Have you heard the "humans can lick too" legend? The story about your friend’s neighbor who had someone lick their hand one night and they thought it was their dog? This incredibly simple story manages to be one of the creepiest urban legends because it speaks directly to one of our most basic human fears - someone invading our privacy. But this story isn’t about someone reading your email or swiping your debit card, it’s about the main character letting their guard down around an unknown person; it’s about the chaos of the outside world creeping into your home.
Along with "The Licked Hand" being one of those historic legends that's still scary, it also manages to feel contemporary. That’s probably because it’s always being retold by people who can’t help but update something to feel modern, to make it hit home. What follows is a look at why this piece of folklore still feels fresh, and how it continues to scare people in the modern age.
You've probably heard this story at a sleepover or while sharing stories around a campfire. Or maybe you've read it while you stayed up late reading creepypastas. Whatever the case, some variation of this story is likely lodged in your brain box.
If you haven't heard this story, however, it goes something like this: One night, a few years ago at a house down the street, a girl was home alone with her dog. She fell asleep for about an hour, then woke to the sound of dripping coming from the bathroom, but she was too afraid to investigate. Her dog was sleeping at the side of her bed, so she reached down for reassurance, and the dog gave her hand a lick. Then, the girl fell asleep.
The next morning, she woke up and went to the bathroom, where she found her slain dog hanging from the shower rod. Written in the dog's blood on the shower tile was the phrase "Humans can lick, too.” And in the mirror, she saw the person responsible standing behind her.
The story of someone being tricked by a demented home invader isn't some newfangled creepypasta written by a modern young person; it's been around since at least the 19th century. The first recorded version of the story appeared in 1871 in The Diary of a Victorian Squire by Dearman Birchall.
Birchall's version isn't as gory, but it's still very creepy:
[One of the guests] told of a clergyman who was aroused in the middle of the night by his wife who said 'John, dear, I am sure there is a robber under the bed, I hear him moving. Do get up and see.' John replied, 'Oh its only the Newfoundland dog. I just put my hand out and he licked it.' Next morning all the jewelry and many other effects had disappeared.
In "The Diary of Mr. Poynter" from 1919, M.R. James explores what can happen in the "humans can lick too" scenario when the person having their hand licked decides to investigate what's just below their bed.
Much of the story deals with a man named James Denton trying to match curtains to a particularly strange type of fabric. When Denton dozes off in his reading chair one night, however, he wakes to something truly terrifying:
He felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something. But the feel of it, and still more the fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over the arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him. It was in the attitude of one that had crept along the floor on its belly, and it was, so far as could be collected, a human figure.
After discovering the person crawling along the floor of his room, Denton runs as fast as he can, and the person gives chase. He barely makes it to a secured room with his life intact.
A classic campus-based version of "The Licked Hand" takes the story to college and rewards the main character for not being overly curious. In this version, a student gets back to their dorm room, and for a variety of reasons, they don't turn on the lights.
In the film Urban Legend, for instance, the main character hears her roommate having what sounds like an intense sensual encounter, and leaves the lights off for privacy. In other instances, one roommate stays in to study while the other goes out to party; when the latter returns to their dorm, they leave the light off so as not to disturb their sleeping friend.
But while the details of the story change, the ending is always the same. The morning after, the student wakes to find their roommate slain and the phrase "Aren't you glad you didn't turn on the lights?" written in their blood.