From Bloody Mary to Slender Man, urban legends are modern-day tales of monsters and mayhem that just won’t die. Young people trade them at slumber parties, summer camps, internet message boards, and college dorm rooms. They inspire Hollywood, too, reinforcing the legends even more.
But how do they start? And why do we believe them?
According to folklore professor Mikel J. Koven of the University of Wales, “Life is so much more interesting with monsters in it. It’s the same with these legends. They’re just good stories.”
Do you buy that? Other folklorists (and yours truly) believe that urban legends reflect the things we fear and serve as cautionary tales to reinforce society’s morals. In that way, they function just like Grimm’s fairy tales. Children who stray off the path get eaten by wolves… or killed by Slender Man.
These stories are darkly thrilling, especially to kids, but they also reinforce certain moral lessons. Don’t go out alone after dark, especially if you’re a woman. Don’t mess with the occult. Don’t trust strangers. Don’t fool around before marriage.
Urban legends are sometimes rooted in facts, half-remembered and transformed into something truly terrifying. For example, there’s the classic tale of the babysitter.
The general pattern of this story follows a young babysitter who receives threatening phone calls all night until she finally contacts the police, only to find out that the calls were coming from inside the house. Depending on the version of the story you hear, the babysitter sometimes finds the children murdered in their beds. Sometimes she is the victim instead.
The roots of this story may be found in the murder of Janett Christman, a 13-year-old who was abducted and murdered while babysitting during the winter of 1950. The girl had been horribly brutalized during the attack, yet her 3-year-old charge, who liked to sleep with the radio on, slept through the whole thing. Janett’s murder was never solved.
You can see how the legend morphed over the decades into the inspiration for the iconic opening scene of Scream in 1996. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you should check it out below–don’t worry, the clip stops before things get really bloody.
When I was in college during 20*cough*, there was an urban legend on campus about the “It’s Me” guy. A man would call random numbers on campus and say “It’s Me,” then proceed to talk to any girl who answered the phone. Everybody always knew someone–a friend of a friend, someone from their classes, a senior who had already graduated–who had gotten a call from “It’s Me.”
That’s how urban legends go, too. They never happen directly to the person telling the story. Instead, your friend’s cousin found a tooth in her can of Coke, or your lab partner’s older sister swears that her dentist’s son once picked up a vanishing hitchhiker. We know these stories aren’t true… but part of the thrill is pretending that they are.
But urban legends might have a deeper purpose than that. Studies have shown that people remember information that could help us stay alive. According to this 2015 article in The Atlantic, “legends whose themes could have social or survival-related utility.”
Those lessons that urban legends teach could save your life one day. You remember to lock your doors and check the back seat of your car. You think twice before picking up a hitchhiker or trusting a stranger. It’s the same reason true crime stories and shows like Criminal Minds are so popular with women: the legends give us a pattern to follow to keep ourselves safe. It might be a false sense of security, but it’s weirdly comforting anyway.