Urban legends are fictional stories, often dark, that come out of popular culture — and can also be a means by which society tries to explain strange and mysterious goings on.
Sometimes the information passed on might be a warning about avoiding a dangerous situation, other times it is an attempt to collectively understand challenging world events.
Urban legends have escalated with the rise of the internet, as people are able to share stories more easily. Academics speculate that urban legends and cultural memes become prevalent at times when reliable factual information is in short supply.
Today, with many people around the world losing trust in the traditional media due to its increasing bias, internet tales, along with other myths and legends, have sprung up to fill the gap.
Urban legends take on many different forms. In no particular order, here are 10 popular ones which have captured the public’s imagination in the past.
1 Boyfriend death
One of the most well-known urban legends — and one which has many variations — is the ‘boyfriend death’.
A teenage couple on lovers’ lane get spooked by reports on the radio of an escaped maniac. They try to leave, but the car won’t start. The boy goes for help.
Later the girl hears a voice from someone claiming to be a policeman telling her to get out of the car and walk towards him without looking back.
Of course, the girl looks back to see the maniac holding her boyfriend’s severed head.
This legend originated in the 40s and 50s after a number of real life “lovers’ lane” murders — but is most likely spread as a way to make teenagers think twice about underage sex.
Bigfoot is supposedly a tall, ape-like being with thick fur thought to live in the caves and snow-swept forests of the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.
He has also reportedly been sighted in British Columbia where he is known as Sasquatch.
Most Bigfoot and Sasquatch sightings, which date as far back as the 1800s, are believed to be hoaxes — but some scientists have speculated that Bigfoot might be a relative of Homo erectus; the extinct offshoot of modern humans.
With new species discovered every day, and rediscoveries of creatures believed to be long extinct like the Coelacanth, who is to say that Bigfoot doesn’t walk among us?
3 The Challenger tapes
The space shuttle Challenger sadly broke apart during its launch on January 28, 1986, killing the entire crew.
According to official NASA records, communication with the crew ended at the moment the shuttle started to come apart.
However, a myth quickly circulated that crew members had their own microphones which continued to record events after that point until their containment pod hurtled into the sea.
There was reportedly a secret NASA tape which captured their final panic-stricken moments.
This urban legend probably stems from the official investigation’s inability to pinpoint the crew’s exact time of death. The Challenger tapes were a way of society dealing with the horrifying events.
4 The Mothman
The Mothman was sighted in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, primarily between November 1966 and December 1967.
The creature was described as a white, bird-like man, with a large wingspan and red glowing eyes.
Scientists speculated that Mothman sightings were related to a particularly large crane or heron, but author John Keel believed the Mothman to be a form of pre-cognition experienced by the locals warning them of the collapse of the Silver Bridge on the 15th of December 1967.
Keel’s book on the subject became a Richard Gere movie.
The people of Point Pleasant hold a Mothman festival each year to celebrate its supposed visit to the town.
5 Check the children
Another widespread legend is this one, about a babysitter and the “killer” upstairs.
A babysitter is alone in a big house with two children asleep upstairs. A man rings and says “check the children”.
Thinking it’s a prank, the girl ignores him but the man keeps ringing back. The girl calls the police who trace the calls and tell her that the man is calling from within the house and to get out.
The girl rushes to the children, finding them murdered.
The ‘moral’ was that babysitters should take care when watching children.
The legend first became popular in the 60s, roughly at the same time as babysitter horror films like Halloween became culturally prevalent.
The Chupacabra or ‘goat-sucker’ is a legend that originated in South America but sightings have been slowly traveling across North America as far as Maine.
The beast is said to drain the blood from livestock leaving three puncture wounds behind, and has reportedly blighted the lives of many farmers.
Descriptions of el Chupacabra vary from a bear-sized canine with spines from neck to tail, to a lizard-skinned canine, with a forked tongue that moves like a kangaroo and leaves a stench of sulfur wherever it goes.
Farmers may have created the legend of Chupacabra as a way to try and understand the loss of their livestock.
However, scientists and biologists have dismissed the monster as various instances of coyotes and wild dogs suffering from bad mange.
7 The phantom hitchhiker
Sightings of a ‘phantom hitchhiker’ have become legendary due to their prevalence. Many villages and towns have similar stories, probably stemming from insecurity surrounding road deaths following the invention of the motor car.
A man driving home late at night sees a man/woman at the side of the highway and offers them a lift.
The passenger gives an address nearby and the man drives them home. The hitchhiker seems to disappear, so the driver assumes they have entered the house — but then discovers an item of clothing left behind.
The driver knocks on the door and gives a description of the hitchhiker, and is told that they were previously killed— on the same stretch of road where they were picked up.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. Sightings date back to the 1700s but became popularized in the 1930s after a fresh wave of sightings caught the imagination of the press.
Nessie is often described as having a large body with a long, thin neck which led enthusiasts to speculate that Nessie may be a surviving relative of the prehistoric Plesiosaur.
Skeptics have dismissed Nessie sightings as instances of large seals and a number of prominent sightings were proved to be hoaxes.
However, the legend of Nessie still fires the imaginations of people around the world — with some dedicating their lives to proving its existence.
9 Jedi is an officially recognized religion
Over the last decade, a myth sprung up that Jedi has become an officially recognized religion in some countries.
The confusion came after Jedi became a recognized answer on some census forms for recording purposes, after an increase in respondents stating their religion as Jedi.
The increase came during the 2001 UK census after a campaign run by practising “Jedi” Daniel and Barney Jones.
The phenomena quickly spread with people across the world identifying as Jedi on their own census.
Jedi was a popular response between the release of Star War episodes I – III, but started to lose popularity in the subsequent decade.
Unidentified flying objects have been seen in skies across the world since the dawn of man.
Some of these phenomena (bright lights, fast moving spheres) can be put down to natural occurrences like meteor showers.
Modern UFO sightings exploded in popularity since the mysterious events at Roswell, New Mexico, in which conspiracy theorists believe the US Air Force captured an alien and its crashed spacecraft.
However, modern UFOs are often considered to be new army technologies spotted during top-secret test flights.
During her Presidential election campaign, Hillary Clinton had promised to declassify the government’s secret UFO files if she won.
Sadly we will have to keep waiting for the truth.