Urban Myths and Legends
An urban myth is story told as fact when there is little or no actual evidence to support it. Urban myths have been around as long as humans have been telling stories with the main purpose of creating meaning out of worldly elements that people find frightening. Often, urban myths attempt to provide dramatic consequences for morally or socially inappropriate actions. Other times, they simply prey on the human instinct to fear change and the unknown.
Common Urban Legends
New York’s Alligators in the Sewer System – This urban myth has been spread for almost 100 years, based on an unverified article written in The New York Times in 1935. Over 20 years later, Meyer Berger, another Times author, picked up the story and refreshed it for readers in 1957. Scientists maintain that the pollution of city waterways and lack of light make this an impossible story, as alligators and their near relations, caimans, could not survive in the toxic environment.
Hot Tub Pregnancy – The legend claims that a man impregnated a woman while accidentally ejaculating into a hot tub. This common legend was also a featured element on the hit TV show “Glee”. The truth is, sperm live at a temperature of 94 degrees Farenheit, while most hot tubs are much hotter. Even if you do happen to find yourself in the perfect temperature, remember that pH level is very important for sperm vitality, which makes the chemically induced hot tub experience a deadly one for the little swimmers.
Tootsie Rolls Indian Legend – A rumor has circulated for years that free tootsie roll suckers are given by the company if you send in a wrapper with certain insignia on it. Originally, three unbroken circles were said to provide the owner of the wrapper with free merchandise, later to be changed to a Native American child shooting an arrow at a star. While the free merchandise is not available, Tootsie has released a story entitled Legend of the Indian Wrapper to explain the wrapper markings.
LSD Banana Peels – There are a number of myths about creating LSD from fruit products such as oranges and bananas, mostly popularized by underground books and websites before the widespread access of the internet. Although many people claimed it was possible to dry and cure the peels of bananas in order to create homemade LSD, no active ingredients for the substance are found in organic fruits.
OnStar is Watching You – At the early onset of this new GPS technology, an urban legend circulated that OnStar would call the police and tell your location, your speed and if you were participating in other illegal activity. Since the E911 chips that triangulate location based on where the call is coming from were not yet activated at the time, this story is completely false. Even with the advanced GPS technology that OnStar currently uses, they cannot “tattle” on drivers unless your car is equipped with a box that emits digital information to a third party (like Progressive’s Snapshot) and you must be complicit in that agreement.
7-Year Gum – Although this is a story that most people know to be fake, there are still many people who tell it. Usually it involves a child who is swallowing gum and a parent or relative will give specific information about how long the gum lasts in the stomach. In reality, although the makeup of gum makes it indigestible (about 30% of it is gum base, a lot like rubber), it is expelled through natural processes within about 24 hours of consuming it.
Soda and Candy Explosions – Introduced in 1956, Pop Rocks were a new fad in the candy world. At this time, the manufacturing company, General Mills, set up hotlines to answer questions that the fizzing candy might generate and to dispel myths. They seemed to dominate, however, as a rumor began that a student mixed the candy with soda and exploded. This myth was re-invented in 2006 when a Brazilian child was said to have exploded after eating Mentos and Coke. While the chemical reaction between mentos and carbonated sodas is documented by Mythbusters, they also have video footage that debunks the exploding myth.
Bonsai Cats – In 2002, an email surfaced that called for immediate public response to the atrocity of taking small kittens and turning them into ‘Bonsai Cats’. Kittens were said to be put into shaped vases and then maintained until they grew into an unusual shape. Although many saw this as a fake email, others were truly shocked at the animal cruelty used. Of course, animals inside jars would die long before they turned into shapes, no “final products” were ever revealed on the site and eventually it was removed from the internet.
Gasoline Additives – As early as the 1950s people were looking for a way to get more miles out of a tank of gas. One of the earliest proponents of the hoax that an additive pill could either make or extend gas was from Guido Franch. Eventually, he was prosecuted several times for his powdered green food coloring, which lent credibility to the idea that the fuel companies were trying to suppress this invention. He was convicted of fraud in 1979. A more recent attempt at this hoax was in 1996, when Ramar Pillai swore that he had a South Indian bush that could turn water into gasoline. He was found guilty of fraud as he was caught using sleight-of-hand to switch the liquid from his bushes for kerosene.
Batteries in the Freezer – Another cost-saving measure that has been circulated for years. Many people still believe that batteries stored in a refrigerator or freezer will last longer than ones stored at regular temperature. Both Duracell and Energizer state on their websites that batteries will last longest if stored at room temperature, and that the cold might be damaging to seals. Condensation can also leak underneath the battery cover and corrode the internal structure.
Grade D Meat – Earliest records of this rumor date back to the 1980s when the myth of the ‘Grade D Edible’ or ‘Pet Food Only’ meat products became prevalent among uninitiated food workers. The concept is that many fast food restaurants (and often foreign ones) would use low grade meat products in their food. Since the FDA doesn’t include grading by letter, this myth is clearly false. Additionally, the real designation ‘For Institutional Use Only,’ is a symbol of quantity, not quality. It simply means the food is prepared on a large scale, not for individual purchase.
Killer Farts – This 1996 internet rumor stated that a man with poor hygiene was killed from breathing his own noxious gasses when he forgot to keep his window and door open through the night. Although methane gas is unpleasant to smell, it is not toxic to humans. As for the idea that the man suffocated as the gas pushed the oxygen out of the air, the gas volume necessary to replace it would be impossible to be created by one person.
The Origins of F*** - One of the most prevalent curse words in the English language, many people think they know the etymology of the ‘F-word.’ As early as 1995, an email was circulated that gave the historical context of this word as being an acronym for Fornication Under Consent of the King or For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. The true etymology of the word states its Germanic origins and first use as being 1503, with possible roots as early as the 13th century. There is no proof that this was ever an acronym.
The Story of TAPS – One urban legend states that the sorrowful melody of TAPS, played at military funerals, was written by a boy during the civil war who was miraculously found dead by his father while fighting on opposing sides. The true composer was Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V. Army Corps, Army of the Potomac in 1862. His desire was to replace the current harsher bugle call to signal the end of the day, and it was quickly picked up by both Northern and Southern Civil War troops.
The Rabbit Test – It is still thought by many that the test to verify pregnancy used in the 1920s caused the death of a rabbit if a woman was pregnant. The test actually worked by injecting a woman’s urine into a living female rabbit. If the woman was pregnant and the hormone HGC was present in the urine, the rabbit’s ovaries would become enlarged. Since there was no way of knowing this from the outside, every rabbit was killed in order to have the ovaries removed and examined. In this way, every rabbit died as a result of the pregnancy test.
Snopes is considered by some to be the best internet resource on urban myths and legends, and has a comprehensive website devoted to all types of them. The benefit of this site that it stays up to date with the most recent urban legends and even tries to dispel internet hoaxes and rumors.
Urban Myths is another website that is updated daily with the most current urban myths and legends found primarily on the internet. This website includes pictures and a status on the myth. Full text hoax e-mails are also included.
If you are looking to find a full listing of urban legends, there is a comprehensive one available through Urban Legends Online. Here you can also report a new urban legend, participate in an interactive quiz and see video footage of the most favorite urban legends dramatized.
The AFU & Urban Legends Archive provides detailed information about the most famous urban legends and has been used as a reference page for many notable colleges and publications.
There is a list of highly-ranked web pages available through the DMOZ Open Directory Project that have to do with urban legends. Each of these pages have been included in the list based on originality of content, value of resource to the reader and de-emphasis of commercial interests.