MAD DOG: The Myth of the Urban Myth

All cultures have their myths. The Greeks had Midas, Prometheus and Aphrodite. The Norse had Thor, Odin, and Ragnarok. Even we, as enlightened Americans in the 20th century, aren't exempt. Only our myths are different. They're about people who unknowingly have their kidneys harvested in hotel rooms, alligators who live rent-free in the New York City sewer system, and Jesse Helms being a sane, sensible human being. None of these, by the way, are true.To be an urban myth, a story must be widespread, anecdotal, and guaranteed to be real because a friend of a friend's second cousin by marriage knew the guy it happened to's sister's hairdresser. It's easy to tell a real urban myth. The story about the girl whose cyber-lover turned out to be her father is a myth, because no man over the age of 40 goes into an online chat room without claiming to be a 15 year-old cheerleader named Bambi. On the other hand, the theory that car alarms scream all night because they can only be heard by vandals and not the car's owner isn't a myth because it's absolutely true.A classic urban myth is the one about the guy and girl who are making out in a car when they hear a radio bulletin about a psycho with a hook for a hand who escaped from a mental hospital. To make the long story short, they hear a scratching on the window, the guy drives off, they find a hook stuck in the window, and the escaped mental patient sues Stephen Spielberg for defaming him in the movie "Hook" with the court awarding him all the money the movie took in at the box office, which was $742 not counting Venezuela where they had to pay people to go see it.The list of urban myths goes on. There's the couple that buys the Neimann-Marcus cookie recipe for "Two-fifty" only to find out it was $250 and as revenge distributes the recipe over the Internet. Right, like they wouldn't wait for the a sale and get the recipe for 20% off. Or the woman who was lying on the beach and felt a bite on her face, only to have a big swelling pop open two weeks later with baby spiders swarming out. This was an especially popular urban myth when I was in elementary school because it made the girls go, "Eee-yeww!!!", and as I remember we got Cub Scout merit badges for doing things like that.The strange thing is, this urban myth came true. Really. According to a letter in the "New England Journal of Medicine," a highly respected and scholarly magazine read by physicians all over the world who have trouble falling asleep, this happened to a 36 year-old woman from the San Francisco area. I haven't read the letter myself, insomnia being one of the few problems I don't have, but it was reported by the Reuters wire service, which prides itself on honesty, accuracy, and having a name nobody knows how to pronounce.(NOTE: The next paragraph contains some pretty gross stuff. If you're sensitive to such things as horror movies; open, gaping, puss-filled sores; or really disgusting sights like President Clinton wearing shorts, please skip ahead.)According to this letter, this urban myth-fulfilling woman was bitten by a botfly while in Peru. Once back in the United States she went to the doctor to have him look at some swellings which had appeared on her shins. He gave her antibiotics, sent her home, and everything was fine until little botfly larvae started crawling out of the sores. (I told you this got gross, didn't I? Well, it's too late now. You're here, you might as well keep reading.) After mistaking the larvae for this season's cast of Saturday Night Live, a common error, she went back to the doctor and demanded that he do something about it. So he did what any self-respecting doctor would do. He wrote a letter to the "New England Journal of Medicine."The scary part about this isn't the thought of having larvae crawling out of your skin, though that's at least as nightmare-inducing as the thought of Nicholas Cage playing the next Batman. No, the truly frightening thing is that this may be signaling the start of a trend: urban myths coming true!Think about it. If this were to happen—and the friend of a friend's cousin really did get those photographs back to find a snapshot of her toothbrush up a burglar's butt -- we'd have no other choice but to retire the tale and find new urban myths.This shouldn't be a problem, since they're staring us right in the face. There's the myth that we have a real choice in political candidates. There's the myth that the new TV season will have quality programming. And there are the myths that talent is necessary to have a number one hit record, that notoriety is a prime qualification to be an author, and that being spanked actually hurts a parent more than the child. One way or another, urban myths will continue forever. Unless, of course, they're supplanted by suburban myths ("They serve good food in the food court at the mall.") or their distant cousins, the country myths ("The sheep I went out with Friday night wasn't nearly as ugly as the others."). But just to be on the safe side, there's no way I'm going out of the house without a diamond steel kidney protector, will lower myself into the New York City sewer system with anything less than an elephant gun, or ask anybody other than Mrs. Fields for a cookie recipe. I'm not taking any chances.


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