With recent renewed interest in our popular 2010 article featuring eerie urban legends of the natural world, we thought a follow-on would be appropriate, and that urban legends of the “supernatural world” was the perfect counterpart. So here it is – a selection of chilling tales told and retold around campfires and at parties across the world, from the mischievous Spring Heeled Jack to the bone chilling Bloody Mary.
Spring Heeled Jack
English folklore is rich in tales of fairies and other supernatural phenomena, which probably helped fuel the Victorian superstition of Spring Heeled Jack. Tall and thin, with fiery red eyes, a black cloak and demonic appearance, Spring Heeled Jack was first reported in 1837 and sightings soon occured all over England, from London to Sheffield and Liverpool, and later Scotland. Known for his ability to make incredible leaps and evade capture, the frightful entity soon became the subject of contemporary fiction and, with his nature and identity never revealed, has become a well-known urban legend.
Press reports helped fuel mass hysteria throughout the late 19th century, and though fewer, sightings of Spring Heeled Jack continued into the 20th century, with similar apparitions reported in Prague and Texas. Paranormal theories linked Spring Heeled Jack to ghosts, demons and even extraterrestrials. But his reputation as more mischievous than malicious led sceptics to label his antics the work of a prankster, or lineage of pranksters. One suspect was a young Irish nobleman, Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford. But in a world where nothing is certain, Spring Heeled Jack lives on in the shadows of urban legend.
The Highgate Vampire
(Image: F.W. Murnau, public domain)
In the world of supernatural urban legends, they don’t come much more bizarre than the tale of The Highgate Vampire, which purportedly haunted London’s Highgate Cemetery in the early 1970s. Abandoned and overgrown cemeteries are strange and evocative places at the best of times, but Highgate seemingly captured the over-active imaginations of several young people including Seán Manchester and David Farrant.
In December 1969 David Farrant appealed for witnesses after sighting “a grey figure” in Highgate Cemetery. Several locals responded, but few sightings had any common traits. Nevertheless, when Seán Manchester told the Hampstead and Highgate Express that “a King Vampire of the Undead” was buried in the cemetery in the early 18th century, the grey figure morphed into The Highgate Vampire and an urban legend was born.
Manchester claimed the vampire had been summoned by Satanists, and that its body should be staked, beheaded and burned – standard practice for disposing of vampires, but somewhat illegal nowadays. Rivalry between Farrant and Manchester reached its zenith by 1970 and on Friday 13th March, an “official” vampire hunt saw a mob descend on the Highgate despite police efforts to stop them. After this strange spectacle, things became even more bizarre, and Farrant – who, according to his website, always opposed the vampire interpretation of Highgate’s supernatural happenings – was arrested in August 1970 allegedly in possession of a crucifix and wooden stake.
(Image: David Henry Friston, public domain)
Manchester went even further, and in an apparent case of legend tripping placed garlic and holy water in a catacomb that he claimed he was led to by a sleepwalking girl. He also planned to drive a stake into one body but was dissuaded by a companion. The bizarre activities of David Farrant and Seán Manchester have cemented The Highgate Vampire’s place in local folklore while fostering a modern urban legend in the process. Highgate Cemetery is clearly a dangerous place to be a dead body, and visitors from outside the grave seem to be more troublesome than those from beyond.
Clearly one of the more disturbing urban legends to form around the supernatural, Bloody Mary has many variations, most of which involve chanting her name three to one hundred times while gazing into a mirror. Often conducted in a darkened room at midnight, participants in this eerie “game” commonly chant “Bloody Mary” thirteen times, after which the the ghost appears behind them and in some versions of the tale, murders them brutally or pulls them into the mirror. In other versions, summoners chant “Bloody Mary” to invoke the ghost and a deceased person of their choice, with whom they can speak until 12:08am.
(Image: author unknown, public domain)
While Bloody Mary’s true identity remains a mystery, she has been linked to a variety of individuals from a suicidal mother wrongly accused of killing her children to Mary Worth, a name allegedly derived from a victim of the Salem witch trials, and even Queen Mary I, who suffered a number of miscarriages and was known as Bloody Mary for executing countless heretics. The legend is said to date back to the 1960s, with names borrowed from historical characters or confused over time. A staple campfire ghost story, the tale often changes depending on who is telling it and has become a modern urban legend.
St. Mark’s Eve
Immortalised in the poem by John Keats, St. Mark’s Eve falls on April 24th, the day before the feast day of St. Mark the Evangelist. The day was shrouded in superstition throughout rural England from the 17th to the late 19th centuries, when it was customary to sit in the porch of the village church for three hours from 11pm on St. Mark’s Eve to 1am the following day, for three successive years or sometimes nights. On the third sitting, the watcher would observe the ghosts of those doomed to die throughout the coming year passing into the church.
Most common in northern and western counties of England, the superstition held that the ghosts of those to die soon would enter the church first, with those destined to survive most of the year not passing through until close to 1am. Other variations of the legend were even more ominous. Some said the watchers would see headless or rotting corpses, or approaching coffins. In North Yorkshire, where the legend was at its most unshakable, folk believed that if the watchers fell asleep while observing the ghostly precession, they too would die in the coming year.
Urban legend or scientific phenomenon? A doppelgänger is said to be the ghost or double of oneself, usually considered an omen of bad luck, evil or even death. Ghostly doubles and look-alikes have been woven into the fabric of folklore from the Ancient Egyptians to Norse mythology, but modern occurances and the tale’s perfect suitability to campfire storytelling have made it one of the scariest urban legends. The sight of your own doppelgänger is said to be an omen of death, while a doppelgänger seen by a person’s friends or family is considered a sinister warning of impending doom.
Doppelgängers were reportedly observed by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Abraham Lincoln, while patients at a Bombay hospital claimed to see Indian mystic Osho on several occasions, despite his presence elsewhere. Even today, some people report sensing or even seeing themselves in their peripheral vision where there was no chance of a reflection. It sounds like the perfect urban legend, but a 2006 study reported in Nature unexpectly reproduced similar effects in a patient suffering from epilepsy. On several occasions, when electrical stimulation was applied to the left temporoparietal junction of the patient’s brain, she felt the presence of a person located immediately behind her with body posture identical to her own.
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