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The wonderful world of Urban Myths.

hitchhiker

“I went to that new Chinese place last night. Lovely meal.”

“Oh you don’t want to eat Chinese.”

“Why ever not?”

“Mate of mine, he had a friend went for a Chinese meal. Started choking. Rushed to hospital, they found he was choking on a bone.  When they got it out, it was a rat bone it was.”

Many people may recognise the above story in another guise.  Sometimes it is a Chinese restaurant, sometimes it is Indian. Sometimes it is a rat bone, and sometimes the bone came from a cat.  Sometimes the individual concerned survives, and sometimes he chokes to death.

The fact is there never was a restaurant, of any ethnicity.  There never was anyone choked, was rushed to hospital, or died. There was never any bone, be it from a rat or a cat.

This story is an urban myth; one of the most fascinating and entertaining forms of modern folklore.  And all the more so because so many people believe it and are all too willing to pass it on, maintaining that it is absolutely genuine.  Indeed, when I pointed out the fallacies in this tale to one woman once, she became quite irate and adamant that it really did happen.

This type of urban myth is known as a “FOAFtale”; being the acronym of “Friend Of A Friend”.  The narrator of the story never knows the person the incident supposedly befell. It is always a friend-of-a-friend, a friend’s brother, sister, mum, dad, third-cousin-twice-removed.  There is never any newspaper, police or medical evidence to back the story up.  It just gets started by some fantastical storyteller, passed by someone gullible enough to believe it without checking the facts, then because human beings can be gullible, it takes off from there.

It is not lost on me that the bone in the Chinese meal / curry tale has racist connotations.  It is not the only such tale.  Another one is of the couple driving in an old-style Volkswagen Beetle through an area with a large black population.  They are set upon by a bunch of black men and the boyfriend hits the gas and guns the car away with one black guy hanging on to the back until they get away from him.  When they get home and the boyfriend is examining the damage to his car, he finds four severed black fingers in one of the vents of the Beetle, which of course is always white, cut off by the engine fan.  Firstly, a grown man could not get his fingers into the vents in the back of a VW Beetle.  Secondly, even if it were possible, he would have to have really long fingers to reach the engine fan.  Thirdly, if the fan cut the fingers of, then logically they would not be stuck in the vent, as the fan would come between the two.

The above story is in fact a racist twist upon a 1960s urban myth which was equally bigoted against hippies.  The original has a guy driving past Stonehenge in England in a Ford Zephyr, or similar fast car of the time.  He sees a hippy standing trying to thumb a lift by the side of the road. He slows down to give the hippy a lift, then notices a mad look in his eyes, and suddenly speeds up and drives off, noticing the hippy waving and gesticulating wildly in his rear view later.  A little later he pulls in for petrol and the pump attendant, about to fill the car, either recoils in horror or faints. Wondering what is wrong, the motorist gets out and finds the hippy’s fingers or hand wrapped around the passenger door handle.

Prejudice in urban myths stretches across the English Channel to France and other countries on the continent (readers outside of Europe more than likely have their own regional variations).  There is the story of an English couple whom a friend knows or is related to who are travelling through France with their dog, which being France, has to be a poodle.  They are hungry and finally find a restaurant who will admit them and their dog.  Knowing little french and enjoying a glass of wine while perusing the menu, they don’t want to leave their pampered pooch out of the meal.  So pointing to the dog, they try to ask the waiter to feed him too.  After a look of misunderstanding, the waiter leads the dog into the kitchen, where they think it will be fed.  A little later the waiter comes back with a huge tureen, which he lifts the lid off to reveal, yep, you’ve guessed it, the cooked dog.

It is quite easy to poke holes in this story immediately.  Why would an English couple knowing little French ever try to travel through that country?  This story comes from the days before “pet passports”, so how would they get their dog across the Channel at a time when there were strict border controls on dogs in the first place?  Of course, one would hard pressed even nowadays to find any restaurant which would admit any dogs unless they were guide dogs.  Finally the actual cooking of the dog is nothing less than pure anti-French bigotry.  In this story one can see clear parallels to the bone in the Chinese meal / curry FOAFtale.

Another story is of a British family (friends of a distant aunt’s close friend, etc) touring the continent.  In this case the elderly grandmother is with the family. Somewhere in France, Italy, Spain, or some other corner of the continent, they find the old lady has died in her sleep.  Wishing to take her home to Blighty to have her buried, the manager of the hotel / guest house agrees that the family can wrap her in the bedroom carpet, which they do, and string the body to the roof rack of the car.  Driving back across the continent, they stop somewhere for lunch one day, and when they go to continue the journey, somebody has stolen the carpet – complete with granny inside.

For a start in most counties across the globe, and certainly in Europe, a death certificate would be required.  As it was a sudden death, an autopsy may have to be carried out.  And what callous bastard would be insane enough to wrap their grandmother in a carpet and strap them to the roof rack?  What hotel / guest house manager would even allow that without contacting the police?  As totally absurd as this story is, it still does the rounds to this day and there are people gullible enough to believe it.

There is an older variant of this tale which has a family travelling across Europe and a female family member (always female for some reason), either a grandmother, mother, or more commonly a daughter takes ill with either a contagious disease or poisoning in a hotel and dies in the night.  The family go off to get the authorities but when they come back there is no sign of the daughter, the room she was staying in has been completely redecorated and the hotel staff all deny any knowledge of ever having seen met any of the family ever before.  The parents go to the room they were in to show police their luggage in there.  Except their keys don’t work and when the manager uses the pass key, that room too has been redecorated and there is not one piece of luggage or clothes in the room.  Alternatively there is a further twist to this story in which one policeman spots an earring lying on the floor, he lifts it and turning to the mother, she is only wearing one earring matching the dropped one.  The manager then confesses to disposing of the body to save the reputation of his hotel.

It is believed that the above urban myth can be traced to an obscure horror story, which has been retold at some point as fact.  And it is not the only time this has happened.

In the USA there was the story of a man in old fashioned clothes suddenly appearing in the middle of Times Square, New York City in 1950.  Looking around himself in astonished wonder, the man suddenly appreciates the danger he is in with the bustling traffic, attempts to get to safety but is knocked down and killed.  His body taken to the city morgue, the police go through his pockets and find a beer token for 5 cents from a saloon (which subsequently is unknown even to older residents), a bill for keeping a horse and washing a carriage from a livery stable on Lexington Avenue which is not listed in any address book, $70 in out-of-date yet crisp banknotes, business cards with the name Rudolf Fentz giving an address on Fifth Avenue, and a letter sent to the Fifth Avenue address dated June 1876.  A Captain Rihm of the NYPD goes to the Fifth Avenue address and finds it is a business.  Further tracking leads him to a Rudolf Fentz Jr, whom he subsequently discovers has died but his widow is still alive in Florida.  When he contacts her, she tells him that her husband’s father, Rudolf Fentz Sr, had gone out for a walk one day in 1876 and never returned.  A subsequent search of missing persons for the year 1876 shows that a record for a Rudolf Fentz tallies exactly with the man killed in Times Square in 1950.

The above story is was believed by a great number of Americans, particularly New Yorkers, for many years.  Some even claimed to have seen Rudolf Fentz appear and being knocked down in Times Square in 1950.  With the UFO flap years of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, it appeared in many books and was held up as proof of a timeslip, or an eddy in the space-time continuum.  It still makes the rounds as an urban legend and in paranormal literature to this day.  In fact, the entire story was from a short story I’m Scared by American Sci-Fi author Jack Finney, and was first published in Collier’s Magazine on 15 September 1951.  Yet such is the gullibility of mankind, there are people to this day will quite adamantly tell you that the Rudolf Fentz case was genuine.

If any readers have never encountered the oldest urban myth of them all, then I will assume you have been living in caves all your lives, because it can easily be reckoned everyone has encountered it in one form or another; the phantom hitch-hiker.

One of the most common versions of the story is that a driver on a lonely road sees a teenage girl trying to hitch a lift by a crossroads.  Being the gallant type and afraid for the girl’s wellbeing, he stops and offers to drive her home. While driving along she shivers and the driver gives her his sweater which she drapes around her shoulders.  At her house, she thanks him and says he need not come to the door as her parents would be angry, and runs off.  The following day the driver realises that he never got his sweater back and sets out for the girl’s home.  When he gets there a woman comes to the door and he explains the situation to her.  The woman suddenly breaks down in tears and says “That was my daughter.  She was killed at the crossroads a year ago yesterday.” Incredulous and not believing her, the mother leads the man to the nearby graveyard, where her daughter is buried.  And there, draped across the girl’s gravestone is the man’s sweater.

The phantom hitch-hiker takes on a great many forms.  In some of these there is the horror story of the girl in the car while her boyfriend goes to get petrol who suddenly hears thudding on the car roof.  Then lights suddenly goes on and a voice on a megaphone tells her to get out the car slowly then run to the light.  When she does so, she reaches police and an ambulance and turns to see a maniac on the roof of the car, thudding on it with her boyfriend’s severed head.  A campfire ghost story, sure.  But you would be amazed just how many people think that it actually happened.

Some places are very proud of their phantom hitch-hikers.  On Unst in the Shetland Isles, Scotland The White Wife is described as an apparition of an old lady who stands by the road late at night, trying to wave down a lift, always from young male drivers.  Once she gets in the car she sparks up a conversation with the young man, telling him things about his life and family which only he could know.  Startled, when she stops speaking, the young man will turn to look at her – only to find an empty seat beside him.  The White Wife is so famous that Valhalla Brewery named one of their strong ales after her.

As I have said, the phantom hitch-hiker is the world’s oldest urban myth.  European versions of it can be traced back to the 1700s, and involving horse-drawn carriages, and the illustration attached to this article is a wonderful 19th century cartoon based on the subject.  It is thought however to be Chinese in origin, with a man encountering a woman or girl who asks him to accompany her home, but insists she walk behind him. When they get to her home, she has disappeared.

Reading these stories, the reader must think that people were completely gullible in the past.  Human nature however does not change.  The internet hosts more hoax stories than we have ever had in the past.  Even a quick trawl through Facebook any day is almost certain to throw up one story or another which are blatant hoaxes.  Some are harmless enough in their own way, such as saying something is bad for you when it is not.  Others are downright cruel and the products of sick minds, including stealing pictures of sick children, and even children who have subsequently died, and putting them on spurious posts saying if they get 1 million “likes” then the kid will be cured.

Investigative pages such as Snopes and Hoax-Slayer have done little to nothing to convince people that they have been had, with the result that many of these tales are destined to become urban myths in their own right.  Indeed, when I recently pointed someone on Facebook to a Snopes page refuting their post that the energy drink Red Bull was dangerous, they angrily rounded on me and insisted that Snopes must be wrong.  Some people not only prefer to be fooled, they would happily shoot the messenger who points out the fallacies they believe in.

Is that however so surprising?  The entire phenomenon of urban myths and FOAFtales shows us that not only the vast majority of people gullible, many want to be fooled.  There are a great many people in the world who have what I call “Fox Mulder Syndrome”; like the poster in the office of the character in the TV show The X Files, they want to believe, and woe betide anyone who dare to question that belief.  We live daily surrounded by misconceptions of “well known facts” and as well as Snopes and Hoax-Slayer, TV shows such as Mythbusters and QI have done nothing to ever change that.

Urban myths have been with us since time began.  They will be with us until time ends.  And love them or hate them, they all make up part of our wonderful tapestry of folklore.

A pointer to this fact is the story that every year the average person swallows six spiders while the y are sleeping.  That story was in fact a deliberately created myth started by two scientists who posted it on the internet to see how far it would go.  Sorry folks, but that latter part, about the two scientists, is in fact just another urban myth – or is it? 😉

 

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5 Comments

  1. I love this! Urban myths are fascinating!

    • I could have put more in. There is a wonderful one which we don’t know is true or a myth. It claims that Harry Truman, officiating a function on the Whitehouse lawn once said, “These roses could use some manure.”
      One lady there said to the First Lady, “Oh, the President should not say manure, he should say fertilizer.”
      Mrs Truman replied, “Please dear, it took me long enough to train him to say manure.”

        • SheilaB76
        • Posted June 22, 2013 at 3:40 am
        • Permalink

        Excellent! I love it!

  2. The way that the Rudolf Fentz story starts in fiction and enters into genuine folklore has a close parallel in the UK. You will find the tale of the Vampire of Croglin Grange, supposedly from some isolated rural area of the far north of England, in the sort of popular “Haunted Britain” books that have been in print since the 1950s onwards. Versions still appear on all sorts of websites such as:

    http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/england/cumbria/folklore/the-phantom-of-croglin-grange.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croglin_Grange
    http://www.darknessembraced.com/vampires/vampire-mythology-and-lore/item/151-the-vampire-of-croglin-grange-england

    However, as is gradually becoming better known, the origin of the story lies in part of Augustus Hare’s “Story of My Life”.

    http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605661h.html

    He presents it as “what I was told by a local informant”, though there is little doubt that it is purely fictional. For many years it was regarded by many as the only genuine example of a British vampire legend, but that alone should have rung alarm bells.

    • Quite my friend, the Vampire of Croglin Grange is a wonderful example of how fiction can become urban myth. Thank you for your contribution.


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