Graveyard Shift What's Really Behind Scary Urban Legends  

Jacob Shelton
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Unless you’re a total square, you’ve spent at least one night sitting around with your friends trying to freak each other out with secondhand stories about the guy hiding in the backseat of the girl’s car, or the man in the bunny suit who carries an axe. Urban legends are usually stories that are meant to teach you a lesson while giving you the heebie jeebies - they’re kind of like Aesop’s fables if Aesop were Edward Gorey.

But where do urban legends come from? There are multiple cases of similar stories popping up across the country in the pre-Internet age, so that means they must have a kernel of truth. Maybe. Most of the meanings behind urban legends are very simple: don’t do drugs, don’t have sex in public, and don’t put spiders in your hair. But rather than simply say those things, urban legends say something extreme as a way to hammer home a truth you can apply to your life.

If all urban legends are meant to teach people a lesson, then what do urban legends mean? What are people supposed to take away from stories about alligators stalking the sewers? Don’t buy an exotic pet? Some urban legends stories are rooted in truth, some of them are incredibly scary, and at least one of them is going to keep you from going into your bathroom for a couple of weeks.

Bloody Mary Was a Murderous English Queen


Bloody Mary Was a Murderous En... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What's Really Behind Scary Urban Legends
Photo: TriStar Pictures

How many times have you stood in front of a bathroom mirror in the dark and chanted "Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary..." until you've scared yourself senseless? Or were you too scared to even try because you heard that a kid a couple years older than you played told Bloody Mary and then the next day he was hit by a car?

Wouldn't you know it, a spooky urban legend about a screaming woman jumping out of a mirror and killing whoever's taunting her comes from the Catholic Church - sort of. Queen Mary the First became known as "Bloody Mary" because she burned almost 300 English Protestants at the stake for heresy in her five years on the throne.

The version of the urban legend that says you need to chant "Bloody Mary, I've got your baby" likely comes from the fact that Queen Mary I had multiple miscarriages and never had a child.

The Beehive Is an Urban Legend Propagated by Big Shampoo


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Photo: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

This urban legend was about 10,000 times more popular in the '50s and '60s, when beehive hairdos were all the rage. Still, variations of stories about spider eggs hatching in a woman's hair after she brushes a spider web (that's also how you get pregnant by a warlock, btw) still float around.

Stories about women and their damn hair have been circulating since the 13th century, when a sermon was given about a "lady of Eynesham" who spent so much time on her hair that she barely made it to mass. As embarrassing as that might be, her hair probably looked great. Anyway, in order to teach her a lesson, the Devil turned himself into a spider and dropped down onto her head, totally freaking her out. According to the sermon, "Nothing would remove the offending insect, neither prayer, nor exorcism, nor holy water, until the local abbot displayed the holy sacrament before it."

Why was the Devil working with the church? Doesn't he have something better to do, like play guitar on top of a mountain or help produce the new Danzig record?

Regardless of the Devil's follies, it's obvious to anyone who has taken a feminist studies class that these stories are nothing more than an attempt to remind women that they should look good and do it fast, or their heads will be turned into spider nests. Thanks a lot for the nightmares, men. 

This Urban Legend Warned Co-Eds About Turning on the Lights


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Photo: TriStar Pictures

Everyone knows someone who went to college with a girl whose lab partner knew a girl who was rooming with someone who was killed in her room while the roommate was out partying. And the roommate would have been killed too, if when she got back to her dorm room she had turned on the lights. Luckily, the totally real and not at all fictional roommate wasn't nosey, and when she heard her nerdlinger roommate being murdered, she assumed that she was just having rough sex and went to sleep. The next day she woke up to a dead body across the room and the words "AREN'T YOU GLAD YOU DIDN'T TURN ON THE LIGHTS?" written in blood - or ink, or whatever was handy in this very real and not made-up story. 

Originating in the '60s, it's not exactly clear what this urban legend is trying to say. It's obviously a cautionary tale, but what are you being cautioned against? Staying in and studying when there's a whole world of friends out there who (probably) won't murder you? Living in a dorm with lax security and apparently, doors without locks? Maybe this is a story that's meant to tell young people that it doesn't matter if you're good, bad, a studious bump on a log, or a party girl, you're going to meet the axe and it's best to just never turn on the lights.

The Hook Man Lies in Wait for Horny Teens


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Photo: TriStar Pictures

The Hook Man is one of those classic urban legends that people seem to inherently know, like how to high-five or the steps to the Macarena. If you're from Mars and aren't sure what this is about, here's the condensed version: two teens go to make out at Lover's Lane, they hear a news report on the radio about an escaped prisoner from an insane asylum who has a hook for a hand, they get scared, leave, and when the guy gets home, he finds a hook stuck to his door. Phew, that was a close call.

While this story of teens making out to the news is pure fiction, it's based on the Texas Moonlight Murders that occurred in 1946 in "lover's lane"-type spots around Texarkana. 

The Hook Man is essentially a precursor to slasher films, especially in the way that it posits that the only people who are in any kind of danger are people who put themselves there by being unchaste. Although you could argue that there's nothing cooler than being murdered by a psycho with a hook for a hand just after you finish having sweet premarital sex in the back of a car.