Urban Legends – From the Campfire to the Keyboard
Fear elicits a primal emotion – a need to survive. Our earliest scares are among the strongest and most resonant memories we have, often shaping or influencing the people we grow up to become. Some of us even maintain a fascination with terror into adulthood, be it through horror movies, books, comics, conventions or culture.
To be frightened is to be stimulated, that’s why it’s such a compelling sensation; it makes us feel alive. Perhaps why it’s why we revel in the unexplainable and the macabre. While the world is drowning in information, there are still some things which remain permanently ambiguous; one of them is the urban legend, but there’s often more going on than just haunted fake news.
Many urban legends have a catalyst, sometimes a real-life crime or tragedy which gets modified with each telling until the truth is lost forever. In the course of this article, we will examine some of the most memorable urban legends and what lies behind them.
Part One: Campfire Classics
Every location holds a story. The concept of residual hauntings is the idea that a place can contain memories of its own; some darker than others. When something traumatic, violent or tragic occurs, the echoes of it become etched into the very ground upon where it happened.
Such reputations can be attributed to an area in almost every locale; there will always be a collection of ghost stories and cautionary tales associated with a legendary building, landscape or even an entire city. Los Angeles, for example, has its fair share of reported hauntings, many of which are associated with tragedy, horror and restless spirits.
The Comedy Store in West Hollywood was once a notable, Rat-Pack era nightclub named Ciro’s, and now maintains a reputation of lingering terror, and not just as a result of open mic night. As well as being the origin of some of the most famous comedians of all time (Williams, Leno, Pryor et al), it’s also the source of grim local legend. Mob victims who were allegedly murdered in the cellar of the Comedy Store, as well as illegal abortions carried out in the notorious ‘Belly Room’, have left the place marred with a shadowy lore. Numerous comedians who have performed there swear that they’ve experienced inexplicable phenomena or direct paranormal incidents. Phantom staff members watch over activities in the early hours, the screams of women in torment have also been heard. Rearranged furniture, disembodied voices and inexplicably slamming doors make up just some of the other reports from this historic spot.
Even the iconic Hollywood sign, the symbol of so many dreams, is the spot where Peg Entwistle’s ghost is said to wander, following her tragic suicide in 1932. The 24-year-old actress jumped to her death from the letter ‘H’. After several massive disappointments, she felt her career was over and climbed the sign after drinking heavily. Her body was found by a hiker, along with a note which read “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” – Many hikers now claim to have felt an eerie presence upon that spot, with several actual sightings of an apparition. Megan Santos is one such witness, who told Vanity Fair: “This woman with blond hair and she seemed to be. . . walking on air. I immediately ran the other way.”
Permanently moored in Long Beach, the cruise liner Queen Mary, known as the Grey Ghost during wartime, and one of TIME magazine’s Top 10 most haunted places on Earth, is said to house a horde of malevolent spirits. “It is believed that many spirits attach themselves to antique furniture or personal items remaining on the ship. Screams and violent noises were reported in the boiler room where an 18-year-old sailor was severed in half by a heavy door where he was trapped,” reported Forbes, adding “A young girl also haunts the ship as she plays a nightly game of hide and seek with the guests in the empty swimming pool.” The ship now capitalizes on its reputation, offering séances and ghost tours, even renting out a particularly haunted cabin as a tourist attraction.
In short, LaLa Land has no shortage of ghoulish history, some of these legends, however, have very modern sources.
Never Drink the Tap Water
The Cecil Hotel L.A., a classically beautiful stopover now known as the Stay on Main, has held a sinister reputation for the best part of a century. From the ‘40s onwards it became a notorious hangout for drunks and druggies, and the spot of countless suicides, murders and overdoses. It was even said to be the home of serial killer Richard Ramierez, The Night Stalker, and the tragic Black Dahlia drank merrily in the decorative bar a short time before her disappearance and subsequent dissection. Ghosts and ill-fates purportedly stalk the once-glamorous corridors. The building became the primary inspiration behind American Horror Story: Hotel, and the Cecil’s guests have continued to experience weird phenomena to this day.
Several years ago, residents began to complain of foul tasting, discoloured water. People were getting sick, which prompted an investigation. Hotel staff eventually searched the water tanks on the roof and discovered the decomposing, naked corpse of a Canadian woman who had been missing for some time. When the last known footage of the woman, Elisa Lam, was released, it immediately went viral, due to several inexplicable elements. Also known as the ‘elevator girl’, CCTV imagery showed Lam acting erratically, panicking inside the elevator and peering out of the open doors, as if being followed or perused.
There was no-one else present in the corridors or the elevator. What exactly she saw, was running from, or what happened to her in the direct aftermath of the video remains a complete mystery.
The Body under the Bed
Much like ghost stories, urban legends (or myths) are horrific and tantalising tales which are passed from person to person. They are often simple fabrication yet, sometimes, a truthful origin story can be unearthed.
One of the most commonly told urban legends, along with alligators in the sewers and doppelgangers being a premonition of impending death, concerns a couple who check into a room, only to discover a pungent stench emanating from somewhere they can’t identify. Even after searching extensively, they find it impossible to locate the source of the nauseating odour, and so make a complaint to reception. It takes some time, and persistence, to get the hotel to assist them but, when they do, a further inspection uncovers a body in the advanced stages of decomposition, which has been stashed under the couple’s bed.
This commonly regaled story doesn’t just have one source, but several. Apparently, storing bodies inside a box spring mattress, or under a divan bed isn’t as uncommon as one might imagine. In the Capri Motel, Kansas City in 2003, a guest complained about a foul smell in his bed for days before he couldn’t take it anymore and checked out. Only then did the cleaners find a rotting body underneath the mattress. The same thing happened in the Burgundy Motor Inn, Atlantic City in 1999, when a German couple spent the night sleeping on the festering corpse of a 64-year-old man named Saul Hernandez. With almost a dozen further cases, going as far back as the early ‘80s, it’s easy to see why this story became one of the most common urban legends of the pre-internet era.
Are Those…Halloween Decorations?
Haunted houses and ghost trains are interactive attractions in which visitors are met with all manner of ways in which to terrify them. The more ghoulish and gory the props, the better, but many stories about such places using genuine human remains as part of their setup have been told throughout the years. This dates back to the carnival days, where genuine, mummified bodies would be laid out for all to see (criminals and outlaws were among the biggest draws). Nu-Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, CA once hosted the mummified corpse of outlaw James McCurdy, a gunslinger who had been killed in a gunfight in 1911, as part of its display. Not everyone knew he was a cadaver though. His body was only identified properly during a shoot prep for an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man. One producer didn’t like the vibe of the ‘decoration’ and went to move it, only for a dusty arm to break off, exposing a yellowed, chalky bone.
Another infamous premise is that of the hanging victim who is mistaken for a decoration or a prop, their bodies swinging without anyone realising the terrible truth. Caleb Rebh and Brian Jewell were two teenagers who both suffered a similar end as a result of practical jokes gone wrong.
Caleb Rebh was a 14-year-old working at a Haunted Hayride event at Alpine Ridge Farms in Sparta, Michigan in 2001. The thin teenager wanted to prank his friends and the visitors by putting on a noose and pretending to have been strung up. Before he could prepare himself properly, and with the noose already wrapped around his neck, the tree (to which he was attached) whipped his skinny frame off the ground and he was unable to get free. Kicking, flailing and yelling before a crowd of jovial onlookers, Caleb slowly and painfully expired. They all thought he was acting…until it was too late. All attempts to resuscitate him were futile. Caleb was dead.
Brian Jewell was 17 years old in 1990, when he suffered the same demise at a pre-Halloween hayride, this time as part of an arranged stunt which went awry. It had been practiced and prepared, and so it was assumed that everything would run as planned as the procession began.
Workers got concerned when Jewell didn’t appear for his planned speech at the end of the ride. That’s when they made the grisly discovery. The noose he hung from wasn’t supposed to tighten, but that night something went horribly wrong. Guests had been passing by his dangling body for some time, unaware of the gruesome reality which confronted them.
Further stories of bodies lying in driveways, hanging from fences and slumped in gardens, only to be left for days under the mistaken assumption that they were elaborate Halloween decorations, have only served to create many variants of this famous urban legend. So, maybe take extra care the next time you walk past a house where the spooky seasonal décor looks a little too real.
If you’ve ever been trapped in an elevator, you’ll know that it’s a claustrophobic, tense affair. It’s also not an appropriate moment to think about all of the things which could go wrong. You may even recall a story about a guy who tried to climb out of a stuck elevator, only to have it start moving and slice off his head. And if that story has ever entered your mind, we’re sorry to confirm that it’s true.
An elevator in a Houston Texas hospital in 2003 had been out of order for several days before someone unwittingly removed the sign informing staff that it wasn’t working. When surgery resident Hitoshi Christopher Nikaidoh asked a colleague if it was up and running again, she said she thought so.
When Nikaidoh went to step inside, the doors unexpectedly closed on him, leaving him trapped by the shoulders. As he struggled to try and free himself, the platform unexpectedly started to lift. The Houston Press reported that Nikaidoh struggled, “trying to shrug out of the elevator, or possibly pull himself inside, but the elevator kept moving upward”
What happened next is one of the most horrifying and gruesome deaths imaginable:
“The ceiling sliced off most of his head. His left ear, lower lip, teeth and jaw were still attached to his body, which fell to the bottom of the elevator shaft, as the elevator continued moving upward. “I just keep click here seeing the look in his eyes,” said a witness.”
This incident is not isolated either. Every year there are hundreds of elevator deaths in the US. Another good reason to take the stairs.
Part Two: The Monsters Who Live In the Woods
- The Bunnyman
Consider, if you will, a proto-Donnie Darko, and you can picture the Bunnyman. The legend of this crazed maniac has a varied and clouded backstory, one which several have adapted for their own nefarious means over the last century. The most common version begins in 1904 when several local mental asylums and prisons in the Clifton area of Fairfax Country, Virginia were closed down. During transportation, two prisoners, known as Marcus Wallster and Douglas J. Grifon escaped. A search party went out after them only to discover a trail of brutally mutilated rabbits, many of whom were left hanging from trees. Soon afterwards, Marcus was found hanging from a small railway bridge. A note was pinned to his body which simply said ‘You’ll never catch the Bunnyman.’
While the original version has been long disputed, since then, the site of the railway bridge where the supposed murder took place has become a macabre tourist attraction but, even more strangely, several Bunnyman incidents have since taken place nearby, including numerous sightings, assaults and attempted murders. Whether it’s a result of opportunistic criminals taking advantage of local lore to disguise their crimes, or something more sinister and unexplained, no one has found the answer yet, but that doesn’t stop the story from growing.
Staten Island, New York, was home to the Willowbrook Institution, a neglectful, barbaric asylum, which was the source of many horrific stories, most of which came with a stern warning to stay as far away from the place as possible. After the asylum was closed, stragglers and drifters would congregate on the derelict grounds. One name began to circulate amongst the locals; Cropsey. Legend had it that he was a deformed child killer who lurked amongst the ruins of the asylum and would come for any unattended children, leading them to a grisly demise. Some said he was an escaped mental patient himself, others claimed he was a sinister ghoul sent to torture and maim. Whatever the truth, when a 12-year-old girl with Down syndrome, Jennifer Schweiger, disappeared in the summer of 1987, a very real manhunt ensured.
The discovery of Schweiger’s body, as well as that of several special needs children in the wooded area that surrounds Staten Island, only increased the intensity of the stories, and the manhunt. Eventually a local drifter and former asylum custodian named Andre Rand was convicted of kidnapping and killing two children in the locale, but he is suspected of murdering many, many more.
- Charlie No Face
Local forests and dense woodland are a prime inspiration for horror stories. Escaped prisoners or mental patients, sometimes with superhuman abilities, or endless desires to kill, have all been reported to roam local woods. These warnings keep little kids from straying too far into the unknown, and It’s stories like this which have inspired countless movies, such as Friday 13th, The Burning and A Nightmare on Elm St.
Sometimes, real monsters lie behind the legends like the Bunnyman or Cropsey, other times it’s simply the victims of misunderstanding, such as Charlie No Face aka Green Man.
In Western Pennsylvania, along State Route 351, legends grew of a faceless figure with green skin, who could be seen moving through the woods at night, or strolling along the side of the road. Far from being some kind of alien, or supernatural monster, it was a merely case of a man who had suffered so much that he chose only to venture out after dark.
Raymond Robinson was a person who became an urban legend in his own lifetime, a rare occurrence. His story is heart-breaking. Born in 1910, Robinson was playing with friends as a child when they urged him to climb a pole so that he could see a bird’s nest. There was an accident and Robinson became entangled in the wires which burned him so badly, when he fell to the ground his eyes, nose and arm had all but vanished. The green hue which now adorned his skin was a result of the burns. His appearance was so malformed that people used to recoil in horror, scream or faint whenever they would meet him. That’s when Robinson retreated to the woods, where he would take nightly walks in the cool air, the soothing nature of the breeze and the darkness became his only solace. Later in life, as the stories of Charlie No Face grew, people would actively seek him out to observe or cruelly taunt him. Sometimes he would bum cigarettes from them and pose for pictures, other times he would flee into the woods. Despite his injuries, he lived to the age of 74, when he passed away in a nursing home.
Ghosts stories and urban legends gain traction in the same way as fake news and disinformation, and they can be every bit as effective and destructive. They’re appealing. That’s what gives them power. They were the earliest form of viral reportage, and the internet age has since absorbed them with great delight. In 2018 there have been two high-profile cases brought about by the circulation of macabre myths and sinister stories. One destroyed a career, the other destroyed a life…
The Woods Where No Winds Blow
There is a Japanese woodland which is, reportedly, so haunted and unusual that it acts as a beacon to those who wish to end their lives. As the story goes, however, it also serves as one of the primary suicide spots in the country. Formed from a volcanic eruption, covering just over 13 square miles close to Japan’s iconic Mt Fuji, lies Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees. In Western culture it has acquired the simpler name of The Suicide Forest. This dense, bizarre landscape has become the source of macabre legends, and up to 100 people take their lives within the woods every single year, with the phenomenon gaining international attention.
There is an unnatural feel to the forest. The local geology, a result of the volcanic origins, has ensured that tree roots jut from the ground, intertwined in devilish patterns. Trees grow incredibly close together there, meaning that no wind whistles through; just an eerie silence. It is said that, once inside the woods, it is incredibly easy to become lost, even a few steps away from the parking lot, which is littered with abandoned vehicles, their owners slowly decomposing into the forest floor. Despite this, many explorers embark on ghoulish expeditions, however, if they knew of the dark secrets held by the forest, they may think twice.
During famine times, it was common to take elderly relatives and abandon them within the woods, due to lack of ability to feed or care for them. This brutal form of localized euthanasia created an army of restless spirits. Then the suicides began. Some claim that the mournful ghosts of those who have passed will entice unwary visitors to their demise. Cellphones don’t work in this forest (due to magnetic iron deposits in the soil), and the woods are so thick that some leave trails of ribbons, so that they don’t become lost. Many colourful remnants of these trails hang, decaying and lifeless, echoing the fates of those who left them there.
Pop culture soon began to address the forests, with books and movies focusing on the sinister reputation and mysterious allure of the ‘Suicide Forest’. In January 2018, internet ‘celebrity’ Logan Paul made a video diary of his trip to Japan. The multi-millionaire recorded himself playing numerous pranks on unsuspecting citizens, before venturing to the suicide forest. His channel, which is popular with a predominantly young audience, soon became host for a video in which Paul and his cohorts walked into the woods and, within minutes, found their first body. Laughing and joking, Paul played it up for the camera in the way that YouTubers tend to do, as he and his cohorts filmed the corpse dangling from a branch.
The fallout wasn’t pretty. Paul was placed under severe scrutiny and lost several lucrative sponsorships, simultaneously raising the debate on both cultural sensitivity and whether or not the curse of the forest had reached out to someone who tried to mock it. Either way, Paul’s career suffered greatly (albeit temporarily) as a result. Paul was drawn in by the attraction which comes from urban legends. He paid a price, emotionally and financially. Another group of American kids were not so lucky, when their fascination with an online urban legend led them to try and kill.
The Slenderman Stabbings
In February 2014, two young Wisconsin girls Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, a pair of 12-year-olds with a flair for creativity and active imaginations, invited their friend to play a game of hide-and-seek in the woods. Their intent from the offset was to violently murder her.
After a morning of games and donuts, they led her deep into the forest. Taking out a kitchen knife they had stolen from home, the girls plunged it into their friend 19 times, before ordering her to lie on the ground and wait for them to get help. They left her there to die but, somehow, she miraculously survived, crawling out of the woods, when she was then found by a passing cyclist.
Weier was sentenced in January 2018 to the maximum punishment of 25 years in a mental institution, but what was her motivation to kill? The Slenderman had told them to. In a statement given to police, the girls said that The Slenderman has given them instructions online, and the murder was a sacrifice which would lead them to be embraced in his mansion; reportedly located deep within the woods.
But who is the Slenderman?
There are parallels with this case and the Ricky Kasso murders of the 1980s, which were embroiled in the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the time, but this was not the devil that was responsible, simply an internet boogeyman. Created by Eric Knudsen, The Slenderman was a Photoshopped competition entry for a forum called SomethingAwful.
The Slenderman is a hybrid of The Tall Man from the Phantasm movies and a HP Lovecraft creation. A faceless, towering figure with shadowy tentacles protruding from his back. He is a harvester of souls, a taker of children. He’s also one of the most nefarious modern ghost stories. There’s even a Slenderman movie in the works, which has drawn the ire of the victim’s family who have lambasted it for being crass, tasteless and exploitative.
Regardless, he represents a turnaround within the evolution of the modern urban legend. Previously, it was a real life incident which usually sparked an associated, possibly exaggerated legend. Now we are seeing the reverse, in which an internet fantasy almost led to murder.
Scary stories are born from our desire to share cautionary information; to shock or amaze one another with gruesome or cautionary tales. Facts become half-truths and, in the process, the chain of original events can become malformed and skewed as the story gets passed around.
The power of a good ghost story or urban legend lies in its simplicity. They scare us because they could happen to us. They add a sense of tension and fear to the everyday things we do; be it a hotel stay or a walk in the woods. They sound fantastical, horrific and impossible but, sometimes the things that go bump in the night are worth being scared of.
This story originally appeared in HUSTLER Magazine.