The Real Origins of 18 Scary Stories

The headless horseman has predecessors from all around the world.
The headless horseman has predecessors from all around the world. / TheCrimsonMonkey/iStock via Getty Images Plus

From possessed dolls and Bloody Mary to the Bunny Man and the Jersey Devil, here are the origins of 18 famous scary stories, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.

1. The Bell Witch

Ten years before he became president, Andrew Jackson heard a story that had spread from the town of Adams, Tennessee, about a ghost witch that was supposedly haunting the Bell family. It began in 1817 with knocks on their door and escalated to singing, bed covers being pulled off, objects moving, physical injury to young Betsy Bell, and even the death of the father John Bell. The entire family claimed to witness these paranormal events.

Jackson, intrigued by the story, decided to investigate in 1819. It’s said that his horse-drawn wagon suddenly stopped in its tracks when he got close to the house. The horses couldn’t pull it any closer. Jackson left sooner than planned, and can you blame him?

The legend of the Bell Witch spread even further in the late 1800s thanks to a book written by one of the sons, which formed the basis for a more wide-spread account by a different author. But the son was young enough at the time of the haunting that many are skeptical of his claims. And some believe that Betsy Bell’s future husband was pretending to be a ghost in order to break up her engagement to another man.

2. and 3. The Dullahan and The Headless Horseman

The headless horseman has predecessors from all around the world. Similar characters are found in Arthurian romance and Brothers Grimm fairy tales. One interesting example comes from Irish legends: The dullahan rides a horse, or sometimes a carriage, while carrying his own head. The Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology notes that “he can put on or take off this hideous head at will, or play ghoulish-ball games with it.”

Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is based on myths from New York. A Revolutionary War cannon reportedly left one German mercenary without a head, so he supposedly rides in search of one ... his or someone else’s.

4. Bloody Mary

It’s difficult to trace the origin of the myth that if you say Bloody Mary a few times into a mirror, a bloody woman will materialize to kill you. Many are tempted to connect this story to Queen Mary I (also called Bloody Mary) or Mary, Queen of Scots. But there’s no evidence to suggest the mythical woman was based on a historical figure. Instead, the idea likely evolved from other mirror-based rituals—one popular one from the late 18th through the 19th century was that you could see your future spouse in a mirror, especially around Halloween. It also doesn’t hurt that there’s a real phenomenon called the strange-face-in-the-mirror-illusion, which causes things we stare for too long to become distorted ... like our own reflections, for instance. 

5. The Devil in the Stull, Kansas, Cemetery

It’s said that twice a year, on Halloween and the spring equinox, the Devil appears in a cemetery in Stull, Kansas. This story has caused many people to trespass on the property trying to spot the devil himself on October 31. It all started in November 1974, when the University of Kansas student newspaper published an article claiming that students had been going to the cemetery, then forgetting they’d made the trip. There are theories that the article was just a joke, but it’s clear it had a lot to do with the story becoming so well known. How well known? Legend says the pope won’t fly over Kansas because of the story, and in 2013, Ariana Grande has said she visited Stull Cemetery and snapped a picture of demons. 

6. The Jersey Devil

The story goes that in 1735, a local woman pregnant with her 13th child declared “Let this one be the devil!” After the baby was born, he turned into the Jersey Devil, with horns and claws and wings and the head of a goat or horse. The story made the news in 1909 when people in the area started finding footprints on their roofs. Ever since then, the Jersey Devil has been spotted around the Garden State, often just scaring people but sometimes even killing livestock.

7. La Llorona

La Llorona, the weeping woman, is a well known legend, especially in Mexico and the American Southwest. The short version: She was a woman, sometimes named Maria, who drowned her children, soon regretted it, and screamed, “Ay, mis hijos!” (“Oh, my children!”) She still haunts the earth, and children in particular. Folklorists disagree about her exact origin, but it’s generally accepted that La Llorona can be at least partially traced to an Aztec earth goddess.  

8. Drug-Laced Halloween Candy

The parental fear that Halloween candy was laced with drugs started with real news stories between the 1950s and ‘70s, which often contained vague information because the details of the situations weren’t immediately known. Future news stories and columnists, like Ann Landers, took it to the next level by claiming that candy tampering was a common issue. But in reality, Halloween candy tampering was very, very rare, and the few real-life cases tended not to be stranger danger but the devil you know: The perpetrators tried to use the candy as a cover-up for a murder.

9. Annabelle

Annabelle, a Raggedy Ann doll that sits in a glass case in a museum in Monroe, Connecticut, was supposedly given as a birthday gift to a 28-year-old nurse in 1970. The nurse and her roommate started to find notes around their apartment saying things like “Help me,” and the doll would move from place to place. A medium told them it was being possessed by a young female ghost, but the ghost hunting couple the Warrens knew better. According to them, she was never human; Annabelle was an evil spirit. 

The Warrens moved Annabell to their museum, and the doll is so dangerous you can’t even touch the case it’s in: Allegedly, a motorcyclist who didn’t follow the rules died in a crash soon after.

10. Tailypo

Readers of the book Short and Shivery might remember the story of the Tailypo. This Appalachian folk tale is about a man living in a cabin in the woods. One night he’s visited by a creature with “jaws like a weasel, ears like a fox, piercing yellow eyes like an owl, a monkey’s body … and bright red fur.” It also had a long tail it coiled around itself. The man chases the animal out of his cabin and slices off its tail, which he then eats. Every night thereafter, the creature comes back, lurking outside his cabin and calling “tailypo, tailypo; just give me my tailypo.” As you can imagine, things do not end well for the man in the cabin.

11. and 12. Slender Man and the "Russian Sleep Experiment"

Many of the legends so far have spread via word of mouth, but the modern way to learn about spooky stories is to seek out “creepypasta” on the internet. For the unfamiliar, this is just the term for these types of stories that are popular on message boards; the well-known Slender Man came from creepypasta.

Another creepypasta is about a “Russian Sleep Experiment” gone wrong that allegedly took place during the 1940s. The five participants, who were political prisoners, have a murderous reaction to a stimulant used to keep them awake. Some readers have wondered if this experiment actually took place, but thankfully it’s pure fiction—it was published on a creepypasta wiki in 2010.

13. Robert the Doll

In the early 1900s, Robert the Doll was given as a gift to a young boy from his grandfather or a Bahamian girl or a Bahamian maid, depending on who you ask. He was blamed for odd noises around the house. His facial expression would change. And, like Annabelle, he would appear in different places than where he had been placed. Also like Annabelle, Robert has been accused of having sinister motives; according to journalist Andy Wright he’s been blamed for “car accidents, broken bones, job loss, [and] divorce.” Robert now sits on display at the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida.

14. Zombies

Zombies entered America in 1838 with a short story titled “The Unknown Painter.” But they’ve been important to Haitian culture for centuries. According to Professor Amy Wilentz, zombie-like figures began emerging as a cautionary tale against enslaved Haitians dying by suicide. Rather than entering a peaceful afterlife, they were cursed to remain on plantations as zombies.

A figure called a bokor could allegedly create them with a special powder. In the 1980s, ethnobotanist Wade Davis proposed that zombies could be traced to a special powder that contained tetrodotoxin from pufferfish. He wrote that people who were poisoned by tetrodotoxin appeared catatonic while actually being conscious and alive. Tetrodotoxin is a powerful neurotoxin, but its connection to zombies, outside of Davis’s account, is far from certain.

15. Teach's Light

The island of Ocracoke in North Carolina is supposedly haunted by the ghost of Blackbeard, who died in the area after being ambushed in 1718. Blackbeard’s real name was thought to be Edward Teach, and the appearance of spooky light under or near the water’s surface is now called “Teach’s light.” The legends of Blackbeard are so scary because he was thought to be a monstrous killer, but historians nowadays aren’t so sure: There’s no record of him murdering a single person. It’s possible he spread that rumor himself to make pirating easier.

16. Bellamy Bridge

If you ever participate in a ghost walk tour of Bellamy Bridge in Florida, you can count on hearing the famous story of Elizabeth Bellamy. On her wedding night, Elizabeth reportedly caught on fire—perhaps by knocking over a candle or dancing near a fireplace (stories vary). She tried to run to the river to jump in and save herself, but she didn’t make it and perished near the bridge. Supposedly you can still see her spirit there today. Except: Though Elizabeth Bellamy was a real person, she actually died of malaria in 1837. The Bellamy Bridge wasn’t even built until 1914, and it’s not clear that any other bridge stood in its place at that time. There are a few theories for how her story got so twisted. One is that over time, it became intertwined with the novel Marcus Warland; or the Long Moss Spring in which a bride catches fire at a place owned by the Bellamy family.

17. The Bunny Man

The Colchester Overpass in Virginia is a place you want to avoid on Halloween ... unless you want to encounter the ghost of the Bunny Man. The legend goes that during the early 1900s, a group of convicts escaped from a bus. All were caught except Douglas Grifton, who spent months killing and eating bunnies. Then, the morning after Halloween, a group of teenagers were found hanging from the bridge, having experienced the same fate as the bunnies. Which is why Colchester Overpass is now more commonly known as the Bunny Man Bridge.

This legend probably dates back to the 1970s when a Virginian man dressed as a bunny threatened to attack multiple people with an axe and even threw it on one occasion. It’s believed that these news stories became conflated over time and the story of the Bunny Man was born.

18. The Mothman

Virginia might have the Bunny Man, but West Virginia has the Mothman, a massive half-man half-bird creature, that was first spotted in the 1960s by people in the Point Pleasant area. These sightings caused a lot of buzz and even news coverage, which culminated in a 1967 bridge collapse that was eventually blamed on the Mothman himself.