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The truth about Urban Myths

The bizarre stories told at dinner parties or posted on the internet are the modern equivalent of folk tales, yet people all over the world believe them. This week, a group of academics meets in Italy to discuss why. By Peter Popham

Friday 08 October 2004 00:00 BST

There is a supermarket in Taiwan where you can buy jars of that famous Chinese delicacy - new-born baby brains. Among the lesser-known perils of the Iraq war are the formidable spiders of the desert - huge, screaming, with a preference for human flesh. To sedate their prey, these spiders jab with a dart that has an effect akin to Novocaine.

There is a supermarket in Taiwan where you can buy jars of that famous Chinese delicacy - new-born baby brains. Among the lesser-known perils of the Iraq war are the formidable spiders of the desert - huge, screaming, with a preference for human flesh. To sedate their prey, these spiders jab with a dart that has an effect akin to Novocaine.

When the twin towers came down on 11 September 2001, the face of the devil appeared in smoke rising above the ruins. Only one thing survived the crash of the hijacked plane that smashed into the Pentagon: a copy of the Bible. Mossad was responsible for the 11 September attacks; as everybody knows, all Jews working in the World Trade Centre were mysteriously absent from work that morning ...

What all the above stories have in common is they are untrue, yet they have found believers in many countries and among millions of otherwise sensible, intelligent people around the world. They are the urban myths.

We tend to suppose that legends are the things people believed before there were scientists to put them right, belonging to a shadowy past when our ancestors huddled around their hearths, terrifying each other with tales of bogeymen and hobgoblins. Yet despite scientific progress, the legends produced by modern civilisation are quite as charming, sinister, evil, beguiling or delightful as those of the old days. And thanks to the internet they travel faster, and the same stories are found - with local variations that make them more believable - all over the world.

This week, experts in the study of urban legends are meeting in a spa town in north-eastern Italy to debate what it is about urban legends that makes them so compelling even today, in societies which like to believe that they are governed by reason. The occasion is the congress of the World Skeptics [sic] Congress, meeting in Italy for the first time.

Among those present is Jan Harold Brunvald, the veteran American folklorist who invented the term "urban legend" and who has published numerous collections of them. Brunvald says of the urban myths: "These are stories told with some conviction as if they are true, attributed to a friend or a friend of a friend, but which are too coincidental or bizarre to be literally true. The same basic stories are told in lots of different places, always localised and with different variations. Those are the crux of what I call urban legends."

People believe them, he says, "First, because people hear them from credible sources: family members, co-workers, neighbours, friends at school. Hairdressers are always 'reliable' sources. The sources say that the story happened to a friend of a friend. Another reason people believe them is that they are not that incredible. They are about familiar places like shopping malls, familiar experiences like travelling, things we are worried about like crime. It seems as though they could have happened."

Mr Brunvald goes on, "I was motivated to focus on urban legends by my students. They always seemed to think that folklore belonged to somebody else, usually in the past, that it was something quaint and outdated. So I started asking them what kind of stories did they learn by word of mouth; what did they repeat. Once I started collecting these stories, I just became fascinated with them."

The crucial factor in making urban legends believable is plausible detail. In July 2004, for instance, the BBC reported that an Iranian woman had given birth to a frog; or more precisely, the corporation reported that an Iranian newspaper had reported the grotesque event. The original report, in the Iranian daily Etemaad, said the unnamed woman in the south-eastern city of Iranshahr had produced a live, grey-coloured frog after "a bizarre labour". The birth of the reptile was preceded by copious bleeding, and the frog itself was covered in mud.

The paper claimed that one Dr Varasteh, a gynaecologist, had confirmed the event, saying the woman's menstrual cycle had stopped for six months and a sonogram indicated the presence of a cyst in her abdomen.

The detail, and learned speculation as to how the frog found its way into the woman's womb, combined to lull even the BBC into credulity. Yet the story is not only patently false but also belongs to an ancient category of legend in which a woman gives birth to an octopus, a lizard, a fish or a snake. A Californian version of the tale appeared in recent years. Earlier versions were found in the US's Atlantic states in 1934, while a British version was reported in a book called Shattering Health Superstitions in 1930. In that version, a London factory girl swallowed something while swimming, was seized with appalling stomach pains soon afterwards, and an X-ray showed she had swallowed an octopus egg that had hatched out inside her.

So deeply, weirdly gratifying is the story that it probably goes back centuries and forms the core, fascinating and disgusting at once, of the Alien films. In a subtly different form it is also at the heart of the old nonsense song, "I know an old woman who swallowed a fly." Equally compelling is the image - a legend in a bottle, if you like - of the baby dragon preserved in formaldehyde that the British author Alistair Mitchell concocted to get the public's attention after publishers refused to publish his children's book Unearthly History.

But although many urban legends are merely grotesque like that one, or cute, or weird, there is a darker shadow to the subject as well. We never stop telling stories to each other, plausible and nonsensical at once; but it is in time of war and crisis that they become truly compelling.

Today at the conference in Abana Terme an Italian expert in urban legends, Lorenzo Montali, presents a paper on the legends that have sprung up since the terrorist attacks on America in September 2001.

Because when nations go to war and the newspapers and television media are charged with images of fear, death and destruction, stories of a particular type are born: legends that tell people who to blame, where to look for salvation and security, and what terrible things may lie in the future. These are stories that help to fill the fearful void in people's souls. And the sort of deep, stubborn prejudice that produces tales of Chinese eating baby brains, or Japanese breeding "bonsai kittens" in glass jars, turns instead to finding scapegoats, identifying plotters, or foreshadowing the next great atrocity.

"The fear and uncertainty of wartime," says Professor Montali, "help to bring into being stories that people use to reinforce what they believe or to give solid form to what they fear." He cited the stories widespread in the trenches of the First World War that predicted the imminent use by the enemy of a monstrous secret weapon that would destroy the army and bring the war to a sudden end.

The most widespread story in circulation after 11 September, mostly but not exclusively in the Islamic world, is that the attacks on America were the work of Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, which explains why all the Jews who normally worked in the World Trade Centre were absent on that day. Both elements of the story are totally fictitious but, by feeding into far older tales of Jewish conspiracies, and equally widespread belief in the fiendish duplicity of Americans, they gain millions of adherents among those keen to believe the worst.

Other stories feed a hunger for some sort of religious message to be derived from those terrible events: the reports of the head of the devil seen in the smoke rising from the World Trade Centre for example, confirming the supernatural provenance of the atrocity; and the story that the only thing to survive the wreck of the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon was a copy of the Bible.

Yet other new legends are nourished by terror of being the victim of a new attack, and the fantasy of being miraculously saved from it. In a grocery store an impoverished Arab does not have enough money to pay for his carton of milk. The protagonist of the story helps him out; in return, the Arab says: "Take my advice, avoid going to (fill in the name of important city) on such and such a date." And so the next great atrocity is avoided.

"In times of war and crisis," says Lorenzo Montali, "we are hungry for security and certainty. The stories feed that hunger for certainty. We can't do without them."

Don't believe a word of it: tales that turned out to be utter tosh

The baby dragon in a bottle

Alistair Mitchell, a frustrated British author who had done the rounds of publishers with his children's book Unearthly History without success, concocted an urban legend in physical form, a "baby dragon" preserved in formaldehyde, complete with curly tail and spread wings. "I created it to gain attention and entertain people", he says. The hoax fooled several British newspapers (though not The Independent). Mr Mitchell went on to find a publisher in the US, but in Britain had to resort to self-publishing.

The woman who gave birth to a frog

In the most recent version of an ancient legend that has inspired morbid fascination and revulsion for centuries, a woman in Iran was reported to have given birth to a frog. So believable was the incidental detail in the story that it was not only carried by a Farsi-language Iranian newspaper and the Iranian wire service, but also picked up by the BBC on its website - the piece was originally illustrated with a photograph of a frog, though not a frog found in Iran.

The Kentucky fried rats

Many consumers were ready to believe that the global corporation Kentucky Fried Chicken was coating rats in batter and happily serving them to hungry customers. Stories of old ladies and young children chomping into their chicken burgers only to discover chunks of vermin ran around the Web like wildfire. Various versions of the story appeared, but in most, the food was consumed in a dark place. Lawsuits were mentioned; consumers were even said to have died. A tale that was easy to believe, since it is not uncommon to find the creatures - roughly the same size as a small chicken - near food.

The devil in the smoke

In September 2001, a freelance photographer called Mark D Phillips sold two photographs to Associated Press that apparently showed a devil's face in the smoke of the burning World Trade Center (above). The photographs were not manipulated, and were widely published, but of course the images in the smoke are as significant as the cloud seen by Hamlet which was "very like a whale". Barbara and David Mikkelson, whose website carries many urban legends, say that finding images in randomness is called "pareidol". Nicholson's pictures probably gave perverse comfort to many people, anxious to find the hand of God (or Satan) behind the terrible events of 11 September.

The number of the beast

Satan was also at the centre of a story that cropped up more than 20 years ago, when the legend spread in the United States that Procter & Gamble, the detergent company, was in league with the devil. It was claimed that the president of the company had gone on to a television talk show and made the admission, and had also said the company's then logo (below) was satanic. Like nearly all urban myths (and dirty jokes, come to that) the origin of this tissue of falsehood is unknown, but it was widely diffused by Christians, who urged believers to shun the company's products.

The case of the bonsai kittens

The rather disturbing picture of a kitten jammed inside a jar not much bigger than itself was distributed by e-mail and displayed on websites to the dismay of many animal lovers around the world, who quickly went online in their thousands to protest against this apparent case of cruelty. The website, which convinced readers that a Japanese man in New York bred and sold kittens that were miniaturised like a bonsai tree, turned out to be a hoax. The site's claims were investigated after organisations such as the Humane Society of the United States were bombarded with complaints; it was discovered to be a joke created by a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

... and a true story of exploding phones

Some urban legends turn out to be true. The story of the man who was electrocuted when he made a call from a cellphone while it was charging is one. The unfortunate victim was K Viswajith, a 31-year-old insurance company sales manager in Kollam, India. His death was reported in August 2004. In another case, in Malaysia, a man having a nap on his bed was scalded on the buttocks when his recharging mobile blew up. Other cases have been reported in Thailand, South Korea and Amsterdam. Reportedly, Nokia warns against cheap replacement batteries, which may not have safety features.

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