Urban myths were once circulated orally, but today they are spread by all types of media including newspapers, television news, email, and social media. In August of 2016, strange complaints began coming into the Green Bay, Wisconsin police department--complaints about clowns. People dressed as clowns were spotted waving from the edge of forests, standing on street corners, leering at onlookers from rooftops, and lurking near schools and playgrounds. Thus began the Clown Panic of 2016.
Photos of a sinister looking clown roaming a vacant parking lot at night started going viral. A few days later a Facebook page was created claiming the clown was named Gags. In the days and weeks that followed, the creepy clown photos were discussed on all of the nationally syndicated news stations.
Even though the truth about the clowns being a publicity stunt for the movie “Gags the Clown” was heavily covered in TV news reports, the creepy clown phenomenon continued to spread. By mid-October clown sightings and attacks were being reported in nearly every state in the U.S., across Canada, and all over Europe. But what started out as a hoax soon turned violent.
In Denmark a man was driving home from a football match when he spotted an axe-wielding clown standing in the middle of the road. The man nearly hit the clown, who was later revealed to be a 13-year-old boy.
In Finland, ten people dressed as clowns jumped out of a van outside of an elementary school playground. They chased three children who escaped to an underpass, where another clown was waiting with a chainsaw.
In Germany, two men reported a man in a clown mask carrying a knife and gun walking the streets at 2 AM. In Berlin, a 16-year-old wearing a clown mask had to undergo surgery after being stabbed with a knife by a 14-year-old who thought he was being attacked.
In Ireland, a clown with an axe broke into a home and terrified a young girl, and four people dressed as ax-wielding clowns stood outside of a teenager's home and threatened to kill her.
In West Virginia, a man was arrested and charged with assault after donning a clown mask and chasing four children between the ages of 6 and 11 with a baseball bat. In Rhode Island, there were three separate reports of a machete wielding clown chasing people out of a park.
Luckily, the creepy clown sightings died down and eventually disappeared leaving people wondering how things had gotten so out of hand. Some news outlets dismissed the sightings as mass hysteria, while others felt that the media was responsible for spreading the panic by running so many news stories about the subject. But the news website Vox summed it up perfectly when they pointed out that “the Great Clown Panic of 2016 was perpetuated by pretty much everyone except actual clowns.”
While not every urban myth spreads like a worldwide plague, legends with similar storylines seem to pop up randomly across a wide swatch of the country. Case in point is the legend of Crybaby Bridge. Dozens of towns in a variety of US states claim to be the home of the original haunted bridge, but no one knows for sure where the story originated. States where the Crybaby Bridge myth is popular include Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, and Texas, to name a few.
There are many versions of the Crybaby tale, but as you can guess, all have something to do with a tragedy surrounding the death of an infant. In Maryland, the story goes that a deeply depressed teenage mother threw her newborn baby over the side of the Governor’s Bridge, then leapt to her death after her. Legend has it that if you visit the bridge at night, you can hear the cries of a baby coming from underneath the span. If you're foolish enough to look over the edge of the bridge and down into the murky water below, you just might see the bloated, mud-covered body of an infant staring up at you from the water's depths.
An alternate version of the Maryland legend is attached to another bridge about ten miles from Governor’s Bridge called the Lottsville Vista Road Bridge. In this variant, a young woman has a heated argument with her husband over the nonstop crying of their baby. She pulls the car to a stop on the rickety wooden bridge and frantically hurls the newborn over the railing and into the muddy waters below. Realizing that she had just murdered her own child, the woman and her husband quickly drive off, leaving their dead child in its watery grave. Supposedly, on starless nights, when the bridge is bathed in moonlight, an icy gust of wind will swirl up from the murky waters, and a crying baby may be seen floating over the bridge, or lying face up in the waters below, and her shrieks and cries can be heard echoing throughout the surrounding dark forest.
As if that version wasn’t creepy enough, a variation of the story from the 1980s tells of a young couple driving with their baby across the Lottsville Vista Road Bridge when the car runs out of gas in the middle of the span. The couple gets out of the car and argues, leaving the baby in her carseat. When the husband leaves to find a gas station, the woman walks around to the front of the car and finds her baby's head impaled on the hood. The woman screams and runs down the road to find her husband. When they return, the baby is gone, and not a drop of blood can be found on the hood of the car. It’s said that when you drive over the bridge on a cloudy night, the crying of a baby can be heard coming from the waters below.
The interesting thing about urban legends is they often seem to be based on an actual incident or tragedy. In the case of the Lottsville Vista Road Bridge, the real story is more frightening than the legend itself.
In the late 1940s and into the early 1950s, the bodies of murdered women began turning up on Lottsville Road, which at the time was a rural dirt road. The women were all prostitutes from the Washington, D.C. area. After that, other bodies were dumped along the same stretch of desolate road. A police officer who patrolled the area in the 1950s, Everett G. Husk, said that he remembers when a cab driver’s body was pulled from the creek that runs along the road. Over the years, more than twenty murder victims were dumped on the side of Lottsville Road. There were so many bodies found along Lottsville Vista Road that the police started calling it “the dumping ground”.
During an interview about the Crybaby Bridge legend, a local resident said that he clearly remembered the newspaper stories about the bodies that kept turning up on Lottsville Road. “They did find dead bodies back there pretty frequently,” he said. “The first one was in the thirties when a local man killed another man and put him back up in those woods. I know that was the first one because it was big news with the few local residents for years and years. As far as the story and the name of the bridge goes, that's something that was made up right after the road was paved. No baby drowned there. In fact, a whole lot more babies were made back there than the other way around!"
Not all urban legends are attached to places. Some involve the use of rituals to conjure spirits. One of the most well known ritual urban legends is that of Bloody Mary, a terrifying phantom whose blood soaked image is said to appear in a mirror after her name is chanted thirteen times. When performing the ritual, the room must be dimly-lit, and the apparition appears as a blood covered corpse, hag, or specter.
Some versions of the legend say that Mary is the spirit of a witch who was executed hundreds of years ago for being involved in the black arts. Others say she is the ghost of a modern day woman who died in a local car accident, and that her hideously mutilated face shows up in the mirror when you invoke her name.
There are many other variations of the Bloody Mary legend, and the avenging spirit goes by many names such as Bloody Bones, Hell Mary, Mary Worth, Mary Whales, Mary Johnson, Sally, Kathy, and Black Agnes among others.
If you're brave or foolish enough to give one of the rituals a try, it’s important that you recite the chant correctly. According to one version, the correct phrase is “I believe in Mary Worth”. Others require chanting or shouting into the mirror “Kathy, come out!” or “Bloody Mary”. The phrase is sometimes elaborated upon to taunt the ghost into showing herself, such as repeating “Bloody Mary! I killed your baby!” or “Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, show your ugly face!”
But be careful what you ask for, because you never know what Mary will do once she arrives in the mirror. She may kill you, drive you mad, disfigure your face with deep scratches, or she may simply peer malevolently at you from deep within the mirror. If the ritual is done by a group of people, she may drag one of them back through the mirror to live with her in the underworld.
Where did the Bloody Mary legend originate? One source may be a ritual that was performed by young women in Victorian times. In it, a girl would enter a darkened house, then walk backwards up a flight of stairs while holding a candle and a hand-mirror. If she was lucky, she would catch a view of her future husband's face in the mirror. But if she saw a skull or the face of the Grim Reaper, it was a sign that she would die before getting the chance to marry.
A variation of the Bloody Mary myth is that of Hanako-san--a Japanese urban legend about the spirit of a young girl who haunts school girl’s bathrooms. One version of the story says that she is the ghost of a World War II-era girl who was killed while playing hide-and-seek during an air raid. Other iterations say that Hanako-san was murdered in a school bathroom either by one of her parents, or by a stranger. Yet another version of the tale says that she committed suicide in a school lavatory.
The details of what Hanako-san looks like varies, but she is usually described as wearing a red skirt or dress, having a bobbed haircut, and she has a burn scar on her face.
To summon her, students must go into the girl's bathroom on the third floor of their school, knock three times on the third stall, then ask if Hanako-san is present. If she is, a quiet little girl’s voice will be heard saying "Yes, I am" from behind the stall door. After this, the individual may then witness the appearance of a bloody hand reaching out from under the stall. Hanako-san may pull the student into the toilet, or they may be eaten by a three-headed lizard.
In some schools, students claimed to have witnessed other paranormal activities when in the presence of Hanako-san, such as the flickering of lights, the opening and closing of bathroom stalls, and seeing blood flowing from the bathroom faucets.
These three creepy tales are just the tip of the iceberg as far as urban legends go. In the months to come, I’ll introduce you to more chilling urban myths from around the world, including Slenderman, the Japanese myth of the Slit-faced Woman, and the Nigerian boarding school ghost Madam Koi-Koi.
Until then, beware of bridges on cold, moonless nights. Stay clear of that clown who is staring at you from the edge of a dark wood. Avoid mirrors in dimly lit rooms; and by all means, don’t go near the third stall in the girl’s school bathroom. Each has their own brand of horror waiting for you, and each is hoping to catch you off-guard so they can suck you into their hellish worlds.