Spreading Fear: How 'The Licked Hand' and Other Scary Stories Move Around the Country
One night not long ago, a young woman our age is home alone with her dog and reveling in solitude. Smart, practical, and self-sufficient, she doesn't panic when an alert on her phone informs her that a serial killer has escaped from a nearby prison. With her dog at her heels, she surveys the house, locks the doors and windows, curls up with her dog in bed, finishes her book, and drifts off to sleep.
The girl soon awakens -- she hears a distant dripping sound. Half-awake, she checks the kitchen faucets but gives up and returns to bed, receiving a lick on the hand from her loyal dog in comfort. Again she's roused from slumber by the drip, drip, drip, feels the reassuring lick, and falls back to sleep. But the third time, she hops out of bed, determined to locate the source of the incessant noise, and heads for the bathroom.
When she flips on the light, the scene that greets her is horrific: her beloved dog is hanging from the shower nozzle with its throat cut, the blood dripping onto the ceramic of the tub. Screaming, the girl backs into the wall behind her and collapses, sobbing for the loss of her best friend and terrified by the unimaginable crime. Through tears, she scans and assesses the rest of the room. She stands up and turns around, and there, on the bathroom wall, someone has written in her dog's blood: Humans can lick, too.
This story has many names: "The Legend of the Licked Hand," "Humans Can Lick Too," "The Doggy Lick." I heard it for the first time at a slumber party in North Texas when I was 12, but it is told all over the world. People from Sacramento, Albany, Detroit, South Wales, and Milan have told me they'd heard this story, too, either at a sleepover or around a campfire just on the brink of adolescence. All I had to do was mention a few key plot points over beers and I'd send a friend into shrieks. But then whole swaths of other people I know told me they'd never heard this legend at all.
How is that so many people I've met as adults have been freaked out by the exact same -- or nearly identical -- story that I had heard as a child in Texas? I was determined to find out where the tale came from and how it found its way around the world. Plus, I had to know whether this licked hand girl ever really existed at all.
"The Legend of the Licked Hand" is at least 146 years old. We know because a printed version of it was published in 1871. In 1919, a version with a young professor and a dead student appeared in British author M. R. James's The Diary of Mr. Poynter. It has appeared in numerous collections since then, most notably in Jan Harold Brunvand's 2001 tome, Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, and has been showing up on horror sites like Creepypasta.org for years.
The story was also told, memorably, around a campfire by Alice in Season 5, Episode 10 of The L Word. I reached to the series creators and episode writers, but was told that nobody could remember where the idea came from. This is common with legends, folklorists told me. Any contemporary legend -- folklorists no longer use the word "urban," since these stories exist all over the country and world -- functions like a game of telephone. Someone tells it, and it gets retold so many times that it spawns into a dozen different stories that everyone just somehow knows.
Folklorists have been studying this spread forever. Dr. Andrea Kitta, an associate professor and folklorist at East Carolina University, says that two things make a story a contemporary legend: believability and propagation. Unlike a fairy tale where bears can talk and trees dance, a contemporary legend has to be made of actions recognizable and native to the world around us. Generally, they are set in the recent historical past and, often, they are localized, Kitta says. "It's not just any library that's sinking under the weight of the books," she says, referencing a common contemporary legend about a collegiate library wherein the architect failed to account for the books' mass when engineering the building's foundation. "It's your library down the street."
Kitta also mentions another legend, this one about a bus full of kids who die on a railroad track that I would have sworn happened in the town I grew up in.
"People hear them all over the place," Kitta said. "That's what makes them so interesting to study, that they have resonance in so many places." Often, a contemporary legend is disseminated with a "FOF" (pronounced like "off") disclaimer. That is, the storyteller gives it veracity by mentioning that it happened to a "friend of a friend." This is particularly common in city-specific stories like the one about a girl with a dead dog in a suitcase or the super-rats of Hurricane Sandy. Hearing that something happened to a person only a few steps removed is what makes a contemporary legend so easily believable. These stories happen in your town, and my town, and every single town in America. They belong everywhere and nowhere. We all get to claim them as our own.
Contemporary legends are "short, apocryphal tales which are told as true, involve a contemporary setting and feature a single event, usually an individual experience, as the core of the story," says Dr. Joseph M. Stubbersfield, a research fellow in the propagation of narratives and cognitive bias at Durham University in the United Kingdom. "Although people often use the term more widely to refer to misinformation in general."
These stories belong everywhere and nowhere. We all get to claim them as our own.
Dr. Stubbersfield points to two key characteristics that determine whether a story spreads far and wide. The first is whether it carries social information, to which we are especially susceptible. "Greater intelligence in primates likely evolved because being able to keep track of complex social relationships in groups gave individuals an advantage," he says. Knowing, in the example of "The Licked Hand," that your dog could be a person or, more granularly, that you should never take your safety for granted could be an evolutionary advantage. The second key characteristic, he says, is its emotional resonance. Stories that are especially disgusting, scary, or hilarious are sticky and therefore easy to spread.
"With 'The Licked Hand' there are variants where the dog is dead, variants where you hear a dripping sound all night, variants where it's an ex-boyfriend. I've even heard a different version where instead of a dog, it's a partner who in the morning turns out to be someone entirely different," Kitta says. "When you hear a lot of variants of a story, you know a lot of people are telling it, and they're all changing it up a little bit."
Because they're a product of oral storytelling, legends are almost impossible to trace. "We want to know where something comes from, and we do look for print versions," Kitta says. These stories have the advantage of never being so complicated that they couldn't have actually happened, or that multiple people couldn't have invented them separately, Kitta adds. A story like "The Licked Hand" might have been told to a writer on The L Word as a child, who wrote it into the show, which was then seen by millions of people who then passed it on, forgetting where it came from, until someone eventually passes it down again. Folklore and popular culture symbiotically feed off of each other, and together eschew the necessity of factual verification for a story to circulate.
When I first heard "The Licked Hand" at a slumber party in the early 2000s in North Texas, it was told as the true tale of a girl who had lived in the neighboring subdivision years earlier. There was no way this could have actually happened. The closest prison to my hometown is more than 20 miles away, and the subdivision itself had been built in the 1980s. If this had happened, someone would remember it firsthand, and someone would have told us about it, right? Then again, adults are always hiding things, always keeping the good stories from children, so why not believe it? It certainly seemed true.
It's easy to become wrapped up in these stories as a pre-teen whispering around a campfire or a huddled circle of sleeping bags. As Trevor Blank, a professor at SUNY Potsdam who studies modern folklore, told New York magazine, children and adolescents love legends because they "get to experience the story; they hear the motifs, but often create their own iterations, which also helps them to kind of flex their own creative muscles and imagine a darker side of the world -- the side of the world that you are running away from as a child but are constantly being pulled into as you enter adulthood, facing these dark realities of the world and leaving innocence behind."
The "dark realities" Blank refers to are compelling. Researchers who analyzed more than 220 contemporary legends found that the stories referenced hazards of life far more often than the securities. Which makes sense: It's far safer to become engrossed in a risk that doesn't exist than to ignore a real one. On top of that, if a story scares you, research has found that you're more likely to pass it on.
This has been true for probably all of modern human history. We have evidence of people mailing each other urban legends in letters, faxing them in the '80s, and sending them in email chains in the '90s and early 2000s. "The spread of stories is certainly more widespread and not always by word of mouth anymore," Kitta says. With the rise of the internet and social media, a story that is much more legend than fact can disseminate quickly and widely.
"A big potential effect is the fact that digital communication means that you can pass on a story without having to remember it, you can just retweet or copy-and-paste content," Stubbersfield says. "This could have a big impact on the nature of urban legends compared to being spread by word-of-mouth with selection of what is read becoming more important than the pressures of having to recall something, and potentially changing it when you retell it."
The internet exposes us to more contemporary legends than any other era in human history. It also, in theory, gives us the ability to fact-check them instantly, though no one really does. "I don't think our access to information will change people's belief in them," says Stubbersfield. "I think, for the most part, people don't really question these stories that much." Dishearteningly, there is evidence to back this up. A 2014 psychological study found that knowledge does not hold enough weight to fully counter repetition. If we hear a story that seems true, we'll believe it whether or not it has been disproven.
"The lack of verification in no way diminishes the appeal that urban legends have for us," Jan Harold Brunvand wrote in his 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. "We enjoy them merely as stories, and tend to at least half-believe them as possibly accurate reports."
Some of these stories may actually be based on a true event, but there's no way of knowing. "It's possible that, even if a story isn't technically true, it's true in the sense of ostension," says Kitta, in that someone who hears a story might then act out the story. This happens with contemporary legends, like placing razors in children's Halloween candy after hearing about it elsewhere. All legends, then, are believable but not ever truly verifiable.
That certainly, though, doesn't keep anyone from telling or believing them. Even though "The Licked Hand" is a legend with little basis in reality -- I know this academically and truthfully -- during the time I reported this story, I jerked awake every single time I felt my dog in bed with me at night, relieved that my faucet was silent.