15 Origins of Urban Legends
By Jake Rossen
Urban legends are the kind of stories told around a campfire or under a sofa cushion fort at a sleepover. These modern folktakes are usually pretty scary—and of course, the storyteller swears what they're saying is a true story they heard from a friend, who knows someone who knows the victim. From what inspired Candyman and the Mothman to the tales about alligators in the sewers and killers calling from inside the house, we're breaking down the origins of urban legends in this list adapted from The List Show on YouTube.
This year, director Nia DaCosta will be releasing a new vision of Candyman, the popular 1992 horror hit about a vengeful spirit who is summoned by saying his name five times. In one of the movie’s most terrifying scenes, the villain bursts through a medicine cabinet in the bathroom to attack his victim. While Candyman himself isn’t an urban legend—the character is based on a short story by Clive Barker—the idea of a killer attacking you through a bathroom mirror is rooted in fact. In 1987, a woman named Ruth McCoy was killed when a burglar crawled through a false wall behind her medicine cabinet, which was put there to make it easier to assess plumbing issues in the Chicago Housing Authority project. Like many famous modern myths, there can be a good deal of truth in the fiction. Whether intentional or a strange coincidence, two of the characters in the 1992 film actually shared the last name McCoy with the real-life victim.
2. The Killer Calling From Inside the House
For decades, stories have circulated about a babysitter home alone who receives harassing phone calls. When the call is finally traced by police, the babysitter is horrified to discover it’s coming from inside the house.
While that exact scenario doesn’t seem to have ever been documented, there have been unsettling reports of babysitters being assaulted. In 1950, 13-year-old Janett Christman was killed by an intruder while babysitting in Columbia, Missouri. Police suspected a man who had been friends with the family of the 3-year-old boy she was watching, but he was never charged.
This legend probably picked up steam because it struck a psychological chord. The 1970s was an era of women’s liberation, and some argue that the idea of a man lurking out of sight was, in a way, a rejection of that new paradigm. You could consider it anti-feminist propaganda, but either way, being a babysitter meant being alone in a strange house. It was a relatable fear.
3. The Goatman
The Goatman was a purported half-man, half-goat fond of devouring dogs and attacking people in Prince George’s County in Maryland. While the Goatman had been whispered about for years, he got an explosion of publicity in 1971 after a reporter named Karen Hosler delivered a one-two punch lending credibility to his existence. In one Halloween article, Hosler passed along research from state folklore archives that presented the Goatman as a former researcher at the Beltsville Agricultural Farm who experimented on goats. One day, he lost his mind and ran into the woods, growing his hair long and attacking cars that passed by. Just two weeks later, Hosler reported on a family that awoke to the sounds of what they later described as a two-legged animal on their property that was howling and squealing. The next day, the family found their dog, Ginger, decapitated. Then people reported seeing an animal walking on its hind legs near Fletchertown Road, where Ginger was found. From that point on, teens in Maryland learned to fear the Goatman.
4. The Mothman
And no urban legend rundown is complete without mention of the Mothman, a strange creature who purportedly terrorized West Virginia in the 1960s. This winged menace was spotted numerous times, including by a grave digger and two couples sitting in a car in 1966. They described it as having bright red eyes and a massive wingspan 10 feet long. When they drove away, the creature allegedly chased after them. Both sightings took place in a small community named Point Pleasant, and the Mothman myth has persisted ever since. The truth? Eyewitnesses might have seen a sandhill crane, which is nearly as tall as a human and has bright red flesh around its eyes. Not the kind of thing you want to see late at night, but probably not a mortal danger, either. After all, the birds live on grains and small animals. The only problem with this explanation is that sandhill cranes aren’t all that common in the area.
5. "Humans Can Lick, Too"
Not all tales of killers result in people dying. Sometimes, it’s the near-misses that prove to be effective stories. In one urban legend, a person wakes up in response to some strange noises. As they let their hand dangle at the bottom of the bed, they feel a reassuring lick from their family pet. The next morning, the pet is found dead, and a note reads, “Humans can lick, too.” This O. Henry-esque twist ending dates as far back as 1871, when a story made the rounds in England about a jewel thief who hid under a bed and licked the hand of the homeowner so he wouldn’t get up to investigate.
6. The Killer in the Backseat
Another near-miss urban legend involves a driver who is seemingly harassed by a car following hers. When she finally stops, it turns out the other driver was trying to warn her of a killer hiding in the back seat. It’s actually hard for murderers to try and hitch a ride in a back seat without being seen, but this story does have some basis in reality. In 1964, an escaped murderer hid in a car. In a twist, the car belonged to a police detective, who shot the criminal.
7. The Real Corpse on Display
Ever hear the one about the haunted house that left a real corpse on display? You’re probably not going to find a dead body at your local haunt, but if you were a crew member on The Six Million Dollar Man in 1976, you would have realized this was no myth. A man working on the show was setting up a sequence at a funhouse at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park when he tried to adjust what he thought was a fake corpse. As the LA Times put it, “A technician moved it—and an arm fell off.”
It was the arm, and the body, of Elmer McCurdy, an outlaw who was shot by authorities after a train robbery in 1911 and then embalmed in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Elmer’s body was then taken on tour. At the time, it was common for people to want to see the corpses of famous criminals. Eventually, McCurdy got mixed up with some wax dummies and wound up in Long Beach, California, where he had become a macabre prop. He was given a proper burial in Oklahoma in 1977.
8. The Death of Life Cereal Spokesperson Mikey
The Six Million Dollar Man was a big hit in the 1970s, and so was Mikey, the star of the Life cereal commercials. At some point, word spread that Mikey had succumbed to a dangerous combination of soda and the effervescent candy Pop Rocks. The rumor grew so widespread that in 1979 the mother of child actor John Gilchrist, who played Mikey, got a condolence call from a stranger.
The story likely stemmed from schoolyard discussions about Pop Rocks, which were fizzy carbonated candy, and how eating them seemed dangerous. It wasn’t, but the story was so widely believed that it seriously damaged sales of the candy. General Foods, which owned Pop Rocks, even begged John Gilchrist’s parents to let him film a commercial letting people know he was still alive, but they refused. The grisly story continued for years and all the negative publicity forced General Foods to discontinue Pop Rocks soon after. They have made a comeback, however, in case you’d like to test this theory out for yourself.
9. Rice Killing Birds
For some reason, people just can’t get enough of urban legends about food causing living creatures to explode. For years, couples planning their wedding have been warned about not throwing rice at the ceremony because birds will be tempted to eat it, causing them to blow up.
That can’t actually happen. Rice, whether it’s cooked or uncooked, poses no threat to birds. But Connecticut state legislator Mae Schmidle tried to introduce a bill in 1985 that would ban rice-throwing. She called the bill “An Act Prohibiting the Use of Uncooked Rice at Nuptial Affairs” and insisted birds can’t digest uncooked rice. Schmidle said ministers had told her they found dead birds after weddings, victimized by innocent rice celebrations. The myth was repeated in Ann Landers’ advice column.
In 2002, a project conducted by a biology professor at the University of Kentucky tested this theory and found that while rice expands in size by 33 percent when soaked, birdseed expands by 40 percent. Since your bird feeder isn’t surrounded by detonated birds, rice is probably fine. The professor even fed rice to birds and noted no adverse effects.
10. The Wizard of Oz's Dead Munchkin
Have you ever heard about the munchkin who was believed to have taken his own life on the set of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz? People who watched the movie would swear they could see a shadowy figure as Dorothy and her new friends stroll along the Yellow Brick Road. There is something a little off in the background, but it’s not a dead munchkin. Because the movie was shot on an indoor set, filmmakers allowed birds to roam around to give it more of an outdoor feel. That strange figure is almost certainly just a bird hanging out and spreading its wings.
For years, gamers have traded stories about a strange arcade game titled Polybius. The all-black machine was said to be a CIA operation meant to study players or even induce strange physical effects—sort of like MK Ultra, the infamous mind control experiment, only this time with pixels. Polybius never existed—that we know of—but elements of the story are true.
In 1981 Portland, a video game player at an arcade contest drank too much soda and got sick during a 28-hour marathon gaming session. A few days later, news reports appeared saying federal authorities had raided Portland arcades to seize cabinets that had been declared gambling devices. There was even an East German arcade machine from a few years later called Poly-Play, and some versions of the story credit Polybius to a mysterious German firm. Put all these elements together and you have a recipe for urban legend success.
12. Paul McCartney Is Dead
If you’re a Beatles fan, you’ve probably had a discussion at some point about whether Paul McCartney died all the way back in 1966. That’s because a rumor persisted that McCartney had perished in an automobile accident and the rest of the group, fearing they’d be finished without him, hired a lookalike as a replacement, then left subtle clues in future albums hinting at McCartney’s actual fate. The cover to 1969’s Abbey Road, for example, features Ringo Starr dressed in black, like a pallbearer. McCartney is in bare feet, because he’s actually dead. According to conspiracy theorists, this was common burial practice in England at the time.
Who started this theory is unknown, but Beatles scholars have a good idea of how it spread. In 1969, a college sophomore named Tim Harper wrote a story for The Times-Delphic, Drake University’s college newspaper, laying out the theory. It was based on a rumor Harper had heard from a friend who had heard it from some traveling musicians. It’s possible the rumor picked up momentum because the Beatles broke up in 1970 and fans wanted to believe it was for a reason other than the fact the group just wasn’t getting along anymore.
13. Fred Rogers Was a Sniper
The more famous you are, the more urban legends tend to circulate about you. And few people have had more tawdry rumors about them than Fred Rogers, the late and very much missed host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In the most persistent urban legend about Mr. Rogers, it’s said that he was a Navy SEAL or possibly a military sniper with confirmed kills. The reason he favored long-sleeved sweaters was supposedly to cover up his numerous tattoos.
In fact, Fred Rogers was a sharpshooting marine—but it was a different Fred Rogers. According to the screenwriters behind the recent Fred Rogers biopic, that Rogers used FredRogers.com for his security business for a brief period of time, and that's likely what led people to confuse the two Freds.
That’s almost as silly as picturing Doctor Ruth Westheimer, the amiable sex therapist and media personality, as a trained sniper who was seriously wounded in a bomb blast. Or Julia Child serving in the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA, during World War II. Except both of those stories are actually true. Maybe that’s why some people had no trouble believing Rogers also had a secret military past.
14. Alligators in the Sewers
Some of the most effective urban legends take familiar things and give them a sinister connotation. And while you may not have warm feelings about sewers, it is disturbing to think alligators might be lurking in them. This scenario stems in large part from writer Robert Daley’s 1959 book, World Beneath the City. In it, Daley describes an eyewitness account from Teddy May, who was New York City’s superintendent of sewers. According to May, sewer workers had been telling him about alligators as far back as 1935, but he didn’t believe them. Eventually, May went down to see for himself and spotted several alligators averaging two feet in length. They appeared to be quite content, according to May. It was later said that he was prone to tall tales, so it’s a bit hard to separate gator fact from fiction.
Though there are reliable accounts of the occasional alligator in the sewer, according to The New York Times, New York’s Animal Care and Control rescues two to four alligators, crocodiles, or caimans a year, but they’re usually above ground—the bacterial load of your average sewage system makes it pretty inhospitable to alligator life. Beware, though—some animals, like rats, have been known to crawl through plumbing and into residential toilets.
15. Temporary Tattoos Spiked with LSD
In the 1980s, some kids and their parents had second thoughts about temporary tattoos when it was rumored that some of the stickers were spiked with LSD. Adults were warned about tattoos that featured blue stars or cartoon characters.
The concept of contaminated sticky stuff goes back to at least the 19th century. In 1885, The Lancet gave an account of a man who habitually took large quantities of morphine. One day the opiate enthusiast licked the adhesive surface of an envelope and sent it off. The recipient opened the envelope and then decided to lick it shut again. As The Lancet described it, “The mere touch of the tongue of the taker of morphia had rendered the gum intensely nauseous. If this could happen, obviously there must be grave peril of the transmission of disease by such means.”
Many years later, police warnings over blotter acid mentioned kids could be susceptible. This was misinterpreted to mean that kids had been exposed to acid. To date, no one with a temporary Care Bears tattoo has ever been unknowingly dosed with LSD.