See Your Favorite Urban Legend Brought To Life In This Art Show Of Nightmares

From frozen Walt Disney to the haunted boy on eBay, artists reimagine global urban legends in a new exhibit.

Walt Disney did not, as it turns out, have himself cryogenically frozen. But that didn’t stop Burt Payne and SpongeBob SquarePants Bob creator Stephen Hillenburg from investigating the urban legend for themselves. While students at CalArts, they rummaged through the basement of the university’s main building looking for signs of suspended animation. Instead, they found the quirky inspiration for “Frozen Walt Doll.”


Their sculpture is one of some three dozen art pieces on display in Hearsay: Artists Reveal Urban Legends. Running through May 17, the Cal State Fullerton exhibition celebrates mutant superstars of modern folklore including Goat Man, Sewer Gator, Bigfoot, and Poodle Fried in a Microwave.

In addition to American monstrosities, artists pay homage to Japanese urban legend “Teke Teke,” said to wander the streets with no legs after being torn in half by schoolyard bullies. Then there’s the bitter Korean plastic surgery victim known as “Red Mask,” who, so the story goes, taunts strangers with her mutilated visage.

The Creepier The Better

Heresay co-curator Wendy Sherman says, “The definition of urban legends is kind of difficult, but for me, it’s about confronting your fear, the creepier the better.” Exhibition essayist Jan Harold Brunvand notes that “modern folklore has spawned many rumors of an animal–usually a fearsome one–lurking where it does not belong.”

But Sherman gave artists wide berth to reference ghost stories, scary clowns, and supernatural phenomena for inspiration. She says, “The most horrible, scary, disgusting thing you can think of–if you can just get it out there and tell a story about it, then you don’t need to be so afraid any more.”

Connecting Through Gossip

Urban legends flourished during the pre-Photoshop era when Weekly World News and other tabloids shocked the collective id with hilarious mutants like Batboy. In the Internet age, outlandish lore continues to ignite people’s imagination. For example, the “haunted” eBay painting The Hands Resist Him that went viral in the early 2000s is represented in the exhibition by Gregg Gibbs’s Haunted Boy portrait. “That was completely generated online,” Sherman says. “One important aspect of urban legends is that it’s gossip–‘Ooh, I’ve got this story!’ It’s a way to connect with each other, and, like Aesop’s Fables, there’s usually a moral to the story.”

Check the slide show for a sampling of urban legend artworks and their gruesome backstories as described in the artists’ own statements.


Images courtesy of the artists.

About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.