Urban legends fascinate us as much as they frighten us. The settings are familiar, the situations seem plausible, if you dare to believe.
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Now sit back while Wendy Sparrow tells you a tale.
There is something deliciously illicit about the recounting of an urban legend. Maybe it’s because we know it’s probably not true, but we’re passing it on, selling the lie—and, why? To be titillated? To share a thrill with our listener? Or maybe it’s because our first brush with an urban legend was probably whispered in the dark—at a sleepover or around a campfire.
You never forget your first urban legend.
Oh, sure, the first was followed quickly by the second—the man with a hook for a hand who attacked a couple at make-out point. (I didn’t even understand the significance of their location at that age.) My third was more interactive—a snipe hunt. We went out hunting that mythical bird that was said to have glowing eyes and attack unsuspecting campers. But the first…the first was Bloody Mary.
Now, like many firsts, my introduction to this urban legend was clumsy, but I was excited enough that it’s only in retrospect that I think, “What the hell was that all about?” It occurred at a sleepover and my friend held a flashlight up to her face as she told this mish-mash of a legend:
“You know Henry the VIII?”
*we all nod*
“Well, he kept beheading all his wives because he wanted a son, right?”
“His first wife had a daughter named Mary but her other babies died, and the king wanted a son, so he got rid of her mother. Then, he remarried. When she couldn’t give him a son, he had her beheaded. And he did it again and again. His daughter Mary saw all these women tossed away or beheaded because they weren’t giving the king what he wanted. After the king died and Mary became queen, she didn’t see anything wrong with killing people so she did it too. But she always wore a red ribbon around her neck. She never took it off. She told her maids never to take it off. After Mary died, they finally untied the ribbon to bury her and her head fell off…she’d been beheaded too. Now, if you stand in front of a mirror in a dark room, and say “Bloody Mary” three times, she’ll reach through the mirror and try to steal your head.”
Now, if you have any sort of memory for history, you’re clutching your head right now and not because you’re afraid Mary might steal it. The true story of Henry the VIII’s daughter, nicknamed “Bloody Mary” because of her executions of Protestants, is butchered in this retelling. (Do some Googling if you’d like to know her real story.)
There are many variations on any urban legend. Urban legends are living and growing creations. Our fears breathe them into being and each retelling is reanimating Frankenstein’s monster. Beyond Bloody Mary appearing in the mirror when called, the rest seems open to interpretation and exaggeration.
Nevertheless, I went along with it as a young girl and went into the dark bathroom, lit by only the moonlight outside the window. I came from a very conservative religious upbringing, so to say that consorting with demonic spirits was discouraged was putting it mildly. Yet, there I was, standing in front of a mirror.
The mind is a frightening and wonderful thing. Sometimes you see exactly what you want to see, and, sometimes, it’s what you don’t want to see. Science has a lot of explanations for why seeing apparitions in mirrors isn’t uncommon, but, as you’re standing there, your palms sweating, your breath tight in your chest, science isn’t foremost on your mind. The story doesn’t have to be true for your heart to pound. You close your eyes.
And you open them. Your nails bite into your palms. You swallow. The aura you see…that’s a trick of the light. The haze that hovers…you blink and it’s gone. The other girl beside you shrieks and runs from the bathroom. Later, she’ll show you scratches on her arms. Probably fake. But, as you stand there, staring at the dim image of yourself, you see what draws us to urban legends—what will always be there. You want there to be something, even as you don’t.
Even when young, we realize that the darkness and depth of a human soul provides a way for anything…anything to be possible. Urban legends reflect our need to search out or create tales that might be true, that might explain the unexplainable, but, at the very least, the shivering wonder we feel guarantees that someday we’ll pass along the story in this dark game of telephone.
“There once was a young girl named Mary. Her father was…”
Wendy’s first forays into fiction earned her time-outs, punishment, and “how many times have I told you the Boy Who Cried Wolf story?” But, she persevered. She’s stubborn like that. Now, all her stories have a happily ever after and the lies are sexier and more elaborate. Speaking of sexier, Wendy’s Servants of Fate novella series about Father Time’s sons will be published through Pen and Kink later this year. She’s active in OCD and autism communities and writes on her blog to support awareness in both. If she’s not writing or wrangling kids, she’s on Twitter, where she’ll chat with anyone about anything.