The Mad Axeman, urban legend and Harry Potter


I’ve an interest in the theory around urban legend and reading an article on that subject, I got to thinking about the role of urban legend in the Harry Potter series. Much has been said about the way JK Rowling portrays the news media in Harry Potter, but are urban legends also engaged in the way urban fears grow and diminish in the wizarding world as the series develops?

I couldn’t say without re-reading the books, but I’m thinking about the panic that circulates in the books when there are escapes from Azkaban (and every time Voldemort is reported seen). Certainly, Rowling emphasises both the exaggerated state of communal panic and the disparity between fact and fiction in reports of citings… anyway, the thought was prompted by an article on the inherent interweaving of legend and life (as exemplified by the urban legend, ‘The Mad Axeman’ in the UK).

Michael Wilson explains how this urban legend, ‘The Mad Axeman’, seems to have fed on news reports of a violent prisoner’s escape from Dartmoor prison in 1966 (Frank Mitchell). Consequent to this escape, it took on a cautionary role in the community, particularly for females. While the legend predates the escape, the panic caused by media reportage of Mitchell’s escape seems to have meant that the legend entered the adolescent oral repertoire to be retold to each other by teenagers well into the 1990s (Wilson cites figures that demonstrate the story’s continued popularity). Its status as truth/fiction shifts with the teller…. (Wilson also suggests the panic was in part fed by the media’s reliance on the mythology already created around Mitchell’s previous violence, precisely because there was an absence of Police information – Mitchell was never found)

‘The Mad Axeman’ legend, Wilson explains, “touched a nerve within the community, which was aggravated by the media’s concentrating precisely on the coincidences between fact and folklore. The press operated as an effective interface between folklore and reality, and Mitchell was absorbed into folklore.” (p.92)

Some quotes:

The relationship between legend and life

“The relationship between legend and life, narrative folklore and reality, is one that has fascinated folklorists for some time, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the field of contemporary legend. Scholars are constantly dealing with material that is presented as fact, and yet, because they have encountered wide-spread variants they presume it to be largley fiction. Recently it has been recognised that the relationship is a complex one; that legends often contain a blend of fact and fiction; that this is perhaps precisely why contemporary legends are so believable; and that the relationship between legend and life is a two-way process.” (p.89)

Wilson gives two other examples before embarking on his own – the Axeman – in depth (the tensions between: the murders of Peter Sutcliffe, ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’, and ‘The Hairy-Handed Hitchhiker’; the armed robberies of Caryl Chessman in LA and ‘The Hook’ legend). Of these, he writes that “…the popularity of the story was enhanced by a set of widely-publicised real-life incidents which seemed to echo folklore.” (p.89)

The truth in the telling

“The issue of ‘believability’ is crucial to the case. Whether or not a particular story is told as true has a pivotal effect upon the meaning of the individual text. In other teenage horror stories, the story is rarely, if ever, told as true. In David Buchan’s words, it is a ‘gruesome-funny tale’ (Buchan 1981, 10) and it is told primarily for its entertainment value. This is not always the case with ‘The Mad Axeman’ which, even today is often (but not always) told as a true story and accepted as true by the audience because it expresses ‘in a succinct and entertaining form what narrators wish to present as a truth about contemporary life and behaviour’ (Boyes 1984, 64). …I would…suggest that the story became popular at least partly because of its increased believability and because the Mitchell escape served to validate it.

In fact ‘The Mad Axeman’ is a useful example with which to investigate this phenomenon, precisely because it is sometimes told as true, and sometimes as untrue. According to Boyes, ‘these legends articulate, and to a great extent validate wishes and fears’ (Boyes 1984, 64) and to Brunvand, ‘the story reveals society’s broader fears of people, especially women and the young, being alone and among strangers in the darkened world outside the security of their own home or car’ (Brunvand 1981, 11). This is certainly the case, and when the story is told and believed as true, the articulation of those fears transforms them into cautionary messages. Brunvand says that ‘…a story like ‘The Boyfriend’s Death’ [the folklorist’s name for the Axeman tale] simply warns young people to avoid situations in which they may be endangered’ (Brunvand 1981, 11).” (p.93)

“On the other hand,” Wilson continues, “the story is often told as not true – or rather the truth element is not given any great weighting – and in these cases, when the story is told for entertainment purposes, the violence and the gruesomeness are exaggerated beyond the realms of credibility into the grotesque, and the story begins to become humorous.
In her essay ‘Legend: Performance and Truth,’ Gillian Bennett tackles exactly this issue. In her analysis of the same legend as told by two different narrators (one story told as true and one as untrue), she concludes that in the case of the non-belief tale, ‘the aim of the storytelling seems to be to arrive at the punchline [-p.94] and get a quick laugh’ and that ‘likelihood and local colour are both sacrificed for dramatic effect’ (Bennett 1988, 22).” (pp.93-94)

Gendered storytelling and reception

Wilson takes this further (and I found this part of the discussion really interesting!): “An application of these theories [i.e., Bennett’s, described above] to my own fieldwork collection will often bear out the truth of her assertions, and what may be additionally significant here is that it would seem that male storytellers have a greater propensity to exaggerate and tell the story for entertainment (i.e., as untrue) than female storytellers. This is not to say that females are more gullible than males, or that males are not capable of telling or accepting the story as true, but it may be that there is a gender difference in the meanings with which the storytellers endow their stories. Male storytellers seem more prone to tell the story for laughs or to disgust their audience, whereas female storytellers seem to prefer to warn and scare.” (p.94) … “This phenomenon could, of course, be put down, at least partly, to the gender rolds within many of the texts. Although it is the boyfriend/husband who is usually decapitated and thus the primary victim of the killer, it is the girlfriend/wife who is perceived as being under the greatest threat. The boyfriend/husband is simply a less important character in the story, fulfilling the role of traditional protector, and when he is removed, the girlfriend/wife becomes more vulnerable.” (p.94)

The media again

“Brunvand says that ‘rumours or news stories about missing persons or violent crimes … can merge with urban legends, helping to support their air of truth, or giving them renewed circulation after a period of less frequent occurrence’ (Brunvand 1981, 10).” (p.94)

Ref: Michael Wilson (1998) Legend and Life: ‘The Boyfriend’s Death’ and ‘The Mad Axeman’ Folklore 109, pp.89-95

[NOTE: reference is made to: Bennett, Gillian. ‘Legend: Performance and Truth’ In Monsters with Iron Teeth: Perspectives on Contemporary Legend III, ed. Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. 13-36. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1988    Boyes, Georgina ‘Belief and Disbelief: An Examination of reactions to the presentation of rumour legends. In Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, ed. Paul Smith. 64-78. Sheffield: CECTAL, 1984    Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings. New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1981.    Buchan, David. ‘The Modern legend’ In Language, Culture and Tradition, ed. A.E. Green and JDA Widdowson. 1-15. Sheffield: CECTAL, 1981]


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