Ashley Lister’s A-Z of Horror: U is for Urban Legends

Ordinarily, when we discuss urban legends, we think of the stories imported to us from American culture. Stories such as the hook (an escaped lunatic with a hook for a hand, tries to assault canoodling couples on a nearby lovers’ lane); or the choking Doberman (a woman gets home to find her dog choking. She takes him to the vet and then goes back home to get a call from the vet saying ‘get out of the house now.’ Police arrive and find a bleeding burglar in her home. The dog had been choking on the man’s fingers); or the babysitter and the clown statue (whilst this sounds like a rather dubious porn title, the story tells us that a babysitter is feeling uncomfortable being in the room with a grotesque clown statue. She mentions this to the parents during a check-up call, and they tell her to take the children out of the house because they own no such statue. The clown statue turns out to be a homeless small person in a clown suit who had been residing in the family’s large home).

These stories are a wonderful part of our cultural heritage. They contribute to a tradition of oral storytelling that continues to excite listeners.

The first thing that needs to be said about these stories is that they are (mostly) untrue. Usually they’re told about a friend of a friend, or a distant relative, or someone heard this from an undisclosed source. Nevertheless, just as it is for politicians, we shouldn’t let the absence of truth be a factor in whether or not a story is shared and enjoyed.

Secondly, they play to our fears as a society. The escaped lunatic on lovers’ lane is a warning to teenagers that they shouldn’t go canoodling in cars or there could be serious repercussions. The choking Doberman is a reminder that we are oblivious to some of the dangers that surround us. The babysitter and the clown statue (still sounds like a porno) is a reminder that we can’t trust the taste of people who can afford clown statues. Or maybe something different. The point is, these stories act as a warning that encourages good behaviour.

But the majority of these come from outside the UK and we have very little in the way of homegrown urban legends. One of the few I could locate is the story of Spring-Heeled Jack.

According to My London: “Spring Heeled Jack was said to breathe flames, have claws and wear a cape which fluttered in the wind after he fled the scene of his crimes, including attacking women, causing carriage crashes, and pretending to be a fire-breathing policeman.

After he terrorised his victims it was said that he jumped over buildings and other high walls and fences, hence the name.

Dating back to the 1830s, the latest reported sighting of Spring Heeled Jack was as recent as 2012.

This is an interesting urban legend because we can see how it works also as a cautionary tale. This is a warning to be wary of the dangerous ‘gentlemen’ that are found on London’s streets. Jack sometimes pretends to be a police officer, he wears a cape like a member of the better classes, and he is capable of causing havoc and then easily fleeing because of his superhuman abilities. If this is a warning not to upset the gentry then it’s an effective one because Spring-Heeled Jack is still talked about today. And this effective presentation of the cautionary tale is the reason why urban legends will always remain with us in one form or another.

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