A Grain of Truth: Urban Legends
My mother grew up in a small community in the mountains of West Virginia. The area was rural, but there were several small towns nearby that her family frequented. Although they were separated by several miles, each burgh had at least one thing in common: a hobo named Toby.
I have heard stories about Toby for as long as I can remember. Growing up, if one of my siblings or I got out of line my mother would tell us that she was going to send us off to live with Toby. We didn't know what she meant, but it was obviously not a good thing.
When we were older, she explained that Toby was an old hobo who traveled from one town to another collecting things to take back to his home in the woods. Those coveted items could be as basic as food that he had managed to scrounge up or odd pieces of clothing. It could also be animals or, more alarmingly, people.
No one knew exactly where he lived or how he managed on his own. All that they did know was that he was to be avoided at all cost. According to local gossip, if he cast his eyes on someone; they risked becoming part of his menagerie.
Loving a good scary tale, we were all mesmerized by her stories of Toby's suspicious deeds. We wondered, out loud, how he could take people away without anyone stepping in to help. My mother told us that things weren't always that simple. Toby didn't grab strangers who met his gaze and then drag them off never to be seen again. This particular hobo had a more unique means to an end.
As the story goes, most people knew instinctively not to make eye contact with Toby or engage him in any way. Even those who had never heard of him were put off by his presence.
Apparently, when he wasn't scavenging, he spent most of his days sitting in the middle of the walkway with his head bowed low to the ground. No one spoke to him or paid him any mind at all, that is, if they knew what was good for them.
When pressed on the still unanswered question of how people could just disappear, my mother explained that if Toby fixed his sights on someone; that person would lose their mind soon afterwards. They would usually wander off during the night when no one else was around.
No amount of searching ever turned up any of the missing persons. Privately, townspeople whispered that Toby had deliberately taken over their will. The hapless victims had no knowledge of anything except for their need to join the man who had cast a spell over them.
It was all silly and impossible to believe, but we ate the story up all the same. My mother told us that we could think what we liked, but she knew that the stories were real. She had seen Toby countless times in her life. Fortunately, he had never seen her.
Growing up, we spent a few weeks every summer at my grandmother's house. When I was a teenager, she moved from the middle of nowhere to a small rental house in town. It was a great relief since now we could at least have a few of the amenities that had been sorely lacking at her old place.
On one of our visits, my cousins and I were bored and decided to take a walk around town. There wasn't much to see, but as we searched for something to do we happened to see a man in layers of clothing sitting against a building.
I can't remember anything special about the man other than the fact that he was dressed so inappropriately for the time of year. Before we could get too close, one of my cousins pulled us back and said that we had to go the other way. It wasn't until we were on our way back to my grandma's house that he told us that the strange man was Toby.
I'm not skeptical by nature, but I didn't believe that the ragged-looking old man could have been the hobo I had heard so much about. It seemed unlikely that someone who had been aged when my mother was a child could still be around when I was in my teens. Still, my cousin swore that we had seen the fabled Toby in the flesh.
Of course, I couldn't wait to tell my mom what my cousin had said. To my surprise, she agreed that the man we had seen was, in fact, Toby. She claimed that she knew this because we had passed him in the car several times on the drive from our home to my grandma's. When I asked her why she hadn't pointed him out to us, she said that it was because she didn't want us to look at him in case he would happen to look back.
Again, the questions came at a frenzied pace. I wondered how this obviously ancient man could have possibly been in town after town along our journey. My mother didn't have an answer. She only reiterated that he had been there; it wasn't her place to figure out how he had accomplished such a feat.
This became a regular ritual for us in the years that followed. Every summer on the drive to my grandmother's house we would keep our eyes peeled for the strange hobo man as we passed through various small towns. It turned out that my mother wasn't crazy; we saw him time and time again. The most frightening aspect of this for my family was the fact that he seemed to arrive in many of the towns ahead of us; even though we were in a vehicle and he was on foot.
I know that it sounds impossible, but the man we spotted was always wearing basically the same outfit. At each sighting, he would be sitting against a building with his head down so low that it nearly touched the pavement. No one around him seemed to even notice that he was there. I had only seen the man whom my cousin identified as Toby one time, but this fellow looked exactly like him right down to the odd way in which he held himself.
My grandmother passed away several years ago and no one in our family has been back to that part of West Virginia since her death. Whether or not Toby still roams the area is an open question. It would seem unlikely given his advanced years.
Still, one has to wonder just who, or what, Toby really was. Was he simply an innocent hobo who became the unwilling subject of a local urban legend? Were all of the stories of people disappearing without a trace after encountering Toby simply town gossip?
These questions can never really be answered, but it seems likely that Toby really did exist. I saw him, or someone who was said to be him, with my own eyes. How and why he traveled vast areas on foot--which I believe he did--is the biggest mystery. I know that over the course of our travels; we saw him in several towns in a very short span of time. Whoever Toby was, he held secrets that conventional wisdom cannot explain.
The scenario for this urban legend usually begins with a group of people gathered together to kick back and have some fun. At some point in the festivities, they convince one among them to enter a darkened bathroom holding only a candle as their guide.
Alone in the room, the brave soul then must turn around three times. On each turn, they are to call out the name "Bloody Mary." When the final turn is completed they are supposed to face the mirror where Mary's image awaits them. They can then pose one question to the conjured spirit, which she is obliged to answer.
As with most things in life; things don't always go as planned. It is said that Bloody Mary appears, but she is in no mood to answer questions. Rather, furious at having been summoned from her eternal rest, she crawls out of the mirror and rips the offending party to pieces. After finishing the ghastly deed, she returns to her place behind the looking glass.
The story of Bloody Mary seems to have its roots in the 1800s. It was during this period that young women were told that they could find the identity of their soul mate by gazing into a mirror. The ritual could only be accomplished in pitch darkness; save for the light of a single candle.
Once night had fallen, the young maiden would light her candle and walk backwards towards a mirror. When she reached her destination, she was to turn around and shine the candle at whatever was reflected in the glass. If everything went according to plan, the face of her future husband would be revealed. If, however, a skull appeared, that meant that the girl's death was imminent. She need not worry about marriage or any future at all for that matter.
It is thought that the stories of the prophetic mirror laid the ground work for the legend of Bloody Mary. It is worth mentioning that, although there have never been any recorded cases of a blood-soaked woman emerging from a mirror to wreak havoc on someone for asking a simple question, there is a physiological basis for the story.
It has been established that if one stands in a darkened room and stares fixedly at a mirror for an extended period of time; hallucinations may result. When this occurs, facial features can appear distorted or disfigured. Some people even claim that the faces of animals are reflected in place of their own.
Our minds are fragile things that can be easily tricked into seeing things that aren't really there; as the aforementioned experiment illustrates. The hallucinations are akin to a sort of self-hypnosis. The subjects' faces don't really change, but the prolonged staring--coupled with the lack of light--rewires their brains into sending images to their eyes that aren't actually there.
Needless to say, I don't recommend trying this yourself. It can't be good for you; either physically or mentally. I'm simply relating information. I did not, and will not, test it. My reflection is scary enough as it is; thank you very much.
As a side note, those prone to superstition will tell you that mirrors are something not to be toyed with. Many believe that when a person dies, their soul will attempt to take refuge in the nearest portal which is usually a mirror. This is why, as a precautionary measure, some people immediately cover mirrors when someone dies.
It is possible that the belief that mirrors can harbor lost souls may have contributed to the legend of Bloody Mary. Perhaps, at some point in time, someone stared into a mirror just long enough to catch a glimpse of one of those trapped souls. We can never know what a mirror has seen or what might be forever captured behind its glass.