Too good to keep to yourself

The appeal of modern myths: they might just be true

The Gossips, by US painter Norman Rockwell

by Petra Meijer

Did vandals really blow up cats with fireworks? And is the rumour that teenagers are drugged and then abused based on fact? Peter Burger specialises in urban legends; he has discovered that both journalists and official authorities fall for them.

There is a certain American juvenile gang that requires prospective members to drive around with their headlights switched off. The first driver to flash his headlights to let them know their lights aren’t on is killed. After natural disasters, looters cut off the swollen ring fingers of the dead to snatch their wedding rings. An eight-month-old foetus was cut from the womb of a murdered woman. And somewhere abroad, a tourist was drugged and then robbed of his kidneys.

This is just a selection of the monstrous yarns in Peter Burger’s dissertation, in which he discusses the debates surrounding modern crime myths. “We all know a few urban legends: you often hear them at parties or they circulate on the internet. But many of those stories are featured in newspapers and can even influence the political agenda.”

According to Burger, it is best not judge urban legends as true or false, but to regard them as uncertain: “My research concentrates mainly on the debates surrounding these urban legends and in fact, the sceptics, the debunkers, are just as interesting as the believers.’

Burger was first intrigued by urban legends in the eighties when working on his Dutch degree course. “The archetype collection of urban myths, written by Ethel Portnoy, was a real eye-opener for me. I was familiar with the stories in the book – I even knew a few more – but I had never realised that you could research them.”

When he started studying medieval literature for his final paper, he found an encyclopaedia of animals from the thirteenth century that portrayed a mermaid alongside a domestic cat and had descriptions of dragons following entries on elephants. “I also read an idiotic tale that claimed that red deer listened by standing upside down on their right antler.” Tracing the origins of the report, he discovered that the person who had recorded it had got the wrong end of the stick: “Red deer listen with their ears pricked, not with their right antler.”

A journalist, Burger enjoys hunting for the origin of the tales and on his website, he examines whether there is any truth to these yarns. However, whether the myths are true or false is of secondary importance for academic research; in his dissertation, he examines the crime myths as rhetorical constructions.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Burger studies which rhetorical means are used by believers and debunkers to convince others of their truth or untruth. Following that, he examines how the urban legends are used for the construction of social problems, basing his work on two cases: “drugged and abused” and “the Smiley gang”.

“I deliberately chose these two topics. The Smiley gang is composed of a group of immigrant youths who give their female victims a choice: gang rape or a smiley –it’s a reference, not to an XTC pill, but to lasting mutilation. The corners of the girl’s mouth are cut and then she is punched in the stomach which forces her cheeks to split open. It’s typical folklore and although official authorities do not subscribe to the story, the fact is, it could cause a lot of unrest.”

“In tales in which victims are drugged before being abused, it’s the other way round: official authorities warn about people putting drugs in your drink while young people on internet forums are sceptical of those reports. I discovered that the stories about party drugs are very similar to stories dating back a hundred years about innocent girls who were drugged and traded as white slaves.”

In Burger’s opinion, “drugs in your drink” was made a social issue by journalists taking the easy way out. “Although journalists’ professional rhetoric claim that they always check their facts, their daily routine is actually focused on avoiding checking facts”, he claims in one of his dissertation’s propositions.
Burger intends to continue his research into modern myths after he receives his PhD. As a scholar, journalist and lecturer at the department of Journalism and New Media, he attempts to help others understand the debates surrounding these remarkable stories.

“By now, I can tell quite easily whether the report is an urban legend or not, but even I get caught out sometimes – only recently in fact, with the story about vandals blowing up cats. My colleague said: “Rubbish, I could tell straight away it wasn’t true” while I was thinking: “Oh dear, exploding cats!”

The Juiciest Urban Legends

The stolen grandmother
“A family is on holiday with their grandmother when she suddenly dies. They could go to the police, but that would mean a lot of bother, so they hide her under a blanket on the backseat, in the caravan or even on the roof-rack. They reach the outskirts of Paris and decide to get a bite to eat at a service station. When they get back, the car or the caravan – containing the dead grandmother – has been stolen. Because they don’t have the body, they can’t claim the inheritance. This story dates from the Second World War, but in that version, the family aren’t on holiday in France or Italy, but are fleeing from the Germans.”

The disappearing hydrangeas
“Since 2004, various hydrangea bushes have been pruned illegally. Some gardeners are convinced that the dried flower heads are used as a cheap alternative for drugs, but that only applies to the Asian hydrangea, which is quite rare in the Netherlands. Even though I can’t say why they are disappearing either, I suspect that rodents are eating them. When I wrote that on my website, I received an angry email from a lady who ‘was very shocked that a researcher from Leiden University didn’t believe the story.’ Her hydrangeas had disappeared two years in a row.”

“Slenderman is a tall, thin, terrifying figure with tentacles for arms. He is the subject of a documentary, scary computer games and various YouTube films. I frequently receive emails from children who have seen Slenderman or want to know whether he really exists. It’s amazing, but he was only ‘born’ 4 years ago when members of the forum Something Awful challenged each other to make the scariest possible figure using Photoshop. However, this bogeyman managed to escape the forum very soon afterwards.”

Thieves’ slang burglar signs
“This is one of the stories of which I’m convinced that it’s not true but it’s kept alive by the police. Almost every week, I see police officers’ messages on Twitter warning people about burglar signs. Three diagonal marks next to a door mean that the owners of the house have already been robbed, for example, and a triangle supposedly means a single woman lives there.”

Gypsies steal blond children
“In Greece, a blond girl was taken from a Roma family because, having blond hair, she looked nothing like her parents. Although it emerged that she had been illegally adopted, the rumour soon spread to other countries. The Roma allegedly steal blond girls because they are good at begging. In Ireland, a blond girl was taken from a Roma family but the police were forced to return her when DNA testing proved that the child really was the couple’s daughter.”

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