An acquaintance copied an email she got this week and posted it on Facebook. It had dire warnings in it about a nefarious plot to cancel a certain beloved television show because of its religious content. Unfortunately, there is no such plot and the show in question is not in danger. Meanwhile, other acquaintances happily post all the horrible things they imagine their political opponents right or left happen to be doing, never bothering to find out if any of it is actually true.
The Facebook posting was an example of what the folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand has called an “urban legend.” We’ve probably all read one or heard one, whether it was a badly mimeographed letter warning us that a well-known corporation was run by a devil-worshiper, or that deep fried rats have been found in buckets of fast-food chicken. And they are usually come from someone we trust, who insists that “my friend’s cousin knew the guy this happened to.”
Urban legends are, in essence, simply a form of gossip. The book of Proverbs in the Bible says that “The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts.” And so we find such juicy tidbits of information very satisfying. They feed our fears and our hopes. They sound so good that they must be true, like the story of the woman who decided after washing her poodle that she’d dry it off in the microwave. Her results were not what she hoped. Of course, such a thing never happened, but what pleasure we get in sharing the tale!
Brunvand has collected the more common urban legends into a series of books with titles like, Curses! Broiled Again, The Vanishing Hitchhiker, and The Choking Doberman. He carefully documents them, where they first arose, and demonstrates their falsity. Additionally, websites such as Snopes.com list hundreds of examples of such urban legends, documenting them in ways similar to what Brunvand does. The stories, unsurprisingly, get rewritten over the years, with name changes and other alterations of details to fit changing cultural sensibilities.
Most urban legends are just funny, or perhaps give some sort of warning to inspire better behavior and so are harmless. But sometimes urban legends can be damaging. For instance, back during the 2000 election, many people were claiming that Al Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance, had the following quote on page 342: “Refusing to accept the earth as our sacred mother, these Christians have become a dangerous threat to the survival of humanity. They are the blight on the environment and to believe in Bible prophecy is unforgivable.” Of course in reality, Gore’s book nowhere contains such a quotation, nor would he, as a Christian, be reasonably expected to write such nonsense. But since most people never bothered to actually pick up his book and turn to the cited page, the lie circulated widely.
Likewise, during a photo opportunity at a 1988 grocers' convention, President George Bush was supposedly “amazed” at encountering supermarket scanners for the first time. This story was repeated numerous times by major news outlets to try to demonstrate how out of touch the now former president Bush was, and yet it wasn’t true at all. Later retractions by the newspapers which started the gossip never got the same traction as the original tidbit.
Urban legends often take on a life of their own, just like other forms of gossip. And even when confronted that a certain tale isn’t true, the gossiper will insist, “well, it’s consistent with what I know of him and while in this instance maybe it never happened, still, I know he does things like that.”
Gossip hurts people. Proverbs also warns us that, “a gossip separates close friends” and “without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” Next time you hear a story that you just know has to be true, or you get an email from someone you trust, who swears that he got the story from someone who knows the person it happened to, be a bit skeptical. Perhaps take a look at some of Brunvand’s books in the library, or run a search on the web. You don’t want to be spreading gossip, now do you?