Urban Legends: The Root of All Storytelling
We all know the story: a babysitter watches the kids one night but can’t settle because the creepy, life-sized clown statue in the living room is freaking them out. The eyes of the statue seem to follow them everywhere around the room. Not being able to take it anymore, the babysitter calls the parents to ask if they can move the clown statue to another room in the house until the adults return. The parents are confused, stating that they don’t own a clown statue or any statues for that matter. Just as puzzled, the babysitter hangs up the phone, wondering if they don’t own a statue, why is it in the dark corner of the living room? Then the statute blinks, and the babysitter makes a chilling realization: the clown is a live human who broke into the house.
A simple campfire tale meant to scare kids about being cautious even in their own homes. These stories are referred to as urban legends, folklore passed down by generations that serve as entertainment and a warning or morale tale to keep the population in line. Reminding them always to check the house and be aware of any item moved out of place or if something is there that wasn’t there before. Every town has a story like this that people swear that they knew someone this actually happened to, or they knew a person who knew the person in this exact same scenario. Yet, for as unordinary as the situation may seem, some believe the stories to be completely impossible. Although, if it were so impossible, how do so many versions of the same story exist? In every town, in every community, there are tales of what could happen to unsuspecting victims when they are not being careful. This raises the question: Is there some truth to these stories? Or, if not, where do these urban legends come from?
While most urban legends are grossly exaggerated, they serve one common purpose: to teach a lesson or make the public aware of a rising problem. Such as a pair of teens being alone in the woods at night and a serial killer getting to them or having too much to drink at the bar with a beautiful stranger and waking up the next day with a missing organ. Urban legends also tend to stay updated with society and change as different needs arise. The more cultural sense they make, the more likely the story will have a chance to ‘survive’ and be passed on.
Returning to the story about the teens alone in the woods, it may seem obvious to readers that young adults alone at night are just asking for trouble. Growing up, it would not be hard to be told this tale: A pair of youthful lovers drive to lovers’ lane at midnight for some nightly romance. A rustle can be heard from outside the vehicle and scares the girl. Putting on a brave face, the boy leaves the car to investigate. Time passes, and the young man has not returned yet. The young woman, now scared and wondering where her lover is, listens for any changes in her environment. Suddenly a scratching noise can be heard from the car’s roof. Now scared out of her wits, the girl exits the car to see from the branch of a tree that her boyfriend has been hung and his feet were rubbing against the roof of their car, thus making scratching noises. It’s the last thing she sees before the killer who murdered the boy also came up behind her to take her life.
While this appears to be an outlandish work of fiction to scare teens about the dangers of sneaking out and unprotected sex, many would be surprised that this narrative gets its inspiration from a popular string of unsolved murders that terrorized a quaint All-American town.
In early 1946 a string of murders rocked the area of Texarkana between Texas and Arkansas. The killer, or ‘Phantom’ as dubbed by the media, would sneak up on unsuspecting teenagers in the middle of the night while the teens sought alone time and shoot and kill the young victims. These killings and violent crimes have become known as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders and have even inspired movies, such as The Town That Dreaded Sundown. While the Phantom killer has never been identified or arrested, the history of the killings lives on in these urban tales, hopefully providing a way to keep naïve adolescents indoors and out of the hands of ruthless murderers.
Urban legends also have a way of taking on their own life and bleeding into our realities and psyche. Slender Man started out as a creepypasta, a popular form of internet stories, and is now considered a modern-day phenomenon. Something about the writings of an impossibly tall and foreboding humanoid who comes at night to stalk and take away children has scared the public so much that real-life crimes have been committed in the name of the supernatural being.
In 2014 two teenage girls actually lured a mutual friend into the woods and stabbed her nearly 20 times in hopes of summoning Slender Man. The victim thankfully survived; however, this case was only one of many to reach the headlines to talk about the dangers of internet storytelling. No one can explain what exactly about these stories terrifies people so much to commit crimes; however, it does show just how seriously the public takes these stories to heart and allows them to affect day-to-day life.
So, in the end, what is the fundamental element that allows urban legends to thrive and not die out? One theory could just be that everyone loves a good scary story or that negative news and events are more likely to be talked about and catch attention. Media likes to spread fear and show the ugly side of humanity in order to stay relevant. It could also be that people love to hear a story with a twist, something that brings up strong emotions, and something that is believable while also hoping the same fate doesn’t befall them. Overall, urban legends are a key way to share experiences, emotions, and current events among many groups while entertaining and exciting.