Saturday, June 06, 2009

From The Vanishing Hitchhiker to the Killer in the Back Seat: A Brief Survey of Urban Legends in Film and TV

I feel extremely fortunate in the fact that I was blessed with a happy and secure childhood. Yet despite my suburban cocoon of safety and contentment, I do recall -- sometimes only hazily -- that the outer fringes of my universe in the 1970s seemed populated by bizarre and inexplicable stories.

As a child, I didn't understand where these odd tales originated, but they circulated in and out of my buttoned-up world in hushed whispers and muted warnings, and they made me wonder about the nature of life beyond the borders of Glen Ridge, my affluent home town.

There were spider-eggs in Bubble Yum, you see...

And Little Mikey -- that freckled, friendly kid from the Life Cereal commercial ("He likes it! Mikey likes it!") -- died horribly when he drank soda and ate Pop Rocks at the same time.

Allegedly, his stomach exploded from the excessive carbonation...

Even as I grew older and more discerning, additional strange stories seemed to seep into the corners of my formerly inviolable daily life, suffusing the outer limits of my existence with a free-floating sense of mystery, irrationality and the unknown. And those "new" legends were even more bizarre than the two listed above.

To wit: a certain popular male movie star of the 1980s had appeared at the emergency room late one night with a, um..."colo-rectal" intruder.

And did you hear about the two teenagers who got...stuck...while having sexual intercourse? They had to be pried apart by rescue workers using heavy machinery...

These are America's urban legends, and for whatever reason, my safe, comfortable, upper middle-class town in the late 1970s-and-early-1980s seemed like a hot-bed for many of the most notorious ones. A breeding ground, actually, because we even had specific urban legends on my very street (Clinton Road); ones that didn't proliferate widely like the well-known examples, but that were just as potent and affecting to my impressionable young mind.

If you peeled the same scab off three times, your skin wouldn't grow back

Oh, and there was a haunted house on the hill leading down to the Magic Fountain Ice Cream Parlor (near Bloomfield Avenue), and you had to hold your breath when you walked by it...or the house would steal it.

I bring up these stories -- and these odd, half-memories -- because, in the last few weeks, I've had the pleasure of reading two meticulous, scholarly resources on the sources, transmission, and nature of such urban legends; both penned by the amazing, acknowledged pioneer in the field: Professor Jan Harold Brunvand. These books are: 1981's The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, and the exhaustive follow-up, 2001's Encyclopedia of Urban Legends.

Brunvand's life work is the collection, researching, tracking down, and explanation (with occasional debunking...) of America's urban legends. The resourceful author isn't merely a dogged investigator, he's a skilled communicator and storyteller, and his rigorous, academic books actually make damn fine cover-to-cover reads too. In fact, I couldn't put them down.

As our informative guide into the shadowy realm of contemporary myth, Brunvand explains that urban legends are those "bizarre, whimsical, 99 percent apocryphal yet believable stories "that are too good to be true." They are too odd, too coincidental, and too neatly plotted to be accepted as literal truth in every place they are told." (Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Norton, "Introduction," 2001, xxiii).

Brunvand furthermore reports that urban legends are folk narratives involving both the recent past and normal human beings (rather than ancient epochs, and characters like kings and knights...).

He also states that urban legends "gain credibility from specific details of time and place or from references to source authorities." (The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Norton, 1981 page 3). This means, essentially, that urban legends are transmitted from a friend of a friend...right to you. Somehow, we tend to believe that the transmitted tale is only removed from us (and our normal lives...) by one, measly degree of separation. And often, police or other "officials" (like fire-men or hospital workers) are dragged into the bizarre stories so as to lend them further verisimilitude and a veneer of authenticity.

So far as general theme and purposes go, urban legends appear to concern, primarily, the terrain of subconscious fears. Fears of "foreigners" and their customs (the Chinese restaurant, for instance, seems to be a hot zone for urban legends...); fears of marital infidelity ("The Cement Cadillac" story), and even fear of women. Urban legends also reflect fears of embarrassment/humiliation ("The Surprise Party"); fears of big, impersonal corporations ("The Spider-eggs in the Bubble Yum"/"the Rat in the Coke Bottle"); fear of sexual perversity ("The Colo-Rectal Rat/Gerbil"); even fear of technology ("The Cat/Baby in the Microwave").

In short, all the common anxieties of modern life and in particular "progress," seem to have at least one urban legend attached to them.

In his comprehensive Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Brunvand discusses briefly the relationship between urban legends and mass media (film and TV), focusing the conversation in particular on the 1998 slasher film Urban Legend, and a few other productions (notably Candyman ([1992] and When a Stranger Calls [1979]). These references fascinated me, and I began to weigh some of the myriad connections between the horror genre and urban legends.

If You See Sally: One Step Beyond's Ghost in the Road
In the spirit (hopefully...) of Brunvand's work, I've decided to survey here some further examples of filmed urban legends. For instance, the great paranormal anthology hosted by John Newland, One Step Beyond (1959-1961), leapt head-first into the long-lived, much-told and constantly-evolving urban legend of the "Vanishing Hitchhiker" with the classic episode "If You See Sally."

That third-season installment (directed by Newland and written by Howard Rodman and Roberta Martin) aired in prime time on October 18, 1960, and concerned a lonely, sleepy night driver who picked up winsome Sally Ellis (Anne Whitfield) -- a grieving, tragic figure trying to find her way home -- only to learn that she had actually died years earlier. He had been sharing his front seat with a ghost...

This story of a phantom hitchhiker proved so powerful -- and so resonant -- that the makers of One Step Beyond received a whopping forty-five letters from viewers in which those audience-members described their own similar experiences. "In one variation," a letter described, the tired driver gives the young hitchhiker his sweater because she was cold. "When he is told that the child is dead...he immediately asks what happened to his sweater. The garment is retrieved on the headstone of the child's grave..." (Gary Gerani, Fantastic Television, Harmony Books, 1977, page 29).

The common urban legend of the "Vanishing Hitchhiker" likely goes all the way back to early America, and the age of horse-drawn carriages. The legend is considered by some academics a "rare hallucinatory event," one that "lingers in our collective imagination from a time when man first drove horse and chariots. Late at night, exhausted and alone on a dark road, the vulnerable driver may summon the ancient hitchhiker from his unconscious." (Remy Chauvin. Parapsychology - When the Irrational Rejoins Science, translated by Katharine M. Banham, McFarland, 1985, page 71).

One Step Beyond was not alone in depicting the story of the "Vanishing Hitchhiker," though "If You See Sally" is the most accurate and faithful filmed interpretation of this urban legend. Angelic/demonic hitchhikers have also sprung up on The Twilight Zone ("The Hitchhiker"). And one ghostly hitchhiker even hosted his self-named anthology series, HBO's The Hitchhiker. What seems most potently expressed by the story of the Vanishing Hitchhiker is the fear that -- alone on a dark stretch of road -- your trajectory crosses with that of the supernatural; that alone in your vehicle (with no recourse and no help...), you somehow pierce the invisible world of the supernatural and interact with it.

Over the years, this urban legend has continued to develop in unique ways. The ghostly hitchhiker -- eternally wandering the back roads of purgatory -- has morphed, in many such stories, into a "well-dressed" prophecy man: one warning of impending disasters, both natural and man-made.

Check The Children: The Baby-sitter and the Man Upstairs

The 1979 film, When a Stranger Calls, directed by Fred Walton, dramatizes the harrowing story of a teenage babysitter, Jill (Carol Kane). She is harassed on the job (and late at night to boot...) by unsettling phone calls. Alone in the dark house of her employer, Dr. Mandrakis, she becomes increasingly terrified as the calls grow more explicit...and more threatening.

More accurately described, this element of the narrative is the subject of the film's fifteen minute preamble, an almost perfect, text-book cinematic visualization of isolation, fear of the dark, and escalating terror.

In this taut sequence, Walton's camera often adopts the perspective of the long-shot angle and thus establishes Jill's location, but also the emptiness and quiet all around her. These moments are interspersed with "jolts" on the soundtrack that remind us how Jill is unfamiliar with her surroundings. The refrigerator ice-maker suddenly kicks in, for instance, with a loud ca-chunk, and the audience feels startled along with Jill. Walton also cuts to various insert shots of seemingly-innocuous house decorations (lamps, phones, the chain-lock on the front door, the fireplace, a ticking clock...) not only to establish the terrain of the incident, but to interrupt the cinematic flow of space/time.

Instead of a long, immaculate master shots -- suggestive of continuity and fluidity - these dramatic close-ups start to jangle our nerves in a manner reminiscent of the jarring and sudden (and frequent) ringing of the telephone. The insert shots come quicker and quicker as the menacing phone calls repeat, and Jill seems to wander increasingly into dark, unlit corners of the house..

We know, of course, the punch-line. The menacing caller is already inside the house, upstairs (where he has brutally murdered the Mandrakis children.) The killer was actually calling downstairs on a second phone line!

In his texts, Brunvand explains that stories like "The Baby-Sitter and The Man Upstairs" are designed as a warning to women; that the murder of the innocent children therein represents the young woman's "ultimate failure as a future home-maker and mother;" and that "the killer's positioning upstairs -- above the female sitter -- may signify the traditional dominant role of men in sexual and power relationships." (Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, page 29).

The urban legend inspiring When a Stranger Calls also boasts two other narrative components worth mentioning. First and foremost: a fear of modern technology subverted. The "convenience" of the household telephone becomes a gateway to terror and deceit; a trick that keeps the imperiled baby sitter tethered to the phone cord (and plugged in to the wall...) when she should be running like hell to escape.

And secondly, there's the notion here of an important "first job," a first responsibility egregiously failed. Young adulthood or adolescence is a span of extreme anxiety because it's the first time that a person engages with the outside world (beyond family and school...) in a way evoking, duty, responsibility and even monetary recompense. A failure the first time out on such an important endeavor is a very real fear for the young and diligent, and this urban legend exploits that fear...ruthlessly.

This latter explanation (a first responsibility failed...) may even explain one of the subconscious fears elicited in John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), another horror film involving a killer...and babysitters. Note that Linda and Annie are murdered by Michael Myers, and that they are the teenagers who forsake their "duties" (babysitting) for sexual interludes with boyfriends. Laurie Strode ultimately survives, perhaps, in part because she never lost sight of her responsibility (protecting her wards Tommy Doyle and Lindsey). It's not just that she's a virgin and then are promiscuous. It's that she takes her responsibilities and job seriously, and they don't.

Don't Flush Your Pets Down the Toilet: Alligators in New York's Sewers

There is a long-standing myth (repeated in an "urban legend" graduate class in Candyman in 1992...) that vacationers to sunny Florida returned to their New York City apartments with baby-alligators as pets.

Then, when the alligators grew too large (and inconvenient), the same pet-owners flushed the wee beasties down their toilets. Thus, -- as it became known around the world -- giant, hungry alligators dwell in New York's sewer system..

This myth was the impetus behind the humorous, Jaws-styled 1980 horror film Alligator, directed by Lewis Teague and starring the redoubtable Robert Forster.

In fact, the urban legend about alligators in the sewers was the very reason the director made the film in the first place. "The reason I said 'yes' to Alligator is that I always found the myth that there alligators in the sewers of New York amusing," he told me in an interview for Horror Films of the 1980s, "so I wanted to make an amusing film."

There are many "messages" that serve as the foundation of this strange urban legend, but primarily we see the theme of responsibility ignored. Pet owners take their "beloved" pets out of their natural environment and then treat them poorly -- and Mother Nature is scorned. Despite an attempt to get rid of the baby alligators, nature finds a way, to quote Jurassic Park (1993), and the alligators unexpectedly thrive in the new "technological" eco-system of the sewers.

Later in the 1980s, fear of radioactive fallout and contamination (no doubt-enhanced by well-attended anti-nuclear rallies across the States, productions like The Day After, and the escalating Cold War) led to a variation on the alligators in the sewer meme. The legend morphed into "radioactive waste" in the sewers, and that idea informed horror films like C.H.U.D. (1984) and Jason Takes Manhattan (1989). Here, the idea of irresponsibility was transferred from individual pet-owners to a bloated Federal Government.

Interestingly, as Brunvand points out in the Vanishing Hitchhiker (page 96), there is some basis in fact for the urban legend about alligators in the Big Apple's sewers. In his book, Brunvand reproduces a story, in fact, from The New York Times, dated February 10, 1935, entitled "Alligator Found in Uptown Sewer." Apparently, a group of youths found the offending beast in a manhole near East 123rd Street and the Harlem River. Yikes!

The Killer in the Back Seat; Or Smoking Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

The 1983 horror anthology Nightmares, directed by Joseph Sargent, also dwells explicitly in the terrain of urban legends. The first story in the film, "Terror in Topanga," depicts the misadventure of a harried, disorganized housewife, played by Cristina Raines. She runs out for cigarettes late one night. And even though an escaped mental patient and psycho-killer is loose in the nearby Topanga area, she needs her fix ("non-addicts cannot understand," she tells her irritated, baffled husband).

By herself, the housewife drives away in the family car, and nearly runs out of gas on her cigarette run. She stops at an isolated gas station (the only one that happens to still be open at such a late hour...) and is unexpectedly accosted there by a suspicious-looking attendant. The terrified housewife is unaware that the attendant is actually trying to protect her...and that the escaped mental patient is already in her back seat...waiting to strike.

"The Killer in the Back Seat" (and the narrative of "Terror in Topanga") seems an amalgamation of a few core ideas common to urban legends. Again, the lonely car ride becomes an opportunity for interface with something out of the ordinary (as in "The Vanishing Hitchhiker"). Again, as in "The Killer Upstairs," a female is isolated and alone (an aspect enhanced by the Nightmares filmmakers; here with the sounds of crickets and coyotes on the soundtrack during the late night excursion...). And again, a woman is tricked and arrives at the wrong conclusion (the mistaken identity of the killer).

Furthermore, this is a cautionary, anti-progressive tale in two ways. First, the female "caretaker" has failed in her "female" duties (having run out of groceries/supplies/cigarettes at an inopportune time). And secondly, her "need" for cigarettes (a dangerous vice...) imperils her life and well-being. Anti-smoking messages -- in which smoking was literally a fatal habit -- also appeared frequently in horror films of the 1980s, serving as the impetus for a tale in another anthology, Cat's Eye (1985).

Brunvand writes (on page 229 of The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends) that this "classic automobile horror legend" of the killer in the backseat was first reported in 1968 by Indiana University students. Given that specific derivation, one can't help but note that this legend arose shortly after the era of "cruising," a popular teenage activity of the early 1960s (and featured prominently in the George Lucas movie American Graffiti.) Given that teenagers engaging in this activity spent an inordinate amount of time in their cars (whether dining with window trays, attending drive-in movies, or just making out...), it's entirely logical that tales of horror would thus shift their primary locale from houses to automobiles.

The film Urban Legend (1998) repeated the "killer in the back seat" trope as its opening gambit, too.

Defrost, Cook or Explode? The Baby/Cat/Gremlin in the Microwave Oven

Since the 1950s and the so-called Age of Anxiety, Americans have embraced and integrated a remarkable number of technological advances into the very hearth and sanctuary of family life: the home.

Telephones, dishwashers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, computers, security/alarm systems, and more have come along and changed (and ostensibly improved...) the way we manage our lives.

It's only natural then, that each of these "advances" has been met with some form of push-back, resistance, and suspicion. And indeed, many urban legends concern an extreme paranoia regarding out-of-control or dangerous technology. We saw this dread manifested with the treacherous telephone in "The Baby-Sitter and the Killer Upstairs." Another trenchant example involves the microwave oven.

Again in this case, there seems to be a direct connection between women and urban legends: the backwards idea that women are abdicating their "kitchen" or "cooking" responsibilities by preparing meals with the "miraculous" and time-saving microwave oven.

And the fact that it is often a baby who ends up sizzled inside a microwave oven in urban legends represents another warning against progressive, non-traditional women: it's a failure of their responsibility as care-givers, since the child days. Amazing how many of these urban legends are often really about maintaining the status quo between men and women, isn't it?
The 1984 Joe Dante horror film, Gremlins, trades on a fear of technology (one evidenced as early as World War II). Here, malevolent little creatures gum up the works of a Norman Rockwell-style small town and wreak havoc. They cause automatic elevator chairs to become dangerous projectiles; they drive heavy construction vehicles into houses; they cause traffic accidents by changing traffic light signals willy-nilly. The gremlins are Loki (the spirit of mischief) personified...but always with an angle towards recognizing the hazards of modern technology. The victim is heartland America, and the American Dream.

In an interesting reversal of the "Baby/Cat in the Microwave Oven" urban legend, a dedicated Mom (Mrs. Peltzer) defeats the perils of technology (a malicious Mogwai) by harnessing another technology: the microwave oven. She gets the creature inside the device and broils him a memorably gory (and oddly PG-13...) sequence. Here, the Mother is decidedly the hero figure and the microwave is a weapon defending order, not a weapon of chaos and disorder. Thus Gremlins qualifies, perhaps, as an urban legend subverted or upturned.

The Man with the Hook meets Bloody Mary
Candyman (Tony Todd) -- a modern horror icon -- is actually a hybrid of two of the most notorious urban legends. The first such legend is the story of "The Hook" or the "Killer with A Hook."

This tale involves -- again -- an escaped and murderous mental patient who, for some arcane reason, boasts a hook for a hand. Cut to lover's lane, as two teenagers are passionately making out. It's coitus interruptus as they hear a warning on the radio to look out for the killer with a hook; that he is loose in the area.

The male teenager desires to ignore the warning, of course, but the girl is spooked and demands that they leave lover's lane immediately. Realizing he's not going to get laid on this night, the boy angrily drives the car away. It's not until he arrives at his girlfriend's house and opens the car door for his scared prospective partner that the boyfriend sees the strange metal hook stuck to a door handle. Brunvand sees the severed appendage -- a hook -- as a phallic symbol, a representation of the frustrated teen male's unsuccessful bid to get laid.

The story of "the killer with a hook" became the teaser sequence for a second season segment of Chris Carter's Millennium. That episode, "The Pest House" was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Allen Coulter. It aired February 27th, 1998 (the same year, incidentally, the story appeared in Urban Legend). On Millennium, the entire "Hook" legend was lovingly re-staged, but with a new and gruesome ending: the amorous boyfriend (Brandan Fehr) ends up gutted and hanging upside down over the roof of his car...for his girlfriend to find.

The second urban legend recruited by the makers of Candyman is known, sometimes, as "Bloody Mary." In this legend, a group of teenage girls share a sleep-over and dare each other to say Mary's name five times aloud while gazing directly into a bathroom mirror. If they should do so, it is believed that Mary will leap out of the mirror and scratch the face of the summoner. As Brunvand describes it, "Bloody Mary" -- with a bathroom setting, with teenage girls as percipients, with blood-letting as a theme -- is a thinly-concealed parable about the onset of menses.

Candyman blends the idea of the Hook-Man Killer with the legend of Bloody Mary. Here, Candyman is summoned by a person calling out his name in the mirror five times. When Candyman appears, he doesn't scratch you...but rather cuts you "gullet to groin" with his sharp, rusty hook. In the original film, a graduate student (Virginia Madsen) crafting her thesis on the subject of urban legends uncovers the story of Candyman at the dangerous urban projects, called Cabrini Green. It's interesting to note that Candyman only continues to "exist" as a bogeyman so long as his story (the urban legend) is disseminated among followers (his "congregation.") Candyman seduces his victims with the promise that they -- like he -- will become immortal as new elements of his tale, of his oft-repeated myth. It's the Gospel of Candyman.

At the same time that Candyman depicts a hybrid of urban legends, it also comments on urban legends. At Cabrini Green, dangerous black gangs prey on innocent residents (also black Americans). The underlying message seems to be that rather than taking on black-on-black violence in such communities, it is easier and more convenient to create mythological/phony "boogeymen" who can be blamed for it. Instead of looking at the mirror, literally, and honestly facing problems within the community, it is simpler to look "outside" for an external monster.

As the title of this piece indicates, this post is but a brief survey of urban legends appearing on film and television. There are many other titles to explore. The CW series Supernatural crafted an episode about the "Bloody Mary" myth during its first season, for instance. Also, films like The Hitcher (1986) deal with other elements of popular urban legends, namely what Brunvand calls "The Dreadful Contamination" (for example, human fingers in a plate of french fries). Indeed, horror films and urban legends overlap to a remarkable degree. Both forms serve as cautionary tales, warnings, taboo-breakers, and modern myths. And the dedicated works of Professor Brunvand go a long way towards explaining why there is this connection, this symbiosis between horror and urban legends. Both "genres" know what scares us.

Which urban legends did you grow up with? And which ones stay with you to this day? Ever find any Bubble Yum with spider-eggs inside?

And by the way, Little Mikey is apparently alive and well...


  1. I couldn't get more than a few pages into Brunwald's book because it was too hard to read while my eyes were rolling. The good Professors approach to these yarns struck me as underthought, overanalyzed, and blurred by gender and class biases. Why are babysitter spook stories told and re-told? Because babysitting is spooky... you're basically alone in a strange house, at night. For most girls, this is the first time they're out of their "element". Likewise, driving late at night is spooky; "alligators in the sewers" scares because we are vulnerable when literally butt-naked (and also because real critters do actually travel up sewer pipes, such as rats and snakes). Remember the inside-out gas (immortalized on the Simpasons)? A response to the fallout fear of the late 60's. And so on. These stories survive because they work; if you remember those campfire sessions, you know the stories that were scary, the ones that weren't (actually, no you probably don't; they weren't scary, they didn't survive).

    This is no criticism of your usual insightful analyses of the movies; only of Sociology.

  2. Hey DLR,

    Good morning! I enjoyed Brunvand more than you, apparently! :)

    I especially liked the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends because of the wider scope.

    But I do agree with you about the on-the-surface scary aspects of baby sitting (The vulnerability AND the responsbility), and that's why those points are covered (I hope...) in my analysis (though not much in Brunvand...).

    One great value of Brunvand, I believe, is his system of organization/nomenclature, which permits us to categorize the urban legends and in many cases, see the connections between them.

    I found this aspect of his work extremely useful, especially in preparing this essay on urban legends in film and television.

    And last night, I saw another movie with a Vanishing Hitchhiker: Dust Devil!

    And one of my best friends is a sociologist! :)



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