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Friday, October 30, 2020

10 Classic Urban Legends as Seen in “Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction”

Between 1997 and 2002, devoted fans of Fox’s Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction — an interactive anthology series where audiences had to deduce which of the five presented segments were based on truth and which were totally fabricated — stopped everything and watched the show whenever it sporadically returned to television. During those four seasons it was on the air, audiences witnessed the strangest stories to ever come across their eyes. 

Throughout its run, Beyond Belief slipped in a few modern folktales and urban legends that still linger in some shape or form today. Many of these myths were instantly debunked by the end of each episode, but as the show taught us, there’s always a thin line between fact and fiction.


A woman looks to repair and reopen her late father’s “cursed” carousel years after it was closed due to a series of accidents that led to multiple injuries and one death; the merry-go-round has remained in storage ever since. The woman’s husband decides to host a promotional contest where he’ll ride one of the wooden horses for 100 hours. On that fateful day, however, the husband claims the horse bit him before he finally dies. Upon closer inspection, the wife and spectators see it wasn’t the ride that killed him — slithering out from the horse’s mouth is a venomous snake that hibernated there when the carousel was stored inside a shed in the Everglades.

Legends about snakes lurking in department stores, ball pits, and amusement parks were common starting in the mid-twentieth century. Urban legends often highlight xenophobia and the fear of the unknown, and this particular story has variations that include that element. The snake or other lethal contaminants are thought to be a direct result of importing goods like park rides and clothing.

Seven Hours of Bad Luck

When a woman breaks a mirror, her friend urges her to leave the broken pieces as they are for seven hours. That way, there is only seven hours of bad luck as opposed to seven years. The “cursed” protagonist humors her friend and experiences a series of mishaps and danger — a leaking pen, no running water, a power outage, and finally, a home intruder.

The idea that a broken mirror will cause seven years of misfortune was conceived by the Romans, so it dates further back than all urban legends. The explicit mention of seven years is important because that is how long the Romans believed it took for the soul to renew itself.

In the Beyond Belief segment, the friend’s method of leaving the shards alone for seven hours is just one known method of avoiding the full curse. Other folk remedies include pounding the pieces until they can no longer cast a reflection, or throwing them into a south-running stream.

Two Sisters

A pair of sisters has feuded since they were young, and the one-sided rivalry only worsens with age. When one of them marries, the other becomes extremely jealous; luckily for the green-eyed sister, the other contracts a fatal disease. The surviving sibling not only marries her dead sister’s husband, she also steals her funeral gown so she can wear it at the wedding. At the ceremony, the woman dies from a severe allergic reaction to the embalming fluid still on the odorous gown.

The “poisoned dress” legend has been around since the 1940s, and it’s regularly told with unsuspecting, innocent women as the victims; they purchased or inherited the dress without realizing it was once worn by an embalmed corpse. Beyond Belief sees to it that the dress acts as a form of revenge from beyond the grave, and the end results are a classic case of comeuppance.

Morning Sickness

A mother and father suspect their daughter has been sexually active with her boyfriend, and now she’s showing the telltale signs of pregnancy. The daughter, however, is adamant that she isn’t pregnant despite what her parents think. Finally, a doctor’s examination states the daughter actually has a large cyst that requires surgery. To their horror, though, the surgeons instead remove a baby octopus from inside the patient.

News outlets have reported on this myth, or ones like it, for years; medical professionals refute its validity. In other variations, the octopus is either a frog, a snake, or a lizard. Why the tale persists may have something to do with people’s fascination with body horror.

The Impossible Car Dream

When a father loses his job, he can’t keep a promise to buy his son a car. This is when the teenager dreams of buying a classic sports car for $1; he later finds an ad for the same car in the newspaper. To his mother’s amazement, her son’s dream was accurate since the seller is willing to part ways with the car for a mere dollar. She explains that while it’s her husband’s car, it’s in her name, and she’s selling it as punishment for his adulterous behavior.

Although Ann Landers claimed a version of this story was true, it’s not clear how valid other retellings are. It’s not that farfetched to sell someone’s belongings out of spite, all things considered. The car is often sold for a price ranging from $1 to $50, and the motive for a cheap sale is always a cheating spouse. Another urban legend about coming into good fortune was also dramatized in Beyond Belief — in “Last Rites,” a woman inherits a stranger’s wealth after being the only attendee at his funeral.

Bus Stop

While driving, a man spots a woman waiting for her bus. He tells her that he saw her bus broken down earlier, so he gives her a ride home. When he returns to the same house later to ask her out, he meets her sister, who tells him her sister — the woman he picked up — died years ago. Even though he’s shocked and confused, the man ultimately hits things off with the other sister.

“The Phantom Hitchhiker,” or “The Woman in White,” is perhaps one of the oldest and most well-known urban legends around. Every region has its own version of the same story; from the A229 in the UK to Balete Drive in Quezon City, Manila, these spectral women are iconic.

However, this Beyond Belief segment completely saps the horror element and makes the disappearing ghost more of a supernatural matchmaker. Rather than punishing the unaware driver who picks her up, the spirit leads him to her single sister.

The Hooded Chair

A rich man buys the infamous Hooded Chair, a relic said to kill anyone who dares sit in it. He’s arrogant about the curse, but when his employee dies after sitting in the chair, he changes his tune. The origin of the chair is finally revealed — Napoleon Bonaparte sat in it before his Waterloo defeat.

Beyond Belief reports this segment was based on truth, but like so many other instances where the story is deemed factual, the basis is just a legend. There is supposedly a cursed chair that was owned by Napoleon.

Grave Sitting

Two teenagers dare one of their friends to sit on a murderer’s grave in a local cemetery for two hours, and so long as she stays put, she’ll win $100. When the time is up, all she has to do is plunge a knife into the grave. Everything seems to be going well until the grave sitter’s paranoia sets in. In her rush to escape the killer’s ghost, she stabs the grave — but now she can’t move! Finally, it’s revealed the girl died of fright, and what she thought was the ghost attacking her was really her imagination running wild. When she thrust the knife into the grave, she pinned her coat to the ground.

Fans of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark will instantly recognize this one as an update of “The Girl Who Stood on a Grave.” Some versions of the tale take things a little farther and say the victim’s hair turned white because she was so scared.

Bright Lights

A woman stops at a roadside diner to ask for directions, but all she gets is the unwanted advances of a burly truck driver. After refusing him, the woman drives off into the night. That’s when the same man comes after her, blaring his horn and flashing his brights. Once they both pull over, the trucker reveals he was trying to warn the woman about the stranger hiding in her backseat.

The 1998 teen slasher Urban Legend brought this driving myth back into popular circulation, but it’s also appeared in older, more obscure horror movies like 1983’s Nightmares and 1984’s Mr. Wrong. And a week before this Beyond Belief episode aired, Chris Carter’s Millennium featured the “Killer in the Backseat” story in the episode “The Pest House.”

Another common rendition of the legend has a woman stopping to buy gas when the station attendant pulls her away from her car because he spots the killer crouched behind the front seat.

Room 245

A daughter leaves her sick mother in their hotel room while she goes to pick up her prescription. Upon her return, the daughter is unable to access her room, the staff doesn’t remember her, and the doctor who prescribed the medicine has no recollection of either woman. The manager finally lets the daughter into the room she claims was hers; it’s empty and the mother is gone, never to be seen again.

This eerie segment is based on “The Vanishing Hotel Room” or “The Vanishing Lady” legend that has been perpetuated as truth for many years. In the past, the story’s setting is Paris, and the hotel staff actually disposes of the ill mother’s body after she dies from the plague. Not wanting bad press, the hotel then covers up the incident.

Various movies have adapted the myth, including The Midnight Warning (1932), The Lady Vanishes (1938), and So Long at the Fair (1950). The Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “Into Thin Air” and more recent films like The Forgotten (2004) and Flightplan (2005) all contain elements from the same legend.


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