google.com, pub-6663105814926378, DIRECT, f08c47fec0942fa0 The Hook Urban Legends 4289

The Hook Urban Legends

Most American teenagers, as well as many adults remembering their high school years and fears, will recognize a story that is summarized in a 1990 collection of urban legends from South Africa. The scene is the community of Bloemfontein on “that landlocked city’s rather inaptly named central landmark” called Naval Hill, a favorite parking place for young couples on dates:

The car radio is playing romantic music. The night is warm with promise. Suddenly a news flash interrupts the music. A lunatic has escaped from Groendakkies [a nearby mental hospital], and was last seen in the Naval Hill area. He can be recognised by the gruesome hook which he has in place of a hand.

The girl is nervous, but the boy is feeling amorous. He doesn’t want to leave. She protests but he tries harder. She demands he remove his hands. He keeps them where they are. She reaches out and switches off the radio. Next thing there’s the sound of a scratch on the door. Terrified, the girl insists that they leave. The boy is furious and he pulls away with a squeal of tyres. At home, he goes round to the passenger door to open it for her and promptly passes out.


There, hanging from the door handle, is the bloody stump of the lunatic’s hook. Despite the numerous inconsistencies in the legend of “The Hook” (the maniac’s being furnished a hook? trying to open the door with the hook hand? lurking outside the car just when the radio mentions him? the frustrated boy politely going around to open the door? and so on), the story has been told avidly and with considerable belief by American adolescents since the 1950s. The story has much older prototypes involving hands cut off when a robber threatens a mounted person; the modern version about an automobile has spread around the world and been localized in countless places. “The Hook” is also a favorite of folklore scholars;

there are no less than 33 references to it in the standard bibliography of urban-legend studies published in 1993. The legend has also been incorporated into comic strips, films, and TV programs to such a degree that the very image of a hook dangling from a car-door handle is enough to suggest for most people the whole genre of urban legends. Although this image destroys the suspense necessary for the legend versions, it highlights the fact that “The Hook” is known even better nowadays as a simple scary story rather than a believed account of something that really happened. Parodies of urban legends almost inevitably allude to this story as well, making it in a sense the archetypal example of the genre.

With numerous texts to examine, a long history of the legend to review, and many specific and puzzling details to explain, folklorists have had a field day with interpretations. Best known of these claims is Alan Dundes’s Freudian interpretation, which explains the hook itself as a phallic symbol and its amputation as a symbolic castration. Other scholars have been content to see the story more literally as a warning against parking, a dramatic example of the reason for parental concern for their children, an expression of fear of the handicapped, or a depiction of the danger possible from a rampaging antisocial person. The Swedish folklorist Bengt af Klintberg cites “The Hook” as an example of a story about “a conflict between representatives of normal people who follow the rules of society and those who are not normal, who deviate and threaten the normal group.” Such a reading is encouraged by comparing “The Hook” to other urban legends in which fingers are lost when someone attempts to assault people who are in a moving car.


An early attempt to record audience responses to a telling of “The Hook” was published by JoAnn Stephens Parochetti in 1965. She observed that in group settings, listeners might ask questions about details of the story, while storytellers would tend to fill in details they were vague about by offering “logical deductions from the parts they could remember.” She published an example of a partial telling of the legend with examples of these devices.

American folklorist Bill Ellis reminds us of the importance (but actually a near impossibility!) of attempting to secure complete verbatim texts of urban legends, using as his example a recorded text of “The Hook” as told and discussed by three young women in Ohio in 1981. Ellis indicated momentary pauses in the narration with line breaks, then marked louder dynamics with all capitols. The tones of voice used by the narrator were classified and labeled in square brackets using the terms Conversational, Narrative, Masculine, Feminine, Superior, and Taunting; each level was defined by aspects of pitch, dynamics, and stress. Here is the section of the story with just one woman in the group speaking in which the girl urges the boy to return home and he finally agrees to do so. (The transcription markings here are slightly simplified):

[Narrative] and he’s and the chick’s saying [Feminine] I got to go home I’m late for curfew [Narrative] And he goes [Masculine] no-no it’s nothing it’s nothing
[Narrative] and um
[Conversational] I won’t go into gory details but
[Narrative] they continue on for a little while and finally the chick says [Masculine] NO it’s MIDNIGHT
I’VE GOT TO GO HOME [Narrative] and um
The guy goes well-[Conversational] no- I I I you know I really don’t think this is the time
[Narrative] and she’s going [Masculine] YES it IS.
[Narrative] And all of a sudden the guy’s going well what can I say next and they hear [Feminine] this really odd noise right beside the car-
[Narrative] and he goes [Feminine] you know I think it’s time to go home [Laughter]

Studied closely, it is apparent in this selection that the boy is portrayed as adopting a more feminine style of speaking as he agrees—as a result of an “odd noise right beside the car” to drive the girl back home. Although there is considerable phallic humor later in this version of “The Hook,” Ellis suggests that the maniac may better be described as “a moral custodian” who breaks up the parking teens’ amorous experiments. The hookman’s handicap, in Ellis’s view, is “his own lack of sexuality.” He concludes that “the threat of the hookman [at least in this telling] is not the normal sex drive of teenagers but the abnormal drive of some adults to keep them apart.”

Bill Ellis “reconsidered” “The Hook” legend several years later, reviewing numerous folklorists’ writings about the story, then examining published texts along with the 70 complete narratives filed in the “Hook” folder in the Folklore Archives at the University of California at Berkeley. After tallying the variations in eight major motifs of the story, Ellis was able to describe the makeup of a “standard” or “typical” version, except that no single text actually turned out to be typical. Instead, Ellis concluded, “What is ‘typical’ in the corpus is variability . . . [and] any effort to privilege any particular motif or any ‘typical’ version of the story as a repository of ‘hidden meaning’ is futile.” Probably the next phase of analyses of “The Hook” will focus attention on contexts, performances, and the actual variability of different tellings, as well as the many appearances of the story in popular culture. Folklorists and others are sure to be hooked on this favorite legend (or whatever it is) for a long time to come.

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