Urban Legends: Fooling the Rest of Us

by Adewale Ajani

My phone rang.

Often, I am infuriated when someone calls me when I get to that threshold of being awake and drifting to sleep. It takes a considerable amount of mental effort to cruise back to this subconscious state.

Trying to conceal my indignation, I picked the phone.

“Hello Toun (not her real name), how’re you doing?” I grunted attempting to sound pleasant at the same time.

“’You got the SMS or did anyone tell you?” she alarmed.

“About what?” I inquired, curiously.

“There’s this news going around that XYZ (a GSM service provider) is asking everyone to switch off their phones due to an electrical vibration that might harm its mobile phone users during the night.” She poured out.

I laughed with gusto, as I lied in bed kicking my legs wild in the air.

“I know you won’t believe this. In any case, just switch off. It won’t cost you anything. I pray your rationalisation won’t put you in trouble, one of these days.” She sounded annoyed.

Listen Toun,” I interjected. “This can’t be true. I’m sure you won’t get anyone to confirm receiving such a message from XYZ. Someone’s just being mischievous. It is an urban legend at work!”

What’s an urban legend?” she queried.

WordWeb describes an urban legend as “a story that appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in various forms and is usually false. It contains elements of humour or horror and is popularly believed to be true.”

According to Tom Harris, urban legends are often false, but not always. A few turn out to be largely true, and a lot of them were inspired by an actual event but evolved into something different in their passage from person to person. More often than not, it is not possible to trace an urban legend back to its original source – they seem to come from nowhere.

He elucidates:

The most remarkable thing about urban legends is that so many people believe them and pass them on. What is it about these stories that makes people want to spread the word? A lot of it has to do with the particular elements of the story. Many urban legends are about particularly heinous crimes, contaminated foods or any number of occurrences that could affect a lot of people if they were true. If you hear such a story, and you believe it, you feel compelled to warn your friends and family. A person might pass on (non-)cautionary information simply because it is funny or interesting. When you first hear the story, you are completely amazed that such a thing has occurred. When told correctly, a good urban legend will have you on the edge of your seat. It is human nature to want to spread this feeling to others, and be the one who’s got everyone waiting to hear how the story turns out. Even if you hear it as a made-up joke, you might be tempted to personalize the tale by claiming it happened to a friend. Basically, people love to tell a good story.”

In addition, urban legends gain credibility when names of probably known people, locations, dates and times are mentioned. Besides, we also tend to believe close friends, relatives or colleagues when they narrate an incident to us, moreover when it is an admonitory one. In any case, why should we doubt their love and concern for us? Howbeit, urban legends defy simple reasoning and rational thinking. They appeal to our curious, inquisitive senses. Hence, we tend to believe and go to any extent to justify the most irrational, improbable and incredulous events, even when we are not witnesses of the same.

A very popular urban legend that went round in the early 90’s in Nigeria circulated rumour of a killer bean that caused mysterious deaths of its consumers. Households had to painfully get rid of this foodstuff (and anything that bore its semblance) from their already lean menu. It was tough for some folks like us that hold an undying affinity and affection for beans. Having to do without relishing a well-cooked meal of beans (seasoned and softened in red palm oil, which occasionally may be graced with the sumptuousness of fried plantain and other accompanying accessories) for a long while, was nothing short of atrocious, unpalatable denial. Interestingly, intriguing as the event was there were no documented or confirmed incidents of any victim – someone was always told by somebody that knew another that died eating the killer beans.

In addition to the aforementioned urban legend in my discussion with Toun, employment of the GSM communication did not but have its own fair share of these faux tales of horror which are typically cunningly devised to raise public temperature and blood pressure. It was reported a couple of years ago that a number of individuals dropped dead (some versions entailed the victims actually vomited blood before their demise) after receiving calls from “strange” phone numbers. Unsurprisingly, the ever-keen newsmongers could not confirm witnessing the incidents or having direct, personal contact or relationship with the victims. As usual, the news had been passed on not without various editions and captivating remix.

In recent times, our mail boxes are inundated one time or the other with tons of urban legend messages that heed us to watch out for rat faeces-infested coke cans, poisonous spiders in airport conveniences or HIV-infected pins at cinema hall seats. Many of us can identify with stories warning us about suffering a loss of our mail box if we fail to forward the same mails, because the service provider wants to shut down or encouraging us to participate in Bill Gates’ free cash giveaway spree. We get offline messages from a caring colleague or family member warning us not to accept any form of communication from a disguised virus-carrier. How about the mantra mails? – “Send this to ten people now, close your eyes, make a wish, take a deep breath and your wish will come true. Mine just did!”

Our mobile phones are not spared. Often, we receive text messages informing us to forward the same messages to a number of people in order to win some cash amount or automatic recharge from the service providers. Some even claim to have received such rewards!

Urban legends are completely different from spam or advance fee fraud correspondences as swindlers only scheme to defraud greedy, unsuspecting and gullible individuals. Their goal is to enrich their pockets with undeserving, financial reward. What do urban legend masterminds stand to gain? Nothing more than sheer fun and mischief poked at public intelligence as they fool the rest of us. They sit back to relish the extent to which their tomfoolery has traveled within the society while enjoying the enormity of humour or horror played out on their naïve, zealous newsmongers.

More about Urban Legends here:
Urban Legends: Lies We Love to Tell
How Urban Legend Works

The Face in the Mirror

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1 comment

enit August 9, 2008 - 5:46 am

Entertaining. Wonder if anyone got the email about not leaving food around while sleeping because ants could march into one’s brains and cause severe havoc. L.O.L. Although it’s medically impossible for such an even to occur, that warning email continues to make it’s trip around the world. No brains have been saved but it has possibly deterred night time snackers who fall asleep with their food in hand to reconsider their munching ways. Many of us often don’t stop long enough to think about the veracity of the content of some of the well intentioned emails we get before we pass them along.


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