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Scary Stories: Horror Fiction Blog

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

Urban Legends and Why They Scare Us

by Mark W. Curran

Urban Myths are the modern equivalent of early folklore. They are stories with a modern setting passed down from generation to generation, originally told around a campfire and evolve to fit the tone and time of their telling.

I'd always been fascinated by urban legends. In the Philadelphia suburban neighborhood where I grew up, kids told the stories of vanishing hitchhikers and hook-handed asylum escapees; the line between reality and fantasy blurred convincingly and spoke to my deepest primal fears.

A few years ago the urban legend 'Slenderman' came into being as an internet meme and evolved into a story which became so real to its believers it caused several of them to commit attempted murder. Several young girls reading a scary story blog were so fascinated by the Slenderman legend they ended up stabbing a classmate nineteen times.

I believe the power of scary characters in stories such as urban legends lies in the concept of the archetype. Put simply, an archetype is a symbol, pattern or character type that is recognized by humans at a primary level. Common archetypes in stories such as movies, books and urban legends are The Hero, The Trickster and the Shadow.

I contemplated why the archetype has such power and why urban legends resonate with our imagination so effectively? For one, certain archetypes such as the Shadow or the Grim Reaper force us to face deeper questions. What happens when we die? Is there anything out there beyond life and death?

As a writer of fiction and a low budget filmmaker, horror has always been my genre of choice. I'm always on the lookout for what presses the fear button. When a good friend generously offered her home as a location for filming my next project, I knew I needed to come up with a story and a screen villain worthy of scaring the bejeezus out of people. Cheaply.

I invented a character called the Hoodman as a fictional urban legend created by parents who had lost their children either from crib death or from unexplained disappearance, as a way to deal with the psychological stress of loss and grief.

As an archetype, Hoodman possesses many elements of the traditional death trope-type based on a hooded harbinger of death; The Grim Reaper or The Shadow. Think 'Sandman' with a hood complex.

I wrote the screenplay and hired a cast and crew and shot the movie myself [using my credit cards] in six weekends for $30,000. The movie was picked up by an online distributor and is now available on AmazonPrime and TUBI and other online platforms.

I got to thinking how and why I chose the Hoodman as a character and why these types of villains have such power to press the fear button. Folklore in movies is as old as film itself and has probably existed for as long as stories have been told.

I reasoned that if I needed to create a movie villain, the ultimate antagonist is a death archetype which requires no special effects makeup. One that gets you when you are sleeping? So much the better.

Budget considerations aside, I borrowed from 'Slenderman' as I felt it was important Hoodman have no face. There should be an empty darkness where his face would be in order that his victims can project their own inner demons; a void where their own subconscious could project the most hideous and deeply-rooted fear image it could conjure, from the darkness to the light. Spooky!

Slenderman is a great example. "Descended from eastern European myth," so the creator claimed, "Slender Man has many origins: Germany’s Black Forest. Ancient Egypt. Cave paintings in Brazil purportedly depict his movements. Slenderman was faceless and said to possess features only certain victims could see." The power of the myth surprised even its own creator, Victor Surge, who later emoted that even he could not believe how much it had spread.

While the story of Slenderman is a scary and fascinating story onto itself, what we find in his creation is also an archetype of Death. For us humans, death is the great unknown and therein lies its power to invoke fear and propel the imagination to wonder.

If we compare these two movie villains, they possess many common powerful qualities. For one, they invoke the power of the psyche to invent terrible outcomes for good intentioned yet deeply flawed antagonists.

Shira Chess, an assistant professor of mass media arts at the University of Georgia wrote: "Slender Man is a metaphor for 'helplessness, power differentials, and anonymous forces. He’s an infinitely morphable stand-in for things we can neither understand nor control, universal fears that can drive people to great lengths — even, it would appear, very scary, cold-blooded lengths."

I imbued my own movie character, Hoodman with an even more sinister quality: He could only appear to those who believed in him, thus rendering him invisible to those who might oppose him. Which calls into question for the viewer that eternal dichotomy between what is real and what is imagined and the startling power of belief.

We need only to look around us to see how destructive a false sense of reality can be. The power of belief takes us beyond stories and can have life altering effects in the real world. Which calls into question the moral responsibility we have as writers of fiction when penning our creations.

As pure entertainment, watching the struggle between Good and Evil is always great fun particularly when the stakes are high and primal archetypes are infused into the fight. Each year during Halloween season we are reminded in a good natured way the power of the Shadow to influence our human experience.

From the earliest folklore to the urban legends of modern times, it is the archetype which resonates deepest in our imaginations and causes us to to question what lies beyond our mortal lifespan.

Mark W. Curran is a book author and horror film blogger. His indie horror films 'Hoodman' and 'Abandoned Dead' are now in worldwide release. He edits the weekly Horror Fiction Newswire and moderates the Horror Fiction Central website which feature the latest in horror fiction publishing, news and events.

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