Urban Legend is a film that I had seen in the theater as a teenager, but had mostly forgotten about until recently. I was at a horror convention this summer when I saw it in a 3 for $20 DVD bin. The skies opened up, the light shone down from the heavens, my wallet became lighter.
Digging through the 17 movies that came home with me that weekend (I consider that a financial success), Urban Legend was the first one I cracked open. As soon as the opening scene unfolded, I was quickly belting out Bonnie Turner’s Total Eclipse of the Heart with our doomed heroine. Not to mention, I had somehow completely forgotten Brad Douriff’s cameo and byt the time Rovert Englund showed up as the folklore teacher, the horror fan glee was coming off of me in waves.
The movie is a fun romp through familiar urban legends, set to the now familiar teen slasher template. With an ensemble cast that includes Rebecca Gayheart, Alicia Witt, Joshua Jackson, Jared Leto, Michael Rosenbaum, and Tara Reid, this movie features one of the most 90s cast that ever 90ed. The film follows Natalie (Alicia Witt), as she begins to suspect that a series of murders on campus might be connected (just maybe, right?). It is the kind of 90s “DUH” moment that makes you love it even more.
Each murder is staged to look like a familiar urban legend. Kills feature twists on everything from “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?” to “The call is coming from inside the house!” to the baby in the microwave. The familiarity that we have with these urban legends is what makes it a fun, and borderline meta, experience. The characters are all claiming that they know someone who knows someone who knows someone that it happened to; this mirrors the tiny sliver in the audiences brain that even thought it’s being rubbed in their face that it’s not real, they heard about this girl’s friends cousin when they were a kid. The movie manages to wiggle in and exploit that while at the same time providing the audience with a horror movie that makes the most fun group watch that you’ll ever have.
Watching as an adult who writes a lot about the representation of women in media, I am surprised that this film doesn’t crop up more in modern discussion. It is not outwardly a stellar representation of girl power, with a seemingly generic final girl of the checkered past variety. But what really struck me was the fact that this movie seems to be begging to be used as an example in the conversations that we are finally starting to have as a society today.
In the opening sequence, the girl grabs her pepper spray to follow a creepy man into the gas station he owns. Of course, after she takes out the creepy-looking man and takes off down the road, she has her head chopped off by a figure who has been hiding in the backseat. Surprise! The creepy man was trying to warn her all along.
Watching this scene, it’s very easy to think, “Oh, she judged a book by it’s cover…if only she’s been more trusting.” He looks creepy, sure, but that isn’t why she did what she did. It’s dark, there are no other customers around, and he is asking her to get out of her car and come with him to his office. Women get that. It’s a powerful scene, but can be interpreted in one of two ways. Those who have never had the experience of having that instinct kick in and looking for all the exits before entering a room easily interpret it as an over-reaction, or a lesson in judging outward appearance.
Perhaps the craziest scene that I remembered this way still holds up as a mirror to this kind of perception of “deserved death.” Natalie’s roommate, Tosh, is a goth girl. She wears heavy makeup. She takes lithium for depression. She hooks up with guys on chat rooms. And she has a lot of loud anonymous sex.
One night, the hookup turns out to be the killer. While Tosh is being attacked, Natalie walks in. Remembering a previous argument, she apologizes, covers her eyes and leaves the light off. She puts on her headphones, and Tosh is quietly strangled to death while Natalie sleeps in the next bed. In the morning, Natalie wakes up to a dead roommate. Her wrists have been slit, and “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?” has been scrawled across their wall.
The police show up. They take the body away. The wrists are cut, she was depressed…clearly a suicide. And despite slicing her writst open, she was able to scrawl the words across the wall with a paintbrush while her roommate slept, then hop back into bed to die. No need to investigate further. Girls in the hall make fun of how she probably looks just like her pale goth appearance even when she’s dead. The Dean says no further investigation necessary, even though the roommate has told everyone (including the police) that there was someone else in the room. She has been strangled, and would have bruises on her neck. She struggled, and would have evidence on her body.
But she died because she had a lot of sex, and the one time she asked for help, no one listened. And if she was murdered? The institution doesn’t want to know, because people will find out that there was a scandalous death involving a promiscuous girl on their property. That was the lesson learned. The movie doesn’t come so far as to call this out, but it’s slut shaming to the extreme. The fact that women fear not being believed, or not being taken seriously, when they come forward about these things leaps off the screen.
It is terrifying, and horrifically relevant twenty-odd years later.
Urban Legend does a great job at showcasing society’s views on these issues, and how they have changed so little since the days of the Brothers Grimm. Had it been a male student that this was happening to, it wouldn’t hold the kind of power it does. This is a movie that had to have a heroine, a strong woman who could defeat a killer and say that this kind of thing is not okay, regardless of your history.
Urban legends are tailor made for this kind of lesson, just like fairy tales of old. They told women to obey their fathers, to mind the children, to not be promiscuous. They are tales that we love and devour, but that we also fear on some level. Urban Legend manages to be a movie that plays to our love of these stories, but also digs into how they can be unhealthy, and damaging in the attitudes that they are promoting. This is a message that doesn’t get discussed enough in conversation around Urban Legend. It is a fun 90s slasher, to be sure, but that doesn’t meant that we can’t have a deeper look.