Urban legends are fascinating critters, woven through our lives via chain emails, Facebook, and that thing that happened to a friend of a friend of mine, I swear he was there!
Some urban legends definitely have a basis in fact, even the strangest. The story about the escaped hook-handed killer, and the couple who find a hook on their car door handle may have been inspired by some unsolved attacks in Texarkana in the late 1940s.
But the last legend you’d expect to be rooted in the truth is the bizarre tale of the Fairfax County Bunny Man.
Teenagers from the suburbs in Virginia and Washington, D.C., have kept the legend alive for more than 40 years. The various versions often include details about an escaped mental patient, skinned rabbits (and humans) found in the woods.
Some versions of the story claim that the deranged killer was hit by a train on a rail overpass, which he now haunts. Other versions have him hanging his victims from the bridge.
About all the various versions have in common is the rabbit suit the killer allegedly wears at least part of the time.
The grisly story sounds like it was cobbled together from bits and pieces of horror movies. But it turns out the strangest part – the bunny suit – is actually true.
In October of 1970, police in Fairfax County, Virginia, had a couple of odd reports from frightened residents.
An Air Force Cadet named Robert Bennett was sitting in a car with his fiancée, across the street from his uncle’s home one night in mid-October.
A man ran up and yelled “You’re on private property and I have your tag number!” He then tossed a hatchet through the passenger side car window, fortunately not hitting either occupant. The bunny-suited man ran back into the bushes from whence he had appeared. Police began an investigation.
A few days later, a security guard at a new housing development reported a man dressed as a rabbit, trying to chop down a porch post with an axe. “All you people trespass around here!” he yelled at the guard. When the guard went to get a gun, the Bunny Man vanished into the night.
Finally, someone who called himself “the Axe-Man” called up the builders of the subdivision and blamed them for “messing up my property” by dumping tree stumps and branches.
The Axe-Man agreed to meet with the developers, but he never turned up to the appointment, which was staked out by police.
That was the end of the real Bunny Man. Whoever he was, he hung up his rabbit ears and put away his axe. He never actually killed or injured anyone.
But within days of the two incidents getting media coverage, the stories were spreading through playground rumour, mutating into something new and different.
Why do real incidents turn into legends? Because the legends don’t make much sense.
Who was the Bunny Man? What did he want? Was he cranky about local development, maybe mentally ill? Was it an elaborate prank? Did he take a lot of interesting drugs? Maybe he had a grudge against a specific person? We’ll never know, unless he comes forward.
The urban legends around the Bunny Man are crude, and ugly, and built out of cliches. But they have some kind of narrative structure. Urban legends thrive because we’re bombarded with weird stuff that never seems to make sense. An urban legend puts at least a little control back in our hands. We use it to understand. And understanding is something we’re never getting from the tale of a man in the bunnny suit yelling about trespassing.