Urban legends are so much fun. I don’t say that just because I’m a horror freak.
Folklorist Dr. Jan Harold Brunvand was my personal hero for years – but his books The Vanishing Hitchhiker and The Choking Doberman (among others) are still wildly popular 30 or more years after their publication. When I discovered snopes.com, I spent days gorging on half-remembered tales and seemingly endless variations on old favorites. Almost everyone I know still uses Snopes to double check those pernicious Facebook forwards warning of body parts in canned goods or gang-related blitz attacks.
Different sorts of tales wax and wane in popularity every few years, but for me the best urban legends have always revolved around narrowly-averted slaughter. You know the ones: the subjects (usually young women, but sometimes young men or adorable couples) have no idea they’re about to be murdered and avoid tragedy through sheer luck or the kindness of strangers*. ‘The Killer in the Back Seat’, ‘The Hook’, and ‘The Boyfriend’s Death’ are all great examples of this sort of tale. My absolute favorite near-disaster urban legend is ‘The Roommate’s Death’ (title attributed to Dr. Brunvand in The Vanishing Hitchhiker). I remember telling a version to friends during a sleepaway camp in eighth grade, and I’m sure many of you have heard it in some form or another.
The cheesetastic 1988 film Urban Legend utilizes the tale in typical over-the-top fashion: when Natalie (Alicia Witt) comes home and hears her roommate Tosh (Danielle Harris) apparently hooking up with her latest conquest in their shared dorm room, she doesn’t complain or tell Tosh to quiet the sexy down. Instead, Natalie courteously leaves the light off and slaps on a pair of headphones. In the morning she finds Tosh’s strangled body in the next bed; the signature phrase (let’s all say it together now!) is spelled out in blood – presumably Tosh’s – above Natalie’s headboard.
Let’s ignore that the killer had to: 1) collect enough blood to write this without it spraying everywhere, 2) manage to not wake Natalie, and 3) write legibly in the dark (I mean, this dude should get some kind of Serial Killer Bloody Good Bloody Penmanship award). Instead, let’s talk about how much fun near-miss-murder urban legends are to share.
As kids, we told them at every sleepover. As adults, we forward warning emails, spread near-miss rumors (and the occasional actual news story) and turn up by the hundreds for films that explore these stories. Why is it so exciting to keep these tales circulating? Because they offer a safe way to talk about how very afraid we are of things we can’t control? Sure, probably. But keep in mind that while the subject escapes, in at least half of these stories someone else gets killed.
I think this type of urban legend taps into everyone’s secret belief that the most terrible events in the world can only happen to other people…the perception that no matter what awfulness may befall those around us, we will ultimately be all right. In a world where real life disaster seems to strike arbitrarily and often, near-miss-murder urban legends offer charming, if dark, tunes we can whistle on our way to someone else’s funeral.
Aren’t you glad…you’ve lived to tell the tale?
*Unlike in other types of folklore, in many urban legends the subject is almost never able to avoid disaster through her own devices. There’s little opportunity for the subject to be clever or resourceful, and Terrible Things can only be averted if fate or another person steps in to lend a helping hand.