By definition, urban legends happen to other people. They are the morality tales of our time, and they grow, not from the minds of our most celebrated storytellers, but from the whispered rumors of average people. Like the slasher movies their plots often resemble, urban legends are easily visualized, are often grim, can be summed up in one sentence, and always,
Like most fables, their job is to teach, although the precise lesson can be obscure. If Aesop’;s classic “The Fox and the Grapes,” for example, is about the excuses we make when we fail to get what we want, then surely “The Cockroach in the Hairdo,” in which a schoolgirl doesn’;t shampoo her hair and gets a bug infestation is a warning about personal hygiene. But what are we to make of the gruesome urban legend about the police decoy:
What does this urban legend teach? Not to shoot at police cars? Not to hire stupid state troopers? That radar is a better bet than a decoy? Although no specific message is forthcoming, one overriding impression remains:
This is why urban legends are never told in the first person. If they were, they could be verified. In a court of law, urban legends would be deemed hearsay, and therefore inadmissible. On the streets, however—as well at the water cooler, on the playground, at the poker table, in the laundromat, and especially on the Internet—they are not only admissible, they attain the power of truth.
Urban legends are subversive. At their most chilling, they paint a grotesque portrait of the social order in a nose dive. In such classics as “The Vanishing Hitchhiker,” “The Choking Doberman,” “The Organ Donor Baby,” and “The Repentant Car Thief,” our security systems fail us, our passions leave us vulnerable to harm, our fears cloud our minds, and no good deed goes unpunished. Even such (comparatively) fanciful tales as “The Poodle in the Microwave,” “The Mexican Pet,” “Alligators in the Sewers,” and “The Broken Computer Cup-Holder” portray a level of stupidity that could only be found in someone else—right?
Urban legends may tell us more about the way we are than we want to realize. They cut straight to the heart of our yearnings, and no sponsor, ratings, corporate owner, or focus group can tack on a happy ending. Indeed, implicit in every urban lesson is an intense “whew!” And urban legends contradict every means of verification that civilization has devised to protect itself. They are born of vague parentage; like a virus, they are spread by mouth or (more recently) the Internet; and only later, if at all, do they appear in the mass media. Here is where they take on another life, because as much as people insist that they hate “the press,” they still believe what they see in it. Interestingly—no, make that frighteningly—even when a newspaper debunks an urban legend
But the sad truth about urban legends, particularly those that clog the Internet, is that they waste resources. When they happen online, they can crash or slow down systems. They invade our privacy, harvest the data of our lives, and exploit what little compassion remains in the human condition. In the end, it boils down to where you place your trust: the media, the government, or some guy with a Web site. Consider this chapter before you decide.