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The Origins Behind 9 Terrifying American Urban Legends

The next time you stop for a hitchhiker, think twice.

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  • Photo Credit: anoldent / Flickr (CC)

We’ve all heard variations on these creepy urban legends: the babysitter who keeps getting calls from inside the house; the sound of a hook scraping against a car door; the ghostly hitchhiker who simply vanishes into thin air.

These stories, shared at slumber parties and over campfires, had to come from somewhere … and what’s most terrifying is that some are based in actual fact.

Here are nine of the scariest American urban legends and the regions from which some of the tales originated.

1. The Hitchhiker – Across America

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  • Photo Credit: Shawn Allen / Flickr (CC)

By 1942, there had been at least 79 reports of encounters with a vanishing hitchhiker from all over the United States: So many that folklorists Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey decided to make a formal study of the phenomenon.

In one variation, a young man meets a girl at a dance. She asks for a ride home and the man complies; they hop in his car and head down the road. Before they reach their destination, however, the woman asks to be let out, saying she can walk from here. Again, the man complies, but as he drives farther down the road he discovers a gigantic car wreck, and the dead body of his date inside.

Related: 5 Horrific Urban Legends That Turned Out to Be True 

2. The Wendigo – Great Lakes Region

An evil spirit native to the northern coast of the United States and the Great Lakes, the Wendigo may appear human, but it is not. Based on the legends of the Algonquin-speaking people, the Wendigo is an early form of the idea of a zombie or a cannibal, something that was once human but now lives off human flesh. Tales of the Wendigo were used to allegorize the dangers of greed.

While it made its first appearance in the earliest days of the Native Indigenous People of the Americas, the same spirit has gone on to influence popular culture, most notably as the driving demonic force in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

3. The Babysitter – Columbia, Missouri

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  • Janett Christman.

    Photo Credit: Find a Grave

A young babysitter is at home with her charges when she receives several strange phone calls where she hears a man breathing, laughing, or saying he’s coming to get her. When she calls the operator to find out where the calls are coming from, the operator tells her they are coming from inside the house. Horrified, she calls the police, who discover a strange man upstairs. In other, more gruesome versions, the children are found murdered in their beds.

The urban legend is reportedly based on a murder that occurred in 1950 in Columbia, Missouri in which 13-year-old Janett Christman was murdered while babysitting. The crime remains unsolved.

Related: 13 Disturbing Unresolved Mysteries the Internet Can’t Get Over 

4. High Beams – New York City, New York 

In this story a young woman is driving home, only to have the driver behind her continually flashing his high beams at her car. Terrified, she finally makes it into her driveway, telling her father to call the police. When the other driver exits his car, he says, “You don’t want me, you want him,” pointing to the man crouched behind her driver’s seat with a knife. In other tellings, the young woman pulls up to a gas station, and it’s the attendant who gets her out of her car so he can alert her to the danger.

Some have traced the story’s origin to New York City, where, in 1964, an escaped murderer actually did hide in the back of a car. Though this incident involved no young woman—the car in which the killer hid actually belonged to a cop, who subsequently shot the escapee—nor a good Samaritan at a gas station, it’s likely that it may have spawned the popular urban legend.

5. The Hook – Across America

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  • Photo Credit: Jannik Nitz / Flickr (CC)

This legend is so famous that there’s no particular version that is considered canonical. In one story, a young couple is driving home from a date and hear about a prison or insane asylum break, and that the escapee can be recognized by the hook he wears in place of a hand. When the pair arrive home, they discover a hook dangling from their car door. In other versions, they hear the scratching of a hook on the roof of the car or at the door.

Some have theorized that the legend was born as a result of the values of 1950s America; parents wanted to prevent their teenaged children from dating … and everything that goes with it.

6. The Ghost of Stow Lake – San Francisco, California

Stow Lake, located in San Francisco’s Golden State Park, is said to be haunted by the ghost of a woman who lost her baby. In this tale, which is over 100 years old, the woman went into the lake to search for her missing baby, never to be seen again. Stalling cars, sightings of a ghostly woman in white demanding to know where her baby is, and other weird occurrences have been reported by those who visit the lake at night.

In 1908, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a man, driving by the lake, was pulled over by cops for speeding. He claimed he was trying to escape a terrifying ghostly woman.

Related: 9 Famous Female Ghosts Who Will Scare You Senseless 

7. Bunnyman Bridge – Clifton, Virginia

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According to legend, a very strange figure haunts a railway overpass outside Clifton, Virginia. The sinister soul, sometimes dressed in a white costume with long ears and wielding an axe, is the inspiration for Colchester Overpass’s more widely-used nickname: Bunnyman Bridge (or Bunny Man Bridge).

One of the most common origin stories asserts that in 1904, a murderer from an insane asylum, Douglas Grifon, escaped a transport vehicle which crashed into the overpass. Rabbit carcasses, some of which looked as though they had been ripped apart by human teeth, began littering the area. The escapee was eventually cornered by authorities, and killed in dramatic fashion by an oncoming train. His spirit, though, is said to haunt the area to this day. While such a tale tests the limits of credibility, frightening encounters near the overpass with dangerous men in white have been reported in the past, and the site remains a popular destination spot for ghost hunters and legend trippers.  

8. Wolf Girl – Devil’s River, Texas

In this urban legend from Texas, a young woman goes into labor, then dies. Her baby, who is nowhere to be found—and is presumed to have been eaten by wolves. Later, the infant resurfaces as a “wolf girl:” a feral child who roams the Devil’s River and the Rio Grande.

There were reports of the an actual “wolf girl,” who was captured in 1846, only to escape. She was last spotted in Texas in 1852 at the age of 17.

Related: 10 Wild Tales of Feral Children 

9. Maybe You Will Remember – Detroit, Michigan

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This chilling urban legend begins with a young woman and her mother. The pair stop at a hotel for the night, booking two separate rooms. When the young woman rises the next morning, however, her mother is nowhere to be found. She asks the hotel staff for help, but they act as if no such person exists. When the concerned woman goes to her mother's room, she finds it completely repainted and redecorated. Everyone, including the police, wonder if she’s losing her mind. The legend says that during the night, the woman's mother died under mysterious circumstances, and the hotel staff smuggled her body out of town to avoid a mass panic.

The most prominent version of the vanishing companion and hotel room was related in Alexander Woollcott’s While Rome Burns in 1934. Woollcott claimed the story had appeared in a Detroit newspaper in 1889, but no such article has yet been located.

Featured photo: anoldent / Flickr (CC)