The Origins of 6 Terrifying Urban Legends and Classic Campfire Stories

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iStock

Before Creepypasta, mysterious audio recordings on YouTube, and disconcerting clown sightings, the best way to terrorize your friends was by repeating a popular urban legend. As a kind of oral history handed down through the years, these stories typically feature a hapless protagonist who is oblivious to a threat lurking right under their nose—or in the back seat.

With Halloween looming, we’ve rounded up some of the more frightening examples of modern folklore to do some fact-checking and see just how much truth is lurking behind the fiction.

1. THE KILLER IN THE BACK SEAT

The Story: A woman is driving alone at night when she glances in her rearview mirror and sees a vehicle bearing down on her. The car continues to follow her on her winding route, rattling the driver. The mystery man even flashes his brights every so often. Finally pulling into a gas station for help, the woman goes running out of her car. When confronted by a policeman or pedestrian, the stalker reveals his true motivation: He noticed that a man was lurking in the woman’s back seat and kept flashing his lights every time he reared up to try and strangle her.

The Truth: Versions of this story began appearing as early as the 1960s, with the “victim” alternately a teenager driving home from a school play or a woman coming back from a social engagement. Occasionally, the tail would be a massive commercial truck that seemed ready to run her over. The fake-out savior might be a gas attendant, a husband, or a cop who roughs up the “stalker” before his altruistic intention is finally revealed.

At least half of the tale is grounded in reality. Over the years, there have been several incidences of lurkers who have stowed away in the rear seat of vehicles, emerging to attack drivers or simply to evade capture by police. In 1964, one criminal made the mistake of hiding in a car owned by a police officer: the detective turned and fired on his uninvited passenger. The addition of a good Samaritan who notices the danger and tails the terrified driver appears to be pure embellishment, however.

2. THE VANISHING HITCHHIKER

The Story: Hitchhikers typically don’t make life easy for the characters in folk history, and this one is no exception. Typically, the story picks up when a couple of young men are driving along and spot an attractive woman walking on the side of the road. They pick her up and she tells them she’d like to go straight home. The drivers indulge her—but by the time they make it to the address she’s provided, she’s fast asleep. Not wishing to disturb her, the men go to the door and inform the woman who answers that her daughter is dozing in their back seat.

The woman is perplexed. Her daughter has been dead for years. When they return to the car, the passenger is gone, with only her clothes remaining.

The Truth: One of the most flexible urban legends of all time, the Vanishing Hitchhiker has been traced as far back as the 19th century, where horse-and-wagon rides took the place of a car. In Hawaiian versions, the ghost has even been picked up in a rickshaw. The apparition might have a warning before disappearing; in other versions, she’s known to have died a violent or tragic death while in the process of returning home.

The appeal of a spirit with unfinished business in life seems to have no cultural boundaries: Researchers have found variations of the tale in countries like Algeria, Romania, and Pakistan. There’s even a Swedish tale that was first mentioned in 1602 of a ghostly woman walking along a road who warned two passersby of impending plagues and wars before disappearing.

3. THE LICKED HAND

The Story: In the dead of night, a child (or, in some versions, a young or old woman) hears some strange noises. For comfort, the kid lets his or her hand dangle off the edge of the bed so their dog can lick it in a comforting gesture. The process might repeat itself throughout the night, with the child receiving a few more wet kisses before morning.

When the child wakes up and begins walking around the house, they might find the dog hanging from a noose—or worse, their parents bludgeoned to death. A bloody note reads, “Humans can lick, too.”

The Truth: A particularly grisly legend, the Licked Hand made the rounds in the 1960s as a way to scare marshmallow-roasting campers with a gut punch of an ending. But the tale’s first appearance may have come as early as 1871, when someone wrote of a story they had heard in England about a jewel thief who evaded detection by licking the hand of a man who awoke to strange noises, reassuring him it was only his dog.

4. THE GIRL WITH THE RIBBON AROUND HER NECK

The Story: Two lovers meet and grow consumed with one another. But as their meetings become more frequent, the man becomes curious about the fact that his girlfriend always wears a green ribbon tied around her neck. Time and again, he asks if it’s significant; she always answers that it is, but she can’t elaborate.

Before long, the man grows frustrated at how coy she’s being about the ribbon. Despite his anger, she refuses to take it off, or explain why it’s important. Finally, he takes a pair of scissors to her sleeping frame, snips the fabric—and watches as her head slides off her neck and goes bouncing to the floor.    

The Truth: Unlike many legends, there’s really no pretense that the story has roots in reality. Typically, the punchline evokes laughter and shock; some versions have the woman cautioning that her lover “will be sorry” if he pushes the issue, then admonishes him with a “Told you!” as her head travels across the floor.

In all likelihood, it was writer Washington Irving who got the ball—or cranium—rolling. Irving published a short story in 1824 titled “The Adventures of a German Student” where a young man becomes enamored with a Parisian woman whom he meets while she looks on mournfully near a guillotine. After consummating their mutual attraction, she’s found dead in his bed the next morning. A policeman undoes a ribbon tied around her neck, prompting her head to slide off. Irving’s poor protagonist is quickly committed to an insane asylum. It's believed that Irving heard this story from his friend, the Irish poet Thomas Moore, who had heard it from the British writer Horace Smith.

5. THE HOOK

The Story: Two young lovers are parked in a make-out spot when a news story breaks on the radio: A killer has escaped from custody, with his sole distinguishing feature being a hook in place of an amputated hand. The woman is unsettled and implores her lover to lock the car doors, which he does. But the thought of the hook crashing through the window begins to consume her, and she pleads for them to drive off. Annoyed, the boyfriend agrees. When he drops her at home, she exits the car and notices that a hook is dangling from the door handle.

The Truth: Aside from the hook-hand twist, couples who parked in designated “lover’s lane” spaces had plenty of reason to be terrified. A former military man named Clarence Hill was convicted in 1942 of several murders in Pennsylvania, with Hill creeping up on unsuspecting car occupants and shooting them through the windows. These attacks and others made for ripe stories over avoiding necking in parked cars in the 1960s: even Ann Landers printed the tale as a “warning” to hormonal teens.

6. THE BABYSITTER WHO ISN’T ALONE

The Story: A teenage girl agrees to sit for a trio of young children while their parents enjoy a night out. At first, the evening is almost mundane: With the kids in bed, the sitter chats with friends and finds ways to pass the time. But then the phone begins to ring. On the line is a sinister voice who advises her to check the children. After multiple calls, the sitter finally dials the police, who phone back with a shocking warning: The calls have been coming from inside the house. The murderous caller was upstairs with the children the entire time.

The Truth: Thanks to the 1979 film When a Stranger Calls, which used this story as the premise for its riveting opening sequence, this might be the most infamous urban legend of all time. The story has been widely told since 1960, with some versions indicating both the children and the sitter meet a bloody end.

The emergence of the story seems to coincide with a rash of media reports about babysitters who were assaulted or even murdered in the ‘50s and ‘60s, lending credence to the idea that it likely came out of a fear of leaving a vulnerable young woman alone in a strange house. Some folklore theorists have also observed that the “man upstairs” conceit spoke to a cultural rebellion over women taking increasingly dominant positions in society instead of adhering to their role as domestic caretakers. Left to her own devices, the babysitter fails to protect the children from harm.

Was it anti-feminist propaganda? Perhaps. But the Babysitter Who Isn’t Alone trope also speaks to a pretty primal fear of being helpless to guard yourself or others from unseen forces. And two-line phones.

All images courtesy of iStock.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

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When a Long Island Housewife Handed Out Arsenic to Kids on Halloween

This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
This Halloween procession in Massachusetts was poison-free.
Douglas DeNatale, Lowell Folklife Project Collection, American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

On October 31, 1964, 13-year-old Elsie Drucker and her 15-year-old sister Irene returned to their Long Island home after an evening of trick-or-treating and dumped their spoils onto the table. Among the assortment of bite-sized sweets were two items that looked like bottle caps and bore the warning: “Poison. Keep away from children and animals.”

It wasn’t an ill-conceived, Halloween-themed marketing ploy—the tablets were “ant buttons,” which contained arsenic and could help rid a house of insects and other pests. They could also seriously threaten the life of any small child who accidentally swallowed one.

Alarmed, the girls’ father called the police.

A Criminally Bad Joke

The authorities notified the community, and people immediately began spreading the word and inspecting their own candy bags, unearthing another 19 ant buttons around town. Meanwhile, Elsie and Irene helped the police trace the toxic treats to 43 Salem Ridge Drive, where a 47-year-old housewife named Helen Pfeil lived with her husband and children.

Once other trick-or-treaters confirmed that Pfeil had indeed doled out the poison—and police discovered empty boxes of ant buttons in her kitchen—she was arrested. Fortunately, none of her would-be victims ingested any hazardous material, which meant that Pfeil was only charged with child endangerment. If convicted, however, she could still face prison time.

At her arraignment on November 2, Pfeil tried to explain to a baffled courtroom that she “didn’t mean it maliciously.” After having spent most of Halloween bestowing actual candy on costumed kids, Pfeil had started to feel like some of them should’ve already aged out of the activity.

“Aren’t you a little old to be trick-or-treating?” she had asked the Druckers, according to the New York Post.

So Pfeil had assembled unsavory packages of ant buttons, dog biscuits, and steel wool, and dropped those into the bags of anyone she deemed “a little old” to be trick-or-treating. She maintained that it was a joke, and her husband, Elmer, reiterated her claim to reporters at the courthouse. While she had been “terribly thoughtless and she may have used awfully bad judgment,” he said, she hadn’t planned to cause harm. Elmer himself wasn’t in on the scheme; at the time, he had been out trick-or-treating with their two sons—who, ironically, were both teenagers.

Her spouse may have been sympathetic, but Judge Victor Orgera was not. “It is hard for me to understand how any woman with sense or reason could give this to a child,” he said, and ordered her to spend 60 days in a psychiatric hospital.

Dumb, Not Dangerous

The following April, Pfeil went on trial in Riverhead, New York, and switched her plea from “Not guilty” to “Guilty” when proceedings were already underway. With about two months until her sentencing date—and the possibility of up to two years in prison looming overhead—Pfeil’s neighbors got busy writing character references to send to the judge.

Though Judge Thomas M. Stark was just as bewildered by Pfeil’s indiscretion as everyone else, the letters convinced him that she was not a danger to society, and he suspended her sentence. “I don’t understand why she had done such a stupid thing as this,” Stark said, “but I feel incarceration is not the answer.”

So Pfeil got off with nothing more than a guilty conscience, and Long Island teenagers continued to pound the pavement for Halloweens to come. But the misguided ruse did scare at least one child into giving it up forever: Little Elsie Drucker never went trick-or-treating again.