I’ll never forget the first time I became aware of urban legends. Someone told me a story about a couple whose hotel room was robbed while they were on vacation. When they returned and had their film developed (remember, this was in the days before digital cameras), they found pictures of the robbers mooning the camera with their toothbrushes sticking out of their hind ends.
“Oh that’s an urban legend,” my older and wiser sister told me. I’d never heard of an urban legend before.
This was in the days before the Internet. There was no Snopes.com, Wikipedia or other such websites upon which we have come to rely on a nearly daily basis to keep us informed and perhaps slightly less gullible.
Still, I was hooked, and I headed to the library to check out books on urban legends. I loved reading the stories – tales passed from person to person that reflected our collective fears and worries (and even sometimes our wishes) as a society. I also loved learning how the legends came into being – often from some true event – or a misunderstood event – that was remolded and retold until the final story didn’t come close to matching the original one. It was kind of like a childhood game of telephone.
As we drifted into those first few years of email and the internet, I was thrilled. Here, now, was an even faster way that urban legends could get around, and boy did they. The traditional urban legends were written up email style and forwarded at the speed of light all around the globe. New urban legends also sprang forth – often in the guise of dire warnings about viruses that would take out our computers. Or disguised as dying kids who were collecting business cards. The computer age was fertile ground for the rapid-fire spreading of the urban legend.
Of course, now we had another tool. We had Snopes.com, and it allowed us to check all of those stories that came to us in our inbox. So we could enjoy the legend without being freaked out about it – if, indeed, we were smart enough to use it.
There’s a dark side to it all though. Recently I received an email with the traditional FW: in the subject line and about a zillion email addresses in the To: field. It’s funny, because I almost never read forwarded emails anymore. But I read this one. It was an urban legend with a political message warning of the dire consequences of a certain act coming about from a political party. I quickly headed out to Snopes.com and there it was in all of its glory. It was an urban legend. Unfortunately, it was an urban legend with a misleading political agenda that preyed on people’s fears and left them misinformed.
That was when I became aware of the dark side of urban legends. It all spreads like wildfire on the internet. Many people read every forwarded email, believe every word of it, and forward it on to their friends. If it is a chain email offering good luck or an Applebee’s coupon if you forward it to ten of your friends (yeah, right), what’s the harm? But when it comes with a nasty hidden political agenda filled with misinformation that doesn’t even approach the truth – well to me that’s a problem.
So while urban legends can chill us, scare us and entertain us, most of us know it is all in good fun. We all enjoy a good urban legend and the occasional “gotcha sucker” feeling we get when we realize that the great story we heard and mostly believed isn’t true. But occasionally – or maybe not occasionally – urban legends can be used against us, and we can be sold a bill of goods by people who have only their enrichment in mind. Reader beware. Snopes is your friend.
Enjoy reading Karen’s blog? Her new book, Avalanche of Spirits: The Ghosts of Wellington> is now available. Click here to buy.