We’ve all heard them, the stories that are alleged to have happened to a ‘friend of a friend’ of someone whom we know. Folklorists use the term ‘urban legend’ to describe such tales in order to distinguish them from traditional fairy tales from pre-industrial times, although the two story forms have much in common. Like any other story they have a cast of characters and a beginning, middle and end. They often serve as cautionary tales but are presented in a compelling format due to the utilisation of such elements as mystery, horror, fear and (often dark) humour. Nevertheless they are at heart still morality tales that depict someone acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up in trouble, hurt, or dead by way of comeuppance. Many urban legends depict horrific crimes or frightening supernatural occurrences e.g. the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo; the ‘kidney heist’ story of people being ambushed, anaesthetised, and waking up minus one kidney; and ‘The Death Car’ story, which is probably too gruesome to go into here. The existence of popular contemporary legends is compelling evidence that myths and folklore do not occur exclusively in so-called primitive or traditional societies and that there seems to be an in-built human need to terrify in order to educate. Two of the best examples of such urban legends are Bloody Mary and The Hook Man legend.
Bloody Mary is a ghost or witch who is said to appear in a mirror when her name is called three times (or sometimes more) while in a dark room, often as part of a game or dare. Bloody Mary is often believed to be the spirit of a young mother whose baby was stolen from her, making her mad with grief, eventually causing her to commit suicide. The game is often a test of courage, since it is said that if Bloody Mary is summoned, she will proceed to kill the summoner in an extremely violent way, such as ripping their face off, scratching their eyes out, cutting their head off, driving them insane, bringing them into the mirror with her or scratching their neck, causing serious injury or death. Some say that if she does not simply kill the one who summons her then she will haunt them for the rest of their life. Another suspected origin of the Bloody Mary legend is the real-life Queen of England, Mary I, who was known as ‘Bloody Mary’ because of her merciless persecution of Protestants. Interestingly, Queen Mary’s life was marked by a number of strange miscarriages or false pregnancies, just like the Bloody Mary of legend. Another possible explanation of this particular urban myth is its similarity to Catoptromancy, or divination using a mirror, which was a ritual that was once practiced widely every Halloween. Whatever the truth behind the legend is, I defy anyone to try to summon Bloody Mary, whether in a dark room or anyone else!
The basic premise of The Hook Man legend involves a young couple parked at a dark lovers’ lane, whose passionate embrace is interrupted by a radio announcement that a serial killer has just escaped a nearby mental asylum. Just as the announcement ends with the terrifying information that the killer has a hook in place of one of his hands, the (no doubt already terrified) young couple hear the sound of scraping on the car door. For reasons I’ve never understood, the young man then goes out to investigate the sound and subsequently does not reappear. While waiting for him to return the young woman is disturbed many times by a loud thumping on the roof of the car. She eventually exits her car and sees the young man’s body suspended upside down from a tree above the car with his fingers dangling just above the roof. She drives off to look for help and when she stops the car she finds the hook stuck in the door. This legend appears to date from the 1950s at least and folklorists have interpreted its long history in many ways. The Hook Man himself has, somewhat bizarrely, been viewed as the moral custodian of the values of the youth of today – albeit a guardian who appears all too willing to chop up his charges if they stray too far from what he views as the rightful path. In this context the Hook Man’s handicap indicates his own lack of sexuality – believe it or not the hook is seen as as a phallic symbol and its amputation as a symbolic castration!
Both of the above, somewhat gory, urban legends illustrate well the point that many contemporary myths are motivated by society’s concern for its young by containing not-so-thinly veiled warnings against so-called immoral or antisocial behaviour. Of course, the other thing that urban legends have proven useful as is an almost endless source of inspiration for film directors, conspiracy buffs and ghost story writers (like me) – so long may they continue!