They're shocking! They're scary! And they hardly ever die!
Fueled by 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, if that.

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 the Internet."

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 hoax.

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 changed.

"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 their appeal?

"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," says Mikkelson.

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 wish-fulfillments."

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 it."

Copyright © 2000, Lorna Collier

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