Before there was horror cinema, those with a hankering for dark and subversive storytelling trades tales around camp fires. The most chilling and enduring of these stories would gain lives of their own, becoming Urban Legends of our industrialized society. It can hardly be surprising, then that Urban Legends make for excellent horror movie fodder. The fact that these stories are often universal, featuring themes and characters that cross cultural and geographical divides, and are supposedly based on “true” stories, only adds to their endurance and continued relevance.
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Below are some of the best examples of horror movies based on Urban Legends. While some are obvious, others will no doubt come as a surprise to even well-educated genre aficionados. For clarification: Urban Legends are those that take place in modern towns and cities, or are attached to specific locales. Therefore, I won’t be including any Bigfoot movies, as the famous cryptid is known worldwide and is usually associated with unpopulated areas (forests, swamps, etc.).
Have a read and let us know what you think in the Comments section. Do you know of any other horror movies based on Urban Legends that deserve recognition?
Urban Legend (1998, Directed by Jamie Blanks)
Official Synopsis: When a series of strange deaths occurs on campus, beautiful and assertive student Natalie suspects that they are murders based on urban legends. Her classmates, loyal Brenda, ambitious journalism major Paul, and school practical joker Damon, insist the deaths are just coincidences. When Natalie gets too close to discovering how the deaths are connected, she realizes she’s the killer’s next victim.
We’ll kick off this list with the “No Duh” entry: 1998’s Urban Legends isn’t based on one specific story, it actually seeks to encapsulate as many of them as possible. If features a serial killer who uses these legends as inspiration for dispatching victims. A sequel in 2000 (Urban Legends: Final Cut) carried on this same formula, while 2005’s Urban Legends: Bloody Mary focused on Bloody Mary exclusively (like, no duh!).
Candyman (1992, Directed by Bernard Rose)
Official Synopsis: Bernard Rose followed his moody fantasy-thriller Paperhouse (1988) with this modern horror tale, based on Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden. Compiling a thesis on urban legends, University of Illinois in Chicago graduate student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) becomes aware of the prevalent superstition surrounding the legend of Candyman (Tony Todd)–a hook-wielding phantom who will appear if his name is recited five times into a mirror–among the tenants of Chicago’s Cabrini Green project.
Candyman is a unique amalgamation of two famous Urban Legends: The escaped mental patient with the hook-hand, and Bloody Mary, the spirit who appears in a mirror when you say her name 3 times. Part of what makes Candyman so fascinating is that the source material is obvious, but the presentation is completely original. Clive Barker and Bernard Rose took established stories and made them their own.
When a Stranger Calls (1979, Directed by Fred Walton)
Official Synopsis: A retired police detective (Charles Durning) hunts a deranged British seaman out to re-create a baby sitter’s (Carol Kane) horror.
The classic babysitter horror story features tormenting calls that turn out to be coming from inside the house. The 1979 original staring Carol Kane was remade in 2006 with Camilla Belle as the victimized caregiver. The concept of an interloper hiding inside the security of our homes is truly terrifying to dwell on, which makes movies based on this enduring Urban Legend so impactful.
The Hitcher (1986, Directed by Robert Harmon)
Official Synopsis: A young man who escaped the clutches of a murderous hitch-hiker is subsequently stalked by the hitcher and framed for his crimes.
Even before hitchhiking was officially deemed a dangerous activity, there were stories of a friendly traveler, broken down at the side of the road, who was actually a murderous savage planning to turn on any good Samaritan who offers assistance. The fact that there are now so many true horror stories about violent or fatal hitchhiking encounters in modern society gives this Urban Legend an atmosphere or authenticity, making films like The Hitcher and the 2007 remake so terrifying.
Alligator (1980, Directed by Lewis Teague)
Official Synopsis: A herpetologist (Robin Riker) helps a detective (Robert Forster) track her flushed-away pet, now a king-size mutant called Ramone.
According to Urban Legend, baby alligators were trendy pets in the 1970s. Unfortunately, these critters were usually abandoned once they outgrew their aquariums—and before the turned into a legitimate threat to other pets and/or toddlers. Reports of flushed baby alligators growing to monstrous sizes in city sewers are now common lore. Alligator is a straight-forward examination of this supposed phenomenon that serves as an allegory and a warning (like most Urban Legends).
Black Christmas (1974, Directed by Bob Clark)
Official Synopsis: As winter break begins, a group of sorority sisters, including Jess (Olivia Hussey) and the often inebriated Barb (Margot Kidder), begin to receive anonymous, lascivious phone calls. Initially, Barb eggs the caller on, but stops when he responds threateningly. Soon, Barb’s friend Claire (Lynne Griffin) goes missing from the sorority house, and a local adolescent girl is murdered, leading the girls to suspect a serial killer is on the loose. But no one realizes just how near the culprit is.
Black Christmas and its 2006 remake are variations of the When a Stranger Calls scenario, where the tormenting phone calls are actually coming from much closer than anyone realizes. This one incorporates the iconic escaped mental patient trope, a sorority, and any number of Evil Santa Urban Legends.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002, Directed by Mark Pellington)
Official Synopsis: A reporter is drawn to a small West Virginia town to investigate a series of strange events, including psychic visions and the appearance of bizarre entities.
Between 1966 and 1967, residents of Point Pleasant, West Virginia reported sightings of a huge flying beast with glowing red eyes. The terrifying attacks culminated in a bridge collapse that took the lives of over 40 motorists. The “Mothman” was never seen in Point Pleasant again, leading many to believe that the elusive entity was a harbinger of disaster, essentially warning the townsfolk of impending doom.
The Blair Witch Project (1999, Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez)
Official Synopsis: Three film students vanish after traveling into a Maryland forest to film a documentary on the local Blair Witch legend, leaving only their footage behind.
The movie is more about modern characters than the 19th Century mythology, but The Blair Witch Project is named after, and includes elements of, the legend of The Bell Witch, which originated in southern Tennessee. The Adams family of northwest Robertson County, were attacked by an invisible fiend they believed was actually a witch. “The entity was able to speak, affect the physical environment and change forms. Some accounts record the spirit with the capability to be in more than one place at a time, cross distances with rapid speed and the power of prophecy.” Source
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997, Directed by Jim Gillespie)
Official Synopsis: After a nasty accident, four friends begin to drift apart. One year later Julie James gets an anonymous message and then a slicker wearing, hook wielding killer begins to rip apart her life.
Like Candyman, I Know What You Did Last Summer reimagines the infamous killer with a hook-hand, but it’s also based on an Urban Legend aimed at terrifying potential drunk drivers. An intoxicated individual hits a pedestrian and then attempts to get rid of the body. The only problem is, said pedestrian wasn’t actually dead, and comes back for vengeance. This hit-and-run urban legend has also been explored in Creepshow 2, Stuck, and Hit and Run. Similarities to the real-life case of Chante Jawan Mallard who, in 2001, hit pedestrian Gregory Glenn Biggs who became stuck in her windshield. Instead of taking Biggs to a hospital, she let him die alone in her garage. In this case, the line between Urban Legend and reality has forever blurred.
Death Passage (2017, Directed by David Campbell)
Official Synopsis: When a group of young backpackers learn of a ghost which is said to appear in the rearview mirror of a speeding car, they set out to recreate it with the help of some locals. After speeding down Lemon Tree Passage, a remote road surrounded by dense woods, their jubilation turns to terror as one by one each passenger begins disappearing in violent ways. Isolated and ten thousand miles from home, the tourists find themselves caught in the clutches of a malevolent force much more heinous than the local myth they set out to experience.
One of many horror films being released VOD this month, Death Passage features a haunted stretch of highway, a common theme of Urban Legends. This one features ghostly headlights and a spectral hitchhiker who suddenly appears in the back seat.
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Toad Road (2012, Directed by Jason Banker)
Official Synopsis: Sara talks James into taking her to Toad Road, a place that is rumored to be a doorway to the Seven Gates of Hell.
Many cities and towns have purported gateways or portals to Hell, but Toad Road refers to a terrifying stretch in Hellam Township, Pennsylvania. The legend speaks of an insane asylum that burned down in the 1800s, a haunted wooded area, and a series of gateways that will take a person to the underworld. As intrepid explorers pass through each gate, they will become increasingly paranoid and disoriented. Those said to have passed through all 7 gates never return, or if they do, they’ve gone completely insane.
Chain Letter (2009, Directed by Deon Taylor)
Official Synopsis: A maniac murders teens when they refuse to forward chain mail.
“Forward this letter to 10 friends in the next 3 days and great fortune will come your way. Fail to do so and you will have 7 years of bad luck!” The annoying chain letter trend exploded once email became the standard mode of written communication; now, losers with nothing better to do could torment the obsessive compulsive without paying for stamps! Chain Letter features a killer who makes good on threats against those who refuse to push the “Forward” button. It’s not high art, but it’s surprisingly gory and a thoroughly entertaining watch.
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Donkey Punch (2008, Directed by Oliver Blackburn)
Official Synopsis: Things go drastically wrong for a group of British holidaymakers in Spain.
“Have you ever heard of a donkey punch?” Where I grew up in Southern California, we called the outlawed sex move a monkey bump. Supposedly, this is accomplished when a man and woman are making love in the canine position. As the woman reaches climax, the man punches her in the base of the skull. The woman will have a mini-seizure resulting in increased coupling pressure, followed by waves of intensity. The donkey punch/monkey bump is problematic, not just for the implications of violence against women and male-centric/exclusive pleasure, missing the mark can inadvertently separate the spine from the medulla resulting in death.
Turistas (2006, Directed by John Stockwell)
Official Synopsis: A group of young backpackers’ vacation turns sour when a bus accident leaves them marooned in a remote Brazilian rural area that holds an ominous secret.
Those who never saw Turistas, writing it off as a Hostel clone, deprived themselves of a top-notch horror experience that’s vastly different from Eli Roth’s modern classic. There are plenty of vacation-related Urban Legends (toothbrush in the butt, anyone?), but this one revolved around an organ theft ring. Organ thieves are, of course, relatively new characters in the world of Urban Legends.
Dead Man on Campus (1998, Directed by Alan Cohn)
Official Synopsis: Two college roommates go out and party, resulting in bad grades. They learn of the clause that says, “If your roommate dies, you get an A,” and decide to find someone who is on the verge, so to speak, to move in with them.
Dead Man on Campus isn’t a horror movie (or even remotely scary) but it is based on one of the most infamous modern Urban Legends. The theory states that many colleges have a “Death Clause” wherein anyone whose roommate dies automatically gets straight A’s for the semester. The idea being, someone in such a situation will be too traumatized to concentrate on academics (for a few weeks, at least). Dead Man on Campus presents a couple of slackers on the verge of flunking out. As a last ditch effort, they look for a killable/suicidal roommate in order to qualify for the Death Clause. As far as Urban Legends go, this one seems to have no basis in fact, meaning it probably stemmed from wishful thinking.