We’ve all heard those bizarre stories that always happen to a friend of a friend and appear in various forms over the years, gradually becoming ingraining into the annals of urban legend. But in this context, “urban” doesn’t have to relate to built-up areas. Here are five tales of the natural world that may have mundane origins, but have been extrapolated over time and now find themselves enshrined in urban myth.
Big Cats of Britain
Britain’s “Big Cats” have been seen by many, proven by none, and continue to terrorise the countryside by reputation if not physical presence (apart from the occasional mutilated sheep). As such, they’ve become the perfect urban legend, existing somewhere between mundane fact and fanciful fiction. Sightings, which date back to the eighteenth century, were popularised in the 1950s when rumours of the Surrey Puma fuelled national hysteria.
Since then, the Beast of Bodmin and Beast of Exmoor have surfaced, likened to pumas, cougars or black leopards, but never positively identified. Some say they’re rooted in the supernatural tale of the spectral Black Dog, a horrifying beast that, according to folklore, appeared on remote moorland and inspired the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. The theory goes that Black Cats are merely a continuation of this myth, albeit without the supernatural element.
But despite reports discounted as hoaxes, big cats were freely kept in Britain before being outlawed by the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976, when some were simply let loose. Skeptics say the climate and low numbers could not sustain a breeding population, but video evidence (including footage captured by police) might suggest otherwise.
In 1991 a Eurasia Lynx was shot after allegedly killing around 15 sheep in two weeks. The story wasn’t reported until 2003 and was branded a hoax. But a 2006 police report confirmed the case, revealing another Eurasian lynx and puma had been captured alive. It’s unclear whether these cats were recent escapees or had managed to survive on the moors undetected for years… Could there be more?
The Legend of the Albatross
Seafaring folk are known to be highly superstitious, and who can blame them, with thousands of miles of open ocean and stormy weather to contend against – hence the fisherman’s chapel near old harbours. Superstition and urban myth collide with the albatross, once described as “the most legendary of all birds” and central to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem, the Mariner’s changing fortunes, and ultimately his curse, are attributed to him shooting the albatross.
(Image via Jornal “O Panorama”, public domain)
The poem helped perpetuate the myth among sailors that killing an albatross was disastrous, and the birds were even regarded as the souls of those lost at sea. In modern terminology, “albatross around their neck” came to mean an obstacle or burden. But in reality, sailors regularly killed and ate albatross while visiting the land of mist and snow, and the Maori carved ceremonial tattoos with its wing bones.
Sewergate: Alligators of the New York Sewers
The legend goes that wealthy New Yorkers brought alligators back from their Florida vacations, and flushed them down the toilet when they got too big for comfort. Nobody knows quite when this happened, but the 1920s and ’30s are considered to be the time. Subterranean New York is now – apparently – alive with huge alligators, feasting on rats and rubbish, and scaring the bejesus out of sewer workers. Of course, none have been caught, and weeks of hunting after alleged sightings have revealed nothing.
Experts claim – logically one would think – that city sewers are not ideal environments for big reptiles, which would stuggle to reproduce. But in his book “The World Beneath the City”, Robert Daley included a chapter “Alligators in the Sewers“, based on his interviews with Teddy May, New York’s Commissioner of Sewers for thirty years. May even claimed to have seen a 10-foot alligator himself, and recounts the story of a worker who was horrified to see an albino alligator swimming towards him. Weeks of hunting turned up nothing, but the “Sewergate” legend is still as popular as ever.
The Black Dog of the Hanging Hills
We’ve already mentioned the spectral Black Dog of British folklore, but we’ll bring it up again since it seems to have manifested in America too, this time in the Hanging Hills of Connecticut. In fact, this beast appears so many times and in so many forms, with the central theme of misfortune to whoever spots it, that it’s become something of an urban legend – or rural legend if you like. But this hound from hell has a twist in its unwagging tail.
Unlike the terrifying Black Dog of remote Britain, the Hanging Hills dog is a small one with a reportedly gregarious nature, despite making no sound or footprints. To see it once results in joy, while a second time brings misfortune. A third sighting is considered an omen of death, and at least six fatalities have been blamed on the dog, reports of which perpetuate to this day. The fact that mountains can be hazardous places in their own right appears to have been discounted.
The Longdendale Lights
(Image via NOAA, public domain)
“Ghost lights” are another widely reported phenomenon. They share similar characteristics despite their origins, appearing out of nowhere and proving unreachable to anyone who tries to pursue them. Sightings accompany tales of the paranormal, and are often described as bright, pulsating balls of light. One well known tale is that of the Longdendale Lights, haunting the bleak gritstone moorland of Derbyshire, northern England.
Dating back decades, perhaps even centuries, several people have gone on record about their experience of the Longdendale Lights, but reports are sporadic and often unsubstantiated. Locals talk in whispers about the phenomenon, known to some as the Devil’s Bonfires, but often avoid the issue. Reports range from an eerie glow illuminating the whole valley to ghostly Roman soldiers. Locals reluctant to talk, unconfirmed sightings and – like the Black Dog – similar reports elsewhere, have helped cement the Longdendale Lights in the annals of urban legend, at least locally. But could they be “earthquake lights“, as scientists have recently posited?