The Hook Handed Killer, like most urban legends, has many different variations. Legends, by nature, morph as stories are shared and retold. Sometimes the stories change to embrace the current time period, while other changes are part of the teller’s creative license. Each retelling morphs the story to fit the values and issues of the time period they are in. The Hook Handed Killer has become more gruesome over the years, which coincides with American tolerance for gore and fascination with more horrific stories.
The Hookman Story
Donald and Sarah went to the movies. Then they went for a ride in Donald’s car. They parked up on a hill at the edge of town. From there, they could see the lights up and down the valley. Donald turned on the radio and found some music. But an announcer broke in with a news bulletin. A murderer has escaped from the state prison. He is armed with a knife and is headed south on foot. His left hand is missing. In its place, he wore a hook.
“Let’s roll up the windows and lock the doors,” said Sarah. “That’s a good idea,” said Donald. “That prison isn’t too far away,” said Sarah, “Maybe we really should go home.” “But it’s only ten o’clock,” said Donald. “I don’t care what time it is,” she said, “I want to go home.”
“Look, Sarah,” said Donald, “he’s not going to climb all the way up here. Why would he do that? Even if he did, all the doors are locked. How could he get in?” “Donald, he could take that hook and break through a window and open a door,” she said. “I’m scared and I want to go home.”
Donald was annoyed. “Girls always are afraid of something,” he said. As he started the car, Sarah thought she heard someone, or something, scratching at her door. “Do you hear that?” she asked as they roared away. “Sounded like somebody’s trying to get in.” “Oh, sure,” said Donald. Soon they got to her house. “Would you like to come in and have some cocoa?” she asked. “No,” he said. “I’ve got to go home.”
He went around to the other side of the car to let her out. Hanging on the door handle was a hook.
From what I can tell, this story first started circulating in the early 1950s. The 1950s were a whole new era for Americans. The country was undergoing huge changes after WWII. Men had returned from serving in the military and resumed their careers. Woman returned to their roles in the home after being called to work during the war. People began moving outside of large cities and what we now know as the suburbs began to grow. With new neighborhoods being constructed and factories being able to produce goods faster, these changes lead to a boom in consumerism as well. Being able to buy premade items, such as clothes, allowed people more free time than ever before.
Teenagers were allowed to be kids for longer and many were able to continue their education through high school. Without the stress of leaving school to work there was more time for socializing with other teens. However, teenagers in any decade are, well, teenagers. We all know how it goes, boy meets girl, boy takes girl to movies, then boy drives girl to a quiet spot off the beaten path for a little kissing. However, the girl gets scared by the news of the escape prisoner, so the boy, irritated that his plans have been ruined, brings the girl home. They were relieved to discover that they barely made it out of Lover’s Lane alive.
The second version, sometimes titled “Don’t look Back” is darker but similar in many ways. It’s not clear when this story morphed into a more sinister version, but it looks like somewhere around the early 1990s. In the newer version, the boy and girl are in a similar secluded spot when they hear noise outside the car. The boy gets out of the car to investigate the noise (Have scary movies taught us nothing?) The girl stays in the car and locks the doors. After what seems like a long time, the boy doesn’t come back, but she hears scraping on the roof of the car. Even more afraid, she hides in the car with all the doors locked and waits. Eventually the police show up. It turns out the scraping noise was the boy’s feet dragging on the roof of the car. He was hung from a tree, and in some versions gutted. The police tell her that there was an escaped prisoner in the area.
Why A Hook?
I know you’re asking yourself why a hook hand? Well hooks are scary. Hooks are usually sharp and can be used as a weapon. Hooks have been used in legends and scary movies for a long time. One of the most common characters with a hook hand are pirates. While pirates are currently portrayed as dramatic and fun (aka Jack Sparrow) real pirates are terrifying. The real pirates of the Caribbean were dangerous murderers who raided port cities and towns. They robbed, raped, and pillaged these villages, leaving a wake of destruction in their paths. They were not fun loving and charismatic villains trying to get their ship back and look for rum. (Why is all the rum gone?)
Humans have been telling stories before there was a written language. The art of storytelling was developed to share information, entertain, but also to provide a lesson and education for the next generation. We can show that almost every society in history had a method of story sharing. While urban legends are not Aesop’s fables most have a lesson or warning as part of the underlying theme.
Both versions of The Hook are told as a tale of caution for teens. A nice girl goes to a secluded place with a boy where there is potential for sex or sex acts to take place. Sexual exploration is common among teens, but society expects girls to be chaste and resist all advances.
The Hook and similar stories were meant to be shared as a warning about premarital sex and the potential dangers of being alone with a boy. While the standards changed slightly between 1950 and 1990 there was still a stigma around premarital sex, especially among teen girls.
I know you’re asking why not just teach kids about sex instead of creating a fantastic story? The short answer is even today sex is a taboo topic. Repeating stories is a way to help manage fears about difficult issues. While it may not seem like it on the surface this story communicates fears about relationships, sex, date rape, and many other scary topics associated with being a teenager.
Overall, this is a pretty scary story that has been adapted to fit with the times. Now the girl will have a cell phone, but the phone will be dead or without signal. What is scarier to a teen than being without their phone?
Hooks and escaped convicts will always be scary. Prisoners have already shown that they don’t have regard for the law and if they have escaped, they don’t want any witnesses pointing the authorities in their direction. So moral of the story, don’t go to some dark place to have premarital sex when there is an escaped, hook handed murder on the loose. It will end poorly. You have been warned.