'And then, when he saw the other side of the car, where his date had been sitting not 15 minutes earlier, on the door handle, hung . . . a bloody . . . HOOK!"
It's always happened to someone's friend or their brother or sister. And it's always just one or two steps removed from you, and close enough to a credible source that will temporarily disable your internal BS detector.
Anyone who has ever spent a few idle hours trading stories with their friends will know some of the most common urban legends -- the crazy man with a hook for a hand, the prank-calling murderer, the human finger found in a can of soup.
Occupying a place on the pop culture shelf somewhere between the Guinness Book of Records and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, urban legends are the modern mutation of traditional oral culture, sharing chills as well as warnings and values to all who care to listen.
According to the "How Stuff Works" Web site, urban legends can be subtle or not-so-subtle lessons (finger in soup equals beware of processed food), moral warnings (don't engage in pre-marital sexual activity in parked cars or something really bad will happen to you) or are just simple bastardizations of actual stories that have had bits and pieces added on for entertainment value as they are passed from person to person.
In Japan, fantastical storytelling is rampant in anime and manga, and Japanese ghost stories have been a topic of much interest in academic circles as well as those who just looking for a good scare.
Here's a selection of some of Japan's most famous:
"Toire no Hanako-san"
A young girl raises her hand in class. She has to use the facilities.
As she walks down the hallway and enters the bathroom, she becomes uncomfortably aware that she is completely alone.
But an eerie feeling steals over her as she walks by the empty stalls -- one, two, three. As she walks, she gets the feeling that she is no longer alone, and there is a presence with her in the bathroom.
As she passes the fourth stall, she sees a gleaming pair of eyes staring back at her.
This is Hanako-san.
Found in every elementary school in Japan, Hanako-san, or more formally, "Toire no Hanako-san," inhabits the fourth stall of the girl's bathroom.
The ubiquitous ghost is sometimes rumored to be the spirit of a suicide prompted by "ijime," or bullying, but is also known to just be there, for no reason.
In fact, Hanako-san doesn't seem to really do that much except scare the hell out of the kids that need to use the restroom.
The story is well-known enough to have been made into a horror movie ("Toire no Hanako-san") that, in true horror film form, spawned a sequel ("Shinsei Toire no Hanako-san").
It is a dark and dreary night.
Cruising down a deserted country road, a lone driver rubs his eyes and fights to stay awake.
As the car takes a turn, a beautiful woman hails from the side of the road.
She is wearing flowing white. The driver, entranced, pulls by the side of the road to give the woman a lift. As she approaches the car he sees that her eyes are stunning, her body, lithe and graceful, a true beauty.
The lower half of her face is draped with a white cloth.
After slipping into the back seat and waiting for the car to resume its journey, the woman asks the man, "Am I beautiful?"
He answers, "Yes, you are beautiful," his eyes flicking toward the rear-view mirror to catch a glimpse of his passenger's face.
As he does so, however, she pulls the cloth from her face, revealing a horrible gash of a mouth, sliced from ear to ear, with a red tongue twisting in it's cavern.
Through the driver's subsequent screams, all that can be heard is "Am I beautiful? Am I beautiful? Am I . . ." repeated over and over again.
An alternative version of this story has "Kuchisake onna," or the "Split-faced women" -- who can reportedly run 100 meters in 3 seconds -- chasing and disfiguring young children. This tale gained large currency around Japan in 1979, for some reason. It's also been reported that Kuchisake onna can be distracted by throwing fruit at her, leaving the intended victim with just enough time to make his or her escape.
A taxi driver is traveling down a lonely mountain road.
A person steps out of the darkness to hail a ride. After getting into the back seat, the passenger asks the cabbie to take him to a place the cabbie has never heard of.
No matter, the passenger assures him, if the cabbie doesn't know the way, he can give him directions. The cabbie shrugs his assent and they drive off down the road.
The passenger proceeds to give the cabbie increasingly complex directions, through small towns, down back streets, out into the country again.
As he drives through the misty night, the cabbie becomes increasingly uneasy, after all, they have been driving for quite a while.
As he turns to ask the passenger in the back exactly where they are, he is shocked to find that the passenger has disappeared . . . just as his taxi drives over the edge of a cliff.
Two girls, sitting across from each other over a paper scrawled with the hiragana alphabet grasp a pen between them, chanting the name softly. "Kokkuri-san, Kokkuri-san, tell me, when is the date of my death?"
The question hangs in the air as the pen slowly begins to move, spelling the answer out on the sheet of paper. The rest of the group watches in breathless anticipation.
Kokkuri-san, Japan's answer to the Ouija board, has graced schoolrooms across the country for years with answers from the beyond.
In this game, the hiragana alphabet is drawn on a piece of paper, and two people hold a pen, ballpoint touching the paper, in the center.
Closing their eyes, they ask "Kokkuri-san" a question, and the spirit is supposed to move the pen in an answer.
According to a Japanese friend, much like Ouija, most people realize that the other person is moving the pen purposefully, but everyone makes their dutiful squeals of "sugoi!" and "kowaii!" anyway.
Also, in line with its Ouija board counterpart, the game has been subject fodder for horror movies such as the aforementioned "Shinsei no Toilet no Hanako-san," and one called simply "Kokkuri-san."