shocking! They're scary! And
they hardly ever die!
instant e-mail transmission,
urban legends run rampant on the Internet
By Lorna Collier
Published April 18, 2000 (Chicago
Tribune, Tempo section)
Warning! Bananas imported from
Costa Rica contain dreaded flesh-eating
bacteria -- eat one and you could die!
Warning! If your kids play in the
ball pit at your local fast-food
restaurant, they could be bitten by a rattlesnake!
Warning! Three women in Chicago
have died after being bitten in the
nether regions by spiders lurking in the toilets at O'Hare Airport!
If you have an e-mail account,
you more than likely have already
received these alarming news flashes. Not to mention the woeful tales
of cancer-ridden children who need your help, the cautionary accounts
of "Good Samaritan" rapist-murderers hiding in shopping-mall parking
lots, the stories about health threats posed by tampons or
antiperspirants, the reports of impending congressional action to tax
your e-mail, and the enthusiastic missives promising fantastic
corporate giveaways -- money from Microsoft! free clothes from the Gap!
-- if you'll just keep forwarding e-mail messages to your friends.
Before the explosion in
popularity of the Internet, urban legends --
tales that seem true, but aren't -- were passed on by word of mouth, or
perhaps by fax machine. Depending on your friends and your affinity for
water-cooler conversation, you might hear an urban legend once a month,
Now, however, urban legends,
myths, rumors and hoaxes are spreading
like never before, thanks to the easy transmission provided by e-mail.
It isn't necessarily that there
are more urban legends today, according
to David Emery, the full-time "Guide to Urban Legends and Folklore" for
the About.com Web site. But more people are hearing them because the
Net has "sped up and increased their circulation. E- mail forwarding
makes the replication of texts so easy -- effortless, in fact -- that
perfectly ordinary people who might not otherwise be inclined to spread
wild stories suddenly turn into mad rumor-mongers once they're wired to
Many of the old urban legends
formerly passed along in conversation
have been dusted off, updated and deposited into the rapidly swirling
Internet e-mail stream -- such as one in which unsuspecting travelers
are seduced, doped, and then awaken in an ice- filled tub to find their
kidneys have been stolen by black-market profiteers. But other urban
legends on the Net are new, with many seeming to reflect modern-day
fears over computers and technology.
"There is a real kind of strained
sub-genre of almost Luddite urban
legends circulating -- this kind of technological apocalypse story,
about computer viruses and computers attacking," says Robert Thompson,
president of an international group of scholars who study popular
culture and a professor of TV, radio and film at Syracuse University.
For example, many forwarded
e-mails contain warnings about computer
viruses contained in everything from free games to electronic greeting
cards; almost all of these warnings are false.
"False virus warnings could
certainly be regarded as a new form of
urban legend native to the Internet," says Emery.
The biggest difference between a
legend spread by computer and one
spread orally is that an Internet story is usually passed on verbatim,
by simply forwarding the text of the message. The tale you read is the
same one your friend of a friend of a friend in Canada reads. Verbal
urban legends, on the other hand, are often modified in the retelling,
in a sort of "telephone game" fashion. The personal expression with
which they are told also tends to make a big impact on the listener.
"The `folk' quality of the
Internet is somewhat undercut, in my
opinion, by the fact that there is no person-to-person, face-to-face
interaction, no gestures, vocal expression, listener reaction -- just a
smiley face or a row of exclamation points now and then," says Jan
Harald Brunvand, a noted urban legends researcher who has written
numerous books on the topic during the last 15 years, including his
most recent, "The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story"
(University of Illinois Press).
Internet stories, however, have a
different kind of impact: They can
spread worldwide to an audience of millions in a matter of hours.
Because of this rapid reach, Internet urban legends pose a particular
danger to corporations or individuals whose names are mentioned in them.
"There are an awful lot of dumb
and harmful things that [are] so easy
to spread over the Internet that couldn't possibly be spread"
otherwise, says David Mikkelson, who along with his wife, Barbara
Mikkelson, runs an urban legends debunking site called snopes.com. For
example, one recent e-mail warned that you can get flesh-eating disease
by eating Costa Rican bananas. "It's implausible that anybody could
have launched a nationwide banana hoax 20 years ago unless they were
willing to spend a great deal of money," he says.
Corporations such as Procter
& Gamble, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Disney
and Microsoft all have been bitten by false e-mails of one sort or
another -- either alleging harmful behavior on the part of corporate
executives or promising merchandise that the company has no intention
of delivering. One tale alleges that the meat sold at Kentucky Fried
Chicken actually comes from a genetically modified organism with no
beaks, feathers or feet.
On-line companies are far from
immune. Last year, an e-mail claimed
that the free electronic greeting cards offered by Blue Mountain Arts
through its popular Web site, bluemountain.com, carried a computer
virus. Company vice president Mark Rinella says Blue Mountain fought
the e-mail threat aggressively, through Web site postings and e-mails
to customers. Not only was the e-mail threat defused, but Rinella says
business actually increased, perhaps because of publicity about the
Charitable groups also have been
affected by deceptive e-mails. The
Make-A-Wish Foundation, which helps terminally ill children, has been
falsely named in several e-mails featuring supposedly ill children. The
most infamous concerns a 9-year-old English boy with a brain tumor,
Craig Shergold, who in 1989 attempted to be listed in the Guinness Book
of World Records for receiving the most get-well cards. The child
received 16 million cards, made the record book, then had his tumor
removed and is now recovered. Yet a decade later, e-mails about
Shergold's cause continue to circulate, with the latest versions asking
that recipients send business cards to Shergold and claiming that the
Make-A-Wish Foundation is behind the request.
Even though the foundation has
never been associated with Shergold,
says spokeswoman Christina Carmony, the national office currently
receives about 200 phone calls per week and up to 50 e- mails per week
regarding the Shergold letter alone, while the 80 Make- A-Wish chapters
field calls on a daily basis. "Obviously, responding to these inquiries
diverts staff time and resources away from our mission," says Carmony.
Many of these false e-mails about
companies are rapidly debunked, but
then, a short time later, they reappear, with perhaps a few details
"One of the things about urban
legends is that they resurface," says
Iain Murray, senior analyst with Statistical Assessment Service, a
Washington, D.C.-based think tank that tracks scientifically misleading
myths and rumors. "The urban legend stays in the mind, but the
debunking doesn't. After a couple of years, it will emerge again and
someone will have to debunk it again."
Most Internet urban legends
appear to be started by pranksters. "If I
were a betting man, I'd bet that most new urban legends, like the
`forward this e-mail to everyone you know and some company will give
you stuff' hoax, are created by teenage boys simply looking for some
giggles and trolling for gullible people," says Patrick Crispen, the
"Internet mythologist" for WGN radio and co-author of an e-mail
newsletter called The Internet Tourbus.
Emery agrees. Traditionally, he
says, urban legends have sprung up
spontaneously in the culture, sometimes seeded with a grain of truth.
Most Internet tales, on the other hand, "are more on the order of
hoaxes," Emery says. "These are bits of misinformation purposely
created by individuals or groups of people to deceive others. Their
motives range from maliciousness to political agendas to the fairly
harmless desire to amuse people."
But why do such stories continue
to attract new audiences? What is
"People like urban legends
because it imbues them with two qualities --
they always have interesting anecdotes to tell, and they can tell a
great many people [who believe in the legends] that they are wrong,"
Some people, says Mikkelson, also
use urban legends to express
prejudices in a socially acceptable way. "Very few people will say, `I
am a racist,' but they will tell you an urban legend where something
terrible is done to a white person by a black person. They are
expressing belief without it being obvious."
And then there are those people
who truly believe they are being
helpful by passing along warnings about apparent dangers -- which is
another element to urban legends that Mikkelson says astounds him: the
extent to which people seem to want or need to find things to fear.
"There are not nearly as many
dangers out there as you'd believe from
all these legends," he says. "Yet people are determined to believe that
kids are getting abducted from Disneyland and are falling on
heroin-filled syringes in ball pits at Burger King."
Contemporary legends, whether
Internet-based or not, "do express
concerns and fears," says William Ellis, president of the International
Society for Contemporary Legend Research and an associate professor of
English and American studies at Penn State's Hazleton campus. "I also
think that many times these stories reflect on a level people's
Crispen sees urban legends as
more malicious than amusing.
"The whole purpose of an urban
legend is -- with relatively few
exceptions -- to embarrass you," says Crispen. "When I was a little
kid, a friend of my dad's convinced me we had snipes and I went on a
snipe hunt. It's the same thing with these urban legends. The whole
point of it is to make you do something you would not otherwise do" - -
usually, pass on a silly and false e-mail, thus embarrassing yourself
among Net-savvy friends.
The numbers of people who spread
these stories continues to grow, even
as numerous Web sites have been created to debunk the myths. "The
Internet population is still growing so rapidly, with probably
thousands of first-time users signing on every single day, that the
level of gullibility overall is probably increasing," says Emery.
Urban legends experts suggest
taking a closer look at any forwarded
e-mail containing an interesting, frightening or funny tale before
sending it to anyone else.
"If it contains more than one
page of forwarded addresses, throw it
out," says Crispen. "I've never seen a thing come to me with more than
one page of forwards that's true."
Adds Emery: "Stop before you
click the forward button and ask yourself:
Can I personally vouch for the accuracy of the information I'm about to
send to all my friends and loved ones? If the answer is no, don't send
Copyright © 2000, Lorna