The Vanishing Hitchhiker by Jan Harold Brunvand defines an Urban Legend as a “realistic story concerning recent events (or alleged events) with an ironic or supernatural twist.” The teller of the story believes the legend is true, and that the events actually happened to someone just out of reach–to a friend of a friend, for example, or to somebody’s relative.
An Urban Legend is not believed to be true by academics or investigators. This is often determined because the same events are said to have happened in several different geographical areas to more than one person. The stories will often be similar to one another, but will have contrasting details such as where, when, and to who the events happened to.
The definition can be confusing, as an Urban Legend does not need to take place in a city and can have a rural setting. Urban Legend, as a term, is believed to have emerged out of America. It was used in a 1931 Vanity Fair article along with “Folklore of the Metropolis” to describe odd, fictitious stories. “Urban Legend” was also used in a 1925 New York Times article, but in an unrelated context.
Urban Legends would more aptly be called contemporary legends. Richard M. Dorsen said in Our Living Traditions that, “Urban Legends deal with the ghostly hitchhiker, the stolen grandmother, and the death car.” Published in 1968, this is likely the first modern definition of Urban Legend.
The Death Car is the story about an expensive car being sold unreasonably cheap because someone has died in it. It usually has a death smell. Would you buy a new BMW convertible for $500, for example, if this was the case? The Stolen Grandmother is told less often nowadays, but was once a well documented Urban Legend. Before there were cell phones, a grandmother was said to have passed away somewhere inconvenient. The family wrapped her up in a tarp or rug and tied her to the roof of their car. When they stopped to eat at a restaurant, someone unwittingly stole their car along with the body.
The ghostly hitchhiker, or Vanishing Hitchhiker is a tale that is told all over the world. In the legend, a driver will pick somebody up, usually a young woman, who will eventually disappear into thin air. I’ve heard these stories in BC. Most recently, of a man with a plaid shirt seen between Campbell River and Port Hardy (thanks Sheena). As far as I know, he is not said to get into the vehicle, but will instead disappear when a person pulls over.
British Columbia’s most classic and persistent case of a Vanishing Hitchhiker is on the Point Grey road between Kitsilano and the University of British Columbia. The legend claims a student couple were arguing back in the 1960s when the girlfriend was hit by a car and killed. Ever since then, her ghost will flag down a young man, get into his back seat, and then hand him a note with UBC’s library as her destination. Once the building is reached, the young man will turn around to discover she is no longer there.
In some Vanishing Hitchhiker stories, the woman’s ghost will borrow the driver’s jacket in order to stay warm. The coat will disappear with her, but is found later near a grave or at the sight of her death.
Netflix’s new season of Unsolved Mysteries tells the Japanese version of this tale. After the tsunami hit Ishinomaki in 2011, claiming upwards of 20,000 lives, stories emerged that taxi drivers were picking up passengers who would disappear once they arrived at their destinations. The Korean Urban Legend series Goedam–also on Netflix–retells a much scarier version of a taxi driver picking up a Vanishing Hitchhiker.
Another popular Urban Legend is the one about the ghost of Bloody Mary, who can be summoned if her name is called out a certain number of times in a dark washroom. There is usually a candle involved. The Bloody Mary illustration above is actually a photo I took of a t-shirt design at the Spirit Halloween store. It’s the coolest Bloody Mary image I think I’ve ever seen. (They use those scratchy Gildan shirts or I would have bought one for sure!)
Bloody Mary is usually said to be either Queen Mary I, who was nicknamed “Bloody Mary”, or Mary Worth, who was executed for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts. Calling Bloody Mary–whoever she was–is a dare that in the past has resulted in hauntings or physical harm to those foolish enough to have called her. The story is well known on Vancouver Island, across British Columbia, and all over North America.
By now, you may have noticed another element that makes an Urban Legend distinctively different than a regular legend is that they have contemporary elements to them such as a car, a telephone, or a bathroom with running water. Yet, a story like the Mothman is not an Urban Legend–even though it is a modern tale–as it only exists at one specific location.
Two well known Urban Legends that have emerged out of online forums are Slenderman and Black-eyed Children. Slenderman is a dark entity, up to twelve feet tall, who steals or lures children to him that he intends to turn into murderous servants. The story can be traced back to 2009, when two (altered) photographs of him were posted online. The legend has been told all over the world ever since, including here in British Columbia.
Stories of Black-eyed Children emerged in 2012, after reporter Brian Bethel retold his alleged encounters he’d shared before. Black-eyed children are said to be small and are often barefoot. Their eyes are described as completely black without any white in them at all. A Black-eyed Child will approach another child or an adult and try to get invited inside of their car or home. Something bad will happen as a result, though what this is is not specific or might change with each retelling. I mentioned Black-eyed children in The Haunting of Vancouver Island as there are claims of them being seen near Ucluelet. The account that I was given wasn’t very detailed, but the story is well known in the area.
Another component to an Urban Legend is that it will often have a scary or moral lesson attached to it: don’t leave grandma’s body unattended, don’t go with strangers or pick them up, and never taunt the dead. Sometimes, old cultural stories will become Urban Legends as they become modernized. An example of this would be the tales of La Llorona.
La Lorona is a Latin American weeping ghost who appears near water. She asks children or young adults if they have seen her missing children. Her kids, of course, were drowned centuries earlier. In most versions of the story, by her own hands. The tale is told to frighten young people into good behaviour. Like other Urban Legends, there are second-hand accounts of her being seen with many different versions of the tale. Stories of La Lorona in popular culture have made even bathtubs and viaducts potentially unsafe.
If La Lorona is encountered, children are told not to turn their back on her or she will try to steal their souls. She is trying to replace one of her missing children, I assume. Like the Banshee, La Llorona might appear beautiful or look horrifying. She might even take the form of an owl. A La Llorona-like story is told in Port Alberni here on the island. I included a chapter about The Lady Who Walks on Water in The Haunting of Vancouver Island. She is also said to ask people if they have seen her baby. La Llorona Urban Legends are not very common in British Columbia, though they exist in the Southern United States.
Tales of Chupacabra, “the goat sucker” who attacks livestock, are told all over Latin America, as well, and have even been transported to India. The Urban Legend elements, of course, being the retelling of attacks over forums and on social media. These are often secondhand accounts. They sometimes include evidence like grainy photographs. The Chupacabra’s description is so varied, however, that it’s hard to take seriously. It can look like anything from a reptilian alien to a diseased-appearing dog.
UFO abductions and stories of other well known cryptids–as believers usually call them–such as Sasquatch or Bigfoot, are not classified as Urban Legends; though a case could probably be made that some of the common stories might qualify. The accounts fall short, however, because most are first person testimony. To be an Urban Legend, they would need the “friend of a friend” element usually required, or to be an anonymous online comment, which are just as impossible to verify, and essentially the same thing as soon as one person believes them.
The Jinn is another well known Urban Legend. Stories are told amongst Muslims (all over the world), Southeast Asians, and by people from certain parts of Africa. People living in Canada as recent immigrants or second generation immigrants tell them, as well. Like other Urban Legends, the tales are most often shared between young adults.
The legends are ancient, actually, but have evolved into an ongoing narrative. Jinn are even spoken of in the Qur’an. God created two beings before he made humans. Angels were formed of light and the Jinn were made of fire. It was a Jinn, not an angel, that was cast out of heaven. But Jinn can be good or evil. They can even be Muslim.
Malicious Jinn wander the desert, haunt deserted buildings, or intentionally interfere with humans going about their daily lives. They are responsible for possessions as spirits, but can live amongst people in plain sight. Sometimes, they look like monsters, but they can also appear as a swirl of wind, an insect, or as certain animals such as snakes or dogs.
Urban Legends of Jinn are often told in other languages, even when they appear online. Robert Lebling in Legends of the Fire Spirits gives several translated examples, including a published interview of a female Jinn from a Saudi Arabian newspaper. An Urban Legend of a Jinn is often a retelling of a relative’s experience or that of a friend’s. The account might be shared under a pseudonym or on the condition of anonymity.
Modern Jinn stories are about eerie students at boarding schools, possessions, seduction, hauntings, and invisible housekeepers. Legends of the Fire Spirits tells one about oil workers who were in a remote, barren location when they saw a woman in black on a secluded dune top. When they arrived at the spot she was nowhere to be found.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz gives us a few more examples of Urban Legends. Possibly due to the book’s popularity, the tales are not often shared as true anymore. One is of The Caller who phones a teenage babysitter. She eventually asks the operator or police to trace the call, only to learn The Caller is inside the house.
A second one is called The Hook. You’ve likely heard this one too. A teenage couple is parked at a make out spot. The guy pushes the encounter too far and the young woman demands to be taken home. Upon arriving, he goes to open her door and discovers a detached hand hook stuck in it. Literally, sex would have killed them. The tale often includes an announcement on the radio beforehand of an escaped murderer with a hook for a hand. I do not know if either of these stories were ever told on Vancouver Island.
Another Urban Legend in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is The Wendigo. This is a First Nations/Native American story told by many Indigenous Algonquin speaking people. The Wendigo is a cannibal spirit who is “associated with winter, the north, coldness, famine, and starvation.” Vancouver Island’s closest comparison is Tsunakwa, who I speak about in The Haunting of Vancouver Island. She is a female cannibal spirit. Wendigo tales are often told by non-indigenous storytellers, both as an Urban Legend and in popular culture, without permission or sources. This has led to challenges of appropriation.
As I think about all of these Urban Legends, I’m intrigued to know what makes them become so popular and widespread? Could some Urban Legends have started with an actual experience (real or imagined)? I’ve often wondered if a spirit is born when people start to believe in it. And many would say that Jinn, for example, have always been real.
Is it fair to call all of these stories Urban Legends? Or did some of them actually happen?
Hover over the images above for photo or illustration credits