The Stuff of Urban Legends

You've heard the story about the woman who gave her cat a bath and then preceded to dry it in the microwave, only to have it explode into bloody, furry fragments? You remember hearing the stories about rock star Ozzy Ozbourne, who during his live concerts, would bite the head off of a live bat and then eat its head? How about the "flying monkey" who accidentally hung himself from a tree during the filming of The Wizard of Oz? Hey! Have you heard that, if you color the back of any CD with a green magic marker, it will improve the sound quality because of the way your stereo's laser reacts to the color green? These are examples of some of the highly entertaining tales that have been told and retold so many times in so many ways and by so many people, they have surpassed the designation of mere gossip or rumor and have achieved the status of what has come to be known as "urban legend."According to Peter van der Linden and Terry Chan of the web site alt.folklore.urban FAQ, an urban legend: a.) appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in varying forms; b.) contains elements of humor and/or horror; c.) does not have to be false, although most of them are (usually they are based on a factual event, but it is the process by which the story changes during the telling and re-telling of the event that gives it its urban-legend status.)The urban legends (UL) recounted above, by the way, are all untrue. According to information compiled at another UL website, www.urbanlegends.com, there has never been a documented case of someone blowing up their pet cat (or dog) in the microwave. Ozzy Ozbourne did, on one occasion, bite the head off of a live bat. It seems that an audience member threw the bat up on stage, and Ozzy, thinking that it was fake and realizing the theatrical value of biting its head off, did exactly that. When he realized it was real, he went off stage, threw up and made a trip to the hospital to have a tetanus shot. As for the man seen "hanging" in the The Wizard of Oz, it is in fact merely a film crew person who got caught in the shot and quickly ran off the set. Apparently, it is rather hard to see, but that is what happened and you can see it if you look closely enough. And, as for coloring your CDs with green magic marker for better sound, well, if you believe that one, I have a few bridges I can sell you for next to nothing.The most fascinating aspect of these and all UL's isn't, of course, whether they are true or not. It is the phenomena behind the transmission of these tales that is so extraordinary. In researching this piece, I decided to take an informal survey of friends and co-workers, asking them about these and other UL's. My respondents included a wide spectrum of ages, social and ethnic backgrounds and, despite these differences, more than half the people I talked to swore that at least one of these patently false UL's was true. A few even stated that they knew someone (however distantly) who was directly connected with the events of the UL!Never brush after fleecing?Legends and folktales, of course, are not new phenomena. Long before the advent of television and radio, people sat around campfires telling and retelling tall tales about their famous ancestors. Native Americans, for example, possess a detail-rich folklore, and many of our grandparents and great grandparents love to spin amazing tales about the "Old Country." Oral folklore and urban legends are popular for several reasons. Obviously, they have a high entertainment value, but many of the UL's I came across in my research also contained hidden messages that served the function of cautionary tales. According to Jan Harold Brunvand's book, The Baby Train & Other Lusty Urban Legends, "The Toothbrush Story" is just such a tale. The story goes that a young newlywed couple honeymooning in the Bahamas (or Jamaica, Virgin Islands, or Costa Rica, depending on which version you hear) come back to their hotel after a day of sight-seeing to find their room ransacked and everything of value stolen. Curiously enough, the only two items left in the room were their camera and toothbrushes. Since hotel insurance would cover their losses and they still had credit cards, the couple decided to complete their vacation and make the best of the situation. They purchased new clothes and other items that were stolen, except for the toothbrushes and the camera, and the honeymoon turned out to be a dream come true for both of them. When they returned home, they had their rolls of film developed so they could share with friends and family all the beautiful and exotic sites they had seen. However, it seems that one roll of film, the roll that was in the camera at the time of the hotel robbery, showed frame after frame of the toothbrushes being inserted in the rectums of the thieves!What is the lesson to be learned here? Never use your toothbrush after you've been robbed? Or maybe this UL is a gentle reminder that if something seems too good to be true (why did the thieves leave behind the expensive camera?), it probably isn't.Brunvand is a professor of English and Folklore at the University of Utah and the author of several other books on urban legends including The Vanishing Hitchhiker, The Choking Doberman and Curses! Broiled Again. Brunvand receives hundred of letters, newspaper clippings and emails from people all across the country with UL's they want investigated and researched. Sometimes he is able to dispel the UL as completely false, sometimes he can confirm them as being truth or exaggerated versions of the truth and sometimes he just includes them in his books and waits to see what new mutations of the UL will inevitably make their way back to his desk. Folklore thrives on the oral tradition. ULs thrive on these traditions as well, with one notable difference. With the advent of modern technology, including the all-powerful media machine, UL's can now be widely transmitted in a matter of seconds. The story surrounding the "hanging man" in The Wizard of Oz, for example, was widely publicized by the media. Both A Current Affair and Hard Copy reportedly ran stories during the time of the film's anniversary.Another and more gruesome urban legend had flamed out of control in the late '80s, also due to inordinate media attention. According to www.urbanlegends.com, there was a story involving children that were being adopted (or kidnapped, depending on the version) from Latin America in a horrifying scheme to kill them and use their body parts for organ transplants. The story is completely false and yet various newspapers and television news programs picked up and showcased the tale to such a degree it forced then- Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to issue a public statement. Koop is quoted as stating,"Because of the nature of the technology involved these activities could not be conducted in secret or makeshift facilities." However, when asked about the story involving the black-market selling of "baby parts" for organ transplants, many of the people I surveyed had heard the story and were unsure if it was fact or fiction. Thus, as urban legend, the tale is still very much alive.Today, the internet is one of the main forces propagating the spread of urban legends. There are several sites dedicated to ULs, including www.urbanlegends.com, which boasts hosting over 1 billion viewers every day! Log onto this web site and you will find a whopping 23 UL categories, including such topics as Religion, Food, Drugs, Politics, Celebrities, Disney and Medical to name a few. In fact, some UL's no longer qualify for the quaint heading of "oral stories." What were once deliciously odd tales told in bars, college dorms and health clubs across the country (did you hear about the Hollywood hunk who went into surgery to have a gerbil removed from his butt?!) are now the stuff of headline news for anyone with a computer or a television. Word of mouth, though, is still the number one way in which information is transmitted (just ask any major movie studio head) and that is still the most common way in which urban legends are transmitted. Legends that won't quitNow, if all UL's were so easily dismissable as the exploding pet or Ozzy's fetish for bat heads the fascination with them would have fizzled out a long time before anyone knew what an "http" was. However, there are a few glittering gems of urban legend out there that can't be easily explained away, and continue to command our attention, curiosity and fascination.There is a famous UL that involves the books 2001: A Space Oddysey and 2010 by Arthur C. Clarke. According to legend, Clarke named his super-computer HAL as a way of indicating that it was more highly evolved than anything ever conceptualized by IBM. The letters H, A and L each appear in the alphabet immediately before I, B and M, respectively, and HAL's name was seen as Clarke's private joke. The UL became so popular that Clarke felt compelled to dispel this myth in his book Lost Worlds of 2001, where he claims that "HAL" is an acronymn for "Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer." But, according to www.urbanlegends.com, many science fiction fans refuse to be "de-programmed." For one thing, Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer does not properly form the acronym HAL. And, the working drafts of 2001 reportedly all referred to the computer as "Athena," and the name would have remained so if Clarke had not mysteriously decided to change it. Finally, according to the website, the odds of an author randomly assigning the name for his computer as alphabetically "above" the world's largest computer company is one in 17,000. Despite Clarke's efforts, it seems this UL still commands "belief."Another famous UL that cannot readily be proved false involves the enormously successful Disney movie The Lion King. Apparently, about halfway through the film, as Simba, Pumbaa and Timon are looking up at the stars, Simba gets up and moves to the edge of a cliff and flops down on the ground. The dirt and dust he unsettles slowly rises into the dark, moonlit sky and spells out what looks to be the word "S-E-X." Don't believe me? Go rent the video, watch the scene in slow motion and you'll see the word clearly spelled out, from left to right. A disgruntled animator's practical joke? Or merely the power of suggestion? In any case, it's hard to discount something you can see with your own two eyes.And finally, here's a story that hits closer to home, a story we all know to be false, and yet it still manages to hang around after two decades. You all remember hearing whispers that turned into news reports that the "moon and stars" trademark placed on the products of Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble was a satanic symbol. As a child attending grade school at St. Cecilia's in Cincinnati's Oakley neighborhood, I can assure you that this rumor had quite an impact on all the kids on the playfield for months afterward. Well, as "evil" as a company that conducts ruthless product tests on animals may be, we all know this urban legend to be groundless and false. However, according to an article appearing this past July in The New York Times, P&G felt compelled to file a lawsuit against Amway Corp., alleging "its millions of distributors have fueled rumors that P&G's Moon and Stars trademark is a satanic symbol." Amway has denied the charge, calling the suit a "predatory attempt to stifle a growing competitor." After some 20 years, this famous yet false UL still has such force it warrants a major corporate lawsuit! The bottom line, whether it's a story about a black market for baby parts or thieves with a disgusting sense of humor, is that urban legends will continue to thrive and, thanks to modern technology, they will do so at an accelerated rate. Because people will always believe that other people are capable of just about anything. And because, just when we think we've done it all and seen it all, there's always a new story (fact or fiction) lurking around the corner with the power to dismay, amaze and even to educate us.

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