10 Classic Urban Legends That Scared the Pants Off Us When We Were Kids

Last week, we took a look at some of the more recent urban legends that have sprung up thanks to the wonders of the Internet — but this Throwback Thursday, let’s dig back into our memory banks. Remember these classic urban legends? They’re the ones we grew up hearing. They may be well-trod ground now, but think back to the first time someone told them to you. Maybe it was a babysitter; maybe it was a friend during a sleepover; maybe it was one of your parents attempting to scare you into behaving. Whoever did the telling and wherever it happened, though, remember how freaky they were? Even though we knew they couldn’t be true… what if they were?

Most urban legends have folkloric roots; many of them serve as cautionary tales; and a lot of the time, they’re told as “something that happened to my cousin’s best friend’s boyfriend’s cousin” or what have you. You’re probably better off reading some proper academic works about them if you want to know more about where they came from (or just spend some time browsing Snopes) — but if you want stories? Your wish is my command. Halloween is fast approaching, and we can always use a few more scares, right?

1. The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs

When I was younger, I had a complicated relationship with the idea of babysitting. On the one hand, we had The Baby-Sitters Club, whose members I desperately wanted to emulate; and on the other, we had… this. Like a lot of babysitter-based tales, it likely arose sometime in the ‘60s; seemingly a punishment for the babysitter’s failure to properly care for her charges, it’s more than a little moralistic.

The story features a teenage girl left in charge of two children in a large, isolated house while their parents attended a dinner party some distance away. After the babysitter puts the kids to bed, she does what any teenager with unrestricted access to someone else’s cable does: She settles in to watch some TV. As she’s getting her couch potato on, though, the phone rings. She answers it — “Hello, Jones’ residence” — only to have a male voice ask her, “Have you checked on the children? You should really check on the children.” It’s not the voice of the kids’ father, so she’s a little freaked out; she brushes it off as the work of a prank caller, though, and hangs up. But a few minutes later, the phone rings again. She answers it again, and the same voice asks her, “Have you checked on the children? You should really check on the children,” again. Thoroughly annoyed, she hangs up and turns the volume on the television up. When the phone rings again and they repeat the whole performance for the third time, though, something tells her that maybe she’d better call the cops.

The police listen to her plight; they take harassment seriously, so they tell her to keep the prank caller talking the next time he rings. If she keeps him on the line long enough, they can trace the call and go pay him a little visit. She does as they ask, small-talking the strange man as he repeatedly tells her to go and check on the children… but when the cops call her back, they tell her to GTFO: They’ve sent a squad car, but the call is coming from a second line inside the house.

Horrified, the babysitter runs out the door and straight into the arms of the police — just as a man barrels down the stairs, a wicked knife in his hand and a maniacal grin on his face. The cops arrest him and save the babysitter, but there’s nothing they can do for the children. The man upstairs killed them as soon as he climbed in their window.

2. The Killer in the Backseat

There are a few versions of this tale floating around, but they all rely on a very specific twist: The big, scary, threatening dude who looks like he’s after the poor, defenseless gal in the car? He’s actually trying to save her. It goes a little something like this:

A girl is driving home late at night. Maybe it’s raining; maybe it’s foggy; maybe it’s just dark; but whatever the driving conditions, she’s getting a little weirded out. Every so often, you see, the car behind her — which, by the way, has been tailgating her for the past few miles — flashes his brights at her. At first, it was just annoying; eventually, though, it becomes downright scary. She starts speeding up, and still the guy follows her, until she tears into her driveway, gets out of her car as fast as she can, and runs to her door. She’s trying to unlock it when the car pulls in behind her and its driver gets out. She starts screaming at him — until he manages to get out between screams, “Look, I kept flashing my brights at you because there was a guy in your backseat.” Together, they go over to her car… and sure enough, crouched down in the backseat is a scary-looking dude clutching a scary-looking knife.

In some versions, the girl pulls into a gas station, only to have the attendant tell her there’s a problem with her credit card and she needs to come into the building to sort it out (apparently she’s in New Jersey, because this could only happen at a full-service gas station). She’s reluctant to do so — something about the attendant feels a little squirrely to her — but eventually she relents. The attendant hurries her into the building, at which point he locks the door behind them. “I’ve called the cops,” he says. “There’s a guy in your backseat, and he’s got a knife.”

According to Snopes, this one might actually be inspired by a true event that happened in New York in 1964. It’s still stupidly sexist, though; as Barbara Mikkelson writes, “the prey is always female and both the evil fiend and the rescuer are male — there are no exceptions to this typecasting.” Siiiiiiiiiiiiigh. 

3. The Vanishing Hotel Room

This one? Oh man. This one did a number on me when I was maybe eight years old. In it, a girl and her mother go on vacation to some exotic locale — usually a foreign country where they don’t speak the language. At first, they have a grand old time; after a few days, though, the mother starts to feel ill. When she becomes unresponsive, the girl goes to the front desk of their hotel and asks them to phone a doctor. After the doctor examines the mother, he tells the girl that she’s very ill indeed and requires a specific medication. After writing the prescription down for her, he sends the girl to a pharmacy to pick it up. The errand goes simply enough, even if it takes a little longer than she was expecting… but when she returns, the hotel looks completely different. No one there remembers her or her mother. And when she checks the guest book, someone else is signed into their room. No one believes her; it’s as if she and her mother never existed.

The mother, you see, had contracted a fast-acting, highly contagious virus. Afraid of having to shut down if news of the illness got out, the hotel removed the mother — who may or may not have already died — and completely refurbished the premises. In some versions, the girl eventually uncovers this information, but in others, she doesn’t — and in the oldest version, which takes place in 1889, she gets carted off to an asylum, there to spend the rest of her days. Yikes.

4. Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn On the Light?

Here’s one for the college students: So there’s this girl who’s having a late-night study session at the library, right? But when she realizes she’s forgotten one of her books, she sighs, berates herself, and then begins the walk back to her dorm room to retrieve it — or wait. Is that right? Maybe she was on her way to a party, but she got cold, so she had to turn around so she could pick up her sweater. In any event, though, she knows her roommate, who’s been feeling a little under the weather, has already turned in for the night; as such, she keeps the light off while she finds whatever it is she’s looking for, then leaves. She comes back super late and just crashes — out like the proverbial light, you know?

But in the morning when she wakes up, she finds her roommate… dead. Throat slashed. And scrawled on the wall — maybe in lipstick, but maybe in blood — are the words, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?”

Classic. And apparently still being told today. Clearly not enough of today’s youths have seen Urban Legend.

5. Humans Can Lick, Too

If you’ve ever lived alone, you’ve probably experienced the paranoia this one inspires first-hand. This other girl, you see — not too dissimilar from yourself, probably — realizes right after she moves into her first one-bedroom apartment that living alone? Kind of freaks her out. So she goes out and gets a dog. She’d always wanted one, anyway, and although this pup looks all big and mean, he’s actually a total sweetheart. He develops a habit of sleeping right next to her bed, so whenever she wakes up in the middle of the night, she drops her hand down and lets him lick it.

One night, though, she wakes up to a weird noise. Sort of a… dripping. Or something. She’s not totally sure, but she doesn’t really want to find out. When she drops her hand down, though, her dog licks it as usual, and she goes back to sleep. But in the morning, she’s greeted by a horrifying sight when she stumbles into the bathroom to brush her teeth. Her dog is hanging in the shower, dead — and written on the mirror is the simple yet chilling phrase, “Humans can lick, too.”

Snopes deals with both this one and “Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn On the Light?” in the same entry, but I actually think they’re different enough to consider individually. Sure, the plot elements are somewhat similar — something sinister happens when the lights are out which is only discovered by the light of day — but they prey on different fears. “Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn on the Light?” highlights both the freakiness of something awful occurring without you noticing it and the guilt that follows; “Humans Can Lick, Too,” meanwhile, very specifically goes after the idea that you’re not alone, even when you think you are.

Fun fact: The licked hand appears in an actual diary entry written by a fellow named Dearman Birchall in 1871. It reads as follows:

“Croquet party… [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 it’s 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.”

6. The Disappearing Bride

Guys. If you ever play hide and seek, do not hide in an old trunk you find in someone’s attic. The earliest version of this tale appears in a 19th century ballad called “The Mistletoe Bough,” but seriously. Even a century later, it’s a bad idea.

Because there’s this girl, you see — well, I suppose “was” is a more accurate description. Whenever someone got married in her family, it was a tradition to play hide and seek after the ceremony. The groom was chosen as the first “it,” leaving everyone else to scatter. The bride, sneaky gal that she was, knew exactly where she wanted to hide: An old trunk that had been sitting in her parents’ attic for as long as she could remember. So up she went, and in she went… but when she closed the lid, she had no idea it would lock behind her.

The groom and the bride’s family searched all day for her… but they didn’t find her. And they didn’t find her the next day, or the next, or the next. They reported her as missing, but the police never managed to solve the case. The heartbroken groom assumed she had gotten cold feet and used the game of hide and seek to run away.

Years later, though, when it was the bride’s sister’s turn to walk down the aisle, she, too, got the idea to hide in the trunk in the attic. When she opened it… there were the original bride’s remains, still clad in her decaying wedding dress. And on the inside of the lid? Scratch marks. Ten of them — left by the desperate bride’s fingernails as she tried to claw her way out of the trunk.

7. The Phantom Hitchhiker

Like many of the legends seen here, there are a wide variety of phantom hitchhiker tales floating about. My favorite one goes a little something like this:

It’s late, it’s dark, and there’s a guy driving home when he spots a girl by the side of the road. He’s not usually the type to pick up hitchhikers, but she looks like she could really use the ride, so he pulls over. She thanks him and climbs in the back, giving him an address as she does so. It’s not too far out of his way, so he doesn’t mind dropping her off at the door; the ride goes uneventfully enough, and soon they’re bidding each other goodnight.

He discovers when he gets home, however, that his passenger left a sweater in the back seat. He’s got a good memory, so the next day, he drives back to the house he dropped her at and rings the doorbell. An old woman answers. He presents the sweater and says that he must have given her daughter a ride home the night before — she left her cardigan in the back, so he figured he’d swing by and return it.

The old woman smiles sadly. “That was my Lydia,” she says. “She died in a car crash in 1923. She must still be trying to get home.”

In some versions, the hitchhiker asks to be dropped at a cemetery; the driver has usually lent her his coat, and when he returns to retrieve it, he finds it draped across the grave of his spectral passenger. In others, she vanishes before he arrives. In some, she’s actually prophetic and announces the end of the world before disappearing. It’s a trope that’s been around for centuries, though, and it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.

The bridge Lydia allegedly died on is real, by the way, even if the story isn’t; it’s in North Carolina. Visit it, if you like. I’m sure she’d appreciate the company. 

8. The Clown Statue

Because obviously just one babysitter story wasn’t enough, here’s a second. In this one, our intrepid teenager has already put the children to bed at the story’s start; she’s currently sitting on the couch in the rec room (do people still have rec rooms?), watching some television. The parents call her around 10 o’clock just to check in; she tells them that everything is fine… but also asks if she can cover up the clown statue in the corner of the rec room — it’s freaking her out. For a moment, there’s complete and utter silence on the other end of the phone. Then the mother tells the babysitter, “Get the children and get out of the house. We don’t have a clown statue.”

This one may more accurately be pegged as a creepypasta; it didn’t appear until the early 2000s, and it’s mostly been circulated on the Internet. It does, however, have a hilarious variation involving David Bowie. Inserting David Bowie into urban legends is always a good idea. 

9. The Poisoned Dress

A good thrift store find is worth its proverbial weight in gold — but always make sure you know what you’re paying for. Once this girl — and my cousin swears it’s true — bought a second-hand dress to wear to her prom, a gorgeous, white satin number. She had the time of her life at the dance, and she looked fabulous… but she started to feel more and more under the weather as the night went on. She was just starting to say to her date that maybe she should go sit down when she actually passed out — and by the time they got her to the hospital, she was dead. They found traces of formaldehyde in both her bloodstream… and the dress. Apparently the gown had been robbed from a corpse and sold to the thrift shop — and when she wore it, danced in it, and sweated in it, it essentially embalmed her alive.

10. Tap. Tap. Tap.

One night, this guy and this gal head out to the woods in his car so they can have a little, ahem, private time away from the prying eyes of their parents. After they’re done, though, the car won’t start. Awesome, right? So the boy tells the girl to stay put while he goes off to get some help; he tells her to keep the doors locked, because hey, it’s dark, it’s late, and who knows what’s lurking outside. She gets a little concerned when he doesn’t return — it’s been hours, so he should have been back by now. Also, there’s this really weird tapping noise that’s been coming from the roof of the car for a while now, and it’s kind of freaking her out. Since she’s stranded in the dark, in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, with no way home, though, she just decides to wait it out.

Eventually she falls asleep; in the morning, she’s woken by a tapping on her window. It’s the local sheriff, and he looks pretty frantic. He gestures for her to roll down the window, so she does. He tells her she needs to get out of the car, which she also does. Then he begins hurrying her away, telling her not to look back, as a bunch of squad cars with sirens pull up. This, however, she doesn’t do. She looks back. And when she does… she sees her boyfriend, strung up in a tree and hanging over the car, dead. That tapping noise she heard all night? It was the sound of his feet bumping gently on the roof of the vehicle below.

An awful lot of urban legends feature a boy and a girl gettin’ busy on lover’s lane, only to have their fun interrupted by doom, death, and destruction. We see the same trope in horror movies: Characters who have sex invariably die. Way to moralize at us in the most gruesome way possible. Good thing most of us would probably sigh at our boyfriend’s ineptitude, hotwire the car, and be done with it now, right?

Images: jonfeinsteingagilas, parasomnist, Mike Pulsifer, smcgee, slworking, howzey, lakewentworth, Karen_O'D, Ross Griff, smswigart/Flickr

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