Origins in True Crime: 10 Urban Legends Exposed

Crime is the foundation of many stories, whether they are presented in novels, TV shows, games, or podcasts. However, there are certain crimes that have become the basis for campfire stories and internet urban legends. Here are ten urban legends that likely originated from true crimes.

10 The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs

A young teenager is alone in a house that is not her own. The kids have been put to bed, and she is downstairs watching a movie, contemplating calling her boyfriend to come over. Suddenly, the phone rings. She answers, thinking that it might be her boyfriend, only to hear heavy breathing on the other end. An unfamiliar voice asks, “Have you checked on the children?”

The babysitter and the man upstairs is a classic urban legend that has become a staple trope in the horror genre. However, 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. The police believed that Christman had tried to call them on the night of her death. They found that the phone had been placed improperly back on the receiver. The baby was unharmed.

Similarities can be 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. These cases likely contributed to the urban legend.[1]

9 The Man in the White Van

Chances are, you have heard about the white van mentioned at least once when discussing stranger danger. It is a well-known urban legend that men who kidnap children offer them candy to lure them into white vans.

From 1970 to 1973, there was a 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. In fact, officials at a local elementary school asked him to stop because children were crossing the street to see him. Corll also drove a white van, and two of his victims were last seen climbing into that van before disappearing.[2]

8 Tainted Candy

Let’s talk about Ronald Clark O’Bryan, also known as the Candy Man. On Halloween in 1974, O’Bryan’s eight-year-old son, Timothy, complained of stomach pain after eating a powdered candy stick. Unfortunately, he died on his way to the hospital.

Unbeknownst to the community, O’Bryan had been facing financial difficulties and had planned to collect the life insurance policies of his children. He gave his children Pixy Stix laced with cyanide, claiming they were from a neighbor. The coroner confirmed cyanide poisoning as the cause of death. O’Bryan’s crime forever tainted Halloween and instilled fear in parents worldwide.[3]

7 The Hook Man

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

In 1946, a couple was forced out of their car at gunpoint while parked on a secluded road. Their masked assailant beat and assaulted them but fled when he saw approaching headlights. Unfortunately, others lost their lives to this same attacker, known as the Texarkana Phantom Killer. The killer was never identified, allowing the legend of the Hook Man to live on.[4]

6 The Killer Behind the Medicine Cabinet

This urban legend gained popularity in the ’90s through the movie Candyman. In the film, the main character demonstrates that there is no wall behind her medicine cabinet and that you can see through to the neighboring apartment. There is a murder attributed to a man crawling through a medicine cabinet in the film.

In 1987, a woman named Ruthie Mae McCoy was murdered in her Chicago apartment by a man who crawled through her medicine cabinet. She called the police, but they did not enter her apartment until days after her death. The residents of the building were not surprised, as using medicine cabinets to break into apartments was a known method in the area.[5]

5 The Sack Man

El Hombre del Saco is Spain’s boogeyman, often depicted as an old man who carries a large sack to put misbehaving children in. Many cultures depict their boogeyman figures as a man with a sack, but 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. The crime was traced back to a barber named Francisco Leona, who admitted kidnapping the boy by stuffing him in a sack. The murder was committed with the goal of harvesting the boy’s blood and organs as a cure for tuberculosis.[6]

4 The Body in the Hotel Mattress

This urban legend has been reported multiple times, with the body either being found inside the mattress or underneath the bed. The earliest record is from 1999, and the most recent report was in 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 slept above the body all night due to exhaustion and the inability to find the source of a foul smell. In 2019, a woman named San Juana Marcias was found inside the bed frame of an Austin hotel. These instances perpetuated the legend.[7]

3 The Hermit

Vacation home owners in North Pond experienced a strange problem for twenty-seven years. Items were constantly stolen from their cabins, but nothing of value was taken. Basic supplies like food and blankets would go missing. The only incident that stood out was when all the batteries in a house were taken.

Enter Christopher Thomas Knight, a man who lived in isolation for twenty-seven years. He entered the woods at the age of twenty and had no human contact until his arrest in 2013. Knight confirmed that he was responsible for the burglaries, which occurred around 40 times per year.[8]

2 Slavemaster

In the ’90s to the early 2000s, receiving a chain letter became a fear for many people. One chain letter warned women not to engage with an internet user called “Slavemaster” because he had allegedly killed fifty-six women. In 2000, a man named John Robinson was arrested after authorities found the bodies of four women on his property. Robinson used the username Slavemaster on BDSM forums to find victims.[9]

1 The Blue Whale Challenge

The Blue Whale Challenge, allegedly started in Russia, was a game that encouraged players to complete fifty tasks over fifty days, with the final task being suicide. The challenge gained attention after a Russian teenager posted a selfie before taking her own life. Philipp Budeikin claimed responsibility for creating the challenge, but whether he was the actual creator remains uncertain. Budeikin was arrested for encouraging teenagers to commit suicide.[10]


Written by Lynn O'Brien

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