How to Write a Horror Story Based on an Urban Legend
If we wanted to talk about how to write a good horror story, we'd be here all day (and likely all night, too). The truth is that everyone is different. What I might like in a tall tale, you might find cheesy or unbelievable. So what makes that awesome, scary, successful story? Have you thought about urban legends? They're more prevalent in fiction and pop culture than you may think. In order to write any good story, though, there are a few things you need to contemplate.
“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” ― Stephen King
Who are we to argue?
The best writers are the folks who read everything they can get their hands on. They don't do this to try to steal other people's ideas, they do it to stimulate their own imaginations. Anybody who has ever read Where The Wild Things Are and didn't imagine themselves as Max running around in a wolf suit will never be a convincing fiction writer. That's the honest truth of it. To be a novelist, especially in the field of horror, you have to be able to let your mind go to places that your readers could never imagine without your help.
When it comes to urban legends, there are literally thousands to choose from - maybe even millions. Alligators in the sewers, nefarious kidney thieves and even a killer running around in the woods with a hook for a hand have all made appearances in pop culture at some point. The best advice I can give you is to pick a really, REALLY thick book about them and start reading. Do some internet research about urban legends in your area and start investigating. Nearly every small town has a "crybaby" bridge or a Lover's Lane that could be stalked by a homicidal madman. Don't forget cryptids - Sasquatches, The Loch Ness Monster, Skunk Apes and even the Beast of Bladenboro, a vampire like wolf-creature that hangs out in North Carolina, are all food for thought.
Urban Legends and Pop Culture
Think it's been overdone? Sure there isn't room in the literary world for one more tall tale about local legends? Consider this: There are literally hundreds of books and movies about urban legends. Did you see any of the 1980s films in the Gremlins franchise? Did you know that a gremlin was a fictional animal that was made up to jokingly explain mechanical failures during World War II?
The urban legend has fueled many novels, short stories and even movies. In fact, some of the same stories keep getting rewritten and passed off as new ones. Here is a short list of other movies and books based on myths and legends:
- The Ring, a Japanese tale about a VHS tape, a creepy girl and a bunch of dead folks, is a good one. Also in the same vein using malevolent spirits are Dot Com, The Unborn and Dark Water. Add in a homicidal maniac who dies in the gas chamber or under mysterious circumstances and comes back for revenge, and you have Chucky, My Soul To Take and Nightmare on Elm Street, among others.
- I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream, Sorority, When A Stranger Calls, Etc - All of these are hugely popular (if cheesy) films based on several different myths. The babysitter keeps getting creepy calls from a bad guy who may or may not be in the house and a bunch of people keep getting bumped off because they killed someone and thought they didn't leave witnesses - this is the theme that never ends. (It just goes on and on my friends.)
- The Blair Witch Project - When this movie came out, everybody went nuts - until they found out it was staged. Regardless, the tale of the witch of Burkittsville, Maryland was a frightening one, and a legend that is repeated in many locales.
- Pumpkinhead, a 1988 horror flick about a rural community whose old crone can awaken a terrifying monster to take revenge for evil deeds at a terrible price, is based on multiple urban legends about mythical creatures that can be enslaved for nefarious purposes. Sleepy Hollow, anyone?
- House of 1000 Corpses, the amazingly gruesome Rob Zombie flick, is about college kids who end up crossing the paths of homicidal maniacs. Films like this: The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, Wrong Turn, House of Wax and Cabin Fever. Add a creepy location and folks staying the night to win a contest or a dare, and you have Hell House, Ghost Ship, House on Haunted Hill and 13rteen Ghosts. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies may have been based on an urban legend. Even if that story isn't true, many people believe it is.
I hope you see my point which is that, yes, some of these themes have been overdone. But, if you can find a way to twist the story around and give it a fresh take, then you could have a success on your hands.
The Weirdest of the Weird Urban Legends
To help you get your creative juices flowing, here are some pretty weird urban legends to get you started.
- Bunny Man Bridge - This is one of my favorites. According to stories told in and around Fairfax, Virginia, there is a haunted railroad bridge. Only the haunter is not your average, ordinary maniac. He's a bloodthirsty, ax slinging dude in a bunny suit. No one knows if he was killed while wearing the bunny suit.
- La Llorona - This is a Latin American legend about a woman who, in a fit of jealous rage upon realizing that her husband was cheating on her, tossed her children in the river to drown. When she realized what she had done, she killed herself right there along the riverbank. Legend has it that she can be heard late at night wailing for her lost children.
- Grotesque Births - This one has reportedly occurred just about everywhere on Earth at one point. From the recent news article about a women in Nigeria who gave birth to a small horse (there were pictures, seriously - Google it) to the woman in England who birthed rabbits, women all over the world have been gestating some really weird stuff. Never mind the genetic impossibility.
- The Un-Stolen Toothbrushes - This one is as funny as it is really, REALLY disgusting. According to multiple versions, two newlyweds go off on vacation to some tropical locale only to have all of their possessions stolen - except for their extremely expensive camera and their toothbrushes. They didn't understand why until they developed the film and found out that the thieves used those toothbrushes to clean some of the dirtiest parts of their bodies. Inside and out.
- Death By Tanning Bed - This story goes that a woman who was getting married decided that she needed to get her pasty white skin a healthier shade of orange. So she hit up about a dozen tanning beds in her town and went home happy that she had achieved her Oompa Loompa - like tan. What she didn't know, however, was that all that tanning bed "radiation" had cooked her from the inside out. Needless to say, she had a different kind of ceremony instead of the wedding she had imagined.
- Who's Your Squid-Daddy? This one actually is true. A woman in Seoul, Korea was eating a half-cooked squid dish, which is apparently a delicacy over there. But the squid had one part of his body that hadn't been properly cooked. Turns out that boy squid can inject sperm from these special apparatuses that forcibly insert themselves into the body of the girl squid to make little squid bundles of joy. This Korean woman took artificial insemination to a whole new level - a level that apparently happens often in cultures where seafood is minimally cooked, if it's cooked all.
- Morgan Freeman Is Dead, Long Live Morgan Freeman - Celebrity deaths are headlined very often in the media, whether they're dead or not. Supposedly, Morgan Freeman had an aneurysm just this past week. Fortunately for us, his publicist took to the internet to let us know that the man who played God had, in fact, not met his maker. Eddie Murphy has reportedly died about three hundred times in the same skiing accident and Eminem has been decapitated in at least a dozen car crashes. Talk about nine lives! Urban legends about celebrities aren't really new. Anybody remember Richard Gere and the little, furry rodent-like pet? While these don't qualify as the scary, creepy monster-mash that most urban legends are made of, they can still be used to your advantage.
- Are You Gonna Eat That? There are so many urban legends about food that you can practically take your pick. From razor blades and poison in Halloween candy and pop rocks and cola making people's stomachs explode to dead mice in loaves of bread and chicken heads in chicken nuggets, these tales are super-scary because they could actually happen.
Are they all true? Probably not. They're likely stories told around camp fires to scare the crap out of young boy scouts or generated by people who sit anonymously behind computer screens with nothing better to do. But your adoring readers won't know that.
How can you take an urban legend and make a story out of it? Well, that's your job. It wouldn't do if I gave you the myth and wrote the story for you! The point is that any of these stories have the all of the basic ingredients of a horror tale. I've just given you the spices, you have to cook the meal yourself!
© 2012 Georgianna Lowery