On May 31, 2014, two twelve-year-olds in Wisconsin stabbed a friend 19 times in honour of the mythic Slender Man deep in the woods. She managed to crawl to the street and get help. Fortunately, she survived. Most urban legends and false news stories are disseminated through the internet now, and the Slender Man was one of the first major urban legends created as an internet meme.
This tragedy is something of a horrific role-reversal. Monsters, serial killers and maniacs in film and literature are often inspired by the real thing. A horrific incident based on fiction is another matter entirely. For no matter what sick, depraved act one can imagine, it doesn’t hold a candle to reality.
Urban legends are our modern folklore, incidents with grains of half-truths or pure fictions that are often employed to warn our youths of danger. If they were all true, then every Lover’s Lane would be filled with escaped lunatics, everyone searching for a lost dog would be confronted by Chris Hansen, and no one would ever set foot in the dark waters of a nearby lake.
It’s only natural that such legends have made their way into film; the legends usually come complete with their own story arc. The stories are rarely translated directly to screen, though. Rather, filmmakers use our collective knowledge of long rumoured horrors as building blocks for original tales.
Here are just 15 Movies Based On Urban Legends.
15. The Mothman Prophecies – The Mothman of Point Pleasant
The Mothman is one of stranger urban legends in recent years. There so many mythological creatures comprised of a mishmash of body parts from other animals, but usually these legends herald from older civilizations with long histories of superstition. The Mothman is one of the few cryptozoological legends of this sort borne of modern Western civilization – West Virginia, to be exact.
The giant man/insect was first reported being seen in the Point Pleasant area in 1966, but grew to national popularity after journalist John Keel’s book The Mothman Prophecies was released in 1975. Keel describes instances of sightings and linked them to other unexplained events such as pet mutilations and a series of bizarre phone calls he received during his investigation. The book, and the 2002 film adaptation directed by Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), both climax with the 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge over the Ohio River. Though both imply that the creature was involved in the disaster, both are murky and unclear as to just how – whether it caused the incident or was serving as some sort of harbinger.
14. Campfire Tales – Several Legends
Campfire Tales is best remembered for providing early roles for Amy Smart, Ron Livingston, and James Marsden. Beyond that footnote, it’s a fairly forgettable DTV anthology film involving one of the oldest twists in the book. After a group of teens are in a car accident, they wait for help in the nearby woods, each reciting their own scary story. You can imagine how the frame story ends, but each short film is based on a familiar urban legend – either in part of in full. The opening scene is a straight retelling of the classic hook-handed killer at lover’s lane. The second, featuring Livingston, is a mostly original tale of a couple trapped in an RV by unexplained creatures that ends with a character’s hand dragging across the top of the vehicle, his ring scratching the roof and terrifying his lover. Another story adapts the “People Can Lick Too” legend but updates it to include an online chatroom predator. This was 1997, mind you, and internet technophobia was all the rage in Hollywood.
13. The Bye Bye Man – “The Bridge to Body Island”
The Bye Bye Man was released earlier this year in the dumping ground month of January, then rightfully ignored almost immediately. The original legend was published by paranormal researcher (and Coast to Coast regular) Robert Damon Schneck in his work The President’s Vampire: Strange-but-True Tales of The United States of America. The story, entitled “The Bridge to Body Island” is an account from a friend of Schneck’s regarding three college students who learn of the titular demon, whose name cannot be spoken, thought of, or read, lest the creature come after his victim.
The film follows the basic details of the story closely, and if the demon’s mythology sounds far fetched, confused and improbable even for a supernatural tale, then you’ve only begun to understand just how inept it is. Apart from a nonsensical lead villain, on a technical level it’s subpar, failing to construct even the most basic jump scare.
12. When a Stranger Calls (1979)/Black Christmas (1974) – “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs”
Though Black Christmas was the first major film to play with the “Babysitter and the Man Upstairs” legend, the most straight filmic retelling belongs to the Carol Kane-starring When A Stranger Calls. The film’s first act is a straight retelling, concluding bleakly as the legend does with the traditional, “We’ve traced the call, they’re coming from inside the house” and the murder of the sleeping children. The film then unfortunately jumps ahead seven years, follwing cop Charles Durning as he chases the escaped killer. The film’s remake merely expands the opening scene to nearly 90s minutes.
Christmas merely uses the legend a plot device, leading to one of the most inventive and intense phone-tracing scenes in film history. The trace is analogue, forcing a phone technician to run through bookcase-sized computers, frantically searching for the corresponding signal.
11. Candyman – Bloody Mary
The classic Bloody Mary legend is as follows: teens, usually during a party, dare one another to go into the bathroom and invoke the ghost’s name three times with the lights off. What happens next is up for debate. The apparition may only scream at them or curse them. In other instances, the specter will claw their eyes out or strangle them.
Though there are actual films based on the Bloody Mary legend, Candyman adapted it to explore the racial issues facing Chicago. Before becoming the specter who stalks the projects of Cabrini-Green, Candyman (Tony Todd) was a slave who had a relationship with his master’s daughter and killed for it. When a young graduate student (Virginia Madsen) exposes a real-life serial killer exploiting the legend, the real thing comes after her, trying to regain his mythic status. Candyman’s interracial relationship during the early days of America, as well as the real-life violence on the streets of the south side of Chicago, serves as a nightmarish backdrop and creates an M.O. for the killer that is two-fold: he’s exposing what was once taboo, while also proving it still is.
10. Urban Legends – Several Legends
In the preface to Jan Harold Brunvand’s excellent Encylopedia of Urban Legends, he writes of a particularly tone deaf scene in the 1998 slasher, “[The class] is of interest to folklorists since it shows us Hollywood’s idea of what a college class in the subject might be like. Unfortunately, it’s a poor example, since Professor Wexler’s approach is merely to tell a lot of scary stories, show some slides, and encourage students to try ‘urban legend experiments,’ like drinking a can of soda after eating Pop Rocks candies to test whether the combination will explode in the stomach.”
And that’s just the beginning of how silly Urban Legends is. It’s a movie that exists in Hollywood University – the kind in which Robert Englund’s Wexler assigns no actual homework, tests or term papers; where the school’s newspaper has an ace reporter always snooping around and committing countless felonies (not to mention the journalistic ethics violations it raises).
But if it’s urban legends dramatized you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right movie. Any major urban legend, including numerous ones already listed here, are up for grabs. It’s just a shame a coherent, fun slasher flick didn’t come out of it. Rather, it’s just another post-Scream imitator, and a poor one at that.
9. Madman/The Burning – Cropsey
The legend of Cropsey was definitively explored in the eponymous documentary. Though the origin of the name itself has never been confirmed, the rest of the legend has more of a link to real events than most on this list. Cropsey has a direct connection to Andre Rand, a convicted child kidnapper and alleged serial killer. Usually, Cropsey is just a generic boogeyman to frighten children who misbehave.
In the early years of the ’80s, two separate films raced to completion both based on the Cropsey legend. The first was a low budget chiller directed by Joe Giannone and produced by Gary Sales. Following the generally true business model of producing a low budget horror film sure to recoup its budget, Sales recommended basing it on the legend. A young Harvey Weinstein and brother Bob had the same idea. Giannone changed the title to Madman, while the Weinsteins beat out his release date by a year. To date, The Burning is the only screen credit to Bob Weinstein, a film less remembered for its connection to Cropsey and more for its cast, including then unknowns Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Fisher Stevens.
8. Alligator – Sewer Alligators
It’s easy to forget that acclaimed director John Sayles began writing cheeky screenplays for B-Horror movies. And they’re some of the best. They’re written without an ounce of pretention, but with plenty of moments the more avid filmgoer will appreciate. Alligator – directed by Lewis Teague (Cujo) – was Sayles’ second outing in the genre. It’s an excellent B-movie, with knowing in-jokes such as grafitti in the sewer reading “Harry Lime Lives” (Orson Welles’ Lime was shot dead in a sewer at the climax of The Third Man).
The script plays off an urban legend that dates back to the 1920s, but was most prominent in Robert Daley’s book, The World Beneath the City, released in 1959. In the book, a city administrator tells of reports of alligators spotted in the system in 1935. At first, he was sceptical, more concerned with his men drinking on the job. When he went to see for himself, he indeed found the creatures and promptly exterminated them. There are other, more extreme reports – such as albino alligators growing to enormous size after being flushed down the toilet.
7. The Legend of Boggy Creek – The Fouke Monster
Charles B. Pierce began his film career as a set designer for a series of television shows before directing his own feature, The Legend of Boggy Creek, in 1973. Staged as a psuedo-documentary, with staged recreations of actual locals who claim to have witnessed the Fouke monster – or Southern Sasquatch – in the small Arkansas town of the same name.
There is just as much, if not more, scepticism regarding the Fouke creature as there is his Northeastern cousin. He first began appearing in stories and word of mouth in the 1940s, allegedly attacking and walking off with livestock. Based on eyewitness accounts, he’s around seven feet tall with red-orange fur and a nasty smell. Though tracks have been spotted (comprised of three toes), they have mostly been written off as hoaxes. Other accounts of the creature have been attributed to drunkenness; read – 1940s rural Arkansas drunkenness.
Nevertheless, the film was a success, leading to Pierce further exploring the unexplained in Texarkanas in the cult hit The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Though several other sequels to Creek were made, Pierce himself only revisited the material once in Boggy Creek II: The Legend Continues. It was subject to great and hysterical ridicule in an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
6. Willow Creek and Countless Others – Bigfoot
It’s worth noting, though often not spoken, that the infamous Patterson/Gimlin footage of Bigfoot – the famous 1967 short film featuring the creature turning to look at the camera as it walks away – was filmed by two men with Hollywood backgrounds. Roger Patterson, in particular, had driven to Hollywood numerous times in the years before the footage was released, trying to drum up interest in a pseudo-documentary about the creature.
Still, Bigfoot remains one of the most enduring American legends, even inspiring the wealthy to devote millions of dollars and often their livelihoods into tracking the creature. So naturally, a number of films inspired by the legend have been made. From lighthearted (Harry and the Hendersons) to the grotesquely scary (Abominable).
The most straightforward Bigfoot movie in recent years is Bobcat Goldthwait’s found footage experiment Willow Creek, which follows a young couple on their own personal hunt for the monster. It’s a major departure for Goldthwait as a filmmaker, and an impressive debut in the genre. The search culminates in a pulse-pounding 20 minute still shot of the couple in their tent as the unseen beast terrorizes them.
5. The Amityville Horror – The DeFeo Poltergeist
The Amityville Horror began life as a non-fiction book written by Jay Anson. It chronicles the paranormal experiences of George and Kathy Lutz, who moved into the now infamous house just one year after Ronald DeFeo brutally slaughtered his six family members with a rifle. The book launched a film, which turned into a franchise that has spanned 12 films and a remake (so far).
Everytime the De Feo house goes up for sale, newspapers still run human interest pieces about those brave enough to move in. The house has been investigated by numerous supposed mediums, including Ed and Lorraine Warren of The Conjuring fame.
All this, despite the fact that the “horror” has been thoroughly debunked as a hoax. The claims made by the Lutzes and Anson – from busted locks and cloven hoof prints to rumours of an Indian burial ground – have been disproven by researchers. Even the layout of the house itself doesn’t match up to scenes from the book. Still, the Lutz family maintained it was true until their deaths. And the franchise, though weary and largely relegated to the direct-to-DVD market, shows no sign of stopping.
4. The Gate/The House of the Devil – The Satanic Panic of the 1980s
Speaking of hoaxes that inspired national fascination: over 30 years ago, America underwent a streak of religious McCarthyism not seen since the Salem Witch Trials. Today, the Satanic Panic of the 1980s exists as a minor footnote of a decade rife with scandal, a recession and a celebrity president (this should sound familiar).
The fear began after psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder’s bestseller Michelle Remembers hit the bookshelves in 1980. The book, now discredited, tells the story of a patient (and later wife of Pazder) who uncovers repressed memories of Satanic ritual abuse. It is the origin of many classic tropes of SRA, including the sacrifice of small babies. To date, the FBI maintains that there has been no evidence of SRA.
Nevertheless, politicians took to podiums. Video games were in their infancy, so the blame fell to heavy metal music.
The Gate, a cult classic released in 1987, fully capitalizes on the media feeding frenzy surrounding heavy metal. In the film, a particular record acts as a doorway for demons.
3. 8mm – The Snuff film
For years, the idea of a snuff film remained just a legend. Now, it’s questionable whether or not videos like Stephens’ – which are usually posted on the Dark Web and not Facebook – are the real thing. There appears to be no commercial motive, however the voyeuristic position viewers are in may be enough.
Prior to the rise of the internet (or prior to high speed video sharing, at least), Joel Schumacher’s 1999 8mm explored the myth in a gratuitous and absurd manner. Nicolas Cage plays a private detective hired to uncover the veracity of a snuff film owned by a deceased billionaire. As he delves deeper into the underground world of rough sex and staged murder for perverts, he faces uncomfortable truths.
It’s a bizzare, sadistic exercise. The script, from Se7en‘s Andrew Kevin Walker, refuses to delve deep enough into the depravity it wishes to explore, as though it were a Hollywood film dressed up as a gritty indie: all the style and attitude, none of the profundity. One would expect a film about snuff films to be relevant given recent events; the fact that 8mm isn’t is proof positive of its inconsequence.
2. Incident at Loch Ness – Nessie
The world’s second most popular legend next to Bigfoot also has a history full of confirmed hoaxes and deceit. The infamous “surgeon’s photograph”, the clear, black and white shot of what appears to be a plesiosaur floating in Loch Ness, is fake. Experts have pointed to discrepancies in scale to be the smoking gun-evidence they need. And since 1994, only the most extremist cryptozoologist still claim its veracity.
Nevertheless, the world’s imagination has been fixated on the body of water and just what might dwell in it.
Zak Penn’s amusing mockumentary, Incident at Loch Ness, takes an experimental approach with the legend – playfully toying with the audience’s ability to differentiate fact from fiction while taking a few shots at Hollywood as well. The hoax began with the film’s first announcement in trade papers and other media, claiming it was legitimate.
To cap things off, the film stars co-writer Werner Herzog as himself – a filmmaker with a long history of taking enormous risks during production. Herzog and a supposed giant swimming dinosaur – what could possibly go wrong?
1. Triangle/”Triangle” – The Bermuda Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle is a loosely defined area in the Atlantic Ocean where an unusual number of ships and planes have disappeared. In reality, however, there’s little mystery. The Triangle is one of the most well-traveled areas of the ocean, so naturally a disproportionate number of accidents would occur there.
Pop culture still enjoys toying with the idea that something supernatural is afoot. An inordinate number of films exploring the area explore its relationship to potential time travel. Christopher Smith’s Triangle, for instance, finds characters aboard an otherwise empty ocean liner. Over time, it becomes apparent that a masked killer dispatching them one by one is in fact another version of a character trapped in a time loop.
The season 6 episode of The X-Files, also entitled “Triangle”, was an ambitious affair. Comprised of four long takes directed by creator Chris Carter, the show finds Agent Mulder warped back to a disappeared British ship in 1939. During his time there, he finds himself confronted by nazi doppelgangers of the show’s core villains. It’s one of the best-recieved episodes of the later seasons.