Is that a footstep behind you? Is that a devilish laugh? Beware – it just might be Spring-Heeled Jack. Trevor Heaton looks at the East Anglian links to an extraordinary urban folk tale.

In the winter of 1852-3 something odd happened on the streets of Norwich - something very odd indeed. Every night for a week, hundreds of people thronged them hoping to catch a glimpse of the city's strangest-ever visitor. His name? Spring-Heeled Jack.

But who was he? A ghost, a demon – or the Devil himself maybe. No-one knew, but they had certainly heard of the way Jack attacked his victims, jumping on them from behind, leaving them shaken and terrified (or worse), before leaping off into the darkness, his maniacal laughter echoing into the night…

This strange episode, unusually, was not mentioned in the local newspapers and we know of it today only because an enterprising street ballad seller composed a ditty - 'Pranks of the Ghost' - about it.

If you had bought it hoping for clues as to Jack's looks, then you'd have been disappointed ('Some say he was black and some say he was white,/ Some say he was short and some said he was tall.')

The ballad claimed that the local bobbies had tried to corner the visitor in Chapelfield, only for Jack to leap away to freedom, mocking the constables as he went.

Who was he? Where did he come from?

The thing about urban legends is that almost always no-one can actually pin down where or when they begin. It's always 'a friend of a friend' that they seem to happen to. But in the case of Spring-Heeled Jack we know exactly where it all started.

It took place 14 years earlier than his rumoured appearance in Norwich – on Tuesday January 9 1838 – when The Times reported how the Lord Mayor of London had made public a letter which warned of a supernatural attacker in Peckham.

The attacker, who had evaded every attempt at capture, was described as slicing through his victims' clothes with his metal talons, breathing out blue flame and (literally) frightening victims to death. And thus an urban legend was well and truly born.

It's just one of the fascinating facts in the newly-released paperback edition of what has to be the best-ever analysis of the stories, The Legend of Spring-Heeled Jack: Victorian urban folklore and popular cultures, from the Suffolk publishing house of Boydell Press.

Karl Bell, senior lecturer in history at the University of Portsmouth, has analysed the legends in detail and set them against the context of Victorian social history.

But he is not the first author to tackle the stories – and not the first publication with a local connection either. The prolific Suffolk author and anthologist Peter Haining, who died in 2007, was the first author to try to pull together the stories into book form.

Mr Haining, from Boxford, wrote or edited more than 200 books on such varied topics as the history of war, horror, crime, witchcraft and fantasy. Locally, his subjects included The Great English Earthquake (about the 1884 Colchester quake) and Where The Eagle Landed, which explored the story behind the so-called 'German invasion' of Shingle Street in 1940.

His book The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring Heeled Jack was published 40 years ago this year. Long out of print, it is now something of a rarity (I had to buy my copy at an auction having – much to my later regret – decided not to snap up a copy in a library book sale a few years earlier for a measly 50p).

Haining's importance as a trailblazer in this subject is recognised, but it is also fair to say that many of his racier conclusions have not found favour with later researchers. As Bell points out, the original Jack accounts in contemporary press reports were full of 'contradictions, gaps and guesses'. Joining the dots on those is a risky business.

What is certain is that after 1838, the legend of what became dubbed Spring-Heeled Jack quickly spread out to the suburbs, and then into the countryside. And here is where our region comes into the story once again.

Spring-Heeled Jack was said to have appeared at Little Melton Lane (now Rectory Lane), between Attleborough and Shropham, and also at North Walsham. In Norwich his story was also conflated with the bogeyman, very much still being talked about in my childhood (his was the face looking back at you in the bottom of an empty mug of tea, my mum solemnly assured me).

Spring Heeled Jack may also have been woven into tales of the Gildencroft Bogeyman, a creature with large and very scary saucer-like eyes. And, of course, we have our own devilish (if canine) stalker of the country lanes round these parts, don't we?

Tragedy intervened in 1845, however, when a 50-year-old man was fatally attacked by an angry younger man in the Great Yarmouth area after being blamed for being behind 'Jack' sightings in the area.

Spring Heeled Jack also made appearances in Bury St Edmunds and Colchester – both in 1878. Also in Colchester, a Christmas story ('Old Balls's Ghost') from the Essex Standard of 1866 has a character claiming 'My old woman was a comin' up Barkera Hill the other evening and saw him scramblin' up over the Roman wall.' Was this based on a real 'sighting'?

Before then (1842) he had actually been captured in Eye, but almost immediately vanished from custody. The Ipswich Journal attributed this to 'some chemical process'. Other, less excitable, views saw the hand of some confederates of a very human prankster at work.

Talk of pranksters brings to mind efforts to find the 'real' culprit behind the stories. Peter Haining, among others, pointed the finger squarely at Henry de La Poer Beresford, the Marquis of Waterford, born in 1811 and a notorious practical joker. His exploits included painting parts of a town (Melton Mowbray) red – just possibly the origin of the phrase – and, with his dissolute aristo pals, breaking a fellow reveller out of jail. This episode took place in 1837, only a few months, you'll recall, before the first 'sighting'.

A generation later people began to claim that the Marquis had been the 'real' Jack. The claims became hardened into 'certainty' by 1911, and Haining added his own twists and turns to the theory. But the whole edifice comes tumbling down by the simple fact that reports of the leaping man of mystery continued long after the Marquis' death. Yes, Beresford had been good at practical jokes - but coming back from beyond the grave? No one is THAT good.

But Karl Bell is not interested in the (almost certainly) futile effort of establishing Jack's 'real' identity. For him the true interest comes in the way these strange stories hold up a mirror to the Victorian obsessions, fears, and popular culture.

And where did all these stories come from? Tales have a habit of growing grow in the telling, and the origin of all of these might be down to a drunken escapade or two. It's easy for someone to dress up in a black cloak and essay a maniacal laugh before scampering off. Let imagination do the rest.

In their way, then, they were the Victorian precursor of that clown craze a few months back. The stories tap into that sense of unease, fear of the dark and the extraordinary power of the human mind to take a kernel of truth and embellish it with the unknown and the uncanny.

Whatever his origins, Jack was becoming 'tamed' by the 1880s, appearing as a character in comics and penny dreadfuls, even as a panto character.

And the sobering fact is that he was supplanted by another, altogether more evil, Jack in the popular imagination – Jack the Ripper. The horrific crimes of this Jack (or whoever, singular or plural, was actually behind them) were all too real.

But recently authors such as Philip Pullman and Mark Haddon have revived the mysterious leaping figure. And let's not forget that the other great Victorian urban legend - Sweeney Todd - was very much on the cultural backburner until Stephen Sondheim revisited it, with Tim Burton taking it triumphantly to the big screen in 2007.

So is Spring-Heeled Jack, too, only a leap away from stardom once again? Could be.

Come on, Mr Burton, do your stuff.

The Legend of Spring-Heeled Jack: Victorian urban folklore and popular cultures, by Karl Bell, is published by The Boydell Press, £16.99 (ppk)