The True Stories Behind 8 Urban Legends

Though most urban legends and myths are made up, sometimes they turn out to be true.

Amber Garrett - Author

Oct. 24 2018, Updated 5:05 p.m. ET

Source: istock

Growing up, we all had that creepy story about an old dilapidated building on the outskirts of town or a spooky explanation for what happened to that girl who disappeared without a trace. Every once in a while, though, one of those urban legends turns out to have a smattering of truth. 

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1. This bogeyman is the real deal.

willowbrook state school staten island ny
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For decades, children of Staten Island have feared their own personal bogeyman, Cropsey. While there wasn't a scary monster making kids disappear, there was an alleged kidnapper and serial child killer who worked at Willowbrook State School. 

Andre Rand, who worked as a custodian at the now-shuttered institute for developmentally disabled children, has been twice convicted for the kidnappings of two children who resided at the school. Though jurors couldn't agree on murder convictions in either case, police believe Rand was responsible for their deaths and three others, possibly more.

2. I'll never go to the bathroom with the light off again.

true urban legend nyc sewer rat
Source: Anatoly Pareev/IStock

Residents of NYC have long been kept awake at night by the notion that rats might crawl up through the pipes and into their toilets. And I regret to inform you this is 100 percent possible. In fact, there was a story about one such case on This American Life, and one substantiated by an area exterminator, though in that case, the rat didn't make it out of the bowl alive. I now never leave the lid open and always look before I sit.

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3. "Atomic wedgies" are real — and they can kill a man.

true urban legend atomic wedgie
Source: Pottawatomie County Sheriff's Office/Disney

You've seen it in cartoons — someone performs a wedgie so perfect, they can get the waistband up and around somebody's head. There is one documented case of someone performing this bullying maneuver on his stepdad, but he ended up strangling him in the process.

Brad Lee Davis of McLoud, OK, is serving a 30-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter of his stepfather, Denver Lee St. Clair. Davis said he did not intend the wedgie to kill his stepfather. His lawyers argued Davis endured years of abuse from St. Clair and got carried away.

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4. The bathroom scene from 'Candyman' is based on real events.

urban legend candyman ruthie mae mccoy
Source: TriStar Entertainement

The 1992 horror movie Candyman is all about a made-up urban legend about a man with a hook hand (Tony Todd) who appears when you stand in front of a mirror and say his name five times. While that part is not true — I did it once on a dare and only peed a little — one of the scariest scenes in the film is rooted in a true story. 

The scene where Candyman's hook hand bursts through a medicine cabinet and tries to grab the heroine (Virginia Madsen) is based on the 1987 murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy. She reported several times to 911 that an intruder was entering her apartment in the Chicago Abbott Homes project through the medicine cabinet at night. The authorities dismissed her as insane, but when she was found dead the next day, it turns out her neighbor had indeed entered through a hole in the wall behind the cabinet and shot her four times.

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5. The one time a chain letter had even an ounce of truth.

true urban legend slavemaster
Source: Johnson County Sheriff's Dept./AOL

Email forwards are the worst and the claims in them are never true, except that one time they were true enough to chill your bones. And no, it's not the one about the Nigerian prince that wants to share his fortune with you. 

Back in the early 2000s when everyone was chatting on AIM with randoms, an email circulated warning women to stay away from a guy with the screen name "Slavemaster." 

If a guy by the name of SLAVEMASTER contacts you do not answer. He has killed 56 women that he has talked to on the internet.
He has been on {{ Yahoo- Aol– Excite }} so far.
This is no JOKE.!!!!!!

- collected via email, 2001 (via Snopes)

While he is only known to have eight victims (which is certainly enough to scare me awake for a couple nights), there was a serial killer of women in Kansas City, MO, who used that screen name. John Edward Robinson is currently on death row for three of those deaths. The last two victims, Isabella Lewicka and Susan Trouten, met Robinson in a BDSM internet community where he used the "Slavemaster" monicker. He stored the women's bodies in chemical drums on his property... you're welcome for those horrible nightmares.

However, the email chain letter probably didn't arise until it was too late, with someone cobbling the details together from the case information and confusing his age (he was 56 at the time if his arrest) with the number of his victims.

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6. Something strange does happen if you stare in the mirror and say Bloody Mary.

Source: iStock/captblack76

OK, so a scary ghost isn't really going to appear if you say "Bloody Mary" three times in a mirror, but it is possible to see a face that isn't yours if you stare at your reflection long enough. This phenomenon was termed the "strange-face illusion" by psychologist Giovanni Caputo. He defined the effect after studying test subjects in a dimly lit room with a mirror. During the experiment, he asked them to look at the glass for just under a minute, then he recorded what they reported seeing. Most participants saw their own faces become very deformed, while some saw images of living or deceased parents and relatives, animals, or even monsters. 

The Italian psychologist posits that the brain's face-recognition center will detect small changes when staring at the same image for too long and interpret one's own reflection as a new face. Whether or not you chant the name of a mythical ghost is immaterial, though!

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7. The Green Man of Pittsburgh is real... and very tragic.

true urban legends green man pittsburgh
Source: istock/Zeferli

From the 1950s to the mid-80s, Pittsburgh schoolchildren would freak each other out with stories of a ghost or zombie with no face and a missing right arm who walks along the highway at night. However, the figure people saw was an actual man who survived a disfiguring accident as a child.

A tragic dare led a 9-year-old Raymond Robinson to sustain severe burns on his face and arms. While it's unclear why people thought he was green — he wasn't — the explanation for why people only saw him at night was simple and heartbreaking. He wanted to enjoy nature and fresh air but didn't wan't to scare anyone, so he would take his walks at night. How sad that such a nice man probably lived a long, lonely life because of his injuries and a lack of understanding on the part of his neighbors.

Raymond died in 1985, which obviously led to a sharp decline in Green Man sightings. However, some people who believe the legends still go looking for him along State Route 351.

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8. Most stories about tainted Halloween candy are false... except this one.

Source: istock/Rawpixel

We all grew up hearing stories about deadly Halloween treats, from chocolate bars with razors in them to poisoned candied apples. Most of these stories are unsubstantiated, but there is one confirmed instance of a person intentionally giving out poison to trick-or-treaters.

In 1964, Long Island housewife Helen Pfeil decided to prank the teenagers of her neighborhood, whom she felt were too old to be begging for candy door to door. For them, she put together bundles of undesirable items, like steel wool scouring pads and dog treats. She also included ant poison buttons. They were clearly marked as poison and she even told the kids she was making a little joke — giving them a trick instead of a treat.  Nevertheless, she was charged with child endangerment, since it was conceivable one of the teens might mistake the insecticide for candy. She was issued a suspended sentence, and no reports of poisoning stemmed from the incident.

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