October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror movies about urban legends is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Urban legends were the gateway to horror for many of us. We grew up hearing stories about killers and supernatural menaces that allegedly stalked our region, lurking in the dark, waiting to nab us when we least expected it. In some cases, they even inspired kids to make up their own tales to torment their friends in the schoolyard. In my town, we believed that a posse of killer clowns lived on a farm and kidnapped any child foolish enough to venture there. The good news is that most of us — myself included — came back alive.
Understandably, then, horror movies have brought some of these legends to life on the screen in spectacular ways. Other times, they’ve made up their own legends and convinced viewers that they’re based on real myths. But that’s the beauty of urban legends — they spark imaginations and give us the willies.
With this in mind, the Boo Crew — Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell, Anna Swanson, and yours truly — have created this list of urban legend horror movies. They include a combination of “real” and make-believe tales, but they all have one thing in common: they’re top-notch films.
10. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is rooted in American folktales, both in its literary form and cinematic adaptation. Author Alvin Schwartz drew heavily from folklore and urban legends while creating his spooky stories, and the movie gives them the shiver-inducing treatment screen they deserve. The legends featured in the movie include versions of The Hairy Toe and White Lady myths, while the other monsters — such as The Jangly Man — are hybrids of various terrifying creatures of folklore. It’s fascinating reading if you want to do some Googling.
The movie captures the pure Americana of the books, reminding viewers that the United States is a nation that’s steeped in horror — both man-made and in regard to campfire tales. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark also scores points for being a horror movie aimed at kids that doesn’t insult their intelligence. That’s why the movie, like the books, is perfect for children and adults alike. (Kieran Fisher)
9. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
Sometimes urban legends are ingeniously crafted stories of lore, other times it’s as simple as Man Door Hand Hook Car Door. In I Know What You Did Last Summer, it’s slightly more complex but no less silly. The film pays its debts to the classic campfire tale of a hook-handed killer early on and then builds upon this iconography with its very own hook-wielding adversary out for revenge.
A group of recent high school grads cover up a hit and run, believing they can move on and forget about the incident. As it turns out, the past isn’t so easily buried and there’s now a killer stalking them one by one. This film is an iconic entry in the ’90s horror cycle and a gleefully fun slasher that delivers exactly what it promises to. (Anna Swanson)
8. When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Inspired by a folk legend that tells of a babysitter trapped in a house with a killer in the attic, When a Stranger Calls is overshadowed by Black Christmas when it comes to movies inspired by the story. Bob Clark’s seminal slasher is more influential, but When a Stranger Calls is still an effective telling of the story in its own right.
Fred Walton‘s film does a great job of turning the telephone into an instrument of terror and milking suburban paranoia to great effect. The movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s taut, stylish, and thrilling when the poop hits the fan. So much so that Wes Craven paid homage to it in the opening sequence of Scream. (Kieran Fisher)
7. Trick ‘r Treat (2007)
Michael Dougherty‘s Trick ‘r Treat is one of the great Halloween movies. This horror anthology tells four interweaving stories that all take place on the spookiest night of the year. The through-line is Sam, a mysterious would-be trick-or-treater dressed in orange PJs with a burlap sack over his head. The film touches on multiple urban legends, and Sam acts as a guide of sorts, punishing those that fail to follow the rules of Halloween.
Perhaps the most famous legend covered is the old poisoned candy routine. It’s always important to check your candy because you never know what some weirdo is going to do to it. A rowdy teen named Charlie (Brett Kelly) fails to complete this essential step and learns a very important life lesson courtesy of his principal (Dylan Baker). Don’t be like Charlie, check your candy. Also never blow out a Jack-o-lantern before midnight and for the love of God, if you’re home, please pass out candy. (Chris Coffel)
6. The Ring (2002)
I don’t know if anyone ever flat out believed in the cursed videotape at the center of the original Ring, but by the time the story made its way overseas with Gore Verbinski’s faithfully freaky adaptation, it essentially felt like it. Amongst the throngs of young teens in my combo middle school/high school, it was spoken about with bated breath, similar to another film steeped in urban legend from the same period, The Blair Witch Project.
There was a vague notion that the film couldn’t be real, but the tape and the ominous phone call spelling your fate must be based on something. Some turn of the 21st-century kernel of truth passed on by teenagers intent on spooking their significant others, or themselves, just as we see in the tension-dipped cold open as two high schoolers (including Amber Tamblyn) gleefully recount the cautionary tale.
We share in their excitement because these urban myths inspire in us a sense of wonderment in our everyday world, the thrill in believing that something beyond comprehension isn’t in some dark woods or down an abandoned well, but hiding within our house, ready to stop our hearts with its cold dead stare. VHS may be a dead format, but like any good urban legend, the fear of a cursed tape lives on in our collective imaginations. (Jacob Trussell)