Urban Legends Older Than You'd Think
If you're like us, you'll remember the first time you heard a famous urban legend. Sitting around a campfire, toasting marshmallows with your many attractive friends... okay, fine, we read them all online. Happy now? But we also learned that some of modern folklore's creepiest stories are way older than you'd think, because our ancestors were a bunch of morbid weirdos too.
Long Before Alligators, Other Animals Were Rumoured To Live In Sewers
Before Stephen King invented sewer clowns, a long-standing urban legend told of more mundane monsters living beneath us. Supposedly, New Yorkers would buy baby alligators in Florida and then, somehow only just realising they don't make good pets for city-dwellers, would flush them down the toilet. The gators would somehow survive New York's tough winters, grow and breed and, in the more outlandish tales, mutate or fight ninja turtles. The gator myth dates back to the 1920s but, like America itself, has its roots in Merry Olde England.
In Victorian London, there were people called Toshers. They made a living scavenging in the sewers, just like their descendant Daniel Tosh, and they livened things up with tall tales. According to one legend, a pregnant pig slipped into the sewers and popped out a bunch of little bacons, and they all lived off the garbage that washed down to them. The incestuous porkers then made more babies and became a vicious horde. While it's a fun story, another Tosher tale told of a supernatural rat queen who transformed into a beautiful woman, took human lovers, and rewarded the men who boned the best with a string of good luck, so maybe they're not the most trustworthy source.
But legends of monstrous sewer critters stretch back even further. Aelian, a Roman writer who lived between roughly 175 and 235, tells of Roman merchants who stored pickled fish in warehouses. The fish were repeatedly stolen, but there were no signs of a break-in. One night, a courageous servant kept watch and discovered a giant octopus sneaking in via the sewers to eat up all the merchandise. The next night, a small army waited for the creature and hacked it up like only the ancient Romans could. This, of course, brought down the wrath of PETA, and thus the fall of the Roman empire.
The Vanishing Hitchhiker Used To Score Lifts On Horseback
Hitchhiking is the backdrop for enough urban legends to fill an entire article, but one of the most famous variants is of a driver who picks up a young woman on a dark highway, only to find she's vanished from the backseat before he can drop her at her home. Her family then explains that she died in a car accident years ago, and apparently she isn't living her best possible afterlife because she pulls this crap all the time. In more elaborate versions, the driver loans ghost-girl a jacket, which she thoughtfully leaves draped over her tombstone for him.
Variants of this tale are told worldwide, and it's turned up everywhere from country songs to Kmart ads to two different Supernatural episodes. It sounds like a very 20th century legend, what with the car and the highway. But, much like Supernatural itself, the story has been around an inexplicably long time. Vanishing hitchhikers have been mooching lifts from Americans since at least the 1870s, and those tales are probably a reboot of ghost stories from Europe.
Ghosts that bummed a ride during the golden age of typhoid would hop on wagons or just jump on the back of a drinking buddy's aunt's best friend's co-worker's horse. And while today's spectral hitchhikers are usually friendly, their ancestors would often climb aboard uninvited and ride in silence. Some didn't even bother to have a satisfying backstory about their deaths, although the gist of the roadside rando saga is the same as the story told today.
Folklorists have been arguing about the meaning of phantom hitchhikers for decades and still can't reach a consensus, but everyone agrees the car-based legend turned up in the 1930s and soon became far more popular than the horse-and-wagon versions ever were. It's possible the idea of a haunted highway suited the 20th century's exciting new fear of dying in a car crash. All the hitchhiker needed was an updated origin story and a grieving family, and her legend became a spooky PSA about the dangers of driving like an asshole.
We've Been Scared Of Syringes In Movie Theaters Before Talkies Were Popular
The AIDS epidemic launched a few legends about deranged victims infecting strangers for laughs, and a common variant warned that you should check your seat in a dark movie theater lest you get stabbed in the butt and find a helpful note explaining that you're infected now. It's a chain email classic that's still kicked around the social media circles of worried grandparents today. People all over the world, often young women, have allegedly sat down in the wrong theater and found themselves in a sequel to Philadelphia.
But the idea of theaters stalked by syringe-wielding maniacs is older than the virus itself; as early as 1913, women feared that their fellow moviegoers would jab them with a needle. These old-timey villains would drug their victims and spirit them away to a life of "white slavery," aka sex trafficking. Yes, the running trend in these urban legends was that the real victims of AIDS and slavery were white women. The tale turned up in a few different cities over the years, but it really took off in 1930s New Orleans.
Why the Big Easy? Probably because the city already had a hypodermic legend of its own. The "Needle Men" of New Orleans were evil medical students who supposedly hunted African-Americans to use as educational cadavers, a legend probably inspired by the real practice of plundering black graves for medical corpses. In a city already afraid of sneaky syringes, it was easy for the legend to expand and give its Needle Men a side-hustle as white slavers. But while multiple generations of moviegoers have apparently looked around and thought "You know, this would be the perfect place to stab a stranger with a syringe," in reality the only way you'll catch an STD in a theater is when date night turns declassee.
Light As A Feather, Stiff As A Board Dates Back To At Least The 1600s
As anyone who's ever attended a sleepover knows, light as a feather, stiff as a board is a game that involves a group of people working to "levitate" someone who's lying on the floor. If you didn't have enough friends to try it, you might know it from The Craft.
As with most sleepover games it involves a lot of creepy chanting, often about how the prone person is dying. Explanations for why it works tend to vary, but one reason frequently given is that it allows a spirit to enter that person's body and lift them (the more mundane explanation is coordinated strength and exaggerated memories, but that's beside the point). You'd be forgiven for thinking this was a modern invention, but light as a feather, stiff as a board has been astonishing sleepover-goers since at least the mid-1600s. Humanity created spooky levitation chants at least a few decades before the whole gravity thing was finally nailed down.
The first written account comes from the diary of 17th century Englishman Samuel Pepys. On July 31, 1665, Pepys met a scholar and their conversation quickly turned to tales of the magical spells they'd witnessed, which was the 17th-century equivalent of chatting about the weather. This scholar told Pepys about some young girls he saw in France who lifted a boy with only their fingertips, all the time chanting what roughly translates to:
"Behold, a dead body,
Still as a stone,
Cold as marble,
Light as a spirit,
We lift you in the name of Jesus Christ."
The Craft probably wouldn't have worked as well if all the witches had been devout Christians, but 1665 was a plague year so death certainly would have been on the mind. These girls proceeded to do the same trick with an overweight chef, before presumably turning their heads in unison and staring creepily at the scholar.
Rumored Celebrity Rib Removals Are Well Over A Century Old
Celebrities ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Cher have long been rumoured to have removed their lowest pair of ribs to achieve a slimmer waistline. When the rumour took on a lewd twist with Marilyn Manson, who supposedly took out two ribs so he could perform oral sex on himself, it felt like the urban legend had achieved peak '90s xtremeitude. An idea like that could only come from a celebrity obsessed culture, right?
Well, yes, but we've always been obsessed with celebrities. The waist sliming rumour appears to trace back to Broadway star Anna Held, who had a variety of nonsense spread about her to drum up press and ticket sales. If her name's not ringing a bell, that's because the marketing campaign took place in the 1890s.
It didn't take long for the idea to turn dirty. Gabriele D'Annunzio was an Italian war hero and prolific literary celebrity, with his work mostly falling out of favour because he also happened to be a forefather of fascist ideology. But in the 1890s through the 1910s, back when you could be a superstar for writing poetry and plays, D'Annunzio played up his reputation as a decadent lothario by sleeping with every woman in sight, throwing money and gifts around, posing for nude photos, riding around naked on horseback, and claiming to have indulged in cannibalism. Supposedly, his housekeeper was required to sleep with him three times a day. Oh, and he owned shoes with dick tassels and a robe with a hole for his ding dong.
When you're on record saying "The world must be convinced that I am capable of anything," rumours are going to spread, and rib removal for the sake of self-fellatio was chief among them. Again, in his day he was considered an excellent writer, so this is like if it was commonly purported that Haruki Murakami can only achieve an erection by beating a hobo to death. And while Marilyn Manson may have played up his edginess, he was never "invented fascism" edgy.
Jack R. Loun's got a little writing blog that he's been working on here if you want to check it out. Abraham is a Mexican lawyer, and when he isn't doing law stuff he writes comedy! You can say hi to him on twitter here.