Tag Archives: urban legends

The Urban Legends of Halloween

The piece originally appeared on iHorror.

John Carpenter’s Halloween is one of the most revered horror films of all time, and in its wake came a surfeit of masked slashers attempting to replicate its success – most of them failing, more often than not.

There are a lot of components to Halloween which makes it such an effective film, from Carpenter’s piercing score to Dean Cundey’s eerie night-time cinematography to the terrifying, emotionless white mask Michael Myers wears – and all of it plays a part in creating a winning final product.

But the thing that makes Halloween such an enduring film – something these lesser copycats failed to realize – was Carpenter’s simple approach to the story. At its core, Halloween is an urban legend – more specifically, several urban legends rolled into one. It’s made up of the same stuff you’d tell around the campfire to spook your friends – a practice I’m sure has been around since campfires existed. In essence, Halloween is composed of the immortal substance that has terrified generations for centuries. Deep-rooted, primal fears that are utterly ingrained in our being. You can’t get much scarier than that.

These are the urban legends that make up Halloween.

The Creepy Old House

“Lonnie Elam said never to go up there. Lonnie Elam said that’s a haunted house. He said real awful stuff happened there once.”

This is what little Tommy Doyle warns his babysitter Laurie Strode as they pass by the dilapidated Myers house, for Myers is The Boogeyman, a tale as old as time. This is also a prime example of the urban legend theme that runs through Halloween, showcasing exactly how such legends are spread: by word of mouth.

So and so told me.

I know someone whose sister knows someone who said…

I heard it from a friend.

Think back to when you were a kid, racing through the neighborhood on your Huffy. Was there a scary house you and your friends avoided? Or maybe you stopped there just long enough in hopes to catch a glimpse of the witch or creepy old man who lived there? Of course. Every subdivision has a spooky house at the end of the block, one that youngsters warn each other to avoid. And how do the other kids know to avoid it? Well, they heard it from a friend…

The Escaped Mental Patient

The Hook” is possibly one of the most famous urban legends and you’ve likely heard one of its many incarnations at some point: young lovers on a secluded road hear a report over their car radio that a madman with a hook for a hand has escaped from the local sanitarium. Soon after, they hear a scratching at the car door. The horny boyfriend, desperate to get some action, tells the girlfriend not to worry – but she insists they leave, and so they do. The rejected boyfriend alleviates his tantrum by putting the pedal to the metal. Later, they find a bloody hook dangling from the handle of the car door.

It’s clear how the escaped mental patient aspect of this legend applies to Halloween, including the unforeseen danger lurking outside the car: who can forget the chest-clenching scene where Michael first breaks out of Smith’s Grove sanitarium and monkeys his way on top of the parked station wagon that’s there to transport him to trial?

But let’s not overlook the sex = death aspect of the hook story. The whole reason the teens in the tale survive is that, ultimately, they didn’t have sex. Purity is a generally agreed upon theme in Halloween – the teens who have sex and do drugs die, the ones who don’t (Laurie) live. I tend to disagree; I believe the real cause of the murders is irresponsibility – but I digress. (Also, the radio announcer alerting of an escaped mental patient, followed immediately by the listener’s death, is a scene directly from 1981’s Halloween II.)

Cars continue to play a big role in both urban legends and Halloween, such as in the case of…

The Killer in the Backseat

As the legend goes, a person (usually a woman) is driving home when a car suddenly pulls up close behind her, flashing its lights and honking its horn. Terrified, the woman races home, all while the mysterious car follows. She gets home, jumps out of her car, and runs to her door. Later, she discovers the car that was tailing her was trying to warn her…about the man with a knife crouching in her backseat.

Halloween‘s poor Annie Brackett isn’t lucky enough to have someone warn her about the killer hiding in her backseat. Instead, she’s allowed only a moment of confusion sitting in the driver’s seat, perplexed by the condensation that has formed on the inside of the car windows…just before Michael Myers springs up behind her with a knife. (It should be noted that the murderous backseat character in these urban legends is almost always an escaped mental patient.)

Cars aren’t the only recurring theme in both Halloween and many urban legends – so are phones.

The Babysitter & the Man Upstairs

Now we get to the nucleus of Halloween‘s urban legend roots: the babysitter in peril. While creepy phone calls had popped up before – most notably in 1974’s Black Christmas – it was Halloween that established a babysitter as the innocent victim on the end of the receiver. It’s so entwined with this particular urban legend that John Carpenter originally titled the screenplay The Babysitter Murders. Alas, the producer didn’t like it, and wanted it changed – but the theme remained the same. (It’s worth noting that director Fred Walton shot a short film, The Sitter, in 1977, which is based directly on “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” urban legend – and after seeing the success of Carpenter’s Halloween – decided to turn it into a full length film: When a Stranger Calls.)

The legend here actually isn’t as much a legend as it is a true story with a few embellishments. But the dressed-up version of the story follows a young female babysitter who receives numerous creepy phone calls from a stranger who keeps warning her to “check on the children”. Eventually, she calls the cops and they trace the call, resulting in the memorable line: “Get out! The calls are coming from inside the house!”

Michael Myers doesn’t actually call and harass Laurie Strode about the kids she’s babysitting – in fact, the relation of this legend to the movie is restricted solely to the “maniac stalking the babysitter” element – but still, there is a lot of phone play in Halloween. At one point, Annie – chewing a mouthful of food – calls Laurie, who mistakes the muffled sounds for an obscene caller. This plays a pivotal part later in the movie, and results in our final urban legend, a crossover of sorts…

The Roommate’s Death

Lovable airhead, Lynda Van der Klok, has just finished making love with her boyfriend Bob, who has headed downstairs to grab some beer. He soon appears in the bedroom door frame again, this time fully decked out in a sheet with eye holes. Only, that isn’t Bob playing ghost – it’s Michael Myers. Lynda doesn’t realize this of course and sits down by the phone to call Laurie to see if she’s heard from Annie. By the time Laurie picks up on the other end, Michael has wrapped the phone cord around Lynda’s neck and is choking her to death. All Laurie hears on her is moaning and gurgling – which she mistakes for Annie pranking her, a callback to earlier in the film.

Laurie ignores the threat but later discovers Lynda dead. This is related to the urban legend “The Roommate’s Death“, which sees a pair of college roommates alone in their dorm for the holiday weekend. One roommate leaves to grab some snacks, the other stays behind. Soon, the roommate in bed hears scratching and gurgling at the door – a warning she ignores. In the morning, she discovers her friend on the other side of the door, dead – throat slashed by a madman.

Halloween is so successful in terrifying us because it consists of all those tales we’ve been scaring each other with since swapping stories on the schoolyard. Stalkers, haunted houses, and boogeyman in the closet.

You could argue that urban legends and horror films share a similar three-tiered structure: interdiction, violation, and consequences. That is to say, characters who ignore the warnings, then willfully violate the warnings, and ultimately pay the price. But one thing is certain: horror films share the same function as urban legend – they’re intended not only to scare but also to warn.

Just like little Tommy Doyle tried to warn Laurie that The Boogeyman really existed.

Advertisements

My Favorite SCARY STORIES

When I was in elementary school, I was introduced to a series of books that would become stalwarts of my bookshelf to this very day.

It was at one of those pop-up Scholastic Book Fairs (in our empty gymnasium, which doubled as a lunchroom and occasional Starlab set-up) where I first discovered Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories trilogy–Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and Scary Stories 3…More Tales to Chill Your Bones.

I don’t recall them being recommended to me; I don’t remember having seen them before that day. All I know is: I was a kid who loved anything remotely spooky, and when I saw the cover of the boxed set–that of a wide-eyed disembodied head–I knew I had to have them. (Plus, it couldn’t have been that expensive; my parents allotted me only so much money for the book fair.)

I’ve revisited the stories many times over the years. Some have held their heart-racing, fireside charm; others have lost their luster as I’ve gotten older and more desensitized. And some I’ve come to appreciate more as an adult than I did as a kid.  It’s crazy to think that I was able to buy them from school at such a young age, considering Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was, at the time, a banned book–number one, in fact, on the American Library Association’s list of most challanged books from 1990-1999.

Since today is National Read a Book Day, I thought I’d make a list of my 10 favorite stories from the entire Scary Stories set. While the stories in the books range from terrifying to just plain silly, I wanted to focus on the ones that creeped the hell out of me.

“The Thing”, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Growing up in the Midwest, one of the things that creeped me out most about many of the stories in these books were their Anywhere, USA type settings. As the stories are essentially folklore and urban legends, the imagery used to describe the locations is steeped in timeless Americana: sprawling fields, empty parking lots, lonely post offices. Reading about two brothers who spot a dead man crawling out of a field across the street, when I myself grew up on a street surrounded by fields? That’s downright terrifying.

“The White Satin Evening Gown”, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

This is a classic urban legend. A girl buys a second-hand dress to wear to her prom, becomes dizzy at some point in the night, goes home, and is found dead the next day. The cause? Embalming fluid on the dress seeped into her skin and killed her; turns out the dress she bought was stolen off a buried corpse and sold to the shop she purchased it from. There’s just something so sad about it happening to an innocent, destitute young girl just trying to enjoy one night of her hard life. Her last words are: “I think I have danced too much”. Yeesh.

“Something Was Wrong”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

This is the first story from the second book, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which feels much darker than the first book. In fact, I think a bulk of the most unsettling tales comes from this volume. This particular story, about an amnesiac man wandering the streets asking for help–only to scare off everyone he encounters–is another familiar tale, even popping up in the Tales from the Crypt comic book (and later, its 1972 film incarnation, as Reflection of Death). The simplistic story–combined with Stephen Gammell’s etheral illustration–is truly haunting. It’s just a hell of an opener to an increasingly grim book.

“The Bride”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Not much happens in this one. In fact, it’s only about five paragraphs long. There’s no twist, no moral, no comeuppance. Just a wedding night game of hide-and-seek gone wrong. A bride gets trapped in a trunk and her skeleton is found decades later. That’s it. I’m telling you man: these stories are dark.

“The Drum”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Okay, this one gets my vote for most upsetting story from the entire series. Two young sisters live in the country with their mom and baby brother. One day they come across a little girl in a field, playing a toy drum. The sisters want the drum, and the little girl promises to give it to them if they go home and act bad. The sisters do as they’re told, and return to the little girl, who tells them “Oh no, you must be much worse than that.” This continues for a few days, each time the mother getting more upset, and each time the strange little girl telling the sisters to act worse than the last time. Finally, the mother warns the sisters, “If you continue to act badly, I will leave and take your brother away, and you will get a new mother–one with glass eyes and a wooden tail.” The sisters are understandly freaked, yet they act bad one last time and go visit the girl in the field, who reveals she never intended to give them the drum in the first place; “we were playing a game, I thought you knew.” The sisters return home, only to find their mother and baby brother missing. But someone with glass eyes and a thumping wooden tail is waiting for them.

“The Window”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

A girl notices a creature staring at her through her bedroom window; it breaks in and attacks her, bites her on the neck. It runs away but returns a few months later, only this time the girl’s brothers chase it to a nearby cemetery where they find it in a mausoleum, sleeping in a coffin. What makes this one so creepy is they refer to the creature as a “vampire”, but they also hint that it might be just some guy who escaped from a local insane asylum. It’s never made clear, as the girl doesn’t seem to suffer any effects from the neck bite. Also: a great way to terrify any child well into adulthood is to somehow make them afraid of their own bedroom. Tell them something lives in the closet, under their bed…or outside their bedroom window. This story is pure creeps.

“The Bed by the Window”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Speaking of beds by windows, The Bed by the Window is another bleak, unsettling story. Two old bed-ridden men share a room at a hospital; one of them has a window view and describes all the amazing sites to the other. Pretty girls, parades, excitement. Eventually, the other guy wants to see for himself, but he knows he won’t get moved to the window bed until the first guy dies–so he hides his heart medicine, and sure enough, the first guy croaks. The thing is: when the other guy finally gets the new bed, he discovers the window faces a brick wall.

“Wonderful Sausage”, More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

This is one of the stories that makes me go, “Oh, yeah, that’s probably why this book was challanged by the ALA”. In it, a butcher gets mad with his wife and ends up killing her, turning her into sausage, and feeding her to his customers. The demand for this delicious new sausage leads to him killing a few locals and animals, and turning them all into sausage, too. The most insane part is where it details how he seasons his wife’s ground up flesh and smokes it in his smokehouse. This, coming from a book labeled “Ages 9 and up”!

“Bess”, Scary Stories 3

This is one of those archetypical folklore stories–the kind that comes full circle, the kind I love so much. A young farmhand has a favorite horse; a docile pet named Bess. One day, he visits a fortune teller who warns him that he will be killed by Bess. Though he doesn’t believe the teller, the young man is still wary of the horse. Eventually, he sells Bess and forgets all about the warning. Sometime later, he runs into the man he sold the horse to, who in turn tells him that Bess got sick awhile back and had to be put down. The farmhand requests to see Bess one last time, as she was his favorite horse. As he strokes what’s left of her head in the back of a barn, a rattlesnake that had made its home in the horse’s skull shoots out and bites the farmhand, killing him and fulfilling the teller’s prophecy. Knowing that Death has a clock for each of us, and that we can’t avoid the bell tolling no matter how hard we try–that’s some heavy stuff right there.

“Harold”, Scary Stories 3

Lastly, perhaps the most memorable character and story from any of the Scary Stories books, is Harold. This scarecrow-come-to-life tale is the stuff of nightmares. Two friends, alone on a farm, decide to stave off boredom by making a life-sized strawman out of canvas and hay. They put him out in the morning to scare off the birds and seat him at the dinner table at night. They also take to beating him when the mood strikes. Eventually, Harold stands up and walks out of their hut, climbs to the roof, and starts “galloping like a horse on its hind legs”. As if that imagery isn’t creepy enough, it gets worse: the two friends finally decide to leave, but soon realize they’ve forgotten some expensive milking stools back at the hut. One of them decides to go back while the other continues on. As the one walking gets to the crest of a hill, he looks back down at the hut and sees Harold on the roof of the hut again, “stretching out a bloody skin to dry in the sun”. 

Looking at the picture below–me and my buddy, excitedly reading my newly acquired Scary Stories collection, the one I’d just purchased from the book fair–it’s clear the stories didn’t affect me too badly. I’d say they instilled just the right amount of terror. The kind that lives in the backroom of your brain and invites you to revisit every once in a while.