It starts with a babysitter, always a young girl. The kids (she presumes) are upstairs, peacefully sleeping as she relaxes downstairs. Suddenly, there is a phone call. She answers the phone cautiously, and hears a strange man’s voice from the other end,
“Why don’t you go and check on the children…”
The creepy voice says. The babysitter slams the phone down and tries to take her mind off it, before the phone rings again.
This time laughing can be heard from the phone. Deep, ominous laughter. The now terrified babysitter calls the police to report the calls.
The police tell her not to worry, just a prank caller, some kid having fun…but that they will trace the call, just in case. And a few minutes later the phone rings again. The police.
“The phone calls are coming from inside the house.” The worried police man says, “Get out of the house as fast as you can,”
But it’s too late. The man is already coming down the stairs. The babysitter screams, preparing for her tragic end…
This is, by far, the urban legend that scares me the most. I’ve left out some of the details in the little summary I did above, but if you want to read the many versions that are out there, you can usually find it under the title of ‘When a Stranger Calls’, ‘The Babysitter and the Man upstairs’, or simply ‘The Babysitter’.
Originally dating back to the 1960’s, many films have been inspired or directly influence by this simple but scary urban legend, and is probably one that most of us have heard at least once or twice before.
The thought of someone being in my house, or a house that I am in, without me knowing is terrifying to me. In fact it’s gotten into my psyche so much that I have to have my doors locked at all times if I am in my house alone- my theory being, people in horror films always lock the doors once it’s too late and the murderer is already in the house!
But is there any real truth to this urban legend?
Well- surprisingly (or unsurprisingly if you’re more rational than I am) there aren’t many cases of babysitters actually being killed. There tends to actually be more cases of babysitters killing the kids they are looking after. So where has this urban legend come from?
The documentary, Killer Legends, explores the origins of this and many other famous urban legends. In the case of ‘The Babysitter’, the only crime they could find even closely like the one in the urban legend is one that happened in 1950. Late one March evening, a 13-year-old girl, Janett Christman was babysitting for the Romacks’ at their home in Columbia, Missouri in the United States. Janett had put the child to bed, before around 1:30 a.m., someone shattered a window, came in through the front door, and attacked her in the Romacks’ living room. She had been raped and strangled to death with an electrical cord, left in a pool of her own blood by the families piano.
The only suspect- Robert Mueller, was a friend of the Romacks and had met Janett before, and according to some documents, he had often commented on her ‘full figure’ and her presumed ‘virgin’ status.
Mueller was never actually charged with her murder after passing a lie detector test, and the crime still remains unsolved.
In the documentary, it is suggested that the main influence for the urban legend may have been the teller’s fear itself, the fear of accidentally killing or harming the children you are in charge of looking after. I suppose in such a situation like babysitting, where you are in a house that is not yours looking after children that are not yours, a huge amount of responsibility is placed on you. And seeing as babysitters tend to be young girls, even as young as 13 like Janett was, it’s clear to see how this could be a pretty frightening thought.
Humans have been telling stories for centuries, even before the medium of writing was invented. From fairy tales, fables, and stories from the bible; there has been a lot of research into our seemingly innate ability to form narratives and our need and love to share stories with others.
Urban legends have also been around for years. Either serving as entertainment, warnings or perhaps both, most of the urban legends we still hear about today may have originated over 50 years ago or more. And like the case of Janett Christman, sometimes these legends are rooted in true life incidents, and sometimes are a blend of our own anxieties and fears projected in a way we can share our fear with others.
The aspect of Urban Legends that is probably most effective in securing their longevity, is the idea of anonymity. Most of these stories could happen anywhere, to everyone, and we’ve all heard that saying ‘A friend of a friend told me,’ that implies this actually happened or could happen to someone close to home.
In the case of the legend of the original ‘Candyman,’ the researchers in the documentary Killer Legends found a case of a boy dying of cyanide poisoning after eating sherbet he had gotten whilst trick or treating at Halloween. This true story, and many others of razor blades and pins being found in children’s candy, sent parents into a panic, and even now around Halloween I see the odd article of people worrying about sweets that have been tampered with and given to children. This idea of a crazy, sadistic person putting poison or blades in a child’s candy is frightening because, once again, it is so anonymous. It could be any neighbor on your street, your friend, the ‘nice’ man at the store.
However, the true origin of this legend was even more sinister. The man responsible for poisoning the candy was actually the child’s father- he had positioned his own son and hid behind the panic and the legend- the mask of the Candyman kept him safe, but eventually with some good police work, all the evidence pointed to him and he was arrested and subsequently killed on death row, despite claiming he was innocent.
Urban legends scare me, no matter how clichéd they may be or how many times I have heard them, they have the power to penetrate peoples psyches and put a face or a name to our deepest fears. But that’s also the fun of them, the fact that these stories are accessible for everyone to tell and share, yet have the power to scare and even in most cases, have horrific roots into a real life crime.
Urban legends- sometimes have more fact than you’d think. Sometimes are more reflections of our own fears, as a way of expressing them. They’re also a part of history, tools to connect us to people, and serve as inspiration for not just films but writing too.
A Japanese urban legend, Kuchisake-onna or ‘slit mouthed woman’ served as inspiration for the short story I wrote, called ‘My mother, the legend’. If you’d like to read it you can, here.
So what is your favorite urban legend, or what one do you find scariest? Tell me in the comments! And uh, keep your doors locked and don’t answer the phone if you’re babysitting, I know I wont be…