Urban legends are a big part of our culture and for whatever reason, people love to propagate them. Urban legends don't have to happen in an urban setting to be an urban legend, so the name is a little bit misleading. They are merely contemporary folklore and the name is used to differentiate it from traditional folklore from pre-industrial times. Urban legends can be harmless stories to just get a rise out of people, and sometimes they can cause a panic. That's when they become no so fun, and more dangerous. You've probably heard a few yourself over the years or even seen the terrible movies based on popular urban legends. They are never told by the person it happened to, but always happened to a friend of a friend, or something of that variety. Most serve as cautionary tales and in that regard are a lot like Grimm's Fairy Tales, except that some people believe that certain urban legends are true. The internet has just made things worse, with fake stories being passed off as truth at the speed of sound. I'm just going to talk about a few that have impacted society and some that I just think are interesting.
The first urban legend I'm going to talk about is Lights Off. The legend goes like this: a gang is going around shooting people as a part of an initiation. The prospective gang member would drive around with their brights on/lights off and wait for a car to flash their lights at them. The prospective gang member was then required to chase after the car and shoot the driver as a way of initiation. The legend appears to have started in the early 80's, but can still be found circulating around the internet. It did the most damage in 1993 when the story could be faxed and forwarded to as many people as possible. Whoever started the hoax made the "police warning" look real enough that it tricked other police stations into issuing statements themselves. Fervor died down when there were no reported incidents of people being gunned down by gang-bangers. The legend has resurfaced every once in a while and continues to make people wary of flashing their lights at cars. The point of an urban legend isn't for it to be completely out there. The tale has to have a little bit of unbelievability to it, but it also has to be something that could conceivably happen to any average joe. Flashing our lights at some joker on the road is something we do almost absent-mindedly because, "hey, that guy could get someone hurt!"
Mary I of England had another name that she earned for her persecution of Protestants: Bloody Mary. You probably know where I'm going with this. The ritual of looking into a mirror in the dark or candlelight first started with a ritual of finding out who your future husband was going to be, but later shifted to a way of conjuring a spirit. Bloody Mary is the most popular spirit that people would call on, though I'm not sure if people really connect this with Mary I or not anymore. You know the drill, you say Bloody Mary's name three times in a mirror and she'll show up and totally kill you. That, or she'll scream in your face, throw stuff at you, or any number of terrifying things. This was the first urban legend I had ever heard and it is still the most terrifying to me, even though I know it's utter garbage. I remember in first grade being told by a classmate that a friend of hers had said "Christmas Tree" three times into a mirror because she thought it was a safe thing to say, but boy was she wrong. That Christmas tree apparently messed her up good because she had to miss a bunch of days of school and by the way you probably never heard of this girl because she goes to another school but she's totally real. In this childhood version nothing was safe to say into a mirror. It was like the end of Ghostbusters with the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man. He couldn't hurt anyone, right? You better believe I never repeated words even when I was near a mirror when I was a kid. Honestly, mirrors generally freak me out. They are said to be gateways to the spirit world! This legend is a popular one for truth or dare games at kid's sleepovers where they'll get a kid to try it, then jump out and scare them if they say the name three times. Kids can be so cruel!
Another legend that I had heard at a young age was The Vanishing Hitchhiker legend. I had a book of spooky stories and one of them told the following story. A man was driving down the road late on a rainy night and spots a young boy hitchhiking. The man picks the boy up and asks him where he lives. The man notices that the boy is soaking wet, so he offers him his sweater. The boy leads the man back to his house and thanks him for the ride. The man tells the boy that he'll come back tomorrow for the sweater. The man goes back to the boy's house the next day and asks the woman there if her son is home. He is told that her son had died a month ago, but he could visit his grave if he wanted. The man locates the boys grave, and on top of it, his sweater. This is just a version of this tale. Other variations have the hitchhiker disappearing after a few minutes in the car, usually not uttering a word. Sometimes the hitchhiker does speak and stays the whole drive to the destination. This is a well-known urban legend and probably the one that helped bring urban legends to public awareness in the early 1980's.
A classic urban legend is that of The Licked Hand. In the story, a young girl is spending the night by herself for the first time with only her dog to keep her company. She hears a report about a serial killer on the loose in her area, so she locks all the doors and windows and eventually falls asleep with her trusty dog sleeping underneath the bed. She wakes in the middle of the night to hear a curious dripping sound. Her bedside lamp isn't working and she's too afraid to get up and turn the light on, so she puts her hand down underneath the bed for reassurance. She feels her dog licking her hand and this gives her enough comfort to finally fall back asleep. When she gets up in the morning and enters the bathroom, she sees that her dog is hanging from the ceiling with its blood dripping into the bathtub. On the wall, written in blood are the words "HUMANS CAN LICK TOO." The tale, like many other urban legends has many different versions, but they all center around a young girl being visited by an intruder and getting away in the end. It's easy to see why this story is so scary to the general populace. Many of us don't like staying in places by ourselves, and the thought of a home invasion is downright terrifying. We all fear being the victim of random violence, and this story captures that feeling completely. The story has been circulating for years, but the first version came up in 1871. A young woman writes in her diary of a clergyman who tells them about a home invasion that took place the other day. The clergyman's wife was convinced that there is a burglar hiding under their bed, but the clergyman was convinced it was just their dog. He feels his hand being licked and assures his wife it's just the dog. They wake up the next morning to find all their valuables missing. *Sad Trombone*.
Stay tuned for Part Two!