Urban legends are a staple of living in the United States and being a teenager. There isn't a person alive who doesn't enjoy a ghost story, and among teens, that's basically all you can really do when you're hanging out together online.
Every local region has their own urban legends dealing with potential bogeymen, ghosts, or UFO capers. Some, such as the rumors of ghost passengers on roads, are fairly common everywhere. Others, like alligators in the NYC sewers, are more localized.
Over the years, all the strange tales that are spun by bored kids or upheld by hushed rumors have been the inspiration behind books, poems, and even movies. What you might not realize is the sheer number of urban legends that inspired horror movies brought out by Hollywood.
Wondering which legends were behind your favorite horror hits? Here are a few tall tales and the movies that branched from them.
"The Call Is Coming from Inside the House!"
We all know the story about the babysitter who's with a child, then gets a strange phone call from a guy saying that he is watching her. In the legend, the sitter thinks smartly and calls 911. The police tell her that they traced that call, and that the call came from inside the house.
Few urban legends that inspired horror movies have sparked quite as many terrifying scenes as this old story. It's the basis for a number of slasher films, not to mention a full TV trope.
The most famous movie to use this urban legend as inspiration is When a Stranger Calls, but there were a few more worth pointing out too. Black Christmas, Urban Legend, and Scream all featured this plot twist tangentially.
It's such a common inspiration point, it's even become a cliche on horror films. Two pretty popular comedy horror movies, Scary Movie and Scream If You Know What I Did Last Summer, also used this trope at length.
The Killer Hitchhiker
There was a point where people actually used to pick up hitchhikers who were walking down the road. One of the more common urban legends that inspired horror movies was one where the hitchhiker kills the people who picked them up.
Sadly, there were enough legit news stories involving real killers who hitchhiked to make this more of a fact than a legend. Perhaps that's what makes it one of the scariest urban legends out there—its plausibility.
Either way, the stories served as the basis for The Hitcher and became so common that picking up hitchhikers turned into a stigmatized act.
Alligators in the Sewers
If you are a New Yorker, you probably have heard at least one kid warn you about the alligators in the sewers. In the 70s, baby alligators were a major cool pet to have. However, they quickly would outgrow their owners' apartments.
Kids, being kids, would dump the alligators into sewer grates to try to give them a good home. The legend suggests that these animals ended up growing, or even mutating, in their stinky new sewer home.
Like tales of dangerous hitchhikers, this legend has some truth to it. There were alligators discovered in New York City sewer systems fairly recently, with reports dating back as far as 1930.
Shockingly, this is one of the more known urban legends that inspired horror movies, comic books, and TV episodes.
The 80s cult classic Alligator was a horror film that cashed in on this old-school tale. TV shows Futurama, The Tick, and The Simpsons also mentioned sewer gators in plots—among many others. (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, anyone?)
The Slit-Mouthed Woman
In the United States, it's said that an uncommon form of punishment among gang members is a Glasgow Grin—a facial cut that involves slitting the victim's mouth from ear to ear. That's the urban legend stateside, anyway.
In Japan, they have the legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman, or Kuchisake-Onna. The legend says that a samurai, upon hearing that his wife cheated on him, slit her mouth from ear to ear as punishment.
In death, Kuchisake-Onna has a Glasgow Grin and asks men if she is pretty. If you say no, she kills you. If you say yes, she gives you a Glasgow Grin and leaves you to die.
Since the legend took off in Japan, there have been a slew of movies that have been based off the legend. The most famous of them has been Carved, which was done in English.
Drunk Driving Victim With a Vengeance
One of the more infamous urban legends that inspired horror movies is a warning tale to drunk drivers everywhere. In this tale, a drunk driver hits a person who they think gets killed. Worrying about the penalties, the driver flees—only to later find out that the person didn't die, and that they want revenge.
Sounds like I Know What You Did Last Summer, doesn't it? That's because this classic horror flick was based on the legend. Other horror movies that were influenced by this legend include Creepshow 2, Stuck, and Hit and Run.
Terrifyingly, this does have a real life counterpart: the story of Chante Jawan Mallard, who hit a man and left him to die while on her windshield...while she drove home.
A Gateway to Hell?
If there is one thing urban legends love, it's talking about where the closest portal to Hell happens to be. In New Jersey, it's the Gates of Hell. In Pennsylvania, it's a haunted road in Hellam Township. In Maryland, it's something else.
Unsurprisingly, these are all urban legends that inspired horror movies about intrepid explorers who wanted to see Hell for themselves. Here's a quick run-through of some of the biggest names.
- Toad Road, for example, was based on the "Hell gate" story from Pennsylvania.
- As Above, So Below was based on rumors that the Parisian catacombs held a gateway to Hell. (Don't watch this one if you're claustrophobic.)
- Seven Gates of Hell blends together a number of urban legends that say you have to pass seven different landmarks to actually see the gateway to Hell.
If you listen to any kid under the age of 10, they'll tell you that saying "Bloody Mary" three times in a bathroom that doesn't have any lights on will result in the ghost actually showing up. The thing is classic as it gets, and ranks among the most hackneyed urban legends that inspired horror movies.
The most obvious examples would have to be Candyman and the Urban Legends: Bloody Mary clips. We're pretty sure you can come up with other examples.
J-horror is filled with urban legends that inspired horror movies, as well as horror movies that inspired urban legends. The tale of the teke-teke is a great example. The rumor has it that an innocent woman was sliced in half during a train accident in Hokkaido.
When she realized her fate, she came back as a ghost that crawls around on her two remaining arms searching for the lower half of her body. Her arms, now claw-like, make a "teke-teke" noise.
The movie Teketeke added to the legend, claiming that seeing her will make you die in three days.
The Torched Summer Camp Counselor
Summer camps always tell the spooky tale of the camp counselor who was accidentally torched by a bonfire. The legend says that the counselor, furious at his cruel fate, decided to come back as a ghostly killer who would attack campgoers. In other versions, the counselor never died; he was just driven mad after he saw what his face looked like.Out of all the urban legends that inspired horror movies, the tale of the torched camp counselor might be one of the most popular. In fact, one of the most popular horror movie monsters of all time got part of his legacy from this tale. I'm talking about Freddy Krueger, of course.
Others definitely came out of the woodwork to try to copy the burnt killer's fame, with varying degrees of success. The Burning, Campfire Tales, and Urban Legend all drew elements from this urban legend as well.
Ever since the first alleged sighting of the Mothman, people seem to be transfixed by its strange story and alleged appearance being a warning sign of doom.
All things considered, it makes sense that this giant, mouthless, winged creature would end up being one of the more popular urban legends that inspired horror movies.
The Mothman Prophecies is one of the most famous horror movies to use the story of the Mothman in it. However, others, including Mothman and a documentary about the start of the legend, The Mothman of Point Pleasant, have also followed suit.