By now, I should hope, we can all rest easy during any trip to Brazil, New Orleans or Mexico, knowing that our kidneys are not in any sort of imminent danger, nor is a bathtub full of ice in our future. I also hope we realize that the guy driving with no lights on is probably just a dope (or drunk) who simply forgot to turn his headlights on, and not a member of the dreaded No Headlights Gang, who will gruesomely murder you in cold blood if you flash your lights at him.
But there’s probably at least one asshole out there who doesn’t realize this, and will flood your inbox with URGENT PLEASE READ warnings. What a pal.
Urban legends have been around for ages (back when they were called ghost stories), but it took that blessed monster of the Internet to take them to an entirely new level. By now, we should all know better than to send money to the guy from Zimbabwe who addresses you as “Dear Sir or Madam,” and that Bill Gates isn’t really going to shower you with cash for forwarding an e-mail. But just when I think most people have wised up, another forwarded message pops up in my inbox, usually accompanied by some lame apology like, “I don’t know if this is true, but better to be safe than sorry, right?”
Just a few weeks ago, I received one such e-warning, telling the horrifying tale of a friend of a friend who knew this woman who tried to get some gas and couldn’t because the attendant refused, and when she went inside she learned that — lo and behold! — one of those pesky homicidal maniacs was lurking in her backseat. This is just a slight variation on the ol’ leg slasher legend, in which the homicidal maniac lurks under a woman’s car and slashes her Achilles tendon when she approaches.
While the Internet is responsible for the mass dissemination of these endless urban legends, it’s also quite useful for debunking them. The Web site snopes.com is a fantastic resource, a searchable database of just about every urban legend ever cooked up. Snopes rates legends as true, false or ambiguous, based on sources like newspaper articles, books and academic studies on urban folklore. E-mailing a link to Snopes is a fantastic, subtly snotty retort to people who just won’t stop sending those ULs your way. With a litany of such UL-debunking sites available on the Web, all you paranoid forwarders simply don’t have an excuse anymore. Please, folks, do a little research, and think before you hit send.
But aren’t ULs mostly harmless, sometimes fun? Yes and no. They are, after all, just a modernized version of folklore. They fulfill the innately human and universal act of storytelling — scary stories, comic tales, lessons of wrongdoing and revenge. Some are hilarious, such as the girl who photographs herself giving a blow job to her new boyfriend and sends it to her ex, who then turns around and mails it to her parents. And some are actually educational, like the ol’ sugar in the gas tank routine (for a science lesson, visit snopes.com/autos/grace/sugar.asp). ULs will wax and wane, reflecting the social climate (take the currently circulating rumor about the draft being reinstated). Detroit even has its very own urban legends, like the Kwamster’s “alleged” wild party at the Manoogian Mansion, or Le Nain Rouge, the Red Dwarf, who materializes before a major disaster occurs — this one dates back to the 1700s, when the city was first settled.
But what gets me are the ULs of a less innocent ilk, the ones laced with tones of racism- or paranoia-inducing fear. In ULs, attacks are almost always attributed to gangs, and the attackers are frequently identified as black or Latino. I’m embarrassed to admit that for years I’d unlock my car door standing as far away as possible, hopping inside in one swift leap, lest my Achilles tendons wind up like sliced gristle — but that was difficult, because I was also supposed to check first to see if the homicidal maniac was lurking in my backseat instead of under my car. You just never know when and where those maniacs will pop up. The lesson here? Women, you should always be afraid! Everyone is trying to kill you, everywhere!
Instead of good clean fun, ULs like these only perpetuate the post-9/11 culture of fear that now shapes the way we live. Yes, it’s always a good idea to be cautious and remain aware of your surroundings. But where’s the line between street smart and paranoid, delusional panic?
Duct tape, anyone? If you have any extra left over from the last Orange Alert, you could always use it to armor your ankles.Sarah Klein is Metro Times culture editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org