Mythinformation Sensational Tales That Live on and On

By Paul Duchene 1997, Newhouse News Service | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 4, 1997 | Go to article overview

Mythinformation Sensational Tales That Live on and On


Paul Duchene 1997, Newhouse News Service, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


URBAN MYTHS ARE a cultural fixture, just like schlock television and trash talk shows.

In fact, the two seem co-dependent: Inevitably, somebody is bound to tell Jenny Jones that "I was the baby who was kidnapped in the grocery-store bathroom." By then, the myth will probably have expanded to have him/her collecting millions in a lawsuit against the store.

In the Middle Ages, witches and trolls were villains; in our more enlightened times, the villains are the people who "harvest" kidneys and put razor blades in apples.

So, you might consider that urban myths are the 20th century's answer to Grimms' Fairy Tales. The wealthy (Mariah Carey, to pick one prominent example) are humbled; the reckless (the individual who picks up a date in a bar) are punished; the cad (a philandering husband) gets his just reward in the end, when his ex-wife sells his expensive sports car for $10.

So how do these stories spring up nationwide? Philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell observed that King Arthur's search for the Holy Grail appeared simultaneously in several countries in the Middle Ages, well before the Internet was around to spread misinformation.

A cynic might observe that all myths, urban or not, have flimsy underpinnings and absolutely require that the audience not ask hard questions.

Consider a classic example: Oedipus.

So he married his mother.

Right.

Never mind that she'd be 18 to 20 years older than he - and in those days by the time you were 40 you were ready for the bone heap. According to the story, then she bore him two sons and two daughters. Do the math: Nothing fits.

Even if you skip over the physical attraction: Why did they never compare notes about their backgrounds? How come Jocasta didn't recognize him in some manner?

But Sophocles found a willing audience. And you can bet the story was embroidered as time went on.

So what does this fable have in common with so many modern urban myths?

Well, maybe these stories have such vitality because people want them to be true.

"Consider Roswell after 50 years," said Jack Thompson, who studied folk lore at Indiana University. "That's an urban myth. …

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