Tuesday, 31 March 2009


“No man likes to have his intelligence or good faith questioned, especially if he has doubts about it himself.” - Henry Adams

I was having a cup of coffee with a colleague this morning and she was telling me that she went to a wedding at the weekend. Apparently, as the bride was walking up the aisle, she stumbled and lost her shoe, causing her to trip and would have fallen over if it weren’t for her father who got hold of her. She was summarily shod again after they ensured that she was OK and the ceremony proceeded without further hitch (except the one that the priest tied…). My colleague then went on and said that at the reception afterwards numerous stories surfaced about similar events at weddings, including one story that was told about someone’s friend of a friend who was a maid of honour at a wedding and who walked on a grating on the sidewalk and got her shoe caught in it. The grating was removed and everyone moved to the side to try and release her shoe. Another member of the wedding party then walked up carelessly and fell into the opened up hole that the grating was covering. He fell down a distance of three metres and broke his neck, dying on the spot.

We laughed over this recognising the stuff of an urban legend. An urban legend is any modern (fictional) story, which is told as truth and which reaches a wide audience by being passed from person to person. Most urban legends are completely false, but some turn out to be largely true, and a lot of them may have been inspired by an actual event which evolved into something quite different in their passage from person to person, becoming embellished and altered in the manner of Chinese whispers. More often than not, it isn't possible to trace an urban legend back to its original source, they seem to come from nowhere and everywhere.

Psychologists have come up with a number of definitions for urban legend. To many, a legend must be a story, with characters and some sort of plot. Others lump widely dispersed misinformation into the urban-legend category. While these “facts” don’t always have the narrative elements of traditional legend, they are passed from person to person and frequently have the elements of caution, horror or humour found in legends. Many of the urban legends are on the themes of death, sex, crime, contamination, technology, ethnic stereotypes, celebrities, horror or of beating the system. They are mostly cautionary tales with some sort of moral at the end, and give a dire warning about the “terrors lurking out there”.

One of the most famous of urban legends is the “hooked-hand” tale: A young couple on a date drive off to a remote spot to “park”. Over the radio, there is a news flash that interrupts the music telling of a psychopath with a hook prosthesis for a missing hand, who has escaped from a local mental institution. The girl wants to go home, but her boyfriend insists there’s nothing to worry about. After a while, the girl thinks she hears a scratching or tapping sound outside the car and terrified she says again she wants to leave. The boyfriend assures her it’s nothing, but at her insistence, they eventually drive off. When they get to the girl’s house, the boyfriend goes around to the passenger side to open her door. To his horror, there is a bloody hook hanging from the door handle. The cautionary tale here is simple and direct: Don’t go parking in lonely spots that could hide a myriad dangers, trust the woman’s intuition, and certainly don’t engage in premarital sex!

A more elaborate tale tells of a businessman visiting Las Vegas and meeting an attractive woman in the bar that he gets quite friendly with. They have a few drinks and he manages to get very drunk. The next thing he remembers is that he wakes up in his bathtub, which is full of ice and bloody water. The phone is beside him and on it is pinned a note: “Ring 911 or die!” He does so and after he is rushed to hospital to deal with his serious injury, it turns out that the woman he met was part a gang of organ harvesters who have removed his kidney to sell on the black market. The warning here is that the businessman ended up in this predicament only after going to drink at a bar and then flirting with a mysterious unknown woman. Don’t drink! Don’t flirt with strange women! Don’t cheat on your wife! Don’t be an idiot in a strange city!

An amusing urban legend revolves around a colony of alligators in New York sewers who are responsible for many disappearances of people that get devoured. The colony is found by a group of children and they manage to alert police who exterminate them. Many such urban legends have the characteristics of an amusing story or a joke, that plays on fears or prejudices of (gullible) people that tend to accept them as true.
Do you have a story of an urban legend? Do tell!

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