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The tale of ‘The Lights’, a close relative of ‘The Roommates Death’ that appeared in folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand’s book, ‘The Vanishing Hitchhiker’ in 1981, and ‘Humans can Lick too’ always involves the murder of somebody right in front of a protagonist, blinded by the darkness. More often than not, the victim's mutilated body isn’t discovered until much later, usually revealed by the light of day the following morning. The iterations vary, from the, often female protagonist believing the sounds are somebody messing around or having sex in the other bed. In iterations where the crime is happening in another room and the victim is trying to get inside for help, the protagonist remains still, believing someone is instead trying to get to her and she herself is in danger.

Proving itself to go further back than any of us could have imagined, the first iteration of this Urban Legend goes all the way back to the 19th century England, a few years before the cases of Jack the Ripper, on the 11th August 1871, a diary entry by Dearman Birchall read:  “[One of the guests] told of a clergyman who was aroused in the middle of the night by his wife who said ‘John, dear, I am sure there is a robber under the bed, I hear him moving. Do get up and see.’ John replied, ‘Oh, its only the Newfoundland dog. I just put my hand out and he licked it’. Next morning all the jewellery and many other effects had disappeared.”In 1919, a version appeared again in a tale called The Diary of Mr Poynter from British author M.R. James. Telling the story of a man who is engrossed in an ancient account of the death of a student, obsessed his own hair. He leans down to absently pet his dog - oblivious of the true nature of the creature crouching beside him.

It seems our anxieties that we live with have remained a part of our lives for as long as civilisation itself. To lay in your own bend and slumber is where your guard is truly let down - it is in most ways where you are most vulnerable. For a story to come out of the woodworks that confirms that very fear is, of course, going to ignite the imaginations and nervous excitements of those who hear the tale. When a violent crime happens in our town or our part of the city, there is always a strange twisting sensation inside of our stomachs where we consider ourselves both lucky, and suddenly aware of our exposure to horrific crimes. Throughout our everyday lives we convince ourselves we are safe and comfortable and we live by this until the day something rocks our belief and perception, unveiling that fear that sits inside of us. 

Bobby Duffy, Rhonda Wake, Tamara Burrows, and Pamela Bremna of the Global Market Research and Public opinion Specialists conducted an intensive study that found that in the UK, 55% of British people consider crime and violence as one of the most worrying issues in life for them - this one of the highest levels of concern that they had ever recorded for any single issue and was 20 percentage points more than the next most important issue listed. It seems that those of us in Britain consider Crime and Violence a higher priority for the British Public than many other European countries and the USA. This, surprisingly, has been a consistent theme since as far back as 1997. There is a darkness in every corner of every street, there is a wonder that you have asked yourself, one that asks if you have ever met and spoken to a Murderer that has never been caught. At the very least, there is a high chance you have passed one in the street. If you have never considered this, I imagine you might the next time you’re walking down a busy road, watching the blur of faces that pass you by full of light and dark in ways that we will never truly know. 

For me, it is that notion that makes this Urban Legend so horrifying - that although a far more theatrical and over the top interpretation, it is an event that is all too familiar that causes those goosebumps to rise as the stories reveal themselves. With the focus on the horrifying aspects of it, we cannot forget the element of guilt and frustration that is built alongside it. For a long time, I struggled to forgive myself for not acting faster when I woke up to find that man lying in the road that I mentioned at the beginning of this recording. I was a teenager, drunk, and half awake and yet the fact it took me 30 seconds to get up and to that window and on top of that, another 30 seconds to gather the information and begin to jump into action, only to find that by then, several others had already run to his aid from other houses played on my mind for years. Even now I feel a discomfort in my stomach as I share the event with you.

The notion of a murder occurring in the same room as you, or even the room next door whilst you lay in a peaceful slumber is another to make any individual lose sleep. This is what makes the gloating, prideful scrawling of text in blood on the wall ever more bitter, as the killer mocks your incompetence whilst confidently finishing their horrific act. Although this crime is completely fictional with none of the events based on any truth in our reality, the story was widely believed across American campuses in the mid to late 90’s, introducing fear and anxiety into the world of the young that were already so excited and afraid to be so far from their parents, out in the world by themselves.

It is a constant theme in these cautionary tales of the young away from the comfort of their family home, they are consistent reminders of just how strange it is to step away and into the chaos of life by yourself. We feel old and mature enough to handle the big wide world out there - but even the most confidence will share that anxiety that sneaks through the cracks of the excitement as the new world is suddenly thrust upon us. We believe ourselves to be prepared but the nerves remain. These nerves are healthy and perfectly reasonable - it would be strange not to feel anything about the prospect of your entire life-changing, now having to fend for yourself entirely as you step out into the world of work or college.

Throughout its long life, the story has factors that are consistent throughout, everlasting aspects to the tale; the first is the writing on the wall, it is almost always there, whether it be in blood or lipstick, adding the big theatrical set piece to the finale, it is this imagery that burns the story into our skulls. The second is that the protagonist is so often a women, that, due to many factors just makes the story creepier as we imagine the killer's eyes watching her enter the room - thus leading to a mystery of why she was left to survive. 

 

We are all aware in some way that a violent crime could occur at any day - nobody that has ever been attacked in the dark, out of the blue has ever expected it to happen. We are all too familiar with the prospect that we are vulnerable in such an unsafe world, one that proves itself to be so dark and dangerous the more we read and understand by the purposely chosen shocking news segments on TV and online.  The reason these Urban Legends slowly fade away, only to appear again with full force in a boomerang-like fashion is simply down to the anxieties of that time - matching them with whatever tale catches onto our fears. In today’s world of unrest and divisiveness amongst us all, it is no wonder Urban Legends are reappearing in the world again.

© Luke Mordue

Based in London, UK