We've all experienced the trepidation of saying "Bloody Mary" into a mirror and waiting for something to jump out and scare us. And when nothing happened, we chalked it up to another harmless urban legend.
But what if urban legends were actually true? Keep reading for five not-so-tall tales that have actually occurred – and are reminders that you're not actually as safe as you think.
1. Organ Trail of Blood
The Legend: Unknowing tourists are drugged, carved up, and robbed of their healthy organs. Upon coming to, they find themselves packed in ice in bathtubs with notes that read: “If you want to live, go to the hospital immediately.”
The Truth: In 1997, a chain-letter email hoax went viral. The bulk of the message described the misdeeds of a highly organized gang operating in various U.S. cities, who were supposedly drugging business men on work trips, extracting their organs, and then selling them for profit on the organ transplant black market. Though the National Kidney Foundation has proven that story to be nonsense, organ thieving is no joke. In fact, this ABC News report from 2008 centers on three Indian men who were lured to a hospital outside Delhi with the promise of work opportunities. The men were then held at gunpoint and anesthetized. They awoke to excruciating pain, gigantic scars … and fewer organs.
2. Hotel Hell
The Legend: A couple checks into a Las Vegas hotel, and suddenly they smell a foul odor. They later discover the body of a rotting dead girl stuffed into the box spring under their mattress.
The Truth: Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand, a.k.a. Mr. Urban Legend, is credited with first debunking this smelly little tale in his 1994 book, The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends. He deemed the tale more tall than true, due to a lack of fact-checkable details. But this 2010 NBC News report about a missing Tennessee woman found dead, with her body stuffed into the bed frame within a hotel, is certainly true. There’s also the story of serial killer Richard Kuklinski, who poisoned a man, strangled him with a lamp cord, then stuffed his body into a mattress in a New Jersey motel.
3. Halloween Hangman
The Legend: A Halloween performer decides the ultimate climactic scare is to pretend to hang himself in front of an audience. The only problem is, he actually hangs himself. The performer dies as on-lookers applaud the authenticity of the act.
The Truth: This legend, depicted all over screens big (The Gallows) and small (Tales from the Crypt), has many variations. Each version usually involves a male performer, a rope, and the deadly inability to master cheap imitation. The real-life tragedies that inspired this legend involve the same elements. In 1990, A New Jersey teen named Brian Jewell died performing a hanging stunt at the entry of a hayride attraction. In North Carolina, that same year, 15-year-old William Anthony Odom accidentally hanged himself while staging a gallows scene at a Halloween party. Then in 2001, Caleb Rebh, a 14-year-old working at a haunted attraction, died after switching places with a noosed skeleton hanging from a tree. The audience, horrifically enough, thought he was acting as he struggled with the rope around his neck.
4. The Man Inside the Walls
The Legend: A family moves into a secluded old fixer-upper, but is disturbed by continuously misplaced objects and strange noises. Later, the town learns that the family has been brutally murdered within their home. The attacker: an intruder who’d been hiding in their walls.
The Truth: The true crime roots of this urban legend can be traced back as far as 1941, when Denver drifter Theodore Coneys snuck into an old acquaintance’s home, and set up shop in the attic, emerging only when the homeowner would leave. Then there’s this ABC News story from 2015, wherein a man entered a home in New Jersey, crawled under a bed, and remained in hiding for three days. While no one was harmed, the intruder did charge his cell phones using an outlet at the base of the bed—which, in some ways, is creepier.
5. Earwig’s Tale
The Legend: Some poor soul awakens from a deep sleep to a terrible headache. Maddened by the pain and scratching sounds he hears from within his head, he goes to the hospital. There, doctors find that bugs have gotten into his head through his ear canal, and made dinner out of his brains.
The Truth: In the mid-19th century, explorer John Hanning Speke struggled to get a Nile River beetle out of his ear canal with a penknife. A more recent case involves a British woman named Rochelle Harris. In 2013, after vacationing in Peru, Harris was plagued with headaches, facial pains, and ear discharge. The culprit? Flesh-eating worms that burrowed into her head.