As a species, human beings share a love of stories. Some are based on real events. Others are pure fiction, and in some cases the line between the two can be blurred or uncertain.
These are 10 examples of some of the stranger urban legends to be found.
10. Killer Electric Fans
South Korea is amongst the most scientifically advanced nations on the planet. Despite this it’s also home to a peculiar modern day urban legend that has little or no scientific support.
Some South Koreans believe that leaving an electric fan switched on overnight can be fatal. It’s not entirely inconceivable that an electric fan might on very rare occasions malfunction and catch fire, but this isn’t what believers are worried about. The fear is that anybody who goes to sleep in a closed room with an electric fan running might never wake up.
While this particular urban legend is almost entirely unique to South Korea, and while there’s very little evidence to back it up, it’s none the less prevalent enough that even major fan manufacturers issue warnings not to leave fans pointed at people overnight.
It seems that the roots of this particular urban legend can be traced back to 1927, when an article was published warning that electric fans circulating stale air could lead to nausea or even suffocation.
9. The Zambezi River God
In 1955 an Italian construction firm began work on the Kariba Dam on Zimbabwe’s Zambezi River. It would produce huge amounts of hydroelectric power, but at the cost of forcing thousands of locals from their homes and their land.
Some warned that the Zambezi River God would be angered into unleashing floods and dire retribution. This serpent-like creature known as Nyaminyami is said to inhabit Lake Kariba and act as protector of the Tongan people.
The Kariba Dam engineers weren’t concerned. The giant structure’s defenses were designed to withstand anything up to a once-in-a-thousand-year flood.
Despite their confidence, in 1957 the dam was hit by that thousand-year storm. Damage was extensive and several Italian construction workers were killed. Construction was delayed by several months until work could begin again.
In defiance of all their calculations a second even larger flood followed just one year later. Several more workers were killed, their bodies falling into the dam’s still-setting cement from where they could not be recovered.
Construction of the dam was finally completed, but not before 82 construction workers had lost their lives. Some believe the completed dam has cut the Zambezi River God off from his wife, and that even to this day he is working to destroy it.
If so then he seems to be making progress. Engineers warn that the Kariba Dam is now in dire need of extensive repairs and at risk of collapsing entirely, with catastrophic consequences.
8. Spring-Heeled Jack
With a population in excess of two million people, 1830s London was the most populous city in the world. It was a global hub of science, invention, and innovation, and in 1829 it introduced the first professional police force anywhere in the world.
Despite all this London was a city in the grip of fear. A mysterious figure was attacking young women across the city, and the police seemed powerless to apprehend him.
It wasn’t even clear if the menace was human. Eyewitnesses reported him as having a demonic appearance, the ability to spit flames, and even leap huge distances in one bound. He came to be known as Spring-heeled Jack.
Mass hysteria presumably played a part, but fear of Spring-heeled Jack was very real. The newspapers, who knew a juicy story when they saw it, were only too happy to run articles on this shadowy character.
In 1838 a man named Thomas Millbank, somewhat worse for wear in a London tavern, boasted that he was none other than the mysterious Spring-heeled Jack. He was promptly arrested for the attack on a victim named Jane Alsop. However, he soon had to be released. Jane Alsop remained adamant that her assailant had breathed flames. If Millbank had indeed been able to manifest this ability, he stubbornly refused to do so.
Whether there ever was a single real person behind the legend of Spring-heeled Jack is difficult to say for sure, but the legend lives on and occasional sightings continue to be reported even to this day.
7. The Black Bird of Chernobyl
The mere mention of Chernobyl is enough to conjure up feelings of unease. The name is inextricably linked to the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen, and it’s seared into our collective consciousness as something dark and terrifying.
Most people know the story well enough. A nuclear reactor in the Soviet power plant melted down, and only good fortune and heroism prevented a far greater disaster that would have rendered much of Europe uninhabitable.
The supernatural aspect of the story is less well known. Thousands of people were evacuated after the meltdown, but many still speak of a horrifying apparition that appeared as a harbinger of disaster.
In the weeks leading up to the catastrophe they claim to have seen a terrifying humanoid creature with huge wings, and eyes that glowed like hot coal. This airborne apparition came to be known as the Black Bird of Chernobyl.
Whether this was an urban legend created after the disaster or whether it has some basis in reality is impossible to say for certain.
6. The Deadly Drop Bear
Australia is home to some of the deadliest animals in the world. If the snakes, spiders, jellyfish, and the lethal blue-ringed octopus weren’t enough, there’s also the drop bear.
The creature is said to be a relative of the koala, but considerably less appealing. Roughly the size of a leopard or a large dog, drop bears are ambush predators.
They live in the forests where they hide in the canopy waiting for unsuspecting prey to pass beneath. Dropping from the trees they use their powerful arms and venomous bite to subdue their prey, and sometimes even attack humans.
In reality the drop bear is an urban legend created to scare and amuse tourists, and occasionally play pranks on unsuspecting journalists. Curiously enough, however, during the last Ice Age Australia was home to a carnivorous marsupial that lived and hunted from the trees, similar to the mythical drop bear.
5. Bodies in Sydney Harbor Bridge
Sydney is one of the world’s most famous cities, and it seems to be Australia’s hot spot for urban legends. If they are all to be believed then there is a secret network of tunnels beneath the streets, a hidden lake populated by giant albino eels, escaped big cats on the loose, and even a prehistoric river monster.
Other urban legends are linked to Sydney’s architecture, such as Sydney Harbor Bridge.
The bridge opened in 1932 and became famous across the world. However, its construction came at a cost in human lives. The official figures state that sixteen people were killed in falls, construction accidents, and in one case from tetanus after suffering a crushed thumb.
Local legend has it that this is not the full tally of fatal accidents. Several workers are rumored to have fallen into the structure as it was being built. Since these dead bodies would be bad for publicity, not to mention difficult and expensive to retrieve, their grisly demise may have been covered up.
4. The Wendigo
In November 2019, Gino Meekis was hunting grouse in the forests of northwest Ontario. Whilst there he heard a wailing noise unlike anything he’d encountered in more than twelve years of hunting.
Gino was sufficiently unnerved to pull out his phone and take a recording, and that subsequently sparked an online debate as to what exactly was responsible for the eerie noise.
One suggestion was a grizzly bear, but that species had never been sighted in the region. Others speculated it may have been a wendigo.
Bumping into a grizzly in the forests is dangerous, but it would be vastly favorable to an encounter with this terrifying supernatural beast.
The Wendigo of legend is said to be fifteen feet tall with a stinking, rotting, emaciated body. Its lips are tattered and bloody, and it’s haunted by a constant hunger for human flesh. The beast is constantly hunting for victims, but no matter how much it eats it can never satisfy the craving.
This monstrous creature has made its way into modern medical parlance. The thankfully rare psychological condition of Wendigo Syndrome is characterized by a desire to consume human flesh.
3. The Rock Star’s Parakeets
There are plenty of urban legends surrounding animals or beasts whose existence is questionable at best.
This one is slightly different as it concerns tens of thousands of parakeets that have made their home in London’s parks.
The parakeets definitely exist, but they equally definitely aren’t indigenous to Britain, and nobody is entirely sure where they came from.
One popular suggestion is that Jimi Hendrix is responsible. He’s said to have released two of the birds, Adam and Eve, into the skies of London whilst stoned in 1968. The multitude of parrots now resident in England are said to be descendants of this first pair.
The idea has even been investigated by researchers at Queen Mary University. Unfortunately, whilst it’s possible that Hendrix may have added to the parakeet population, they concluded the birds are too widespread to all be descended from a single pair.
2. Aka Manto
The yokai are a group of supernatural beings and monsters that populate Japanese folklore. Varied in their appearance and temperament, some are benevolent, others are cruel, and one has an unusual predilection for women’s bathrooms.
Descriptions of Aka Manto’s appearance varies, but he is always depicted as wearing a mask and a red cape. The supernatural being is said to periodically appear in public or school toilets offering the occupier a choice between red and blue toilet paper.
Neither of these is a good option. Choosing the blue paper results in being strangled to death, but opting for the red paper is no better and leads to death by laceration.
Aka Manto is also wise to anyone who might try to trick their way past him by requesting different colored toilet paper to the ones he offered. Their fate is to be dragged off to the underworld and never seen again.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Politely declining Aka Manto’s offer of toilet paper will cause him to leave in search of another potential victim.
The legend of Aka Manto can be traced back to at least the 1930s, and he’s said to be still haunting public toilets to this day.
1. NASA’s Billion Dollar Pen
In 1957 the Soviet Union launched the first ever satellite into space. It didn’t do anything other than whizz around the planet emitting regular beeps, but it was sufficient to spark a hugely expensive space race with the United States of America.
America would claim victory by landing men on the moon in 1969, but there were a huge number of challenges to overcome before that point could be reached.
Even something as simple as writing proved to be problematic in space. It turned out that regular pens just didn’t work in zero gravity.
The American response was to begin a lengthy research project and sink billions of dollars into a solution. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union took a cheaper but far more straightforward approach and used pencils instead.
Many people are aware of this story, but it’s not actually true. It’s an example of a particularly successful urban myth, one that’s now so firmly embedded in our collective psyche it’s unlikely to ever go away.
The reality is that the American space program, just like the Soviet one, initially switched to using pencils. When a pen was developed that could be used in space, it was designed independently of the U.S. Government or military by an inventor named Paul C. Fisher.
NASA approved them for use in space and purchased a grand total of 400 of them at the modest price of $2.95 each. The Soviet space agency bought some too.