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The Eeriest Movies & Shows Based On Urban Legends

Have you heard the story about the killer clown? And what about that creepy new chant that all the kids are doing these days?

Urban legends have been inspiring Hollywood for decades. These folktales, often passed through word-of-mouth and loosely ( very loosely) based on true stories, serve as a reminder that sometimes the truth is scarier than fiction.

That's why the urban legend has become a staple of the horror genre, from Hulu’s new show Light as A Feather to classics like The Blair Witch Project. Whether you’re looking to rediscover a classic horror movie, catch up on Netflix shows, or find a new cult favorite, you’re likely to encounter a horror film that is “based on a true story.” Here’s a look at thirteen of those shows, and the terrifying stories that inspired them.

Get out your popcorn, lock your door, and hope none of these legends began in your town.

Light as a Feather(2018 - Present)

This Hulu series, which comes out on October 12, follows a group of teenage girls who are caught in a game which begins to kill them off one by one. The premise is reminiscent of Truth or Dare, but this series really promises to perfect the genre of party games gone wrong.

The Legend: Light as a feather, stiff as a board is a common party trick among kids that has been recorded as far back as 1665. In this "game," a circle of children invoke a spirit or deity to lift someone laying in the middle. If the trick works, they should be able to lift their friend with only the tips of their fingers. Like Ouija boards and Bloody Mary, light as a feather is one of those children's games that we'd rather not play.

Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.

Urban Legends(1998)

This 1988 slasher film revolves around a series of murders at a university. Each of the murders is based on a different urban legend. It begins with the trope of the murderer in the backseat. As the deaths grow more ridiculous, the characters grow more desperate. While the movie is really campy — someone dies from mixing pop rocks and soda — it's also good spooky fun.

The Legend: One of the most chilling scenes draws from the "Aren't you glad you didn't turn on the light?" story. The variations of this story involve a roommate or spouse coming home late and hearing strange noises, but deciding not to investigate. In the morning, they wake up to find their companion dead, with the infamous phrase scrawled on the wall. The legend dates back about 50 years. While there is no real life example, the tale is thought to reflect anxieties around college life.

Photo: Michael Gibson/Columbia/Phoenix/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

Supernatural(2005 - Present)

This beloved series is now in its 13th season, with a spin-off show in the works. It has been drawing on urban legends since day one. The pilot episode introduces a vanishing hitchhiker, and it only keeps going from there. Like American Horror Story, this show is absolutely packed with urban legends. The show's strength lies in how well it adapts them to the contemporary world.

The Legend: Some of the most notable include the woman in white from the pilot episode and the hook handed man, both variations on the evil/ghostly hitchhiker tale. The woman in white is a usually the ghost of a woman who has died violently. Women in white have been spotted all over the world, from Ireland to New York. One of the most famous variations is the Mexican legend of La Llorona.

The hook handed man is a variation on the murderous hitchhiker trope, in which a man is murdered and his date finds a hook hanging from her car door handle. Attacks on people in cars do have some basis in reality. In New York in 1964 an escaped murderer hid in the back of a police car. The most notorious case of car murders was the Son of Sam, who attacked couples in parked cars during the 1970s.

Photo: Courtesy of the CW.

Mama(2013)

This 2013 film was produced by Guillermo del Toro, a master of horror and the man who gave us The Shape of Water. This haunting tale follows two little girls who are raised by a mysterious spirit after the death of their mother. Plus, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau stars as a pair of creepy twins.

The Legend: There have been accounts of feral children being raised by animals since Remus and Romulus, though some of the most popular 19th century cases have been disproved. Children being raised by ghosts is a newer one. The story also draws from the legend of La Llorona, a ghost woman who drowned her children and is doomed to search for them.

Photo: Toma 78/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

The Blair Witch Project(1999)

Cult favorite The Blair Witch Project followed three college students who get lost in the woods while attempting to make a documentary. The film popularized the found footage genre, and is now considered a Halloween classic. There's even a sequel in the works.

The Legend: The Blair witch is based on reports of the Bell witch, an entity which haunted the Bell family of Tennessee in the early 1800s. The witch appeared before John Bell in 1817 and was said to have told him that it was a disturbed spirit; it often took the form of a dog, and pinched and tormented Bell’s daughter, Betsy. In 1894, Martin Ingram published An Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, which gave the family’s accounts, and claimed that the witch was a woman by the name of Kate Batts.

Photo: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock.

Stranger Things(2016 - Present)

This Netflix show came out in 2016, and has been hugely popular ever since. It revolves around a misfit group of boys who help a girl hide from a government research facility. The girl, Eleven, turns out to have telekinetic powers. What you might not know is that the show is based on an urban legend, something the creators stressed when they were sued for stealing the premise from another show.

The Legend: The series is based on the Montauk Camp conspiracy, and Montauk was the original working title. The conspiracy alleges that the Camp Hero military base in Montauk, NY is home to government experiments on aliens and other dimensions.

While this may sound very Area 51, there is reason to be wary of secret government experiments. MK Ultra was a real experiment in the 1950 in which the CIA gave unsuspecting subjects mind-altering drugs in an attempt to develop mind control technology. The program was said to be rife with abuses, and one man involved died mysteriously.

Photo: courtesy of Netflix.

The Conjuring(2013)

The Conjuring franchise has become “the Marvel universe of horror.” The original Conjuring film came out in 2013. The following year the Annabelle series began, a spin-off about the doll that was introduced in the original film. The Nun, which came out this September, is the latest addition to this terrifying series.

The Legend: The Conjuring was originally titled The Warren Files. The series draws from the lives of real demonologists Edward and Lorraine Warren. If their names sound familiar, it’s because their exploits also spawned The Amityville Horror and The Haunting in Connecticut. In 1952, the Warrens founded the New England Society for Psychic Research. They would go on to handle some of the most famous haunting cases of the century.

Annabelle also taps into the legend of the haunted doll. Perhaps the most famous haunted doll legend is Robert the Doll, who was given to the Otto family in 1906. The Otto's son became convinced that Robert was alive, and the doll is said to have caused car accidents, divorce, and other misfortunes to fall upon the family.

Photo: New Line/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

American Horror Story(2011 - Present)

American Horror Story is a conglomeration of, well, American horror stories. Each season is full of its own urban legends, and they often connect in unexpected ways. Though the show has had some controversial moments, its success lies in how it takes these old legends and makes them feel unique and contemporary.

The Legend: The show has several favorite legends that recur throughout the seasons, notably haunted houses and killer clowns. The fourth season, Hotel, was also based on a real place; the haunted Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, a site of serial killers, suicides, and mysterious disappearances.

Photo: Courtesy of FX Networks.

The Ring(2002)

After her niece dies mysteriously, a Seattle journalist discovers the legend of a videotape that kills viewers seven days after viewing it. Much like the plot of It Follows, the curse must be passed on to someone else in order to escape it. The journalist struggles to free herself from the curse while investigating the mysterious family who created the tape.

The Legend: The Ring is based on a Japanese film Ringu from 1998. The film itself draws from two popular Japanese legends, both involving women who — minor spoiler— died by drowning. The most common variation is the story of Okiku, a servant who drowned herself in a well to escape the advances of her master.

Photo: Merrick Morton/Dreamworks Llc/Macdonald/Parkes Prods./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

The Grudge(2004)

This 2004 film is a remake of the Japanese movie Ju-On: The Grudge. It stars Sarah Michelle Gellar as an exchange student who moves into a home where a woman was murdered. The woman, Kayako, comes back as a ghost and terrorizes the student and her companions. The movie is scheduled for a remake in 2019.

The Legend: This film is also based on a Japanese legend, drawing from tales of revenge ghosts, or onryō . In this case, the ghost is the spirit of a woman who was violently murdered by her husband after he accused her of cheating. Legends of vengeful ghosts who haunt the living date back thousands of years, and variations on this legend are found across most cultures.

Photo: Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock.

IT

Stephen King’s IT has been adapted twice now, in 1990 and most recently in 2017. The story of a group of children terrorized by a killer clown has changed dramatically from the book version. But whether you prefer the Tim Curry or Bill Skarsgård version, the legend of the killer clown which inspired them are sure to haunt you.

The Legend: IT took the killer clown sighting trope and ran with it. There was a rash of creepy clown sightings in 2016, but their appearance actually predates both IT movies. Clown sightings began at a school near Boston in 1981 and have continued with alarming regularity ever since. Apparently killer clowns, like cicadas, simply show up every few years.

The film also features bleeding walls, which aren’t just a thing from The Shining. Walls and sinks oozing blood are a staple of hauntings, and have been reported in cases from Pittsburgh to Atlanta.

Photo: Brooke Palmer/Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.

Candyman(1992)

Candyman is based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden.” It follows a graduate student studying the urban legend of Candyman, a vengeful spirit haunting a Chicago neighborhood. She soon finds herself tied up in a serial murder case.

The Legend: This one cheats slightly by inventing its own urban legend within the story. However, the fictional monster draws from several “real” urban legends, most notably Bloody Mary.  Candyman is summoned by saying his name three times. Mirrors also factor prominently in both legends, and there's a scientific reason behind this particular legend. The Caputo Effect is an optical trick that can create the illusion of strange faces in a mirror. But its just an illusion, right?

Photo: Moviestore Collection/REX/Shutterstock.

Slender Man(2018)

In a small town in Massachusetts, a little girl goes missing. Her sister realizes that the only way to get her back is to bargain with the monster that took her, a mysterious entity called Slender Man. While the movie reviews for this one weren't great, the film shows just how much potential the internet has in creating new cryptids.

The Legend: Slenderman is truly a modern monster, originating on horror fiction site creepypasta. A common theory is that his character was based on shadow people, indistinct figures that have been reported for decades and are thought to be linked to sleep paralysis. The 2014 "Slenderman case," in which two girls stabbed a classmate, is a chilling reminder of the power urban legends can hold in real life.

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.

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