The Origins of Terrifying On-Screen Urban Legends Explained

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Long before people learned how to document stories through writing, tales of horror were passed down from campfire to campfire, morphing along with the fizzling embers that followed these legends. Much like rumor mills, folklore and urban legends shift and adapt throughout history, seeping into different cultures and hometown lore. Whether it's the existence of a local boogeyman out to get children or the slightly absurd belief in Bigfoot, these tales have terrified and delighted generations of thrillseekers. 

And while at one point, all people had to rely on was word of mouth, these folktales eventually made their way into drawings, written accounts, literature, and even movies. It's fascinating to uncover the origins of a legend and how it's morphed through the sands of time and pop culture. 
These days, there are countless urban legend-based horror movies meant to tap into our most primal fears. So, let's take a look at a few of them and dive into the mythos that launched these tales.



Some boogeymen are real — and those are the scariest kinds of all. Every town is home to its own folklore that's passed around on the playground in hushed, reverent tones. Maybe it's the man who lives in the creepy, rickety house on the hill. Perhaps it's the abandoned building graffitied with occult symbology that the teenagers who painted it don't understand. Or could it even be the town loner with a sketchy past? 

Most of these town legends prove to be little more than the product of overactive imaginations with a kernel of truth within the origin story. Yet, for one area in Staten Island, the city's urban legend turned into a deadly reality. We've all seen terrifying films about haunted asylums and the insidious imprint of trauma-laden energy that mass mistreatment can leave on a building. During the documentary Cropsey, the nightmarish conditions at Willowbrook State School (a "school" for kids with developmental disorders) may have fueled a murder spree. 

Legend of Cropsey can be traced back to the ‘70s, even though kids began disappearing in 1981. Stories of a local boogeyman surfaced. But it wasn't until the disappearance of Jennifer Schweiger in 1987 that sparked action. The thread tying the kids together was clear: almost all of them had developmental disabilities — just like the forgotten kids of Willowbrook. Rather than using the term boogeyman, kids called the unknown predator "Cropsey." 

Eventually, a former janitor of the Willowbrook school got sentenced for multiple kidnapping charges. However, locals and the victims' families still don't have a firm grasp on what happened. The remains of the other children have never been found. Like most folklore, these real-life monsters don't always give us the closure we want. But people still whisper about them around the campfire because we don't know just how far the evil can spread even when it's seemingly locked up.

Trick 'r Treat

Trick or treating may seem like fun and games, but Halloween existed long before the holiday became an excuse to beg the neighbors for candy. The tradition began as a Celtic Pagan holiday, signifying a Celtic New Year's of sorts. Samhain, as the holiday was originally coined, marked the passing of summer and the harvest as winter quickly approached. The Celts believed that this spiritual day marked the moment that the veil between the living and dead was the thinnest, allowing humans and spirits to communicate more effortlessly. 

Even though many people today don't know its Celtic origin, the general gist of Halloween has remained the same. The tradition of costumes serves to scare away the spirits — and it's been co-opted by plenty of cultures and religions. 

There's no shortage of horror films that use Halloween as a motif, but few are quite so on the nose as Trick 'r Treat: a film haunted by a young child with a pumpkin head. So, who is he? None other than a physical manifestation of Samhain. The often eerie movie tackles tales of razor blades in candy and the serial killer who lives next door, honing in on the idea that it's not the spirits we need to worry about, but the people around us. 


Anyone who's ever been to a sleepover, participated in a theater production, or went to camp has likely stood in front of a mirror and whispered "Bloody Mary" three times. If your camp counselor was particularly cruel, they used red paint to scare the daylights out of you. Otherwise, it's likely that nothing happened. But what if it did? 

The movie Candyman is a mashup of several urban legends like Bloody Mary and Hook Man (a homicidal man with a hook for a hand). Both legends are so ingrained into pop culture that it's impossible to pinpoint the tale's origin, but they've both spawned countless adaptations. When it comes to the 2021 remake of the classic film, the movie goes in a buzzworthy cinematic direction with a landscape that often manages to be beautiful on top of scary. And bees. A lot of bees.

Slender Man

While many urban legends have prevailed for centuries, Slender Man is a relatively new one hailing from 2009. The spindly, suit-clad, faceless, shadowy man is a classic product of early internet use. Slender Man is the byproduct of an internet contest, of all things. Eric Knudsen forged photos from the '80s of the creepy figure stalking some kids., and the classic tale of Creepypasta took on a life of its own. 

Eventually, the internet phenomenon that morphed into a meme became a self-titled movie in 2018. Though we know this particular legend is a fabrication, Slender Man utilizes a terrifying mix of psychological horror and unsettling horror with flashes of disturbing imagery that are more terrifying than any on-screen monster. 


Willow Creek

The legend of Bigfoot doesn't exactly make people shake in their boots. In terms of urban legend mythos, this one is pretty laughable (just don't bring it up to the Willow Creek locals). Like Bloody Mary and Hook Man, the Bigfoot myth is so pervasive that the fable exists in multiple cultures. However, it's most often associated with Native Americans — which is how the names Sasquatch and Wendigo came about. People have been making claims of Bigfoot sightings since the 1800s, but no credible proof exists. Yet that doesn't stop people from trying to hunt down the ape-like beast.

And though this particular legend isn't necessarily the stuff of nightmares, the indie movie Willow Creek presents the folktale in a fresh enough way that its scares are more about the fear of getting stalked in the woods than it is about a monster. Because, let's face it, Bigfoot is kind of goofy-looking. And what better place to set the movie than Willow Creek? The California location is home to a museum about the beast and is largely considered the "Bigfoot capital of the world." It's also about an hour from the location of Bigfoot footage from 1967 that no one has been able to definitively debunk.

The Boogeyman premieres in theatres on June 2! See it at Regal. 

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