There's something about that time of year when the cold starts biting and the leaves start turning that signals that it's time for stories. Not just spooky ghost stories, but stories that have been told time and time again, stories that everyone remembers, even if they do change just a little bit with every retelling.
Urban legends have, by definition of being legends, been around a long time. That's because the most memorable stories connect with us in some way, and in so doing, contain at least a grain of that terrible, mystic thing called the truth – or more precisely, a grain of the possibility of being true.
No matter where you grew up in the world, you'd have grown up with stories to tell, stories that go beyond myth and folklore, whose characters and events hit a little closer to home. This is the root of the enduring charm of what we like to call urban legends: they take place in that old abandoned house around the corner, involve people who know people you know, and no matter how many times they've been retold, they always seem to occur in that hazy before-time of "not too long ago."
It should come as no surprise, then, that Hollywood has churned out its fair share of movies based on some of the most enduring urban legends of our time. Here's our pick of the best 4 movies based on some of the most chilling urban legends from around the world.
On November 15, 2001, Takako Konishi, a real-life office worker, was found dead somewhere outside Detroit Lakes in Minnesota. It wasn't long before rumors began circulating about how a young, well-to-do Japanese woman who spoke next to no English came to meet her tragic end in the middle of a snow covered field in the boonies of Minnesota, half a world away from home.
Media outlets began reporting that Takako had been obsessed with the 1996 film Fargo, going so far as to believe that the events depicted in the movie were real. Reportedly, Takako had quit her job in Tokyo and traveled all the way to Minnesota in search of buried treasure, specifically, the money hidden by Steve Buscemi's character Carl Showalter in the film. Regrettably, since Fargo is a work of pure fiction, there was never any buried treasure to find, and Konishi died from hypothermia brought about by her exposure to the elements.
Konishi's death was ultimately ruled a suicide, but that did little to stop the rumors from spreading, traveling back and forth across the Pacific until it became an intercontinental urban legend in both America and Japan.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a dramatization of this urban legend. Kumiko (played by Rinko Kikuchi) is a twenty-nine-year-old office worker and lonely recluse living in a cramped apartment in bustling Tokyo. Kumiko's boss is a tyrant, her dead-end job is dreadful, and her only friend is her pet rabbit Bunzo. One day, Kumiko finds a VHS copy of the film Fargo, which she watches obsessively, specifically the scene where Steve Buscemi's character hides a satchel of ransom money beside a snowy highway.
Convincing herself that the events depicted in the movie are real, Kumiko steals her boss's company credit card and journeys to the frozen plains of Minnesota in search of her fortune. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is a sad and beautiful film with an impressive musical score, and has been praised for its complex portrayals of both the tragedy and the strength that can come from one's personal convictions.
2. The Ring
Based on a Japanese horror film trilogy of the same name, which was in turn based on a series of novels, the Ring deals with the urban legend of a cursed videotape that kills anyone within seven days of watching it. The footage recorded on the video is grainy, and seems to contain bizarre scenes that don't appear related to one another. Its penultimate scene cuts to footage of an old stone well out in the middle of a grassy field on the borders of a creepy overgrown forest.
As they watch, viewers find themselves mysteriously transfixed, unable to look away as a ghostly white hand emerges from the well, and out crawls the gaunt figure of a young girl, her features obscured by her long, matted black hair. Then, static, and finally a phone call, with a creepy voice intoning, “Seven days.”
In Gore Verbinski's American remake of the original Japanese film RINGU, the killer videotape comes into the possession of two teenage girls, Katie and Becca, who are discussing the urban legend at a sleepover. Katie reveals she and her boyfriend had watched the tape last week, but Becca assumes she is only trying to scare her.
Later that night, Katie witnesses strange supernatural events, such as the TV turning on and off spontaneously, and water flowing out from the gap under her bedroom door. The last thing Katie sees is the image of the well on her TV screen. The next morning, her horribly disfigured corpse is found in a closet.
The story picks up from the standpoint of Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts), Katie's aunt, who has been asked by the dead girl's parents to investigate the mysterious circumstances behind Katie's death.
And so it begins...
According to legend, in feudal Japan, there lived a samurai who married a famously beautiful woman. Returning home drunk one night, the samurai began to accuse his wife of cheating on him. In spite of her pleas, the samurai brutalized her. At the height of his rage, the samurai reached for his sword and used it to cut a slit across his wife's mouth from ear to ear, shouting, “Who will think you are beautiful now?”
The poor woman survived the torture, but could not bear to live with her disfigurement and committed suicide, only for her vengeful spirit to return and kill everyone unlucky enough to witness her ghastly 'smile.' Modern sightings of the Kuchisake-onna, the “Slit-Mouthed Woman,” started being reported in 1979 in Nagasaki Prefecture, from where it spread throughout Japan and caused panic throughout.
In South Korea, there were reportedly reports from a coroner's office about a woman who'd been chasing little children when she was hit by a car and died shortly after; her mouth had been torn from ear to ear.
The urban legend of the Kuchisake-onna has been around since the Edo period of Japan's feudal era, and describes her as walking around wearing a fan, a scarf, or in modern times, a surgical mask Upon cornering a victim, the woman will ask, “Am I pretty?” Answering no leads to a violent death. Answering in the affirmative causes the woman to reveal her mutilated face, and ask again, “How about now?” Answering 'no' leads the woman to murder the victim, slashing them from ear to ear, so their mouth resembles hers. Answering 'yes' causes the woman to turn aside and walk away, only to follow her victim home and brutally murder them later that night.
The legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman was so influential that whenever sightings of her resurfaced in popular media, schools allowed children to go home only in groups escorted by teachers, and police increased their patrols. It was only a matter of time before filmmakers made a horror movie out of the popular figure in Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman.
Carved tells the story of several men and women from broken families, one of whom has past ties to the Kuchisake-onna. After an earthquake frees her from her tomb, the Slit-Mouthed Woman rises anew in search of children to sacrifice and fresh victims to share her special smile.
One dreadful evening on November 13, 1974, a young man by the name of Ronald “Butch” DeFeo Jr rushed into Henry's Bar in the village of Amityville, Long Island, New York. Distraught, DeFeo shouted, “You got to help me! I think my mother and father are shot!” DeFeo rallied a small group of townsfolk and led them to their Dutch colonial house at 112 Ocean Avenue, not far from the bar. There, they found that DeFeo's parents were indeed dead.
When the Suffolk County Police entered the scene, they searched the house and discovered that four other members of the same family were lying dead in their beds. The dead included DeFeo's parents, and four of his siblings, the youngest of whom was only 9 years old. All were killed with gunshot wounds and found lying on their stomachs in bed.
For his own protection, DeFeo was taken to the local police station, where he enthusiastically insisted that the murders had been carried out by a mob hitman, whom he was even able to name. However, interviewers at the station recognized several serious inconsistencies with DeFeo's story. The next day, he confessed to having committed the killings himself. Not only that, but he'd taken a bath, redressed, and disposed of crucial evidence such as his blood stained clothes, rifle, and cartridges before going to work as usual.
During his trial, DeFeo claimed he murdered his family in self-defense because he thought he could hear their voices plotting to kill him. DeFeo is still serving six concurrent sentences of 25 years to life in prison.
Meanwhile, the unbelievably creepy house in Amityville sat deserted until thirteen months later when George and Kathy Lutz, together with their three children, moved in. After 28 days, the Lutzes moved back out.
The Amityville Horror, the original 1979 film (widely regarded as the best version in a long history of film and TV renditions), is loosely based on the comprehensively researched novel about on the actual event. It tells the story of the haunting paranormal events that menaced George and Kathy during their harrowing 28 days at the house on Ocean Avenue.
Unexplained glimpses of red, swine-like eyes watching their daughter from outside her second story bedroom window. Bouts of violent illness. Unexplained blisters and black, bubbling liquid oozing down from nail holes in the walls. Doors that locked on their own, in spite not having locking doorknobs. And most ominously, George's fixation with waking up at 3:15 am to go check on the boathouse. (3:15 am was roughly when the DeFeo murders took place.)
There's no better time to sink your teeth into a good, chilling story than fall, when the nights start to grow long and the first fingers of the cold season start to creep under your skin. And there's no denying the timeless appeal of urban legends, those stories we've all grown up with without even realizing it, the most chilling of stories that get told and retold time and time again.
We hope you've enjoyed our picks of the best movie renditions of some of the world's most influential urban legends, and look forward to you sharing yours.