12 Scariest Horror Movies Based On Urban Legends, Ranked
By Dan Auty on
Horror movie story ideas can come from many different places. Fiction is very popular source of material, with such a rich and long history of novels and stories for screenwriters to tap into. Sequels and reboots obviously play a big part too--this is a genre that has always rewarded repetition, and many of the longest-running franchises ever are scary movies. And of course, there are plenty of original movies too--even the biggest horror franchise started with a single movie, and many of the best are terrifying narratives conjured up by imaginative writers.
Urban legends are another popular source of horror storytelling. These exist in the grey area between fact and fiction--popular myths that are handed down and retold over generations, stories that have been rarely experienced first-hand, but could just be true. Over the years some of the best known urban legends--from Bloody Mary to the killer calling from within the house--have inspired horror filmmakers and created some memorably scary cinema.
Some of these films use an urban legend without acknowledging that they are a common myth, treating them simply as a brilliantly scary idea. Then there are those that are more overt, and play on an audience's awareness of common legends, whether its characters researching them, or perhaps using them as a basis for some terrible crimes. Other times, multiple urban legends are combined to create a new mythology. Regardless of how they're used, urban legends remain a consistent and potent source for horror movies, and here are some of scariest examples ever made.
12. The Burning (1980)
The Staten Island legend of Cropsey--an escaped child killer that became the inspiration for two movies and an acclaimed documentary--has been used to terrify kids for decades. The best known film version is The Burning, in which the legend is used as the basis for a generic but entertaining post-Friday the 13th slasher movie. In this film, Cropsey is a caretaker at a lakeside holiday camp who returns to exact gory revenge after he is horribly disfigured in a cruel prank.
11. Dead Man's Curve (1998)
There were actually two movies made in 1998 based on the myth that if a college student commits suicide then his roommates will automatically be granted a 4.0 grade--Dead Man on Campus and Dead Man’s Curve (aka Curve). The former plays out as a silly comedy, but Dead Man's Curve takes a darker approach. A pair of struggling Harvard students plot to kill their roommate and make the death look like suicide, in order to claim the high grade. Inevitably things don't go quite to plan. The movie still has plenty of dark laughs (let's face it, the whole legend is kinda ridiculous), but it's also a tense, enjoyably nasty thriller with great performances from Scream's Matthew Lillard and pre-Americans Keri Russell.
10. Turistas (2006)
One of the more gruesome urban legends is organ theft, involving an organized criminal network which runs a black market for organs taken from kidnapped victims. The movie Turistas (aka Paradise Lost) taps into this, and is part of that post-Hostel strain of horror that puts dumb American tourists in very unpleasant situations in a scary foreign country. Here, a group of backpackers are targeted by an organ-harvesting gang while exploring Brazil. Unsurprisingly, the movie was met with some protests in Brazil, but it's an effective little chiller and certainly taps into some scary primal fears.
9. When A Stranger Calls (1979)
The legend of the babysitter and the killer who is calling from within the house is such a perfect set-up for a horror movie that it has been used several times. The first 20 minutes of When A Stranger Calls is a pretty straight adaptation of the legend, as a babysitter is menaced down the phoneline. This lengthy sequence is brilliantly tense, and was a big influence on the opening sequence of Wes Craven's Scream many years later. The rest of the movie is less impressive, but it's still considerably better than the terrible 2006 remake.
8. The Amityville Horror (1979)
112 Ocean Avenue, Amityville, Long Island is one of the best known addresses in urban horror legend. In 1974 a man named Ronald DeFeo killed six members of his family there, and ever since it has become infamous for being a house where very bad things happen to its residents. The 1979 horror smash The Amityville Horror was based on the best-selling non-fiction book of the same name. It charts the terrifying experiences of George and Kathy Lutz, played here by James Brolin and Margot Kidder, who moved into the house a year after the murders. Even though all the wild paranormal claims made by the Lutzes have been subsequently debunked, the notoriety of 112 Ocean Avenue continues to this day.
7. The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
The story of the Mothman dates back to 1966, when residents in West Virginia claim to have seen a winged humanoid creature in the sky. The 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies explored this legend and became the basis of this 2002 movie. In the film, Richard Gere plays a reporter who is researching the Mothman stories, and finds himself drawn into a supernatural mystery involving flying creatures, terrifying premonitions, and memories of his dead wife. It's a flawed but atmospheric and ambitious movie, that tries to something more than just presents an old legend in a scary way.
6. Willow Creek (2013)
The legend of Bigfoot is one of the best known urban myths, and has been the inspiration for much storytelling over the decades. One of the best movie versions is Willow Creek, directed by comedian Bobcat Goldthwait and notable for the fact that it barely features the monster at all. Instead, it invokes serious scares through the use of sound and suggestion, as a pair of young campers found themselves terrorised by the Bigfoot when they decide to explore the various myths about its existence. The scariest scene is an unbroken 20-minute sequence, as the couple cower in their tent while something seriously terrifying stomps around in the woods outside.
4. Urban Legend (1998)
Most of the movies on the list take a single legend and use it as a part of an otherwise original story. But as the title of this post-Scream slasher suggests, Urban Legend is a celebration of these myths. It's based around a killer whose trail of mayhem is inspired by different urban legends, with each student victim (including a young Jared Leto) dispatched in a different, inventive way. From the killer hiding in the backseat of the car to a death from mixing pop rocks and soda (or in this case, cleaning chemicals), it's great fun to anticipate which legend will be used to dispatch the next unlucky teenager.
5. Triangle (2009)
The Bermuda Triangle is an area of the Atlantic Ocean that has become infamous for causing the supposed disappearance of dozens of boats and places over the years. It's also the perfect location for a mind-warping horror movie, and Triangle is exactly that. A group of vacationing friends end up in the Triangle and encounter a seemingly deserted cruise liner. Inevitably, very strange things start happening, and the result is a superb blend of old-fashioned scares and elliptical Memento-style storytelling involving doppelgangers and time loops.
3. Alligator (1980)
The legend of baby alligators that were flushed into New York's sewers and grew to become huge man-eating predators has been around since the 1920s, so it's surprising it took until 1980 for a movie based on this myth to arrive. Luckily, Alligator is a hugely entertaining B-movie romp, helped by a great script from indie auteur John Sayles and terrific lead performance from the great Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Twin Peaks). It's a fast-moving, witty film that works as both an affectionate parody of monster movies, and an effective creature feature in its own right.
2. Black Christmas (1974)
Bob Clark's seminal seasonal slasher is perhaps the best example of the killer inside the house legend. A group of students are menaced at Christmas by a campus killer who torments them over a phone line, and while anyone familiar with the legend won't be particularly surprised at the big reveal, but it's still a tense and scary film.
1. Candyman (1992)
Bernard Rose's terrifying Clive Barker adaptation combine two separate urban legends to create one of the ‘90s most memorable movie monsters. Most notably, there's the legend of Bloody Mary, an evil spirit who appears if you say her name repeatedly into a mirror--in this case repeating "Candyman" five time summons the vengeful former slave of the title. There's also the legend of The Hook, an escaped mental patient who uses his hooked hand as a deadly weapon. The story of the film also embraces the power of such scary myths, with the main character herself writing a thesis on urban legends.