25 popular urban legends explained

Written by:
February 26, 2018
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25 popular urban legends explained

"Don't step on the cracks, or you'll fall and break your back." Many children found this particular rhyme convincing enough to dance across sidewalks for the majority of their childhood, until enough missteps convinced them that their back was safe from superstition. Urban legends can be unforgiving.

They also take many forms. Playground rules like the one above, riddled with questionable aphorisms, are easily grown out of, but certain legends stick harder and faster - as seen in the overwhelming surge of fake news (whose abject prevalence is argued by some as an urban legend in its own right).

There are horrific urban legends of the supernatural nature; there are those founded from an innate distrust of political forces. Some urban legends last the test of time, while others disappear overnight. Whatever the source, the cause, or the interpretation, all urban legends share one core truth: they are compelling enough to share.

This fact alone has intrigued researchers for decades. In a world where information is at our fingertips, why do we persist in believing fallacies that contradict our own experiences? We're told as children that urinating in pools will turn the water a different color, and despite never seeing proof for ourselves (and likely having personal experiences that dictate the contrary) one study suggests 52% of American adults believe it.

So why do we trust these word-of-mouth myths? One answer is that storytelling gave humans an evolutionary advantage. It is programmed in us to warn each other of potential dangers, no matter how mundane they may seem. Urban legends are also a version of modern mythology -  a vessel for the inexplicable and unproven. Their place in society draws from a fundamental judicial principle: innocent until proven guilty. If it is impossible to prove beyond doubt that a story has no basis in reality, the possibility remains that it is, somehow, true.

And so the stories spread.

The truth behind Mr. Rogers

A secret many have been dying to know: was Mr. Rogers, host of the children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” actually a U.S. Marine - or maybe a Navy SEAL? - at one point in his life? As the U.S. Naval Institute themselves say, no: Mr. Rogers did not wear a sweater to hide a “Born to Kill” tattoo. No-one is quite sure where the ex-killer rumors originated, but even without the U.S. Navy debunking those claims it’s hard to imagine this man doing anything other than teaching children.

There are bodies buried in Hoover Dam

This is one urban legend that just won’t die. While there were many fatalities involved in the making of Hoover Dam, zero involved workers slipping into the mix and being covered up with concrete. It’s not hard to see its prominence in the human consciousness though, with six bodies buried in Montana’s Fort Peck Dam.

Pools will turn red if you pee in them

We all heard this one as kids: you can’t pee in the pool because there’s a special chemical that turns the water around you red...or blue, or green, but the point is that everyone will be able to tell. Fortunately for six year-olds everywhere, no such urine-indicating dye exists.

Wedding rice makes birds explode

No one is quite sure where this particular urban legend originated, but there is nevertheless the pervasive fear that if birds consume rice they explode. Throwing wedding rice was especially feared, as it would provide ample grains for the unfortunate avians. Fortunately, such claims have since been debunked.

Needles infected with HIV

In the 1990s, a scary urban legend emerged - needles infected with HIV positive blood were being hidden under gas pumps, lying in wait to infect innocent bystanders. Despite some stories of attacks featuring needles, no cases of HIV infected needles being distributed in this fashion have been recorded.

Historical busts removed by presidents

Part urban legend, part fake news, part crossed wires describes the coverage of presidents moving historical busts in and out of various rooms in the White House. In Obama’s administration, he reportedly sent a bust of Winston Churchill back to the British embassy: this was false (kind of). Now in Trump’s, controversy surrounded him removing a bust of Martin Luther King (which he didn’t).

We only use ten percent of our brains

It’s tempting to believe: if you can just unlock the other 90% of your brain, you’ll become a genius, or a martial arts superhero. Unfortunately, Britannica is here to ruin our fun with some solid evidence that we are constantly using 100% of our brain.

Shaving hair makes it grow back thicker

A household urban legend is that shaving causes hair to grow back thicker. Although that certainly feels true when dealing with short, stubby hairs post-shaving, there is actually no scientific evidence to back this up.

Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences

In 1964, TIME published an article about a list depicting eerie similarities between the lives and deaths of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. The list continues to make the rounds today, and contains facts ranging from similar election years (Lincoln 1860, Kennedy 1960) to number of letters in their surnames (seven).

Friday 13th is unlucky

It is widely accepted that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day. The “why” is a little bit harder to unpack. Some think Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” first painted Friday as an unlucky day (“and on Friday fell this all mischance”), but the rise in modern myth came with the release of “Friday, the Thirteenth” by Thomas Lawson. The association of Friday the thirteenth and bad luck spun from there, until it became firmly cemented as a valid superstition.

Fascination with Area 51

While most urban legends on this list have been scientifically refuted, the conspiracies surrounding Area 51 are harder to debunk. Area 51 is a top-secret government site in Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas, and has been a conspiracy theory factory for over four decades now. Although much has finally been declassified, rumors surrounding UFOs and CIA activity prevail.

Killer in the backseat

Ah, a classic. A woman is driving when someone behind her flashes their lights and begins following her. Spooked, she runs home, dials the police, and quickly discovers that the tailgating vehicle was trying to warn her about the killer in her backseat.

Coca-Cola can dissolve teeth

There a lot of myths around Coca-Cola, but one of the most well-known ones is that a glass could dissolve a tooth overnight. Fortunately, many people have debunked this (although no-one is arguing Coca-Cola is good for your teeth).

The Russian Sleep Experiment

This horrific tale tells the story of a Soviet experiment that involved locking participants in a chamber and pumping in a gas that kept them awake from days on end - with some unexpected consequences. There is little evidence that any such experiment happened.

Gum stays in stomach for seven years

A similar urban legend is that gum, when swallowed, stays in the stomach for seven years. This is false: gum is mostly digested, and stays in your body for no more than seven days. The warning likely came from an instinctive aversion to swallowing something that could, theoretically, stick to your throat.

Cracking knuckles causes arthritis

Does cracking knuckles really cause arthritis? According to several studies, no. This urban legend likely evolved because mild swelling can occur when knuckles are vigorously cracked, or because of the irritation others feel when someone next to them is cracking their knuckles.

Loch Ness Monster: aka “Nessie”

As 2017 was a record year for Loch Ness Monster sightings, it’s fitting Nessie has earned a place on this list. The monster is said to inhabit the Loch Ness, a lake in the Scottish Highlands. It has been an area of fascination for nearly a century now, a BBC team claims to have proved no such monster exists.


Emerging in Puerto Rico in the 1990s, legends of the chupacabra depict a mangy, hairless, blood-sucking monster that preys on livestock (chupacabra is Spanish for “goat-sucker”). BBC debunks these claims, suggesting that the terrifying animals sighted are actually just animals suffering from mites that cause hair loss and other disfigurements.

Yeti Sightings

Some people have devoted their lives to tracking down the Abominable Snowman. Rumoured to be a shaggy, towering figure that lives in the Himalayas, there have been many Yeti sightings over the years and little hard proof. However, the National Geographic suggests there may be a ring of truth to to the phenomenon.

Crop Circles

These strange happenings have been cropping up since the mid-1970s, and have been a point of controversy ever since. What could cause such intricate patterns? How do they do it at such scale? UFO sightings are frequently coupled with the emergence of a crop circle, feeding into the idea that extraterrestrial life is somehow responsible. Alas, The Telegraph offers us a perfectly reasonable explanation right here.

Slender Man

An internet forum creation, Slender Man first appeared on a Something Awful forum in 2009. Tall, with grotesquely long arms and legs, Slender Man quickly found his way into photoshopped pictures, where the legend grew that he was there to terrorize. It’s a dark urban legend: As well as inspiring an upcoming movie, the Slender Man figure was inspiration in an awful attack just a few years ago.

Sewer Alligators

They’re reptilian, they’re large, and they live in the sewers of New York City. No, not the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: alligators. Like most urban legends, this one is rooted in true accounts. That being said, it’s unequivocally false that there are colonies of alligators running around in New York’s sewers.

Clown Statue

One of the most terrifying urban legends stems from what should be a relatively innocuous figure: the clown. The story usually features some variation of a babysitter who calls the parents of the house to ask if she can cover up the large, creepy clown statue in the corner of the playroom...only for them to reveal they have no such thing. It’s possible this legend developed in response to the infamous 70s serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who was known in his neighborhood for dressing up as a clown at children’s parties prior to his arrest. Gacy may also be responsible for lingering coulrophobia, a phobia that Vox reports 42 percent of Americans have.

Vanishing Hitchhiker

The legend of the vanishing hitchhiker is iconic. Stories typically describe someone stopping for a hitchhiker, and said hitchhiker vanishing whenever they get where it is they need to go. Jan Harold Brunvand's book The Vanishing Hitchhiker suggests the legend has equivalents across the world.

Bloody Mary

No sleepover was safe from Bloody Mary. Legend has it, to summon her you must light a candle, go into a bathroom, and chant “Bloody Mary” at least three times. Although there are accounts from young girls who have supposedly had some terrifying experience with Mary, it is generally regarded to have developed as an adolescent party game in the 1960s, and has little basis in reality.

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