Contemporary Legend

Ghost Story/Folk Legend
“When I was a kid, and we were on camping trips for like cub scouts or some crap, the counselors would always tell some story about Hatchet Harry.  It was a pretty long, involved story about this guy who would come out of the woods at night and terrorize campers and chop off their heads by throwing his hatchets at them.  Then you’d go to bed and in the middle of the night the counselors would start throwing Frisbees around and hit the tents with them to scare us.  Pretty lame.”

My older brother told me this story about when he used to go to summer camp or go on brief camping trips when he was a boy.  Chris grew up in Mountain Lakes, a suburb of New York in northern New Jersey.  In this area, where I also grew up, a lot of kids go away for the summer to camps in the Northeast or go camping with their families in the woods, since there are a lot of those in New Jersey.

Something that is traditionally done at these camps is ghost storytelling.  Groups of campers and counselors or parents would often sit around some sort of bonfire and tell legends that they had heard about people in the area in order to scare the younger kids.  A lot of the stories had to do with outcasts or ghosts of people who had been murdered who still hang out in the woods in order to either terrorize or kill people who venture into that area.  The legend of Hatchet Harry is a perfect example of these stories; it revolves around a man who seems to be an outcast of society and who throws hatches to kill anyone who comes near him, and most likely, to seek revenge (Chris didn’t mention this, but most stories such as this have to do with killing in order to seek revenge of others, and it could probably be assumed that it is part of the back story of Hatchet Harry.)

Stories like this are most successful probably because of the settings in which they are told.  As Chris described, they were told at camp, most likely at night and near a wooded area.  This way, the story has a much greater effect and seems a lot scarier and more believable.  Secondly, by putting the setting of the storytelling in the same type of place that the story is about, it scares the listeners into thinking that the subject of the story, Hatchet Harry, could be roaming the area.  Lastly, when these effects are combined, it makes it much easier for the counselors to scare the kids by throwing Frisbees at their tents.  Though Chris said this was “pretty lame,” it is likely that it did still scare kids who did choose to believe the story.

Stories like this are very common and provide entertainment on multiple levels.  First of all, it gives the kids something to do at summer camp that keeps them excited and engaged before bed.  Secondly, it gives the adults who tell the story a rise and a form of entertainment as they gauge the reactions of the listeners.  Lastly, it provides stories that can be told and retold for ages to come as the kids grow older and then pass it down.   Though almost everyone grows up to realize that there is very little truth to these tales, they are still a key part of entertaining kids and outdoor/camping culture in northeast America.

Contemporary Legend

Urban Legend

“There’s always the “based on a true story” story about the lady who was driving home from work on a dark and lonely road and a truck she had seen at a rest stop came driving quickly up behind her and she saw in her mirror that he was brighting her as he drove up.  She didn’t want to stop because she was in the middle of nowhere, so she kept driving faster, but the truck would drive up behind her and she’d see him in the rearview mirror brighting her again.  So she kept driving and when she got to another rest stop where there were lights she drove in there and jumped out of her car and started running inside.  The truck followed her into the stop and when she turned around to look from the doorway, the driver was just sitting in his truck but just then some guy jumped out of her own back seat and ran into the woods.  It turns out the trucker saw the guy climb into her back seat from the last rest stop just before she left and every time he started getting up from the back with his knife, the trucker would bright the lady so that she’d look in the rearview mirror, at which time the guy in the backseat would duck down again and wait until she got farther away from the truck again.”

I had never heard this urban legend before, but my brother told me that he and his friends used to talk about it all the time.  Apparently the legend is well known where Chris grew up, in Mountain Lakes, NJ.  This story greatly resembles a lot of other urban legends about people driving alone, serial killers, and danger during the evening.  I’ve heard a lot of stories like these growing up, and this one was probably just another version of these typical urban legends.

A lot of rumors tend to go around about serial killers and murders, especially when stories show up on the news all the time.  This story was probably inspired around a time when a lot of crimes had occurred and people were on the lookout for murderers.  People had also probably been inspired by past urban legends involving murder and created their own.  Additionally, a lot of trucks and cars pass through areas in New Jersey that are very desolate and have few rest stops and truck stops.  When people do choose to stop, there aren’t usually many others around- especially at night.  Finally, a lot of negative stories tend to go around about truckers, which probably influenced the creators’ choice to include a seemingly scary truck driver situation in the first part of the legend.

This urban legend was probably really popular because of its suspenseful effect.  It takes place in a scary setting on a desolate road with the factors mentioned above.  By repeating the action the truck driver takes by continuously brighting the woman in front of him, the listener gets gripped by the story and scared by what doom awaits the woman in her car.  When the story finally climaxes as the woman jumps out of her car, the listener is surprised to hear that someone had jumped out of the back seat instead of the truck driver doing something to somehow attack her- quite an unexpected result.  When at the end of the story the truck driver is described as the savior and the brightening of the headlights is explained, the listener is again surprised.  This combination of factors leads to an effective and successful urban legend that has been unsurprisingly been told and retold for a long time.

Urban legends like these are very common, especially in suburbs such as Mountain Lakes, because the settings are very similar to that in the story.  Stories tend to be much more interesting and people are more inclined to retell them when their culture has something in common with the story, or it seems like it could very well have taken place in their area.  These stories are also very entertaining to tell children, especially around traditional activities such as camping and having bonfires.  This is a good example of a particular urban legend that is representative of the many that are exchanged in the New Jersey area.