What's Really Behind Scary Urban Legends

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 illicit substances, don’t hook up 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 English Queen
    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

    The Beehive Is an Urban Legend Propagated by Big Shampoo
    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

    This Urban Legend Warned Co-Eds About Turning on the Lights
    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 slain in her room while the roommate was out partying. And the roommate would have been wiped out 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

    The Hook Man Lies in Wait for Horny Teens
    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 offed by a psycho with a hook for a hand just after you finish hooking up in the back of a car. 

  • The Bunny Man Is a Terrifying Advocate of Private Property

    The Bunny Man Is a Terrifying Advocate of Private Property
    Photo: ANOC Productions

    Unlike most urban legends, there are no lessons to learn from the Bunny Man of Virginia other than if you see a guy in a bunny costume with an axe it's time to get the f*ck out of Virginia.

    The legend began in 1970, when a couple who were visiting their uncle outside of Fairfax, Virginia, had the passenger side window of their car smashed in with a hatchet just before a man in a bunny costume leaned into the car and screamed, "You're on private property, and I have your tag number."

    Another bunny attack occurred a few weeks later, when a security guard approached a guy wearing a bunny suit who was standing on the porch of an unfinished home holding an axe. The Bunny Man then started smashing at the porch and shouting, "All you people trespass around here. If you don't get out of here, I'm going to bust you on the head."

    From there, the Bunny Man stories grew to staggering heights. Some people believe that the Bunny Man escaped from an insane asylum in 1910, which would have made him 60 years old at his youngest (if he were born in the asylum), and close to 80, if you want to be more realistic. It's now believed that if you hang out at the Bunny Man Bridge (or the Fairfax Station Bridge, if you're the least fun person in the world) at midnight on Halloween you'll be gutted and hung like a rabbit from the bridge for all the world to see. YIKES! 

    Aside from the weird supernatural element that the story has taken on in the 21st century, the spookiest thing about this urban legend is that anyone who wants to wear a bunny suit and go throw axes at people can just do it. Who needs to make the Bunny Man into a supernatural figure when there are legit crazy people out there?

  • Crybaby Bridges Warn Against the Perils of Unsafe Bridge Driving

    Crybaby Bridges Warn Against the Perils of Unsafe Bridge Driving
    Photo: New Line Cinema

    If you live in a state where there's not much to do outside of drive around on back roads with your friends then you probably have a crybaby bridge or three. If you haven't had the joy of being freaked out while listening for the sounds of crying ghost babies who were allegedly drowned by their mothers then you haven't lived.

    In most of the CBB urban legends, a mother, usually of triplets, loses control of her car late at night while driving over a bridge and everybody drowns. Years later, if you drive to the bridge, cut your lights, and honk three times, you'll hear the cries of the dead children

    What purpose does a myth like this serve? Is it a reminder to drive safely? Or is just meant to give teens something to do other than go down to the basement and sniff glue?

    When it comes to places like DeKalb, Lufkin, or Brownwood, Texas, those towns are all situated near bridges where it's possible that someone could have actually eaten it in the past, but the stories are always similar in a way that suggests that it's a mutation that's moved from town to town without ever actually happening.