Urban legends—those unsubstantiated stories of terror that allow us to use our imaginations to fill in increasingly horrifying details with each retelling—have been with us forever. While the internet has made the dissemination of them easier, humans have been goading one another with spooky anecdotes for centuries. Psychologists believe we respond to these tales because we have a morbid fascination with the disgusting; we also can’t help but enjoy gossip. Put those two things together and it makes for an irresistible mix.
Urban legends often come with a dose of skepticism. (No, a killer with a hook hand has never terrorized necking couples.) But sometimes, these stories turn out to be true. Have a look—preferably under the covers and with a flashlight—at these 11 terrifying tales that actually happened.
1. Rats in the toilet bowl
You stagger into the bathroom at 3 a.m. to relieve yourself. Groggy with sleep, you lift the lid and position yourself over the toilet. You hear splashing. Turning on the light, you see a rat looking back at you from the bowl. You’re never the same again.
Urban legends about animals in sewers have been a staple of scary stories, particularly the one about baby alligators being flushed down toilets and then growing to adult size in waste channels. These are most often told about New York. (Not true. While alligators and crocodiles have been found in New York, they’re generally released and found above ground, and it’s thought that New York is too cold for them to survive for very long.) But finding a rodent in your toilet, inches from very vulnerable areas of your body, is a particular kind of domestic terror—and one that happens to be possible.
Drain plumbing for toilets is typically three inches in diameter or more, plenty of space for a rat to climb up. The animals are attracted to sewage lines due to undigested food in feces and can travel through pipes before emerging through an opening and into your bathroom. And yes, rats can be somewhat testy when they complete their journey. One aquatic rodent bit the rump of a female victim in Petersburg, Virginia, in 1999. In Seattle, the issue is common enough that public officials have given advice on what to do in case you encounter one (close the lid and flush).
For years, kids living in and around Staten Island raised goosebumps by relating the tale of “Cropsey,” a boogeyman who lived in the woods and made a nocturnal habit of disemboweling children. Parents no doubt eased their kids’ fears by telling them no such monster existed.
But he did. In 1987, Andre Rand was put on trial and convicted for a child abduction. Rand, it turned out, may have been connected to a rash of child disappearances in the 1970s. He had once worked at Willowbrook, a defunct mental institution. While he denies involvement in other cases, it’s clear Rand’s activities had a heavy influence in the word-of-mouth stories that followed.
3. The leaping lawyer
Sooner or later, Toronto residents hear the tale of a lawyer who had a peculiar fondness for running full-bore into his office windows to demonstrate how strong they were. This practice caught up with him eventually, as he crashed into a window and went sailing to his death. This hobby was actually practiced by Garry Hoy, a senior partner in an area law firm with an office on the 24th floor. On July 9, 1993, Hoy made his signature tackle against the window to impress some visiting law students. The pane finally broke and sent him plummeting to his death. In a eulogy, managing partner Peter Lauwers called Hoy “one of the best and brightest” at the firm.
4. The body under the bed
Vacationing couples. Newlyweds. Disneyland guests. All have been the subject of an urban legend involving hotel occupants who fall blissfully to sleep, only to wake up to an awful stench coming from either under the bed or inside the mattress. Closer inspection reveals that a dead body has been stashed away. Presumably, not anyone who has died of natural causes.
This traveling tale has been confirmed multiple times over. At least a dozen newspaper stories have detailed hotel rooms that have doubled as body disposal sites. While the smell is usually apparent right away, at least one couple slept on a mattress containing a body in Atlantic City in 1999. Cases in Colorado, Florida, and Virginia have also been reported.
In 2010, guests at a Budget Lodge in Memphis were horrified to discover they had been sleeping above the body of Sony Millbrook, a missing person. Fabric softener had been stuffed in the ceiling tiles to try and mask the smell. At least three other occupants had also rented the room since Millbrook’s disappearance. A court eventually convicted Millbrook’s boyfriend, LaKeith Moody, of the crime.
5. The Maine Hermit
For decades, people who vacationed in central Maine’s North Pond area were puzzled by items that would go missing. Batteries and food from cabins, flashlights from camping tents. Rumors spread that a permanent fixture of the area would forage for sustenance and supplies.
They were right. For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived alone in the woods, keeping tabs on the hikers, canoeists, and other temporary residents of the grounds. When he was confronted by a game warden in 2013, Knight admitted he was responsible for an average of around 40 robberies a year. Despite the likely protestations of family and friends who dismissed tales of a hermit lurking somewhere in the woods, his identification proved that someone had been watching—and waiting—for nearly three decades.
Released in 1992 (and reimagined in 2021), Candyman —based on a short story by Clive Barker—remains a potent horror tale of the revenge undertaken by a Black artist (Tony Todd) murdered in the 1890s for having a relationship with a white woman. While it’s not likely you’ll be able to invoke him by saying his name several times in a mirror, the pants-soiling idea of having a killer burst through a medicine cabinet is actually based in fact.
In 1987 the Chicago Reader published a story about Ruth McCoy, a woman living in a Chicago housing project, who made a frantic call to 911 insisting she was being attacked in her apartment. Responders eventually found her dead of gunshot wounds. Investigators determined that her assailants had gained access to her unit by breaking through the connecting wall in the adjoining apartment and climbing in through her medicine cabinet. The complex was built that way intentionally, so that plumbers investigating leaks could simply remove the cabinet to check the pipes. It became a frequent mode of entry for burglars—and in McCoy’s case, her killers.
7. The fake cop trick
You may have had an overly concerned parent or friend warn you of people impersonating police officers, using that veneer of authority to attack victims who have let their guard down. While there aren’t many who are in full patrol uniform or traveling in marked vehicles, there have been many documented cases of assailants posing as law enforcement. In Bloomington, Illinois, a man used flashing lights to get a vehicle to pull over. After walking up to the vehicle, the man tried—unsuccessfully—to overpower the driver before they managed to get away. In Fayetteville, Georgia, a man donned a uniform and pulled over a teenage boy on a bike, forcing him to empty his pockets. Talking to (real) police later, the boy told them a second car had pulled up with a man matching the description of someone who had been caught impersonating an officer two weeks prior.
8. The legend of the bunny man
If you lived in or around Virginia in the 1970s, you were probably exposed to the story of the Bunny Man. In the tale, an escaped mental patient takes to gutting bunnies and hanging them from a bridge underpass. Later, the man is said to have graduated to gutting and hanging teens in a similar manner. Locals were cautioned to never be caught near the underpass, which is now known to most people as “Bunny Man Bridge,” on Halloween night.
This story likely spawned from the very real presence of a roving madman in the area. In October 1970, a couple reported seeing a man dressed in a white suit and wearing bunny ears who began yelling at them that they were on private property. To punctuate his point, he threw a hatchet at their windscreen, apparently shattering it. There was a second sighting of Bunny Man two weeks later, when a security guard spotted a hatchet-wielding man chipping away at a porch railing. Police tried, unsuccessfully, to locate the man. While he didn’t disembowel anyone, the thought of an adult wielding both a hatchet and a pair of rabbit ears somehow manages to be just as disturbing.
9. The legend of Polybius
Vintage video gamers have long traded stories about a coin-operated arcade game circa early 1980s Portland that had strange effects on its players. The game, titled Polybius, was alleged to have prompted feelings of disorientation, amnesia, game addiction, and even suicide. The machine’s cabinet was said to be painted entirely black, and it was rumored that stern-looking men would sometimes visit arcades to collect information from the machine before disappearing. Was it a CIA experiment spun off from MK Ultra, the psychoactive drug study conducted on unsuspecting subjects?
10. Charlie No-Face
Imagine finding yourself outside and alone in the dark on a residential street. You hear footsteps approaching. Suddenly, a man with a misshapen face appears. You run, terrified beyond words. You spread the story of the man with no face throughout Pennsylvania.
“Charlie No-Face” (also called the Green Man) was actually a man named Ray Robinson, and he was no figment of anyone’s imagination. Born in 1910, Robinson was disfigured as the result of an electrical accident at the age of 8. He touched active wires, which effectively maimed him. Knowing his appearance could be disconcerting, Robinson took to taking strolls after dark. He often walked a path along Route 351 in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. While his intentions were honorable, encountering Robinson in the dead of night inevitably led to spreading stories about a boogeyman haunting the town. Robinson died in 1985.
11. The all-too-real corpse decoration
Notorious outlaw Elmer McCurdy took on a second life following his death. In 1911, the embalmed corpse of McCurdy became a grim sideshow attraction throughout Texas, with people eager to see the famed criminal on display in funeral parlors and carnivals. Though it’s hard to document all of his travels, he eventually wound up in Long Beach, California, where someone apparently mistook him for a prop. McCurdy was hung in a funhouse at the Nu-Pike Amusement Park, his humanity discovered only after a crew member on The Six Million-Dollar Man—which was filming there in 1976—tried to adjust him, dislodging his very real arm. The following year, his corpse was put to proper rest.
This article was originally published in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.