Legends in their own lunchtime

rosie millard meets the man who says urban myths are coming true
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The Independent Culture
I used to live in Wimbledon, and I used to have my hair dyed blonde - until I heard an urban myth about a homicidal maniac who roamed the Circle Line pushing blonde women underneath oncoming trains. I started wearing hats and backing off down the platform whenever a train came in.

The freaky thing was that a few months after I had heard this "true story", a man was actually arrested and tried for shoving blonde women off the platform underneath the Southampton to Waterloo express. And the fateful station? Wimbledon.

Other than dyeing my hair auburn and moving to Islington, I thought no further of the incident - until I talked to Professor Bill Ellis.

Professor Ellis specialises in Modern Folklore (urban myths to you and me) at Penn State University. He believes that urban myths have a firmer grounding in truth than we might otherwise suppose.

"Yup. Animals do get cooked in microwaves, usually for purposes of revenge, or maliciousness, or just curiosity," he says calmly. "Frogs in particular. They make a nice bang.'' What about all the rest of them, then? Alligators in sewers? Spiders coming out of people's arms? People doing dreadful things to other people's food? Bar codes reading 666?

"Well, a man in Minnesota was caught on a security camera the other day actually peeing into his colleagues' coffee pot," says Professor Ellis.

"The bar code myth is also true," he continues darkly. "Each bar code has a thin line signifying 6 at the front, one in the middle and one at the end. And, incidentally, if you add up all the letters in "computer", wherein A has the value 1, and B the value 2, and multiply the answer by 6, you also get 666.

"I've heard that myth quite seriously expressed in my church - that the beast in the Book of Revelation will be a monster computer."

Professor Ellis arrives each morning at his study in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, to find all the latest information on urban myths, which has been sent to him via the Internet by fellow folklorists around the US.

However, he is not merely committed to winkling out the "grain of truth" that he believes resides within most myths. What interests him more is the theory that urban myths have the capacity to start off as fantasy but then tend to become true, a phenomenon he calls "Ostention".

Take the example of the Wimbledon train nutter. Professor Ellis says modern myths, which he believes function as psychological let-outs for the stresses of contemporary life, eventually become reality - a sort of wish-fulfilment syndrome.

"Take the story about blonde women being pushed under trains. It went around three continents, starting off in the mid-Seventies," says the Professor. "The myth was circulated in Russia, Paris and New York before it actually happened in Wimbledon.

"The contaminated food myth is another very popular one - stories about burgers made out of worms, or rats, or HIV-positive substances. It's been going round for years, but recently in Arizona there was a case of a chef working in a well-known burger chain who hated the police. He blew his nose into a burger ordered by a local officer. His actions were discovered; he was arrested, and tested for HIV. It was obvious that both the chef and the police officer knew of the myth, and were doing their own version of it. The tests proved negative in the end."

Professor Ellis' theory is expounded in Bill Eagles' documentary-drama W.S.H., which is part of BBC2's themed "Weird Night" on 17 December. The film's title stands for Weird Shit Happens, a phrase the Professor uses in the film to define his theory. Eagles and Ellis back up their case with any number of newspaper clippings from dependable sources ("Woman found with snake in belly" - the Guardian; or "Man found with spiders in arms" - the Lancet). Yet the film, shot as factual drama, implies that the subject is still as slippery as ever.

"But it does show you can't smugly think all urban myths are apocryphal," says Eagles. "We are linked with the medieval age. But whereas they passed folklore around the fireside and took several hours about it, we tell our modern myths in about 30 seconds at the bus-stop."

The stories all try to explain some phenomenon, or fear about contemporary life; which either was once true, or is simply an accident waiting to happen. They could all be true.

`W.S.H.' is on BBC 2, 17 December at 10.10pm.