It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Sep 11, 2013

Exploring Psychological Aspects of Urban Legends

Rumors had their own classic epidemiology. Each started with a single germinating event. Information spread from that point, mutating and interbreeding— a conical mass of threads, expanding into the future from the apex of their common birthplace. Eventually, of course, they'd wither and die; the cone would simply dissipate at its wide end, its permutations senescent and exhausted.

There were exceptions, of course. Every now and then a single thread persisted, grew thick and gnarled and unkillable: conspiracy theories and urban legends, the hooks embedded in popular songs, the comforting Easter-bunny lies of religious doctrine. These were the memes: viral concepts, infections of conscious thought. Some flared and died like mayflies. Others lasted a thousand years or more, tricked billions into the endless propagation of parasitic half-truths.

Peter Watts

 A twelve-year-old boy visited an aquarium and waterpark with his parents on a family outing. The boy asks if he can explore the park on his own for twenty minutes and the parents, wanting to encourage his growing independence, consent. After an hour, the parents become concerned and begin to search for him. After thirty more minutes he finally shows up, drenched from head to toe with water, but unharmed. They give him a stern lecture, thank park personnel, and head home. During the drive they notice a bad smell in the car. Upon arriving home they send the boy off to bathe while they sit for a relaxing cup of tea. Suddenly they hear loud splashing and strange noises from the bathroom. Upon entering, they find the boy's new friend-a small penguin that he had stowed away in his backpack.

Urban legends are narratives about strange, funny, or horrible events that could have happened, the details of which change to fit particular locales and time periods, and which frequently contain a moral lesson. Urban legends arise in any context where stories are told: around a campfire, in Internet chat rooms, in casual conversation. They help people amuse themselves, transmit cultural norms and values, and express commonly held fears. The term urban legend is actually a misnomer because these stories often have nothing to do with cities. They are more appropriately labeled modern or contemporary legends because they contain themes related to modern life, such as automobiles, broadcasting, cell phones, contamination, corporations, intercontinental travel, mass production, shopping malls, technology, and teenage dating.

Urban legends are first of all stories: they are narratives that have a setting, plot, characters, climax, and denouement. They rope us in by weaving a clever and entertaining yarn. The tale of the kidnapped penguin is certainly amusing! Here's another popular anecdote: Vacationers at a lake in Florida were rowing peacefully when they spotted a small dog hanging on for dear life to a piece of driftwood. They rescued the critter, took it back to their lodge, and posted a notice in the local classifieds, hoping to find the owner. No-one responded, so they decided to adopt the new pet. After returning home, they went out shopping and came back to find that the dog had mauled their cat somewhat—some of the cat's fur had been torn off. When they took the dog to the veterinarian, he asked "have you ever heard this dog bark?" They responded, no, but he does give a funny yowl. The vet said, "That's because this is not a dog; it's a Haitian rat!" This story has many versions, including the "Mexican Rat" in which a compassionate woman brings a sick "dog" across the Mexican border, observes that it is foaming at the mouth, and takes it to the veterinarian.

The details vary from story to story, but the core of the tale remains the same. A woman, walking to her car in a parking lot, noticed a man following her. She quickly jumped into the car and raced away. But the man got into his car and followed her. She drove through the downtown, past businesses, bars, and houses. He persisted in following her. Finally she drove to the home of her brother-in-law, a policeman. Honking her horn, she quickly explained to her brother-in-law that a man was stalking her. "And there he is!" she yelled as the man drove up. The policeman quickly approached the man. "Take it easy" said the chaser. "All I wanted to do was to tell her about the guy in the back seat." And indeed there was a man huddled in the back seat of the woman's car, a knife in hand and ready to attack. This story is called "The Killer in the Back Seat" and has many variations in details: the event occurs at night and the pursuer keeps his bright headlights on, the man huddled in the back seat has a meat cleaver instead of a knife.

These stories are about funny or horrible events that could have happened and often serve as warnings. Two boys went out for a nature hike one morning. Before long their canteens run dry so they stop at a river and bend down for a drink. One of them jumps up and quickly exclaimed that he had swallowed something solid. They noticed that in the river there was a bed of snake eggs. Not paying too much attention to this they move on and forget about it. About a year later, the boy who thought he had swallowed something solid became very weak but always had a voracious appetite. His mother brought him to the doctor, who examined him and then pumped his stomach—out of which came a ten-foot long snake! This story is a version of the "Bosom-Serpent" legends; variants include the tale of the teenage girl who exhibited a swollen abdomen as in pregnancy but it turned out to be a many-tentacled octopus, the nest of spiders growing inside of an arm, the earwig extracted from the human ear opposite of the one it entered, and diet pills that really made you lose weight because they contained tapeworms.

Urban legends, of course, serve to entertain, amuse, and pass the time. They are funny, horrifying, or just plain interesting. Urban legends are first of all interesting because they possess the structure of a story that I mentioned above: a setting, characters, plot, building to a climax, then denouement. These elements, properly arranged and told well, are simply irresistible. The topics of urban legends are fascinating as well: strange and unusual events. And some urban legends are interesting because they are so disgusting. Researchers Chip Heath, Chris Bell, and Emily Sternberg systematically varied how disgusting a set of urban legends were, then presented them to forty-two Duke University undergraduates and asked how likely they were to pass the story on. For example, in a story about a man finding a dead rat in a soda bottle, the low disgust version consisted of "Before he drank anything, he saw the there was a dead rat inside." The medium disgust condition was: "About halfway through, he saw that there was a dead rat inside." The high disgust was even more, well, disgusting: "He swallowed something lumpy, and saw that there were pieces of a dead rat inside." High disgust stories were most likely to be passed along as compared with either low or medium disgust tales.  A really disgusting story, at least among university undergraduates, is a really good story to pass along.

But in addition, urban legends help us manage our fears or provide a cautionary warning. Urban legends often give voice to a variety of modern fears. The Haitian (or Mexican) rat is thought to express fear of illegal immigrants. The account of the killer in the back seat articulates a fear of the dark places in automobiles and of vulnerable females being stalked. The bosom-serpent stories convey unspoken anxieties about contamination—ingesting harmful substances, insects, or slimy animals. Giving voice to these fears—-making them palpable via story—is a way of gaining a sense of control over them and a way of warning people about them.

The following story embodies—pardon the pun—the fear that many people have about artificial tanning and serves as a warning against it. A young woman was part of a bridal party and wanted to have a tan by the time of the ceremony, but was nowhere near achieving this. Tanning salons limit customer exposure to thirty minutes per day, so she visited several salons each day to get the quickest tan possible. After several weeks of this, she began feeling very ill and also noticed that her body had a foul odor that wouldn't go away. She went to her doctor. She had actually managed to cook her body's internal organs; the smell was rotting flesh. She died two weeks later. The warning served up by this story seems obvious: Do not artificially tan to excess!

A similar warning-filled story has become quite popular: A guy met a very attractive woman at a club one night. He flirted with her, one thing led to another, and soon they were back at his apartment. He thought to himself "What a lucky night!" But the next morning he woke up alone and went to the bathroom. Scribbled in red lipstick on the mirror in large letters was "WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF AIDS." This story is known as "AIDS Mary" and has an "AIDS Harry" version. It delivers a warning about promiscuous sex.

Urban legends also frequently offer or imply a "moral to the story" in much the same way that the traditional American legend of George Washington ("I cannot tell a lie; I chopped down the cherry tree") supported the virtue of honesty. Urban legends thus typically tell a morality tale or express a cultural value. A cement-truck driver was on his way to deliver a load of concrete and happened to be traveling through his neighborhood. He happened to see a Cadillac convertible parked in his own driveway. After parking the truck, he crept up to the window and saw his wife talking with a strange man. Thinking that his wife was unfaithful, he backed the truck up to the Cadillac and filled it with concrete. The Cadillac sunk to the ground under the magnificent load. That evening he came home just as the car was being towed from his driveway to the junkyard. His wife was crying hysterically—it seems that she had been scrimping and saving for years to buy her husband a new Cadillac on his birthday and it had just been delivered that morning by the dealer. Someone had filled it with concrete! The moral: Don't jump to conclusions! The cultural value expressed: Trust your loved ones, don't be so suspicious.

Author: Nicholas DiFonzo

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