I've written about "urban legends"--those apocryphal little horror stories told around offices and break rooms, and now shared as "creepy pasta" on the wild, terror-filled domains of the Internet--for many, many years, publishing one book, Scary Urban Legends (Schiffer, 2010), as well as an unpublished sequel Scary Horror Legends, that I have, nonetheless, cannibalized, off and on, whenever the occasion arises. I'm pretty much enamored with the genre--the weird, dislocating, timeless anonymity, the "everyman" nature of the undeveloped narrative protagonists; the way it exposes the hideous truth lurking just below the surface of bourgeois, suburban American society. Each legend has about it a sense of BEWARE: THIS could happen to ME, YOU, ANYONE OF US. Each nightmare vignette reminds me of what Stephen King once wrote about a short story being like, "A kiss from a lover in the dark."
So imagine my shock when I discovered that there were one or two urban legends even I, yes I, had somehow...missed. Uh-uh. No way. Never heard of 'em.
So, a few of these "Ones That Got Away" are recounted here.
"Don't Let Them Bury Me, I'm Not Dead!"
The above is a line from the 1988 Wes Craven horror and voodoo epic, The Serpent and the Rainbow. The following joke though, might better encapsulate the theme of our first morbid little gem.
Question: What would Marilyn Monroe be doing if she were alive today?
Answer: Clawing at the lid of her coffin!
It's a sure bet the old woman in the following story didn't look a heck of a lot like Marilyn Monroe.
An old man, married for sixty years to the same woman, became sick at heart, realizing his beloved companion was soon to be dead. When the end finally came, after a long, painful final illness, the old woman was hastily put into a pine casket and buried in a family plot at the far end of the property.
The old widower grieved inconsolably, but soon fell to slumber. As he slept, though, a strange dream began to trouble him. He saw his wife, frantic and grown insane, CLAWING AT THE LID OF HER PINE COFFIN IN THE DARK. He awoke, startled and badly terrified. At first, he tried to forget his strange nightmare. Soon though, a compulsion to act stole over him.
He finally convinced a few neighbors to help him exhume the coffin. To their shock and amazement, the old widower's dream turned out to be true: the hands of the unfortunate woman were battered and bloodied, and she had torn her hair out in terror. There were, furthermore, scratches on the lid of the box. In short, the old woman had been BURIED ALIVE.
The Video Dead!
The above title refers to a straight-to-video horror flick from the Eighties. (Which, as far as I know, you can watch in its entirety on You Tube) Many Millennials will never guess that once, when dinosaurs walked side-by-side with cavemen, people went to places called "video stores" just to rent these weird, flat, plastic rectangles (that always had that "Be kind! Please Re-Wind!" sticker placed on them), or that people use to actually pay to see a movie, instead of just turning on some video streaming site online. Curious these stone age folks and their long-forgotten cultural folkways, huh?
Of course, there's a certain weird, spooky thrill to getting some sort of unknown video, or even DVD, and not knowing, exactly, who it belongs to or what, in all the great golly-jolly, could possibly be on it. Films of the late Nineties like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the Japanese Ringu (1998)(remade in America as The Ring in 2002) capitalized on the spooky idea of "found footage" revealing some dark, terrible secret. The following tale does so as well.
Jan and Nan were in the video shop, enjoying an idyllic summer afternoon out of school. They wanted to rent a scary movie, but nothing really appealed to them. Then, while the manager was in the back getting videos, Nan spied a weird, lonely-looking videotape on the counter.
It had no label on it, and, on a whim, Nan swiped it. (Maybe she was a bot of a kleptomaniac? Maybe she had poor impulse control. Whatever the case, this was her fatal mistake!"
They rented a terrible-looking movie they didn't have much interest in, and left.
When Nan showed Jan what she had done, initially, she was angry. "Girl, are you crazy? That's theft!"
But, just the same, both girls were curious as all get out. They went home, fired up the VCR, and popped in a tape.
They were shocked to see the same scene repeated, over and over again.
It looked like an old scene from the Middle Ages. Or Salem, during the witch trials. There was a witch with long, greasy black hair and a face that could stop a locomotive dead in its tracks. Her eyes blazed fiery, devilish hatred, and, as the peasant crowd condemned her by throwing stones and rotten eggs and raising their fists in a snarl, she snarled back, pointed her finger, and, looking directly at the horrified girls as they watched, exclaimed, "Curse you! Curse you for what you have done. My curse be upon you, now, and forevermore! You will die in three days. Do you hear me? In three days YOU'LL BE DEAD."
And then the flames covered her face.
And then the same scene played out again.
"It has to be some sort of joke," said Nan.
"I don't want to watch anymore," said Jan.
They both agreed they should return the tape. But they messed around for awhile, going back and forth about it. Finally, they went back to the video store.
On the way, Jan swerved to avoid hitting a family of baby ducks crossing the road. The car went off the road, rammed into a telephone pole, and killed both of them instantly.
It was exactly THREE DAYS after they had first watched the video tape.
(Anyone here reminded of Christian Bale's line from American Psycho (2000) about, "I have to return some video tapes! " is forgiven their little chuckle.)
Whether or not they were kind enough to rewind the tape before returning it remains unknown.
The deaths of children, especially many children at once, is always an outrage and a tragedy. The idea of a life snuffed out before it has begun is one that invites the feeling that, somewhere, lonely little ghosts bewail their sorry fate; trapped forever in the tragic memory of our sorrow and regrets, our anger at Fate, our sense of the meaningless injustice of it all.
Surely, such tragedies must leave their stain upon an environment. Surely, we ponder, they must resonate like a psychic echo down through the ages, do they not?
Hence, this little piece of apocryphal "truth."
On a lonely, desolate stretch of train track in San Antonio, Texas, a school bus full of children met a sorry end. Struck by an oncoming train after stalling on the tracks, EVERYONE on board, all the children (presumably the luckless driver as well) were killed.
Bob and Robb had heard this story; they also heard that, if you put your vehicle in neutral fifty feet from the tracks, your car (or truck, or motorbike. Whatever.) would begin to roll uphill and over the tracks, until, lo and behold, it was on the other side.
"Let's test it for the record!" said Bob.
"I'm with you!" answered Robb.
They did just that.
They took the truck to the tracks. Bob put her in neutral. Waited. At first, they both turned to each other, said, "What a load of double horsepucky!" But, just then:
The truck began to rock back and forth, and it felt like tiny tendrils, or little fingers of force were caressing their bellies. The truck, amazingly enough, began to creep forward; slowly at first, but then gaining momentum.
'Why, I'll be tied up with a garden hose and flogged by a two-dollar hootenanny! It's true! It's true!"
Sure enough, the truck gritted and bumped its way over dirt and loose gravel, uphill, OVER the tracks, and down the other side, cresting the edge of the little hill, coming to rest with a soft crunch of crusty sound below.
"Hey, did you hear it, Robb?"
"Yeah Bob. Sounded like kids. Lots of 'em."
"A crying and a-moaning and a-squealing. Never heard the like of it before!" exclaimed Bob.
"It's gone now," said Robb, looking around apprehensively. "And that's what we should be, too. Gone!"
Later, upon examining the pickup truck, they discovered a bunch of what looked to be little handprints in the dust and grime, spread all over it.
So, yeah, to quote the inimitable Orson Welles, "It's ALL true!"
"Who's That Knocking at My Door?"
This one belongs to the "He Knows You're Home Alone," genre.
Two kids: Billy and Jilly. Parents have gone off on a date, to save their failing marriage or something. They tell the kids, "Now, don't, no matter what, answer the door if someone knocks. Never know who it may be."
Billy and Jilly nod assent. Little do they know, a maniac killer has escaped from the local Institute for the Criminally Insane.
The kids watch cartoons. They watch sitcoms. They watch, sort-of, the nightly news. They watch some old movie. They yawn. They decide, finally, to go upstairs as it is past their bedtime.
"Mom and Dad will be home soon," said Billy.
"We'll make sure to brush our teeth and wash behind our ears," said Jilly. "Won't they be so proud?"
Billy agreed, indeed.
Upstairs, the kids washed, brushed, and got ready for bed. Suddenly, Billy was awakened by Jilly shaking him.
He groggily got up, said, "Jill, what are you doing in here?"
Jill looked really scared. She leaned over him, whispered, "Mom and Dad aren't home yet, and...someone is knocking on the door!"
At first, Billy didn't know what to say. Then, he said, "What if it IS Mom and Dad? What if they forgot the key or something?"
Jilly nodded, said, "I thought the same thing!" After a pause, she said, "I-I'm just going to go down there and see who it is--"
"Jill, no!" exclaimed Bill.
But Jilly said, "We can't have someone knocking at the door all night. I'm going to go down there...and give them a piece of my mind for waking us up! Mom and Dad should be home soon, You'll see!"
And, before he could stop her, she was out the door, into the shadows at the top of the stairs.
Well, Billy waited, and waited. And waited some more. He started to get more and more terrified with each passing minute. Finally, Jilly not returning, he crept from his bed, cautiously, went to the top of the stairs, and looked down into the darkness.
He walked down the first few stairs. He realized, with mounting horror, that the front door had been left STANDING WIDE OPEN. Where was his sister?
In a heat of panic, he descended the staircase, went outside, into the sticky summer heat, and found himself running next door, to the neighbors' house.
Mr. Pratt was up, drinking warm milk and watching old sitcoms on the old folks' network, when he heard a frantic "knock, knock" at the door.
"Who's that at this hour?" he wondered. He went to the curtain, pulled it aside, and saw little Billy standing on the porch in his bare feet.
"What in the world?" he said to himself, pulling open the door. "Billy Dilley! What in the name of heaven and earth are you doing out here at this hour?"
Billy stammered out the story, explaining that their parents had gone out and not yet returned; Jilly had gone downstairs to answer a knocking; how she had not come back upstairs; and how, when Billy went downstairs, he had found the front door standing wide open, and Jilly nowhere to be seen.
"Oh my," thought Mr. Pratt. "Didn't I just see a news report about an escaped mental patient being on the loose?" But he didn't want to further alarm the boy, so he said nothing about that.
Brave Mr. Pratt, arming himself with a nine-iron, raced with Billy over to the Dilley house. They went inside. In the light of the moon pouring through the windows, they could see what they took to be...dark little footprints.
"Jilly's" said Billy. "And they look all...wet!"
(Incidentally, the parents of these unfortunate kids were, busily, trying to make their way home after their car broke down. Out in the country. Where they had driven, after dinner and a movie, to "talk over" their difficulties. This was in the days before cell phones, and the walk to the gas station was a doozy.)
Billy and Mr. Pratt followed those same dark footprints, which Mr. Pratt feared looked an awful lot like blood, up, up, up to the top of the stairs.
Mr. Pratt prepared himself. He swung the door to Jilly's room open. He went inside.
Flicked on the light.
Billy raced forward, past the flabby, middle-aged man as he stood there in shock.
On the bed was a single butcher knife.
The sheets were covered in blood.
There was a weird lump of...something in the center of the bed.
"I'm going to give him a PIECE OF MY MIND!"
Jilly had said that. Those had been her last words.
A...piece of her mind. Well, she had done that indeed.
(We'll let the reader draw their own conclusions.)
"One for the Road"
Last, but certainly not least, we have this nauseating nugget, this automotive agony we call: "ONE FOR THE ROAD".
Lonnie and Donnie were destined to date. Each though the other the perfect mate. They went to the dances, they went to the store; they both liked to stay up late.
They went to a local dance, put on by few friends of theirs, who were twisting and grooving the night away. But, Lonnie felt herself get more and more steamed as the night wore on; Donnie was acting like a real jerk.
He was drunk. And, what's worse, he was dancing around the room with a lampshade on his head, thinking he was, like, the funniest thing ever. AND, Lonnie had noticed his "roving eye" checking out many of the other girls at the party. He was also flirting a little.
Exasperated, she finally took him aside, told him, "You big creep! I'm getting out of here."
He drunkenly slurred, "No way babe! I'm just having a good time!"
Lonnie spat back angrily, "Yeah? We'll I'm not, you silly jerk!"
And with that, she stormed out of the party.
Outside, on the porch, people were smoking, cutting-up, hanging out and making out. She went out the door, and stood out in front of the steps for a moment. Someone said, "Hey, leaving so soon?"
She put her balled fists on her hips, in a Superman pose, and said, "Yeah! I have to get away from that stupid butthead in there."
The girl who had spoken approached her. She lit a cigarette. Her eyes were dark and her face was shadowed.
"How you gettin' home, honey? Not planning on walking, I hope."
Lonnie answered, a little uneasily, "Yeah. It's just a block or two away. Besides, I'll be okay. I know some moves."
"Moves?" asked the girl, curiously, dragging on her cancer stick.
"Sure. Moves. Karate, kung fu, ju-jitsu, that sort of thing. Moves."
The girl smiled, cynically. She said, "Well, that may be so. But, I sure hope you don't run into the Spectre while you're walking. Moves aren't going to be any good against him."
Lonnie asked, quizzically. "The...Specter? Who is that?"
The girl laughed, bitterly.
"The Specter ain't a who, baby doll. He's more of a what. They say he made a deal with the Devil. They say he went drag racing with his buddies one lonely night, twenty-five years ago. They say he never dies, but has rotted down to skin and bones..."
Lonnie broke in, "That's...stupid!" she half-laughed.
The girl seemed nonplussed.
"Yeah, well, stupid or not, they say he rides around offering young girls walking home...free rides. A living skeleton that never dies. Of course, those girls are never seen again."
There was silence a moment, then the girl snubbed out her smoke beneath a toe, said, "We've had a lot of people, girls, disappear around these parts. Nobody talks about it much. You go walking home alone, baby doll, just remember what I told you."
And she walked back into the party.
Lonnie stood out on the porch a moment, considering what to do. She would be damned if she went back in there to that...creep, to give him the satisfaction of knowing she was scared. BUT...the Specter? Could he really be real? She didn't know.
"Oh," she finally said to herself. "This is silly. I just live two blocks away! I've walked home lots of times. Why, I'll be there in two shakes of a coyote's tail."
And with that she started off. The night was moonless, and, as she got further and further away from the party, she realized just how lonely and desolate, how quiet the streets were. She could hear, in the distance, the lonely wail of a train, a dog barking in the yard; the rustle of trees in the breeze.
She was about half way there when a car pulled up beside her. It parked at the curb, just a few feet ahead.
She felt panicky. She would have to pass it to get home. What was going on here?
Her legs felt rubbery as she slowly approached. Her heels clack-clacked against the pavement. She was right upon it.
Then, not knowing what made her do it, she turned, just as she passed the driver's side window. The car was parked, she noted, the wrong way.
The window was dark. It slowly rolled down. She stopped, feeling as if she were in a bad dream.
The driver leaned out the window. A scream forced its way up her throat, caught on the tip of her unbelieving tongue, refusing to emerge.
The driver was a grinning, death's-head skeleton.
"Hey lady," asked the Specter. "Want to take a ride?"
The sound of maniacal laughter was the last Lonnie ever heard.
And there you have it, friends and neighbors, five little terror tales to tide you over. Till next time, this is your old pal, The Ghoul Too Cool for School, signing off!