ESL BLUE(s)   Go Figure!  Urban Legends  
  1.   The internet is the perfect medium for a hoaxster. You can spread any rumor you want on the net and you can be sure that quite a few people will believe you. The net is where many urban legends are born. 'What are urban legends?' you might ask. Very simply they are strangely believable yet fantastic stories about violent encounters between innocent citydwellers and the creatures (human and otherwise) that prowl the streets, the highways and the sewers of the modern metropolis. I mentioned 'sewers' for a very good reason. One of the first urban myths concerned the giant alligators that supposedly lurk in the underground waterways of New York and feed off the sewage inspectors and anybody else foolish enough to go down there.


As I said, these bizarre stories can be very convincing. They are convincing first of all because they confirm our basic mistrust of the so-called advantages of urban society. Despite all our progress, society is becoming increasingly more violent and dangerous. They are also convincing because they are usually based on certain undeniable weaknesses that we all share as human beings.


We all know, for example, that certain people are intrigued by exotic animals and will go so far as to buy one and treat it as a pet. Of course, human nature being what it is, the novelty soon wears off, especially when the exotic-pet owners realize how impractical, unhygienic and even dangerous it is to have an alligator or a python sharing their small apartment. We are not surprised to hear that many of them get rid of their pets by releasing them in the urban environment. In the case of alligators, the ideal place is the river or, if they are still small enough, down the toilet. This is the simple truth that gave birth to the urban myth of the giant alligators in the sewers.


The reality, of course, is very different. It is unlikely that an alligator would survive in the midst of such pollution, and even if it did, it would be killed as soon as it became a threat to city workers. However, we find it credible because we know that people are stupid and insensitive enough to adopt exotic pets that they can never hope to keep for very long. Furthermore, the fantastic and violent character of the story appeals to our basic fear of all the dark forces that threaten us in the depth of the urban jungle and this, of course, guarantees its propagation and slow but sure transformation into an urban myth.


Since the internet became universally accessible a few years ago, urban legends have multiplied exponentially. The net is, as I said, the ideal medium for their propagation since, unlike most other media, it is largely uncontrolled. Any individual who so desires can, incognito, and with a simple click of a mouse button, disseminate any information he or she wishes. This is a wonderful freedom, one that governments and large corporations fear because it forces them to become more responsible. In fact, because of its success as an alternative source of news, especially news of an embarrassing nature that can often lead to the downfall of the unscrupulous individuals or institutions concerned, people have come to place much more faith in online information than they should.


This is certainly the case with urban legends as recent news items (from those 'other' media) reveal. According to these reports, messages have appeared on various web sites, bulletin boards, in emails and newsgroups warning people of the dangers of being a Good Samaritan on the highways. Here is one of the messages as reported by the National Post in its edition of Monday, January 4, 1999.

If you're driving after dark and you see a car without its headlights on, do not flash your lights. Do not blow your horn or make any signals to the driver of the unlit car.
'Why not?' you might well ask. The messages, marked "Urgent!" go on to explain that if you do flash your lights, you could become the victim of a new gang initiation ritual. Apparently, gangsters are driving around on the highways in their cars with their headlights turned off just waiting for unsuspecting drivers to alert them of their mistake by flashing their lights at them. This, apparently, is their cue to pursue the considerate individuals, shoot them for their troubles, and thus become full-fledged members of their gang.


Fortunately, the same medium that spreads these legends can also debunk them. When police-station switchboards were swamped with calls from anxious citizens too afraid to get into their cars for fear of highway violence, law officers put out a disclaimer on the net, that is, they went straight to the source of the information in order to discredit it. Moreover, the net offers police officers the means, through various newsgroups like, to keep each other informed of the latest developments: hoaxes, scams, rumors and legends, especially the urban variety.


I'd like to conclude with another urban legend that's making the rounds. The Pentagon, which has played a crucial role in the development of the internet, has encouraged its universal access primarily because it enables the global military establishment to know exactly what everyone of us is doing and thinking. Military engineers have developed software to monitor our every thought and movement. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Those interested in urban legends can check out any one of several sites devoted to this subject. Use your search engine. If the link is still active, you can check out this one: it divides the legends into different categories and also offers trivia quizzes on different subjects. However, it is not for the puritanical and squeamish.
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