I’m such a sucker for an urban legend that I ended up using one in the first Ribero book. Knowing me, I shall probably continue to use them, as they provide such rich material for creative writing.
The Elements of Urban Legend
If you’re going to use urban legends for inspiration, buckle up safely, as the ride can get scary. Seriously, there are some deeply unpleasant legends out there, which are almost guaranteed to make sleep more difficult than usual. Here are a few of my favourites, or alternatively, do a search on Google – there literally are thousands of them.
If you’re determined to proceed (good for you!), then it’s important to understand the key elements that make an urban legend so compulsively readable. These are:
- The element of suspense. Like any good horror story, the urban legend will creep mercilessly towards a conclusion, hopefully with a ghoulish or gory surprise at the end, to keep you on your toes. If you’re going to use urban legends for inspiration, consider this pace for your own writings.
- The sense of the inevitable. It was a dark, stormy night. A girl was alone in the house, or in a broken-down car, miles from anywhere. Perhaps a man was walking home through a lonely wood. Urban legends nearly always start with a sinister setting, which immediately informs the reader that this isn’t going to end well. However, sometimes urban legends sprinkle in a sense of the mundane to excellent effect. I mean, what could be more normal than going for a drive with your boyfriend… unless the car suddenly stops working, leaving you stranded on a dark forest road?
- The warning. All too often, the clues are there. If those silly victims had only listened… well, it’d be a different story, wouldn’t it? (And not nearly so entertaining to read afterwards!) Sometimes, it’s all about the sense of discomfort – a feeling that all is not well, and that bad things are on the horizon. Occasionally, it can be a physical clue; for example, a doll with moving eyes, or a strange footprint on the floor. These little clues help establish the pace, and they’re a key feature in urban legends.
- The unnatural character. Who can say they’ve never heard of the horrible hitchhiker (sometimes portrayed with a hook, to ramp up the fear-factor)? Or the ghost in the mirror? Or, of course, the man under the bed? These frightening, unnatural characters may be psychopaths or creatures from another planet, but they all have one thing in common – they present a major threat, and they’re out there right now. Remember that. It’s a key part of an urban legend… it could happen to anyone.
- It was all true (of course). For an urban legend to work well, it needs to be believable. Make it too ‘way out there’ and you’ll lose your target audience. A good urban legend takes horror and brings it to ground-level, creating a story that sounds alarmingly plausible.
Urban Legends of Devon
As you know, I’m not only a sucker for urban legends, I also love stories from my local area. Devon is rife with spookiness (it’s a supernatural writer’s dream), and there are sinister legends aplenty in the region. Here are a few of my favourites.
- The Hairy Hands of Dartmoor. I know, I’ve written about this one before, but it remains one of the all-time greats. According to legend, if you travel down the road leading to Princetown (on Dartmoor), you run the risk of having your car sabotaged, by a pair of hairy, ultra-strong hands. Yes, you read that right – there are no arms attached, only the hands! Even more eerie, one caravanning couple stayed the night by the side of the road, and woke up to see a hairy hand, scaling the window. Thankfully, the woman managed to shut the window in time… yikes!
- Torquay’s mummy rises. This is a relatively recent one, believe it or not. A group of ghost hunters were exploring Torquay Museum by night, when someone noticed a set of handprints on the Egyptian mummy’s glass box. Not so bad, you might think… until you hear that the handprints were on the inside. The case hadn’t been opened for seven years, and is so heavy, it takes several men to open it. Explain that one, folks!
- The Black Shuck. Ah, how I LOVE the story of the black shuck - it turns up with surprising frequency in my writing. According to legend, this hell hound prowls around Dartmoor, and has glowing red eyes, not to mention a terrifying howl. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was so inspired by the shuck, he based his famous book, The Hound of the Baskervilles, on it. However, the devilish ghost dog isn’t just a thing of the past. He’s been spotted as recently as 2009, by some schoolkids, who helpfully took a photo. The image showed a large creature with thick, shaggy fur and powerful legs. Was it the famous shuck? Who knows, eh?