
This specific urban legend probably comes from one of the earliest cases of a man lurking in a woman’s backseat only to jump out and attack her while driving. In 1935, a Palo Alto woman was attacked and had her purse and car stolen. Similar stories are reoccurring in headlines around the world sans the gas station and heroic tailgater ever since.
13 Spider Lays Eggs In Face
This is a rare urban legend where the truth is way grosser than the myth.
Someone gets a spider bite on their face, usually while on vacation in a country where people look and sound different than they are. The spider bite grows and appears and eventually bursts with hundreds of tiny baby spiders, terrifying everyone and setting human/spider relations back decades.
In reality, this just doesn’t happen. In fact, usually in nature, animals lay their eggs in strategically hard-to-get-to places unless they plan on sticking around to defend them. It’s just a bad idea if your plan is to aid in the propagation of your species. There are however, several species who would disagree and love very much to lay eggs in your face. Mostly parasitic worms, scabies, and the like.
The original spider eggs in the face story is probably a combination of the universal and ageless arachnophobia and botfly stories, the latter of which lay their eggs under the skin, causing an excruciatingly painful sore, eventually leading to a large barbed maggot emerging from the head, slowly burrowing its way free. The barbs make it impossible for someone to remove the larvae without causing even more pain and possible infection (I’ve had a few friends kinda like this).
Though they tend to prefer horses, human hosts are not uncommon (the botflies not my friends).
12 Babysitter Gets A Phone Call
Another classic with multiple iterations, usually this one involves a call coming from inside the house and the babysitter discovering the children murdered, only to be attacked or murdered as well, moments before the po-po show up.
You know it. You’ve seen it in a dozen movies, most notably in the film When a Stranger Calls or When a Stranger Calls Back, or even 2006’s totally new and original, When a Stranger Calls. It was also heavily referenced in the Scream franchise.
The origins of this story can be traced back to 1950. Columbia, MO police received a 911 call from a screaming hysterical girl by the name of Janet Christman, who was babysitting the Romack’s three-year-old son Gregory. She was begging for help before the line went dead. Unfortunately, caller ID wasn’t around yet and police were years away from tracing calls directly to addresses, so all the police could do was hope she called back.
The Romack’s returned home and discovered Janet’s body, strangled in a pool of her own blood. It was discovered via proto-CSI that the killer had most likely hid inside the house for quite some time before Janet arrived only to emerge once she began to fall asleep. The killer was never found.
A crime like this was inconceivable at the time in peaceful Columbia and for the residence, marked the end of an era where you didn’t lock your doors and strangers were friends you hadn’t met.
11 The Boogeyman
This is probably the most vague and overused term in the culture of urban legends. A boogeyman is basically whatever parents want it to be to keep their kids in check. I mean, kids are naïve, so if you can convince them there’s some paranormal creature who shows up to punish them for being bad, you can basically own them till they wise up. Good thing that doesn’t translate in the adult world in any way, shape, or form.
The term boogeyman most likely refers to the Bugis or Buginese people of the South Sulawesi. In the early swashbuckling days, the various East India Companies ventured to dominate spice trade and basically shit on anyone who wasn’t Dutch or British. The Bugis were notorious pirates and ruthless in their method, so much so that tales of the Bugi-Men spread throughout the trade routes striking fear in the hearts of a bunch of greedy assholes.
Despite this, the term bogeyman precedes boogeyman and may be a reference to bog people or bog-men, naturally preserved mummies found all over Europe, in peat bogs, some dating back to the Bronze Age. Many are incredibly well preserved and show signs of strangulation and human sacrifice. No doubt, many legends and stories regarding the bog bodies, which appear eerily alive, have been recycled over several millennia and could be another macabre source of the word.
Cropsey was supposedly just another local Staten Island variant of the boogeyman. From the early 70s on, children were told to behave in whatever manner, otherwise you may leave the house one day to never return. Cropsey will have snatched you up, taking you to the abandoned mental hospital he resides in.
Once again this urban legend is totally true. Only Cropsey’s name is Frank Rushan and he was a squatter in a mental institution that was shut down after Geraldo Rivera did an investigative documentary on it (which made his career), which was basically ripped off verbatim by Sarah Paulson’s character in American Horror Story: Asylum.
Frank was troubled, to say the least. One day he stole a school bus and drove to the local YMCA and picked up 11 random children, taking them to a New Jersey airport with the intention of taking them “somewhere.” This time the children were unharmed.
In the years to come, four children would last be seen walking away with Rushan. Only one of the bodies would be recovered. He is currently serving life in prison with possible parole in 2037 at the age of 93.
9 Death By Escalator
Yes escalators. How many cautionary tales have we all heard regarding horseplay around escalators? They’re big, have lots of gears, and they all have those serrated looking edges and those sharp teeth looking things at the top and bottom, where the stairs go under the floor... back to their hellish escalator tooth dimension.
But in all seriousness, aside from people taking spills or falling off escalators, several fatalities each year occur from people being pulled into the gears and moving machinery bits, usually children. It pretty much goes without saying that being crushed to death, most likely feet first, by giant gears in a huge machine, is probably just as painful as it is horrific. So it’s best not to dwell on this one. Having witnessed, first hand, a similar situation years back, I can tell you it’s not a great way to go. Witnesses are traumatized to the point where they make excuses to mention what they saw in their “Top 15” articles on TheRichest.
8 Spontaneous Human Combustion
Yes, things (including people) combust into flames, sometimes but rarely spontaneously. In fact, never spontaneously. Because things don’t spontaneously burst into flames. There’s always a source.
So when someone claims to be spontaneous, they’re not. If that same person bursts into flames, it wasn’t spontaneous. The sad truth is, many people who were documented as spontaneously combusting, were done so in haste at a time when science wasn’t exactly at a premium. In retrospect, it’s more likely the victims were simply booze soaked and passed out near an open flame or with a lit cigarette.
The combo of being saturated in alcohol both internally and externally, then accidentally setting yourself on fire in your sleep would make you a giant candlewick. The body would burn at incredibly high temperatures but the flames would most likely not travel beyond the areas saturated in alcohol. Still I’d rather people think I died from spontaneous combustion rather than dying alone and drunk near open flame. Which is likely.
7 Lover’s Lane Killer
Here’s a horror trope as old as TV, cinema, and basically story telling in general. What better time to attack innocent people than when they’re at their most venerable, awkwardly making out in a car or carriage, or in a desolate cabin, only to be killed by a rampaging serial killer. The variations on this one are vast and it’s basically the most cliché set-up to a blood bath ever.
That’s probably because there are near countless cases of different "lovers lane" killers over the centuries. Some of the more famous being the "Monster of Florence" who killed eight couples getting freaky in their cars between 1968-1985 and was never caught. Lets not forget Son of Sam or the Zodiac Killer, either.
The film(s) The Town That Dreaded Sundown is based on one the more terrifying lovers lane killer cases. The Texarkana Moonlight Murder involved attacks on four couples in Texarkana, TX, resulting in five deaths in 1946. The killings turned the town upside-down and pitted neighbors against each other in a paranoia fueled witch hunt. Still, after hundreds of people questioned and mass investigations, no killer was ever apprehended.
6 Guy Fakes Crazy To Get Institutionalized
According to legend, a college student was working on a thesis on the conditions of mental institutions. He decided to go undercover, feign crazy, and experience the way mental patients are treated first hand.
Of course doctors usually know when someone is faking crazy, it’s part of their training, as you know, doctors. So obviously this student really had to do his homework. Having convinced the doctors, he spent a few days in the asylum, and eventually decided he’d had enough. Of course upon explaining the situation to doctors, they believed it to be a deeper psychosis than previously thought, restrained him and pumped him full of drugs for weeks before being discovered, but not before he had lost his mind for real.
I’ve heard this one many times and it probably stems from the true to life story of Nellie Bly, the first investigative journalist of her kind. Nellie is notoriously famous for faking crazy to investigate a loony bin from within.
Once inside she experienced first hand the medieval conditions in which the mentally disabled were forced to endure. Shackled, bound in cages, living in their own excrement, these unfortunates were treated worse than any animals. Experimented on, lobotomized, and euthanized. Luckily unlike the idiot in the in the fictional account, Ellie let the newspaper she worked for in on her plans and they rescued her after a few days. Her story would change the way people treated and perceived the mentally disabled.
Once again this story would be adapted and become the main plot line for Sarah Paulson’s character in American Horror Story: Asylum
5 Dog/Cat Meat In Your Chinese Food.
This one barely needs any introduction. Almost everyone has a story about a Chinese food place in their hometown or nearby that was shut down for serving cat or dog meat, but has anyone claiming this actually seen an article, police report, notice from the FDA, or witnessed any verifiable proof of this? There was even a recent fake article being passed around as real, claiming a restaurant, either in California or New York, was given permission to serve dog meat. This of course was an Internet hoax, designed to trigger stupid people.
Serving the world's two favorite pets as food is a huge taboo in America and most civilized countries, but not so much in some Asian countries. In fact, just recently Taiwan, one of the countries most synonymous with the practice, declared it illegal and is pushing for neighboring countries to do the same.
The fact is, there are no reports of this occurring in the United States in modern times. Sure, there are plenty of rumors. There was a Chinese food place in my home town growing up that went out of business because of rumors like this. Sure, people swear by the rumors (because they sound plausible when you’re uneducated and xenophobic), but really, what are the pros of catching local cats and dogs and feeding them to your customers without their knowledge? Seems like the risks involved don’t even come close to the rewards of saving a few bucks on farm produced meats.
So it’s safe to say, even though the consumption of cats and dogs is a real thing, it does unfortunately happen in some parts of the world. It doesn’t happen in America, because most restaurants want to stay in business and avoid the angry mobs and their pitchforks.
4 The Illuminati
These guys are the people who allow you to eat, sleep, and breathe. They control the media, newspapers, and all forms of world government. They even have secret deals with the moon men and lizard people who live in caverns deep bellow the surface of the Earth and soon plan on depopulating major cities to enslave humanity. Except, nope. Because they don’t exist.
The real Illuminati were a group a Bavarian aristocrats who created a doctrine that utilized their money and power to control and develop society, so that it may one day be free of religious and superstitious agendas promoted by monarchies and archaic forms of free government around the world. This group was outlawed and disbanded sometime in the late 1700s, however they were stilled blamed for being the architects behind the French revolution.
Though billionaires and those in power have always been manipulating the masses in some manner, the name Illuminati was basically forgotten until it was resurrected by Nesta Helen Webster in the 1920s. Nesta was a fascist, Antisemitic, crazed conspiracy theorist. But before the Nazis plundered Europe in the years to come, being a delusional, Jew hating, fascist wasn’t considered a bad thing.
Winston Churchill praised her accusations of a Jewish run cabal to destabilize global societies. She published many popular books on the subject, most based on the book Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which lays out a Jewish agenda for world domination via the Illuminati. This book however was revealed to be a hoax, written to undermine the Jewish faith and spread anti-Semitism. Obviously Nesta didn’t know that and was key in reviving the legend of the Illuminati and (whether she meant to or not) probably took a major roll in developing Nazi ideology and the final solution.
3 Bad Guys Dressed As Cops
I don’t want to alarm you since you should probably pull over to the side if you see flashing red and blue lights in your rearview mirror, but there are literally countless stories of people impersonating the authorities in order to take advantage of innocent law abiding folks like you and I.
There are over a dozen cases of this occurring in the first few months of 2017 alone. In most cases a man wearing a police uniform and/or driving a car with police lights, pulls over the unsuspecting victim, usually a woman, and attacks her. The penalty for impersonating a cop usually varies from state to state and the consequences are always severe, but that doesn’t stop criminals from doing it. In fact, many cities across the globe have such a growing problem with police impersonators that they’ve issued public warnings, informing people to only stop for official and clearly marked police units. If a car without government plates or police logos tries to pull you over, do not stop. Call the police from your mobile phone, and wait for clearly designated police to arrive. Do not stop and definitely do not drive home.
2 Organ Harvesting
Guy meets girl while traveling, they have a few drinks and head to his hotel room. Suddenly the man becomes dizzy and passes out due to a spiked drink. He wakes up sometime later in a bathtub filled with ice and a note nearby explaining how his kidney has been removed and he must seek medical attention if he wants to live.
This story has been retold dozens of times with the crime moving from various cities and countries depending on who’s telling it. The truth is, this story has never been substantiated. No reports filed, no victims have come forward, nothing. It’s a classic Urban Legend.
Organ Harvesting for the black market is, however, a very real thing and kidnappings have been known to occur, though most who go under the knife are doing it for the cash. It’s a huge business in many countries and if you know the right people, you can sell one of your kidneys to the mafia for $5k. That’s like a month of back bills you can pay off.
On an even sadder note, however, many people who do voluntarily give up their organs don’t get the cash or trade they were promised and are left with any number of infections or diseases from the unsanitary conditions of the surgery. The film Dirty Pretty Things starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tautou explores contemporary organ harvesting in the UK and may not be directly based on a true story, but does ring close to truth.
1 Craigslist Killer(s)
AKA the Classifieds Killer if you were alive before the Internet. It’s another classic urban legend and a fear anyone who has ever bought a car, looked at an apartment, or perused the missed connections section of Craigslist has pondered.
Personally, I think Craigslist is great. I found the house I currently live in, got a puppy, and as a youngling, bought and sold several cars using it. But of course like any form of classified publication, it’s not without its super creep factor, simply because it puts you in contact with complete strangers.
The numbers are frightening with studies showing over 100 documented murder cases linked to the advertising site as of 2016. The man who was given the actual prestigious title of "Craigslist Killer" was one Philip Markoff who met and robbed several people via the website in 2009, culminating in the murder of a woman who was advertising on Craigslist as a licensed massage therapist. Markoff was arrested and committed suicide while behind bars.