Volume 95, Issue 79

Thursday, February 21, 2002
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The Gazette's look through the looking glass:

A tangled web of truth, lies and legend

Stories we love to believe in: hookers, seals and weddings

A tangled web of truth, lies and legend

By Lauren Starr
Gazette Staff

Have you heard the story about alligators living in the sewer system or that Nostradamus predicted the fall of the World Trade Centre in New York?

If you've ever fallen for stories like these – don't be embarrassed – you're not alone.

According to Barbara Mikkelson, webmaster of snopes.com and co-producer of an upcoming urban legend television series, urban legends spread rapidly because they strike a chord with people who identify with the moral lesson in each tale.

These stories are not about two-headed monsters or fairies. Urban legends are funny, horrifying or unsettling stories we pass along as true because we heard them from someone we trust, Mikkelson explained.

They appear as believable tales and are not intentionally deceiving. They are often just a poor recollection of a story that we change and re-frame into something we agree with, Mikkelson said.

Because there is often some aspect of truth to an urban legend, she added, people are more likely to be fooled.

David Emery, webmaster of about.com's Guide to Urban Legends and Folklore, said it's important to note that, contrary to popular belief, urban legends are not always false. Every now and then, one turns out to be perfectly true.

Urban legends have been around for centuries and often take on modern characteristics to make them more appealing. They are constantly updated and set in a local context to keep them current, Mikkelson explained.

So, what is it that makes us repeat the same old stories over and over again?

"It allows us to vent our fears about the subject without having to address it in a frank or realistic way," Emery said. "My conviction is that human beings are storytellers and story believers by nature, so storytelling can become an exercise in wish-fulfillment, as well as a rehearsal of our fears."

Mikkelson agreed, noting legends are a way of saying – "I'm troubled by this, are you troubled too?" They are also our way of reinforcing the way the world should be run.

Emery cites AIDS as a prime source of contemporary urban legends that echo modern fears.

One legend concerns an individual who puts their finger in the change dispenser of a pay phone and is pricked by a needle found inside. There is an accompanying note that reads: You have just been infected with HIV.

While many of us are reluctant to openly discuss the facts about AIDS, we seem ready and willing to spread rumours and urban legends about the disease, Emery said.

Urban legends can add some spice to our lives, but they can have serious implications on our society. "Major ramifications can come from specific rumours about companies and people," Mikkelson said. "They can often do undeserved harm to companies, causing a drop off in sales."

On a larger scale – some stories can contribute to feelings of fear and threats to people's well-being, she said.

The Internet and e-mail have had a major impact on the way urban legends are spread, Emery said, noting legends have seen a rapid increase in both circulation, magnitude and speed. "It's not unusual for a story to circumnavigate the globe in a day, since the advent of the Internet," Emery said.

With their global reach, e-mails have certainly contributed to the number of urban legends being shared, but technology has not given birth to new legends, Mikkelson said.

In 1996, Ottawa was hit hard with a story about a woman, her dog and some erotically spread peanut butter. As the story goes, this "couple's" mutually enjoyed daily ritual was rudely interrupted one night when friends threw a surprise party for her and walked in on the intimate moment.

The story seemed to break out all across North America at once, said Mikkelson.

People need to start taking personal responsibility for the information that passes through their modem, Emery said. They should stop before they forward a chain e-mail and consider whether or not they might be doing more harm than good, he said. "Sit on your hands and think about what you just read before you forward it," he added.

Christopher Doty, a London-based historical filmmaker and creator of dotydocs.com (a website which collects local legends), has done extensive research for his films about London and the surrounding region. Doty retold a very famous local urban legend that actually made it into print.

In 1955, London celebrated its centennial and historical articles were published in The London Free Press. One story stated Mark Twain visited the Hellmuth Ladies College – located at Windermere Road and Richmond Street – to lecture in 1855.

It is said that he enjoyed the girls so much he planned to go tobogganing with them, but he received an urgent phone call from New York and had to leave immediately. In actual fact, Twain was a nobody in 1855, telephones didn't exist and Hellmuth didn't open until 1869.

There is so much misinformation out there that stories often get twisted beyond all recognition, he explained. "I try to go back to the original facts, but nothing is harder to dispel than a myth. I tend to become very unpopular – many people rely on their memory, which is unreliable," Doty said.

Despite the problems urban legends often cause, their entertainment value cannot be denied, Mikkelson said. They appeal to parts of us that we are not always proud of and can often send us on a roller-coaster of emotions, he added.

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