Urban legends are the modern equivalent of early folklore. They are stories with a modern setting passed down from generation to generation, originally told around a campfire and evolve to fit the tone and time of their telling.
I’d always been fascinated by these local myths. In the Philadelphia suburban neighborhood where I grew up, kids told the stories of vanishing hitchhikers and hook-handed asylum escapees; the line between reality and fantasy blurred convincingly and spoke to my deepest primal fears.
I believe the power of scary characters in stories such as urban legends lies in the concept of the archetype. Put simply, an archetype is a symbol, pattern or character type that is recognized by humans at a primary level. Common archetypes in stories such as movies, books and urban legends are The Hero, The Trickster and the Shadow.
In this season of scare, I contemplated why the archetype has such power and why urban legends resonate with our imagination so effectively? Why do they scare us? For one, certain archetypes such as the Shadow or the Grim Reaper force us to face deeper questions. What happens when we die? Is there anything out there beyond life and death?
As a writer of fiction and a low budget filmmaker, horror has always been my genre of choice. I’m always on the lookout for what presses the fear button. For my latest film, I invented a character called the ‘Hoodman’ as a fictional urban legend created by parents who had lost their children either from crib death or from unexplained disappearance, as a way to deal with the psychological stress of loss and grief.
As an archetype, Hoodman possesses many elements of the traditional death trope-type based on a hooded harbinger of death; The Grim Reaper or The Shadow. Think ‘Sandman’ with a hood complex. Recent examples of these types of tropes include ‘Slenderman,’ an internet creation turned deadly, and Neil Gaiman’s own spin on the Sandman myth.
I reasoned that if I needed to create a movie villain, the ultimate antagonist is a death archetype which requires no special effects makeup. One that gets you when you are sleeping? So much the better. For us humans, death is the great unknown and therein lies its power to invoke fear and propel the imagination to wonder.
As pure entertainment, watching the struggle between Good and Evil is always great fun particularly when the stakes are high and primal archetypes are infused into the fight. Each year during Halloween season we are reminded in a good-natured way the power of the Shadow to influence our human experience.
From the earliest folklore to the urban legends of modern times, it is the archetype which resonates deepest in our imaginations and causes us to to question what lies beyond our mortal lifespan.
Mark W. Curran is a Los Angeles based writer and filmmaker. He is the author of ‘Witches of Wildwood: Cape May Horror Stories,’ available on Amazon. He is also the director and screenwriter of the films ‘Hoodman,’ and ‘Abandoned Dead.’ now streaming on AmazonPrime and TUBI.
He also runs the Facebook Group “Horror Fiction Central.”
WITCHES OF WILDWOOD