Net Gains: Have you heard the one about...?

In the era of the X Files, conspiracy theories and urban myths abound. But the Internet has taken this paranoia to previously unscaled heights

I have a friend (a friend of a friend, actually) who insists there's a hospital in the US where the staff have placed weird objects on wardrobes in the hope that when a patient next has an out-of-body experience, he'll identify them when he returns to Earth. At least, that's what a friend of his who works there said.

This urban myth - I'm sure that's what it is - will no doubt soon find its way onto the Internet, which has become an old folks' home for this kind of story. I hope, incidentally, that you've been on the alert in recent weeks for the stuff that inevitably crawls into print, often via the Internet, at this time of year. (News is scarce over Christmas, and journalists' thoughts traditionally turn towards their web browsers.) The parable is: don't believe everything you read. And that goes especially for urban myth websites.

There are two kinds of urban legend: firstly there are the strange things that happened to "friends of friends", and then there are commonly "known" stories about celebrities; the one about the film star who went to hospital with a gerbil up his anus, for example. It's extraordinary, though, when you start looking around, how even the most recent stories turn out to be updated variations of (largely untrue) myths which have been around for decades.

These stories, which have been around for longer than the Internet, crop up in various forms again and again, inevitably involving mistaken identity, sex, or unbelievable coincidences. The best sites don't just recite them, but make some attempt to establish whether they are true, false or unverifiable, although whether this is good is another question. Collating, and debunking is all very well, but formalising their dissemination also robs them of some magic. It does, however, demonstrate how resilient good stories are. More than once, I've rattled off a creaky old urban myth to somebody, only for them to say to me: "No, that really happened to a friend of mine."

San Fernando Valley's Folklore page offers a particularly good list of Disney-related urban myths. I'll leave to you to find out if Disney cameramen really herded lemmings over a cliff to "demonstrate" that they commit suicide en masse, whether a disgruntled artist really painted a penis into the background of The Little Mermaid video cover, and if there really is a secret drinking club near the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.

And, in the meantime, if you come across that old chestnut about haggises being creatures with two legs shorter than the others so they can run round and round mountains, my dad claims to have made that one up in Istanbul in the Sixties. So now you know.

www.urbanmyths.com

An excellent place to start: plenty of urban myths, both classic and recent.

www.urbanlegends.com

Another wide-ranging archive.

alt.folklore, alt.folklore.aromatherapy, alt.folklore.college, alt.folklore.computer, alt.folklore.gemstones, alt.folklore.herbs alt.folklore.ghost-stories, alt.folklore.info, alt.folklore.internet, alt.folklore.kooks, alt.folklore.military, alt.folklore.peterdubuque, alt.folklore.science, alt.folklore.suburban, alt.folklore.urban

SITE UNSEEN

snopes.simplenet.com

The San Fernando Valley Folklore society's site includes an excellent archive of Disney and Coca Cola urban myths ("cokelore").

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