Eerie entertainment frequently takes inspiration from urban legends, with good reason—nothing’s scarier than a fantastical tale that still feels like it just might be true. TV shows like The X-Files and Supernatural have made liberal use of contemporary folklore over the years, and plenty of feature films have been made in the same vein, too. Here, we count up our favorites.
The third installment of Syfy’s horror anthology series based on different internet-spawned Creepypasta tales returns February 7, this Wednesday. We couldn’t be more excited—or terrified about what nightmares we’ll experience this season, which is subtitled Butcher’s Block. It’s based on Kerry Hammond’s Reddit series “Search and Rescue Woods,” with quite a few surreal terrors added, as well as a sinister supporting turn by Rutger Hauer. On a side note, and unrelated to Channel Zero or the real-life “Slender Man” case, Creepypasta is so ubiquitous now that its most notorious legend is getting its own feature film; titled Slender Man; it’s out in August.
Arachnophobes will absolutely want to avoid the Angela Bettis-directed segment in this macabre anthology film—but it does draw from one of the most skin-crawlingly awful urban legends ever: “Spiders in Cheek.” Suffice it to say, the short follows several rounds of man vs. spider... and he who has the most legs, wins.
Urban legends are a global phenomenon, asevidenced by this hugely popular Taiwanese film inspired by the story of “the little girl in red,” a mysterious figure first spotted back in 1998 in a family’s vacation video, trailing behind someone who died soon after the trip. Soon, she made other appearances, seeding countless nightmares as she established herself as a ghostly harbinger of doom. In The Tag-Along, a young man searches for his grandmother, who is apparently missing though her presence is still felt in the home they share. Things get weirder when he finds a video of Grandma on a hiking trail... with a strange girl in red following close behind. The 2015 film struck such a chord that director Cheng Wei-ha made a sequel last year that was similarly well-received.
This 1983 horror anthology contains four segments, all derived from urban legends. It begins with the ever-popular “killer in the back seat,” in which a driver thinks she’s being terrorized by one man (in this version, a gas-station attendant), when really he’s trying to protect her from the maniac he’s spotted lurking behind her. There’s also Emilio Estevez as a kid who gets sucked into his favorite video game; Lance Henriksen (Aliens) as a disgraced priest forced to battle a truck-driving Satan; and Veronica Cartwright (Alien) as a housewife dealing with a major rat problem. Nightmares is not a classic on the level of Creepshow, but the sight of Estevez (one year prior to Repo Man) nerding out in the arcade—complete with cheesy, low-budget animated effects—is pretty amusing.
Both of these films from the 1970s are variations on the urban legend of “the babysitter and the man upstairs”—and both were remade in 2006, proving that a threatening phone call coming from a creep who’s actually inside the house is potently horrifying for any generation. That fear was later recycled for the opening scene of Scream, in which Drew Barrymore’s character doesn’t realize (until it’s too late) that the horror buff she’s speaking to is lurking just outside her house.
This movie is pretty terrible, but it’s worth mentioning here for the sheer fact that someone built an entire movie off the superstition about holding your breath when you pass by a graveyard. Most people rightfully consider that belief to be nothing more than a kiddie version of gallows humor (since “it’s not polite to breathe when others can’t,” you see). But in this context, daring to inhale or exhale at the wrong moment can attract the interest of a restless evil spirit, if one happens to be hanging around at the time. Too bad for these kids, their weekend of fun in the wilderness is about to become a murderous possession-fest instead. Should’ve minded your manners, guys!
Remember that urban legend about the big-city kid who flushes his baby alligator down the toilet... where it grows into a toothy, sewer-dwelling monster? According to Snopes.com, the story goes all the way back to the 1920s and is, alas, not true. But it still captured enough imaginations to bring 1980 creaturesploitation classic Alligator into the world, which begins as a teeny Florida gator finds its way out of the swamp, gets unceremoniously disposed of in the expected manner, and spends 12 years feasting on discarded illegal medical experiments... transforming into a mutant supergator! Robert Forster plays the cop on the case who’s bedeviled by bad luck even beyond his scaly nemesis, and the badass reptile eats the mayor of Chicago and tears up a high-society wedding before finally being subdued.
Rutger Hauer, already on this list for Channel Zero, plays the hitchhiker from hell in this Twilight Zone-ish 1986 thriller. The movie—written by Eric Red, who was later involved in his own car-related, real-life horror story—takes some license with one of the most famous, most widespread hitchhiker-related urban legends, “the vanishing hitchhiker.” In that tale, though, the ghostly hitchhiker disappears, leaving only a story behind, rather than turning up over and over again like a bloodthirsty bad penny. The Hitcher, which also stars C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, got a pretty decent remake in 2007 with Sean Bean in the villain role. (Hopefully, nobody’s planning a third version set in the age of Uber.)
This first-wave slasher classic is best-known nowadays for its early-career performances by Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter, and Fisher Stevens. It came out a year after Friday the 13th, and the 1980 hit’s influence is very obviously seen in its summer-camp setting. The Burning’s urban-legend connection comes, oddly enough, with the name given to its blade-wielding maniac: “Cropsey,” an homage to a boogeyman that real-life New York kids feared during the same era as the film. A 2009 documentary, titled Cropsey, investigates the origins of that urban legend, turning up some frightening truths that are way scarier than anything in The Burning. The trailer is above and it’s well worth checking out the doc, as well as a follow-up the same filmmakers made in a similar vein, titled Killer Legends.
This 2002 Richard Gere chiller takes some liberties with the Mothman story, which is a rather unbelievable tale to begin with. Still, there are actual facts in play, the biggest ones being that on December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge, which spanned the Ohio River and connected Point Pleasant, West Virginia with Gallipolis, Ohio, collapsed, resulting in 46 deaths. Less certain are reports of an odd creature, dubbed the “Mothman,” said to be spotted in Point Pleasant just before the disaster. Author John Keel was apparently investigating the sightings even before the bridge collapse, and his book, The Mothman Prophecies, inspired the film, which set sets the story in contemporary times and imagines that the Gere character is a newspaper columnist who’s compelled to visit the area. Whether or not you believe the stories—or whether the creature was trying to warn locals rather than scare the bejesus out of them—the Mothman remains a subject of fascination, and even has its own statue in Point Pleasant.
Back in 1998, a baby-faced Jared Leto starred in this Scream-era horror film, which took advantage of the fact that most slasher films have at least some roots in urban legends. But it went a little overboard in stuffing its self-aware script with nightmares straight outta Snopes.com. It starts with our old friend, the killer in the back seat, and also includes “the dead roommate” (complete with the punchline “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?” scrawled on the wall in blood), the gang-initiation headlight flash, killer Pop Rocks, and many more. There’s also a fun cameo by Robert “Freddy Krueger” England as a tweedy folklore professor. Urban Legend begat two sequels; part three, directed by Pet Sematary’s Mary Lambert, is subtitled Bloody Mary and adds an intense backstory to the slumber-party tradition of saying you-know-which name multiple times in the mirror.
Speaking of names you shouldn’t repeat... This 1992 Bernard Rose film, based on a Clive Barker story, is still genuinely unsettling, with folklore leanings adding unusual depth to its story. Tony Todd plays the titular supernatural killer, once a prosperous African-American man murdered (horribly, by bees) soon after the Civil War by a racist, jealous lynch mob. Virginia Madsen plays a grad student studying urban legends who becomes personally entangled with the Candyman while investigating his history, and how he might tie into recent murders in the area. The quest leads her into Chicago’s toughest housing project. against the advice of her colleagues, her sleazy professor husband, and residents who think she’s out of her mind, both for treading where she doesn’t belong and for investigating a boogeyman who appears to be back in business. Though certain aspects of the movie have aged better than others, Candyman is still one of the scariest films ever made. You’ll never look at a medicine cabinet the same way again.