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10 Urban Legends with Origins in True Crime

by Lynn O'Brien
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

Crime is the basis for many stories, whether they be presented in novels, TV shows, games, or podcasts. However, there are some crimes that have gone down in history as the basis for campfire stories and internet urban legends. These are ten urban legends that had likely origins from true crimes.

Related: Top 10 Freaky Urban Legends Hidden In Songs

10 The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs

Unsolved: Murder of Janett Christman

A young teenager is alone in a house that isn’t her own. The kids have been put to bed, and she’s downstairs watching a movie, debating calling her boyfriend to come over. Suddenly, the phone rings. She picks it up, thinking that her boyfriend must have had the same idea, only to be greeted by the sound of heavy breathing on the other end. “Have you checked on the children?” an unfamiliar voice asks.

The babysitter and the man upstairs is a classic urban legend and is prevalent enough in popular culture that it’s become a staple trope in the horror genre. However, the origins of this legend can be traced back to a crime that occurred in 1950 in Colombia, Missouri. A 13-year-old girl named Janett Christman was raped and strangled while babysitting. Police reported that they believed that Christman had tried to call them around 11 pm on the night of her death. Upon entering the house, they found that the phone had been placed improperly back on the receiver. The baby was not harmed in the incident.

Parallels have been drawn to another case that happened in Missouri in 1946 when a 20-year-old woman named Mary Lou Jenkins was strangled with a phone cord while home alone studying. The similarities between the two cases likely helped to solidify the urban legend.[1]

9 The Man in the White Van

THE CANDY MAN – Dean Corll | SERIAL KILLER FILES #34

Chances are, you heard a white van mentioned at least once when getting the stranger danger talk as a child. It’s a well-worn urban legend that men who kidnap children offer them candy to lure them into white vans.

From 1970 to 1973, there was an active serial killer and child predator in Texas named Dean Corll. Corll worked at his mother’s candy company and was known to offer candy to children. He did this so often that he was actually asked by officials at the local elementary school to stop because the children were crossing the busy street when they saw him because they knew he had candy.

Corll also was known to drive a white van, and at least two of his twenty eight victims were last seen climbing into said van before they vanished.[2]


8 Tainted Candy

The Pixy Stix Killer: The Man Who Killed Halloween

Transitioning from Corll, let’s talk about the other Candy Man, Ronald Clark O’Bryan. On Halloween in 1974, eight-year-old Timothy O’Bryan complained of stomach pain after eating a powdered candy stick. Unfortunately, he passed away on his way to the hospital.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the community, Ronald Clark O’Bryan, Timothy’s father, had been having some difficulty holding down a job and had accrued a formidable debt. In order to settle his money issues, O’Bryan gave his children Pixy Stix laced with cyanide, claiming that they were from a neighbor, planning to cash in on their life insurance policies after their deaths.

The coroner confirmed the cause of death as cyanide poisoning, stating that the boy smelled strongly of almonds and that upon testing, there was enough cyanide in his body to kill three grown men. The poison was eventually traced to the father when reports came in that he had been asking about where he could buy cyanide.

To this day, there has never been a report of a child passing away from poisoned candy received from a stranger, but O’Bryan’s crime forever tainted Halloween and gave parents all over the country a new fear.[3]

7 The Hook Man

The Horrifying Texarkana Phantom Killer

The Hook Man is a classic urban legend. A couple parks on a lover’s lane and hears a news report over the radio that a man with a hook for a hand has escaped from the local asylum. The couple hears a thump outside the car, and unnerved, they decide to leave. Upon returning home, they find a hook embedded in their car door.

There have been several serial killers who targeted couples over the decades, but before the Zodiacs and the Son of Sams of the world, there were the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. In 1946, a couple was forced out of their car at gunpoint while parked on a secluded road. Their masked assailant then beat and assaulted them, but thankfully, he was unable to kill the couple because their attacker saw approaching headlights and fled.

Unfortunately, others were unlucky enough to lose their lives to this same attacker. A total of two women and three men were killed by the Texarkana Phantom Killer, who then disappeared and was never identified. To this day, the killer has yet to be identified, allowing the Texarkana Moonlight Murders to become a legend.

The Hook Man urban legend can be traced back to the late 1950s, a decade and some change following the Phantom Killer’s reign of terror. These crimes likely helped originate the story of a man who stalks couples who park on lover’s lanes, with the hook adding a bit of extra creepiness.[4]


6 The Killer Behind the Medicine Cabinet

The Murder of Ruth McCoy – True Crime

This particular urban legend was popularized in the ’90s by the movie Candy Man. In the film, the main character demonstrates how there is not a wall behind her medicine cabinet, and by taking the backing off, you can see through to the apartment next door. There’s also a past murder in the film attributed to a man crawling through a medicine cabinet.

In 1987, a woman named Ruthie Mae McCoy was murdered in her Chicago apartment by a man who crawled through her medicine cabinet. McCoy called the police, saying that a man was trying to enter her apartment through her bathroom cabinet. She was later found shot multiple times. The police were later criticized for their lack of action, as they knocked on her door but did not enter the apartment until days after her death.

The residents of the building were reportedly not at all surprised due to the high crime rate in the area. Some of them reported that many people knew about the lack of walls between the medicine cabinets, and they had been used as a method of breaking into apartments for at least a year prior to McCoy’s murder.[5]

5 The Sack Man

The Crime of Gador

El Hombre del Saco is Spain’s boogeyman, often depicted as an old man who carries a large sack that he puts misbehaving children in. Many cultures depict their boogeyman figures as a man with a sack; however, El Hombre del Saco is the only version that can be traced back to a murder.

The Crime of Gador is a famous murder case in Spain from 1910. The body of a young boy was found dead by the side of a road with head and abdominal injuries. The crime was traced back to a barber named Francisco Leona, who admitted kidnapping the boy by stuffing him in a sack. He then took him to an uninhabited farm, where the murder took place. The goal of the murder was to harvest the boy’s blood and organs as a cure for tuberculosis, which Leona had been paid the equivalent of around $18,000 (today) to carry out.[6]


4 The Body in the Hotel Mattress

Family remembers woman whose body was found in an Austin motel room | KVUE

This is one of the few legends where there have been several instances of it happening, whether the body actually was in the mattress or simply resting underneath the bed. The earliest report I came across was made in 1999, and the latest report was made as recently as 2019.

In 1999, the body of Saul Hernandez was found under a bed at the Burgundy Motor Inn in Atlantic City. Two German tourists had stayed the night in the room and actually slept above the body all night due to exhaustion and the inability to find the source of the foul smell. The next day, housekeeping was called to locate the source of the odor and discovered the body.

The most recent report concerned a woman named San Juana Marcias, who was found inside the bed frame of an Austin hotel. The body wasn’t discovered until several days after her death. The murder was eventually traced to Marcias’s boyfriend, Jamie Wingwood, who was tracked to Louisiana and led the police on an hour-long chase, ending in Wingwood crashing his car.[7]

3 The Hermit

The Last True Hermit Survived Alone for 27 Years

Vacation home owners in North Pond were having a problem and a very strange one at that. For twenty-seven years, there were consistent reports of items being stolen from the cabins.

That was where the strange part of the problem came into play. Nothing of value was ever taken from the cabins. What was missing was basic supplies: food, blankets, and things of that nature. There was one particularly odd incident where the only thing that was taken was every single battery in the house.

Thus the legend of the North Pond Hermit was born. It was undeniable that someone was stealing from their cabins, but it had been 27 years, and nobody had seen the perpetrator.

Enter Christopher Thomas Knight, a man who had lived in isolation for twenty-seven years. He had entered the woods at the age of twenty and had contentedly stayed there with no human contact until his arrest in 2013. Knight was sentenced to seven months in jail for the burglaries, which he confirmed numbered around 40 per year.[8]


2 Slavemaster

John Robinson : The Internet Slave Master

From the ’90s to the early 2000s, the childhood apprehension of receiving a chain letter became a very adult fear. A message appeared in the inboxes of many women across America, urging them not to engage with an internet user going by the name “Slavemaster.” Slavemaster had allegedly killed fifty-six women, and the email ended by telling the reader to send it to their friends to keep them safe.

In 2000, a man by the name of John Robinson was arrested after authorities found the bodies of four women on his property. Robinson reportedly prowled BDSM forums in search of victims, going by the username Slavemaster.

Snowballing, as most legends do, the slavemaster chain letter continued to pop up in inboxes even after Robinson’s arrest.[9]

1 The Blue Whale Challenge

Blue Whale Challenge could have deadly consequences for your kids

The Momo Challenge made headlines in 2019 as a dangerous internet challenge that encouraged children to harm themselves. However, before Momo, there was the Blue Whale Challenge.

The Blue Whale Challenge was allegedly started in Russia. It was said to be a game in which the players were given fifty tasks to complete over fifty days, and the final task was to end their lives. The story was first started after the death of a Russian teenager in 2015, who posted a selfie with a caption that merely read “Nya, bye” before taking her own life.

As rumors of the challenge grew more prevalent, her death was eventually attributed to her being a player in the challenge by the internet community. Stories of the Blue Whale Challenge spread to parts of Asia as well. The challenge spread further to Europe and the United States, with some reports of teens dying after participating in the game.

In 2016, Philipp Budeikin was arrested for encouraging teenagers to commit suicide. Budeikin claimed that he was the mastermind behind the challenge, which he had invented in 2013. He was sentenced to three years in prison in 2017.

Whether or not Budeikin was the creator of the challenge can’t be confirmed. The only proof is his word, which is shaky at best. However, it was found that he had contact with minors online. While we can’t say that any death was attributed directly to the Blue Whale Challenge, it is very possible that he intended to manipulate those he contacted into harming themselves by presenting himself as the gamemaster.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

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