Unlike old-time legends, few of today's urban legends describe the supernatural; instead, they tend to be as plausible as ordinary experiences.
Do people no longer tell spooky legends, or are folklorists ignoring them? Perhaps horror films and TV shows, or science fiction, have taken their place.An example of the kind of legend I mean is "The Dream Warning," a story reported often by folklorists years ago but not recently. I've culled these versions of the legend from the journal called Hoosier Folklore.
In the first, a person dreams of a hearse driven by a tall, sinister man who says, "Room for one more!"
Not long afterward, the person is about to climb into a crowded taxi when the driver says, "Room for one more!" Spooked by the similarities between life and legend, the person declines the ride. Later he learns that the taxi crashed on the trip, killing all its occupants.
A variation takes place in a department-store elevator, and it's a sinister elevator operator who says, "Room for one more!"
Version No. 3 of "The Dream Warning" is said to have really happened at a small college in Mississippi. A female student woke up with a start one night, looked out her window and saw a hearse driven by a man with a scar on his face.
She saw him three nights running, and each time he said, repeating the phrase three times: "Going down!"
One day not long afterward she sees the same scarred face on the elevator operator at her bank, and he too says, "Going down!"
You can probably guess the ending by now.
I've found only one other version of the legend, in a collection of stories compiled in 1953 by Albert Howard Carter of the University of Arkansas.
"This girl was at a house party," this version begins. "Late one night after everyone had gone to bed, she was awakened by the brightness of the moon shining into her room.
"She rose to pull the shade further down, but while at the window she looked out to see a coach - of all things - coming up the drive, with a coachman who had the most haunting kind of face.
"She was extremely puzzled, and the more she thought about it the more mysterious it seemed to her, especially the fact that the coach had made no sound whatsoever.
"The next day, she looked on the gravel drive for horses' hoof prints and wheel tracks, but there were none. At first she thought it was part of the entertainment, a surprise, and so she didn't mention it to her hostess. As a matter of fact, she dismissed it as part of a dream.
"Some time later, she was in Marshall Field's (department store) waiting for an elevator. One came, and the operator called out, `Going down?' She took one look at him and saw that he had the face of the coachman she had seen at the house party.
"She was so taken aback that she walked away from the elevator and didn't get on.
"The doors closed, and the elevator crashed to the basement, killing all the occupants."
These legends remind me of a horror movie or some other kind of popular thriller. Possibly some version of the story was published somewhere or was dramatized on radio or television, but I haven't come across any yet.
Perhaps people no longer tell "The Dream Warning" or "The Phantom Coachman," not finding them interesting or even plausible. After all, how many of us speak of "house parties," and how many department stores still have elevator operators?
C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate Inc.