Urban Legends and campfire tales are always fun, but did you know that some of our favorite twisted tales actually have real-life counterparts? The original incidents may have had twists and embellishments added, but nonetheless, events matching the general description of various urban legends have indeed happened.
If you’ve ever been creeped out by a scary modern folktale, you might have reassured yourself that it’s completely made up. That’s not always the case. Here are ten famous urban legends and the true stories behind them.
10 Flashing Headlight Initiation
You’ve all probably heard this one before. It’s late at night, and a driver notices a car approaching from the opposite direction without its headlights on, so he flashes his lights to alert the other car. As he passes, the dark car makes a U-turn and begins following the Good Samaritan, and as soon as he stops, gang members exit and gun the driver down as a part of some twisted initiation.
This story has found its way not only across the Internet but into the local news as well, being issued as a warning from various news outlets and sheriff’s departments. So where did this account find its roots? Although not gang-related, someone did die after a car was signaled to put its lights on. In 1992 in Stockton, California, a school district employee by the name of Kelly Freed was shot after the driver of the car in which she was traveling, Will Fitts, gestured to a car next to them that did not have its lights on.
The occupants of the second car, 16-year-old Adrian Gutierrez and 15-year-old Carlos Ojeda, took the gesture as an insult, so Gutierrez shot at Fitts’s car. They chased Fitts and his passengers into the parking lot of a department store. Gutierrez then fired off another shot from the window of his car. As it happened, that shot hit Freed, piercing her lung and heart.
Some say this is where the story originated, while others say the tale was around long before that, but either way, the incident became a catalyst for the fire, and over the years, the urban legend has grown in both detail and scope.
9 Death By Wedgie
How many times have we heard this? “I heard about this guy who gave a dude an atomic wedgie so severe that it killed the kid!” According to legend, the underwear was pulled up so high and tight that it caused severe trauma to the rectum, which somehow lead to death. The true story, however, is a bit more interesting and makes a little more sense.
In 2013, Oklahoman Brad Lee Davis got into an argument with his stepfather, Denver St. Clair. As the argument grew more heated, Davis decided to handle things the old-fashioned way, by yanking his stepdad’s underwear up and then pulling it over his head. This move was the mythical atomic wedgie, not to be confused with a standard wedgie. As it happened, the elastic band of the underwear wrapped around Denver’s throat, cutting off his airway, and he suffocated.
In 2015, Davis pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the incident.
8 Tainted Halloween Candy
Halloween is a special night. It’s a night that allows our children a certain amount of freedom as we send them out the door, dressed in their scariest best, to torment the neighbors and gather goodies. Over the years, tales of tainted candy have emerged. Among the most famous is that of a child-hating miser who decides he’s had enough of the irritating little brats, so he pulls out a pack of straight razors and, one by one, inserts them into a group of apples. When the children knock on his door later that evening, he delivers them the tainted fruit. Later that night, as the kids bite into their spoils, they are stunned to find the surprise center. Some get off easy and simply chip a tooth, but others aren’t so fortunate, and the razors render them speechless, literally.
There are multiple stories circulating of objects embedded in Halloween treats, most of which turn out to be little more than pranks played by the children themselves, but the one thought to have started the tainted candy craze took place in Texas back in 1974, when a man named Ronald O’Bryan handed out Pixy Stix laced with cyanide to five children, one of whom was his own eight-year-old son. His motive? It would seem that O’Bryan had just taken out a life insurance policy on his kids.
Luckily, the poison was discovered before most of the children were harmed, but unfortunately, O’Bryan’s son died from ingesting it.
O’Bryan was sentenced to death (it was Texas after all) and was executed by lethal injection. The effects of his actions, however, were felt across the United States, planting thoughts into the minds of parents everywhere.
7 Cooked To Death In The Tanning Bed
No woman wants to look bad for a wedding, but sometimes, time slips past us. So, what is a woman to do when she needs to get tanned in a matter of three days, but the tanning salons have limits on how long she can stay in the bed? She goes around to as many salons as she can find, of course. In this story, a young lady facing a pasty complexion at a formal event hits up every tanning salon in town within a 36-hour period so that she can look her best on the big day, and it works! She attends the wedding browned and beautiful.
The next day, she wakes up not feeling so great, and she notices an odd, almost burned smell, so she decides to go see her doctor. After running a few tests, the doctor drops a bomb on her. All those visits to the tanning bed in such a short amount of time have cooked her internal organs. The girl now has less than a week before her body will shut down, and she will die.
The first thing we need to point out is that tanning beds don’t work this way. Tanning beds use UV light, and the story is more akin to microwaves, but that doesn’t mean tanning beds can’t be lethal. Tanning beds deliver two to 12 times the amount of UV radiation that one would get standing in the midday sun.
On May 24, 1989, Indiana native Patsy Campbell passed away due to burns inflicted after spending 25 minutes in a tanning bed 11 days earlier. It was, more or less, an accident, as Campbell was taking a drug to help treat psoriasis that made her more sensitive to light. Two days after her tanning session, she began to break out in blisters. The UV rays, combined with the medication, caused her to suffer burns on over 70 percent of her body. It was the first documented case of a fatality due to a tanning booth.
Others have suffered as well. In 2007, a woman in Australia, Clare Oliver, succumbed to the effects of melanoma, which she claimed was a direct result of over-tanning.
6 They Stole My Kidney
A man is away on a business trip. His meeting has gone well, and he has headed back to his hotel, where he decides to unwind with a few drinks down at the bar. While he is there, he meets a mysterious woman. They get to talking end eventually head back to the man’s room for a different kind of a nightcap. Things seem to be going great until the man blacks out. The next thing he knows, he is waking up in a bathtub filled with ice. He then notices a sharp pain in his back. He reaches around and feels a long scar. Finally, he manages to pull himself out and call 911. Paramedics arrive and discover someone has removed the man’s kidney.
It’s a sensational story of organ harvesting and the black market sales of body parts, but it isn’t completely without merit. The story itself has been circulating since the early 1990s, and many people attribute part of its origins to a Turkish man named Ahmet Koc, who, in 1989, claimed he had traveled to London for a job. Once there, he said he went for a medical check and was given what he believed to be an injection for a blood test but turned out to be a sedative. He woke up the next morning with a kidney missing. He was told not to worry and that he would be compensated for the missing organ.
As it turns out, Ahmet’s story was a little misleading. The truth was that he had agreed to sell the kidney but felt he was paid unfairly, so he concocted the “stolen organ” tale to get back at the doctors who had performed the surgery. At least three doctors were found guilty of medical misconduct, and Koc was left feeling a bit empty in more ways than one.
5 ‘Humans Can Lick, Too’
An absolutely unforgettable creepy campfire story is that of a dog that would lie at the side of the bed, and every time the girl sleeping there would hear a noise, she would reach her hand over to the canine. The dog would lick it, and, reassured that she was safe, the girl would drift back to sleep. When she woke up the next morning, she found the dog dead. Written on her mirror were the words, “Humans can lick, too.”
The true version of this story doesn’t involve a dog, but there is still an eerie similarity. In July 2014, a teenager in Ellesmere Port, England, began receiving texts from a young man, who said he was watching her. The texts began to grow more intense, and the man, who was eventually identified as Kyle Ravenscroft, even went so far as to tell her that he was in her house and that he was going to hang himself in the tree outside her window so that when she woke up the following morning, she would see his body swinging there.
Understandably shaken, the teen slept in her mother’s room that night. When they entered her room the next morning, they did not find a body in the tree. They did, however, find Ravenscroft hiding beneath the bed, where he had apparently slept all night. He was chased out of the house and eventually caught by local authorities.
4 Someone Is Living In The Attic
How about the story of a family who comes home from a trip to find that things in their home seem to be out of place. They write it off, but over the next few weeks, they start to notice other weird things—odd noises in the night, food that seems to go missing, and doors or windows left open. Then, one day, one of them goes into the attic to get something, and they discover a makeshift bed, a pile of rotting leftovers, and the remnants of a squatter. They call the authorities, but the unwanted guest is never found.
In 1922, in the small farming community of Hinterkaifeck, Germany, the Gruber family found themselves in this exact situation. It started when Andreas Gruber told a group of friends about a set of suspicious footprints in the snow. He said they came out of the forest and led up to the farmhouse, but there were no footprints leading away. Over the next few days, he noticed little things, odd objects around that he didn’t recognize, strange sounds in the attic at night, and even a set of keys that went missing.
Andreas never reported the suspicious activities to the police, which turned out to be a mistake. On March 31, Andreas, his wife Cazilia, their daughter Viktoria, and Viktoria’s daughter were lured into the barn one by one and murdered. The killer then made his way into the house and killed Viktoria’s son and the family maid. When the family was eventually reported missing, and authorities went to investigate, they found that the killer had continued living in the house for days before fleeing. He was never captured.
3 He’s In Your Back Seat
A woman pulls into a gas station and fills her tank up. She goes in and pays for her purchase and then walks back out, climbs into her car, and drives off. She hasn’t gone far when she sees another car quickly approaching from behind, its lights flashing frantically and the horn blasting. At first, she’s frightened, but as the car gets closer, it becomes apparent that the driver seems concerned, so she pulls over. The driver of the second car rushes over to her window and tells her he was trying to get her attention because he noticed something was wrong with her rear wheel. She gets out to look, and as they reach the back of the car, he tells her the faulty rear wheel was just a ruse and that the truth is that he saw someone climb into the back seat of her car while she was inside the gas station. Sure enough, there is a man ducked down in the floorboards. His intention was to kidnap or even kill the driver.
The true story is almost as frightening. On February 28, 2017, a woman from Kansas City, Missouri, called the police, saying she’d just escaped from a man who had kidnapped her. According to the report, the woman had been sitting in her own home when a strange girl burst through the front door, said the word “Megan,” and then turned around and left. The woman was shaken and completely confused. She went to the front office of the community where she lived and reported the odd occurrence. She then left with the intention of stopping by a nearby gas station, but almost immediately, she realized there was someone hiding in the back seat of her car. It was a man dressed in all black and wearing a ski mask.
She said the man claimed to have a gun, and, pressing something against the back of her head, he told her to drive and began giving her directions, eventually leading her to a remote location. While she drove, he wrapped cable around her hands. Once they arrived in front of a gate, he wrapped more cable around her neck and began assaulting her, beating the back of her head and cutting her arms and hands. Eventually, the man climbed out of the back seat and started toward her door. She threw the car into drive and took off, making it to a gas station, where she called the police. The man was never caught.
2 Body In The Bed
In this tale, a couple driving across the country decides to stop for the night in a small roadside motel. When they enter their room, they notice a rotten, musty smell. They investigate but find nothing. Trying to pass it off, they climb into bed, but the smell just seems to be getting stronger. Finally, they get up and push back the mattress of the bed. To their horror, they discover a corpse decaying in the bed frame.
You can’t get more on the nose than this one. In 2010, a woman by the name of Sony Millbrook was reported missing after relatives noticed she hadn’t picked up her kids from school. Millbrook, her children, and her boyfriend had been renting a room at the Budget Lodge in Memphis, Tennessee.
After several days without any word, staff members at the motel entered her room, boxed up her belongings, and claimed to clean the room. Police questioned the motel employees but didn’t take the investigation any further.
A couple of days later, the room was rented out. Over the next few weeks, it would be rented out three times. Occupants noticed an odd smell. A few even tried burning incense, and the staff attempted to cover the smell with fabric softener sheets shoved in ceiling tiles, but no one ever managed to put two and two together.
The body was finally discovered on March 15 under the mattress and box springs. Millbrook’s boyfriend, LaKeith Moody, who had also been missing, was eventually found driving Millbrook’s car. He was arrested, and the Memphis Police Department launched an internal investigation to see if any mistakes were made in handling of the case.
It makes one wonder if any of the families who stayed in the room were given a voucher for a free night.
1 Santa’s Stuck In The Chimney
The Christmas season is in full bloom, and a man decides he wants to surprise his family. He goes into town and rents a Santa costume. Then, on Christmas Eve night, he climbs up on the roof, makes his way to the chimney, and begins his decent. He wants to make a grand entrance, bursting through the opened fireplace and belting out “Ho Ho Ho,” but halfway down, he slips and becomes lodged. Stuck, and without anyone knowing his plan, the man remains there, his muffled cries going unheard. Days pass. The family reports their father missing, but little can be done. Then, one cold night, the mother goes to start a fire. She notices an odd odor, and the flue seems to be stuck. Upon further investigation, she finds her husband’s body still trapped inside.
This story was so popular it even managed to make its way into the 1984 movie Gremlins, and while there aren’t any known reports of a Santa stuck in a chimney, it doesn’t mean this one is completely without merit.
In 1986, a burglar got trapped while trying to enter a home down the chimney. Neighbors reported hearing someone yelling for help, but no one could figure out where it was coming from. Days passed, and workers in the area began to hear a tapping sound, but much like the yelling two days prior, they were unable to track down the origin of the sound. It wasn’t until the homeowner noticed a rotten smell four days later that the body was discovered.
Then, in 2015, a similar case was reported after a burglar in California managed to get himself stuck in a chimney while attempting to break into a home. Unaware of the would-be intruder, the homeowner started a fire. The thief began to scream, and the house filled with smoke. The homeowner called 911, and when the authorities arrived, the intruder appeared to still be alive. However, by the time they finally dismantled the chimney enough to remove him, he had succumbed to smoke inhalation.
These are just a few examples of the true stories behind some of our favorite urban legends, but there are plenty more out there. So the next time you’re sitting around with a group of friends, and someone begins telling a creepy story, just remember, there is a seed of truth in every myth.
I have been writing since the ripe old age of ten and was first published at 16. I also write, produce, and host a podcast called Real Strange that looks at weird tales that have taken place throughout history.