Fear sociologist Dr. Margee Kerr breaks down the meaning of iconic urban legends, including one seen in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
You might not believe it, but I once had this cousin … or maybe it was a person who lived down the street … or a friend of a friend … and it was crazy what really happened…
Like a cultural game of telephone, urban legends are modern folklore traded through word of mouth. Feeding our desire to gossip or trade cautionary tales à la fairy tales of old, they are part of a human desire to add to the fabric of storytelling.
“Storytelling is central to learning and socialization in every culture, communicating values and beliefs, giving meaning to the world around us,” states Margee Kerr, Ph.D., a sociologist who studies fear, and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear. “We remember information better when it inspires strong feelings. And what better way to do that than through rich narratives of love and loss, terror and safety?”
Even as the stories move online to be disseminated as creepypastas, these tales of unsubstantiated oral history persist because the element of believability speaks to a deeper fear, or anxiety within us (though the ubiquity of technology has altered the effectiveness of some classic tales).
In the new PG-13 horror film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by André Øvredal, a handful of modern folk tales chronicled in Alvin Schwartz’s 1981-91 series of books (which featured Stephen Gammell’s beautifully unsettling illustrations) are adapted for the cinema. The film focuses more on tales of the supernatural, but Schwartz also explored some of the great urban legends that reflect modern life, and the dangers looming on the darker fringes of our fantasies — which also happen to teach important lessons.
“The formula for all of these stories is simple: combine a terrifying horror story with a social lesson,” she says. “It’s an age-old practice which is extremely effective. We’ve evolved to prioritize threat, meaning we’ll pay more attention to things that are scary.”
She adds telling a tale about a bogeyman in the basement is simply more memorable than, say, a warning sign for a child not to go down the stairs. As examples, Kerr points to stories across cultures that employed this approach, and transformed naturally occurring dangers into mythical beasts (e.g. lions became gryphons, bears became the Nandi Bear, rhinos became the Karkadann).
But urban legends don’t only communicate threats; they also serve to convey social mores, and cultural beliefs. Kerr says to look past the fear factor in these stories and you can see how they have held up a mirror to society.
“They reflected and reinforced the status quo of the time, and offered a strong warning should one step outside the bounds of social norms.”
With this background in mind, Dr. Kerr joined me to revisit some of the more famous present-day scary stories from Schwartz’s books (aside from “The Stolen Kidney,” which seemed to take root after the author died in 1992), and explore why they scare us so.
A girl is home alone one night, with her trusty canine companion. She retires to bed with the dog nearby. She wakes in the middle of the night to hear a mysterious dripping sound that unnerves her. Too afraid to check out the noise, she is comforted by the licking of her dog next to her bed. The next day she investigates to discover her dog slaughtered and strung up, dripping blood. On the mirror, scrawled in the dog’s blood, a message: “Humans can lick too.”
(“The Licker” shares some storytelling DNA with “The Roommate” where a woman returns home and doesn’t want to turn on the light lest she wake her sleeping roomie. She wakes the next day to find her friend’s throat slashed, and a message in blood that reads, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?”)
Dr. Kerr’s Scary Truth: “This story taps into our fears of being alone, and frightfully close to death. It starts with typically a very young or older woman learning of a killer that has escaped. Scared, she takes care to lock all windows and doors, but happens to miss one, usually in the basement. The story is built on the sexist belief, which it further reinforces, that women and the elderly are less competent in securing their environment or living independently. To young minds the message is clear: Your incompetence will get your dog killed, best to depend on someone else.”
A teenage couple head to lover’s lane for a little “necking,” as the kids used to say. Suddenly the mood music shifts when an announcer breaks in on the radio to warn that a mental asylum patient with a hook for a hand has escaped – and it just so happens the asylum is nearby – and caution must be observed. The boy wants to continue the make-out session, but the girlfriend is concerned, especially when she hears a scraping sound on the car. He becomes annoyed but agrees to leave. When they arrive safely back at her home, she gets out of the car to discover a bloody hook hanging from her door handle.
Dr. Kerr’s Scary Truth: “This story capitalizes on the terror that comes with putting ourselves in the victim’s shoes, imagining our bodies literally ripped through and through with a sharp hook. Beyond the fear of bodily injury, this story establishes and reinforces a couple different cultural beliefs. First that those on the margins of society, who have violated the social norms and values to such an egresses degree that they must be institutionalized, are dangerous (certainly those that escape and attempt to murder you are). This story also polices the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior for women, suggesting a woman must always be on the defense, that a woman who allows herself to be ‘in the moment’ and swept away in sexual bliss will end up dead. On the other hand, this story equally does men a disservice, implying that were it not for the hypervigilance of the woman he would be dead due to his singular focus on sex at any cost.”
“A 21st Century update to this story would do well to stick to a convicted serial killer character, someone we can all agree is a danger, rather than further demonizing those with mental health issues, and remove the gender stereotypes, leaving the take away message one of healthy vigilance among the young and inexperienced.”
The Call is Coming From Inside the House
A babysitter sits down to relax after putting her young charges in bed for the night, when a call comes. “Have you checked the children,” the mysterious voice asks. She continues to get these calls before finally calling the police. When they trace it, they warn her to get out of the house right away because “the call is coming from inside the house!” Most versions of the story also involve the three children murdered when the babysitter finally “checks” the children before fleeing.
(This is similar to the Clown Statue legend about a babysitter who calls the parents to ask if she can cover up the lifelike clown statue in their basement. The parents tell her to get the kids out of the house because they don’t have a clown statue.)
Dr. Kerr’s Scary Truth: “A home is supposed to be a place we feel safe, can relax and be vulnerable, and fear can be understood as a difference between what one expects, and what one actually experiences. Home invasion stories capitalize on this, taking us from where we expect to feel safest and utterly violating our reality, leaving us feeling fully exposed and terrified. This version updates the typical home invasion narrative where the intruders serve as a metaphor for the perceived danger of ‘outsiders’ coming into your ‘home’ territory, threatening to upset the stability and established social order. In this legend, the true height of terror occurs upon realizing the invader is already inside. In addition to the takeaway lessons from the ‘Humans can lick, too’ story, I believe this urban legend really points towards sending a message that we should have a healthy awareness of how new technology might open us up to new vulnerabilities. What dangers might be hitchhiking into our homes with wireless and internet-connected equipment? Are Siri and Alexa conspiring against us right now?”
The Backseat Killer
As a woman drives home alone at night, a vehicle behind her (usually a tractor trailer) begins to follow in close pursuit, flashing its high beams. It is so close it is almost on top of her, and she assumes she’s being stalked. The driver backs off, then does it again, flashing the beams again — following her home, or to a gas station. She jumps from the car to escape but the driver leaps out with a gun in hand. But he tells her to call the police because there is a man in her back seat with a knife. He kept popping up to kill her, until the truck driver bore down, and flashed his lights.
Dr. Kerr’s Scary Truth: “Rather than reinforcing negative stereotypes, this story encourages people to question their assumptions about those deemed untrustworthy by mainstream society. Traced to the 1960s, this story often sets up the ‘unsavory’ characters, usually a truck driver, as the Big Bad threatening the innocent driver, only to later learn that person is her savior. Fueling the continued spread of this story through the decades were the high-profile cases of Edmund Kemper, the serial killer who targeted hitchhiking young women, and Ted Bundy, the ‘charismatic guy next door’ who similarly targeted young co-eds. The message: Always be vigilant, and don’t assume you know who you can trust based on appearances.”
The Stolen Kidney
A man is either seduced, or has hired a sex worker, but instead of a night of fun, he wakes in in a bathtub full of ice and a note that his kidneys have been removed for the organ transplant black market. Sometimes he has a “Call 911 If You Want To Live” note from the woman. Other versions include the man being “slipped a mickey,” and he can vary from a wary businessman to college student, with the settings ranging from Anytown, USA to cities of sin, such as New Orleans or Las Vegas.
Dr. Kerr’s Scary Truth: “This urban legend is guessed to have originated in 1989 with the false and sensationalized account of a Kurdish man who traveled to Britain to sell a kidney. While in reality the man had consented to the procedure, Reuters reported that he was the victim of deception and manipulation, thinking he was going in for a simple medical test only to find out days later his kidney had been transplanted. From here, the story appears to have gained traction when a similar plot was the focus of a Law and Order episode in 1991, since then variations of the account have popped up across the US and internationally.”
“What continues to give this story legs is the fact that it taps into the deep seated fear of losing knowledge of, and control over our body. We are most vulnerable when we are unconscious, so to imagine a scenario in which an innocent person (like ourselves) could be deceived, drugged, and operated on — all without our knowledge — generates an intense feeling of violation, objectivation, and dehumanization.”
“The social lesson in this story is revealed in the contextual cues that effectively work to teach the following lessons around virtue and vice: Don’t trust strangers, especially those who are attempting to seduce you. Women, watch your drinks and don’t abandon your friends.”
The Spider Bite/The Red Spot
This is one that does make its way into Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and might have the most complex meaning of the bunch. The classic tale involves a person (again, usually a woman) bit on the cheek by a spider, ant, bug, etc. This is most likely to have occurred after travels to an exotic destination. The bite becomes increasingly swollen, and infected until it finally bursts, hatching baby spiders that spring to life from underneath the skin.
Dr. Kerr’s Scary Truth: “The legend of the spider bite is a simple horrific story built on our very rational fear of our body being invaded by insects, bugs, and reptiles. These invaders then use our bodies as a nest, or a food source, until they are ready to leave via brutal tearing of our skin, usually from our most sensitive areas. Even just imagining the rupturing of our skin and the outpouring of a menace can incite a feeling of wanting to retreat from oneself, and/or strip down and cleanse oneself vigorously.”
“This terrifying story is often used to communicate a powerful message about ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups in any given culture. It rarely is just about any common person, or any common place, rather it is told with careful attention to characteristics of the person (typically implying lack of personal hygiene), or the exact geographic location the place the bite occurred (implying unsanitary, less civilized conditions). With this specificity, the message was intended to demonize or insult particular types of people or specific locations and reinforce negative stereotypes.”
“However, there are versions of this story which aim to carry a different, deeper message: That to heal, we must forget ourselves. It seems like a stretch, but this legend can be traced in part to the story Egotism; The Bosom-Serpent by Nathanial Hawthorne published in 1843. In this short story, character Roderick Elliston believes he has a serpent living in his chest causing him all sorts of suffering, and he retreats from society. He obsesses over his bosom-serpent, fighting it, trying to learn about it, comparing it to the serpents’ he perceives to reside in those around him.”
“Finally, in a fit of desperation, exclaiming how ‘it gnaws me’ while writhing on the ground, hissing like a snake, he exclaims there is one impossible remedy for his affliction: ‘Could I, for one instant, forget myself, the serpent might not abide within me. It is my diseased self-contemplation that has engendered and nourished him!’ Just then, his estranged wife appears and states: “Then forget yourself, my husband…forget yourself in the idea of another.’ Hawthorne makes no attempt to hide the moral of the story: When we dwell too long on the injuries and perceived injustices of the heart (or ego), we invite in a darkness which serves only to torture and isolate us from others. True healing comes when we let go of our ego, and humble ourselves in appreciating the lives of others.”
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