No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet

By Pamela Donovan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE

Introduction

This project explores the contemporary social meanings and persistence of a word-of-mouth genre, which I term the “crime legend. ” Using a case study approach, I examine three crime legends with a considerable public debunking history: the market in snuff films, the theft of vital organs for black-market transplant, and the abduction of children from shopping mall and theme park restrooms. For each case study, I collected previous versions published in folklorists’ accounts and current versions circulating in Internet news groups and via electronic mail networks such as “listservs. ” 1 I then examine discussions that have taken place in Internet news groups about these stories and interviewed twenty regular news group participants who had been party to these discussions. The purpose of the latter was to compare the symbolic themes apparent in the “folk texts” with the themes of discussion and debate which surrounded them. This inquiry revealed that styles of belief and disbelief are varied and mutually dependent; that is, that the resonance of each tale involves the consideration and rejection of skepticism. This inquiry also revealed that specific legends are deployed to adapt to increasingly generalized fear. By generalized fear, I mean that which exceed the bounds of specific fears for personal safety and results from a sense of “ontological insecurity” (Giddens, 1990). Following Giddens’ formulation, this insecurity is intertwined with distrust stemming from an uncertain relationship between the individual and social protection or “guardianship” expected in the past from both formal state activities and informal routines which were seen to provide “safety in numbers. ” Crime legends, when they are understood as social practices as well as texts, tame, individualize, and normalize public safety threats.

Below, a brief analysis of another crime legend, “Lights Out” which describes a gang initiation ritual, is presented as a means to illustrate the nature of the problem of crime legends.


WHAT IS A CRIME LEGEND?

In the Autumn of 1993, terrifying tales of gang depredations began to circulate in earnest in the United States and Canada. Printed warnings appeared:

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No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Preface vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Chapter One - Introduction 1
  • Chapter Two - The Market in Snuff Films 27
  • Chapter Three - Stolen Body Parts 61
  • Chapter Four - Shopping Mall and Theme Park Abduction Legends 85
  • Chapter Five - Debunkers and Their Orbit 111
  • Chapter Six - Crime Legends and the Role of Belief 133
  • Chapter Seven - Crime Legends, Protection, and Fear 157
  • Chapter Eight - A Summary 189
  • Appendix 1 197
  • Appendix 2 201
  • Notes 203
  • Bibliography 217
  • Index 229
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