Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The magical cookie recipe

One of America's favourite urban legends of the 1980s became one of its most readily-believed myths of the '90s, thanks to the Internet. And then died at the turn of the 21st century, again thanks to the Internet.

Hardly a week used to go by without some online discussion forum or another being told the story:

A customer thoroughly enjoys her desert after a meal at a Neiman Marcus Cafe somewhere in the USA, and asks for the recipe.

The waiter says there will be a charge of "two fifty". The customer pays for the meal by credit card, doesn't pay attention to the amount, and is shocked to find on her bill a "cookie recipe" charge of 250 dollars!

Now, in revenge, she is spreading the recipe to everyone she knows.

The story usually ends with the line: "So... Here it is. Please run a few copies and pass it on to someone else. I paid for it, now you can have it for free."

The recipe is quite legitimate, and makes adequate cookies, but has nothing to do with Neiman Marcus. it seems that, at some point in the life of both the recipe and the legend, someone put the two together, giving the legend a kind of credibility that is hard to dispute at first site.

The Internet was an ideal vehicle for spreading this kind of legend, not only because it is the perfect word-of-mouth medium, but also because those users reading the message were so pleased with their power to do something to help the wronged customer extract revenge. In many cases, the story was presented as an example of "Internet justice", and as punishment for a company that charges exorbitant prices for minor requests.

One user of an urban legends forum on the Internet offered users of a cooking forum $500 for proof of the original incident, such as a credit card slip. Not one of hundreds of users, who had sworn to the truth of the incident, responded.

Thanks to the Internet-powered word of mouth around this and similar challenges, and the ease of debunking the story by doing a very ordinary Internet search, the story is now universally known as an urban legend. The best stories about the story are by David Emery at, and the inevitable Snopes explanation byBarbara Mikkelson. In a great piece of research, she also delves into the origins of the legend, and its precursors in the 1960s.

The most fascinating aspect about the legend is that Neiman Marcus never did have a cookie recipe when the legend began circulating, but decided to create one (fully acknowledging the urban legend, but pretending that the cookie inspired the myth, and not the other way round) to take advantage of the legend. They even offer it online ... at no cost!

Friday, 23 November 2007

Dogged by voters

During South Africa's last election campaign, the few candidates who went canvassing from door to door found themselves firmly in urban legend country. They often met with horrific experiences, not least of which was the amount of dogs set on them.

An urban legend that has emerged from that kind of experience tells of the candidate stamping the streets of a low-income area.

The candidate arrives at one of the homes, only to be confronted with a growling Doberman Pinscher sitting in front of the door.

He steels himself, knocks, and is warmly received by a middle-aged couple.

The dog follows him in, and lies at his feet, staring at him and constantly growling. Somehow, he manages to give the couple a run-down of his party's platform, and even gets to sip at a cup of tea.

But while he is thus occupied, the dog suddenly stands up, lifts its leg against a table leg, and soaks the carpet. The candidate is shocked, but the couple ignores the dog, and continues chatting.

Wondering about the ways of the poor, the candidate finally says his goodbyes. But as he steps out of the house, the husband calls out: "Aren't you going to take your dog with you?"

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Legend of the angry groom

South Africans were believing the tale of the angry groom long before the Internet arrived here.

Everyone knows someone who was at the wedding where the groom made a gracious speech before turning to his bride and telling her he had, in his pocket, two tickets to Hawaii - for his bride and for the best man, who, he announced, had been sleeping with each other for the past six months. In one version, he asks guests to look under their plates, where they find photos of the cheating pair, in revealing embraces, snapped by a private detective.

No one has ever been able to provide the name of the bride or groom, although I have been offered several names of people who were allegedly guests at such a wedding.

With the spread of the story onto the Internet, one would imagine that the vital details of name, place and date would finally be revealed. No such luck: the worlds greatest communications and research medium has resulted in only more variations on the same theme.

This version appeared in The Washington Post on 25 October 1995, written by Post writer Megan Rosenfeld under the heading "Dearly Believed":

Some stories are just too good to spoil with the facts.

Here's one: A big wedding, very lavish and stylish. At the reception, the best man gets up to make the toast.

The groom hops to his feet and says he'd like to say something first: Thank you for coming and for your lovely gifts. But I am going to honeymoon in Hawaii and the bride is going to Aruba, and when we come back the marriage will be annulled. And if you want to know why, look under your plates. (In some versions, he says look under your chairs.)

He holds up a picture of the bride and the best man in a compromising position.

... As with other urban myths (alligators in the sewer, people kidnapped for body parts, movie stars appearing in emergency rooms with gerbil troubles), many people swear this story is true.

She tracks the sources to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Chicago, radio stations and the Internet, and then concludes: "Now it has traveled to Washington. People love this story. They want to believe it. ... Something so delicious just had to be true."

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Debbie does dishes

Another urban legend about our new national flower, the satellite dish:

A Sandton dude decided to connect his new dish himself, wiring it up to the receiver, the receiver to the tuner, the tuner to the TV set, the TV to the PVR, the PVR to the VCR, and not managing to get anything to appear on screen.

Eventually he told his wife he was sick of all the gadgets, and was going to the pub down the road. It so happened that the bar had just been wired for satellite reception, and the manager was tuning into a sports channel as the man arrived.

Suddenly, a fuzzy picture appeared of a naked woman. All the patrons focussed their attention on the screen. As the manager tried to fine-tune the picture, they discovered they were watching a blue movie of some kind, accidentally picked up by the dish outside.

Never mind the blurred picture and the sport on the other channels, everyone wanted to watch this. As the action on the screen got into full swing, the manager finally got the picture crystal clear.

The Sandton man spluttered his beer across the bar counter as he recognised the "actors": his wife, down to the last birthmark, and his next door neighbour. It turned out he had made such a mess of the wiring, he had reversed the polarity of his TV set, thereby turning it into a kind of camera lens, turning his dish into a transmitter, and his wife into an unwitting X-rated star....

Luckily for her, that's only possible in science fiction and urban legends. Or is it...?

Monday, 19 November 2007

Legend of a hot dish

With half-a-dozen pay-TV channels about to be unleashed on South Africa, look out for the blossoming of the new national flower: the satellite dish. And expect these dishes' omnipresence to result in the transmission of many new urban legends into our consciousness.

In particular, prepare yourself for a new generation of do-it-yourself urban legends.

This one happened in Cape Town, where one particular techno-freak convinced himself he knew it all, and needed no help in the installation of his proud new possession.

One afternoon this Cape Town man persuaded his wife to watch the screen while he manipulated the dish on the roof. After tilting it this way and that, unscrewing the base here and replacing it there, he finally heard her shout that the picture was fine, even though the dish was pointing a little low. Nevertheless, they settled down to watch an afternoon show beamed in from who knew where.

After three hours of solid viewing, they heard a tremendous racket outside, with people screaming and sirens howling. They rushed out and saw their neighbours' house on fire.

The fire department quickly established the cause of the blaze: the dish had concentrated the sun, reflected it onto the neighbours' house, and set fire to their net curtains!

Sunday, 18 November 2007

In legend land, nothing can go wrogn*

Many of us get the feeling that our lives are getting out of control, even as all the revolutionary new hi-tech surrounding us promises to improve our lives. Are those tiny devices and software upgrades just a little too intimidating for comfort? Do you have to get the kids to show you how to use your phone?

You have nothing to worry about: you're simply suffering a bout of technophobia, a syndrome that afflicts anyone who believes people and not machines should be in charge.

Since technophobia is born of the uncertainty and confusion that new technology inspires, it is natural that it would be a prime breeding ground for urban legends: those modern cautionary tales that you know really did happen to someone, since you heard it from a friend of a friend of the victim's cousin.

Take the legend of:

The hangdog tale

One afternoon, a young boy's mother tells him to take his dog out for a walk and some fresh air before it gets dark.

The boy is wrapped up in the afternoon TV kiddy shows, and doesn't feel like getting cool outside air all over him. So he takes the dog outside on a leash, and ties the leash to the handle of the garage door, intending to leave Rover there for fifteen minutes or so.

He goes back to his TV entertainment and, sure enough, forgets all about the dog. An hour later, his father comes driving home from work. As he turns the corner, he pushes the remote control button for the garage door. The door opens, and pulls the leashed dog into the air. It will never go for a walk again.

Before you call the SPCA, no one has ever been able to track down the perpetrators of that foul deed, except to say, "Well, it COULD have happened!"

And so could this one, told of another of those terrifying but crucial inventions of our times, the Auto Teller Machine (ATM). This is the tale of ...

The hungry auto-teller

This tale was first told in the early 1990s, when banks were struggling to get to grips with ATM security, and trying all kinds of new tricks and tactics to thwart the robbers, muggers and lawyers.

A Johannesburg office worker was going off on her lunch break when she discovered to her dismay that she had only R20 in her purse. It would be barely enough for lunch, but it would also only just cover her bus fare home to Krugersdorp.

Then she brightened: she had her ATM card in her bag, and probably had a few rand left in her account.

So, on the way to the nearby banking mall, she bought a boerewors roll at a street vendor, congratulating herself at being prepared for all eventualities.

At the ATM, a glass shield went up when she slipped in her card, she put her roll down on the inner ledge, keyed in her PIN, and waited to pursue the transaction. Nothing happened.

And then a message flashed across the screen:


Stunned, she could only stare at the machine. And, as she watched, the glass shield came crashing down, trapping her lunch as well...

It surprises many people to discover that the first ATM went into operation as early as 1967. Installed at the Enfield branch of Barclays Bank in north London, the first person to use it was the actor Reg Varney (shown here). In those days, you were issued with a card that could only be used once, and was then swallowed by the machine. No wonder we still harbour fears about our ATM card never coming back, and who knows what else going with it!

(* What spelling mistake??)

Friday, 16 November 2007

More tourists in legend land

Despite all our warnings, it has come to our attention that some of you are still travelling in the land of urban legends without a map. And just look what's happened to you!

Those dam workers

Tour guides at the Hoover Dam in the United States aren't much better than in the foreign lands mentioned in the previous blog entry. If you want to believe everything they tell you, then this story is really, really true:

During the building of the giant Hoover Dam, with its tall grey columns that tower into the sky, a number of construction workers plunged from the wall to their deaths in the wet cement below.

Their bodies were never recovered, and they still lie cast somewhere in the concrete to this day.

Nowadays, tour guides are officially required to tell you that there is no truth in the rumour, but millions of tourists still insist that it really happened. The vast creation is so big, so inhuman, that they feel obliged to humanise it in this macabre way.

Despite the firm denials of historians, engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation that administers the dam, few Americans don't accept that its great arch is, in one writer's words, "not only a dam but also a sarcophagus".

But wait! According to Wikipedia, there were 104 deaths associated with the construction of the dam. And the story gets even creepier: The first person to die in the construction was J. G. Tierney, a surveyor who drowned while looking for an ideal spot for the dam. And, his son, Patrick W. Tierney, was the last man to die working on the dam, 13 years to the day later...

Liquid glass

It's not just in frontier country that gullible tourists can fall for the patter of tour guides.

At London's Westminster Abbey, the guides show visitors windows that are probably close to 1000 years old, and tell them that the glass has become slightly thicker at the bottom due to "settling".

What they don't tell you is that London would have had to suffer a rather extraordinary heatwave for glass to experience this kind of "flow": in fact, a heatwave that would measure from 270 to 550 degrees Celsius. Room temperature of glass seldom goes above 50 degrees Celsius.

Rome built in a day?

And then there are the taxi drivers. They've seen and heard everything, yet there will always be a tourist who will push them beyond the limits. This one happened (honestly!) in Rome.

A taxi man was driving an American fashion buyer around the city to view the architectural highlights. At each one, the American asked how long it had taken to build it.

The driver would say "two years" or "four years" and so on. Each time the American would mock the effort, saying things like, "Well, in the States we would have had that building up in two months."

Finally the taxi man had had enough. He was driving past the Vatican, when St Peter's Basilica caught the American's eye.

"Now that is really beautiful! How long did it take to build that?"

The driver, quick as a flash, exclaimed: "For heaven's sake. It wasn't there yesterday!"

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Touring the land of legend

When you go travelling in the land of urban legends, be sure to carry a map. It is a perilous country where friends of friends' cousins' sister in laws' hairdressers lurk around every corner, waiting to trap you into believing yet another impossible tale that really, really happened.

Even having a tour guide is no guarantee that you'll make it through safely, since tour guides are among the world's most notorious disseminators of urban legends about the places they're supposed to know inside out.

So, if you must behave like a tourist in any strange country, keep your legend detectors on red alert. You may just hear stories like the one about...

The bear truth

A South African visitor to Moscow had just one ambition: he wanted to hunt a genuine Russian wild bear. The local tourist agent knew he didn't have a hope of granting the visitor's wish, since the previous government elite had pretty much wiped out any hunting there was to be done anywhere near civilisation.

So he did the next best thing: he bought the bear from a circus and released it in Moscow's Peredelkino Forest, one-time home of legendary author Boris Pasternak (see the forest's Russian web site here).

The South African was delighted that he could go hunting so close to his hotel, and took to the woods in full hunting uniform, from his khaki uniform and bush hat down to his high performance sporting rifle.

Slowly he closed in on his prey, until he could almost smell the fearsome bear's fur. He was about to begin circling closer and setting his sights, when he heard a strange rattling noise, coming ever closer. He hid behind a tree, and waited. And then a postman appeared riding a bicycle on a path through the forest, heading straight for the bear!

The hunter watched in horror as the postman spotted the bear, lost control and fell off the bicycle. But this was a trained bear; instead of going for the postman, it went for the bike, hopped on, and rode off.

The last that was heard of the South African, he was suing the tourist agent for fraud.

This legend has a long international pedigree, even if the bear doesn't. Here's a version that goes back to 1992.

The ignorant Americans

The moment Americans go one step beyond their hometowns, they get lost in legend country, usually because they'll believe anything they hear about strange places. It's got so bad, that ignorant America tourists have become a stereotype even on their own borders. At least, that's the way the legends go.

Canadians love to tell the story of an American family that believes Canada is a frozen wasteland all the year round. They arrive at the border during mid summer, the guard asks them the purpose of the visit, and they happily announce they're going skiing outside Montreal. Where the snow has, of course, long since turned into lukewarm water.

In a variation on the theme, a big Texan, cowboy hat and all, asks the border guard what time they shut Niagara Falls off.

That's almost as bad as...

The gullible New Zealanders

The story goes that, down under in New Zealand, at one of the Waiotapu natural thermal springs, American tourists got fed up having to wait for the Lady Knox Geyser to go off every day.

"Gee", one of them said one day, "You should fit a switch like the one at Yellowstone". The guide passed the suggestion on to his superiors, who thought it was a great idea. So the clever entrepreneurs at Waiotapu thermal area did just that! Now they turn the Geyser on every morning at 10:30, without fail, except on Christmas day.

It was only later that they discovered that the one in Yellowstone doesn't have a switch...

Monday, 12 November 2007

Legends that go bump

The following stories are explored in far more detail in my recent book, The Ghost that Closed Down the Town (Penguin,2006), but hang together here because they are so obviously urban legends.

One reason people enjoy urban legends so much - besides the fact that they are convinced these wonderful tales happened to a friend of a friend - is that they are often hilarious, with punchlines that could have been dreamed up by comedians.

But, just as often, people enjoy urban legends for the exact opposite reason: because they are tales so hideous, or so terrifying, that we are able to get maximum impact from re-telling them to nervous listeners.

This is especially the case when ghost stories take on, err, a life of their own. They cross over from the country of the supernatural into the land of urban legends, and are told and retold throughout the world as stories that belong to whichever area the listeners will relate to best.

The haunted hill

On the outskirts of Pretoria, just as you pass the military base on the way to the highway, a short, uphill stretch of road is haunted by a motorist who died there many years ago. If you stop your car there, and leave the brakes off, your car will suddenly start rolling ... uphill! The ghost of the dead motorist is parked in that exact spot, waiting for others to pause there. And when they do, he pushes them uphill with his own, phantom car.

Alas, for ghosthunters, this is a phenomenon known the world over, and in several places in South Africa.

In the United States, a typical example is a tourist attraction called Gravity Hill, where the road slopes slightly downhill, and trees along the side of the road, instead of leaning the other way, also lean downhill, but at a sharper angle, giving the illusion that the road slopes up. In Pretoria, the road architecture, along with bridges and buildings conspire to create a similar optical illusion. An article entitled Physicists Show "Antigravity" Mystery Spots Are Optical Illusions finally laid this ghost to rest.

The vanishing hitch-hiker

One of the world's best-loved urban legends is the tale of the vanishing hitch-hiker: the mystery woman who hitches a ride on a dark and stormy night.

She tells the kind motorist where she lives, and off they go. But when he turns to speak to her, she's gone, leaving just a gust of chill air. He arrives at her home, only to learn from her parents that she died ten years ago, on the spot where he picked her up, and had been trying to get home ever since.

In some versions, he had let her put on his leather jacket, and he later found it hanging over her tombstone.

South Africa boasts one of the world's best-documented versions of the legend, and even attaches a name to the vanishing lady: Maria Charlotte Roux, who died in a car accident on a lonely road near Uniondale in the Eastern Cape on 12 April 1968. At least three motorists have gone on record claiming to have given her a ride since. However, none of their versions are consistent - one involves stereotyped ingredients like hideous laughter and screams in the night.

But another fascinating version does not rely on lonely roads or stormy nights at all. In fact, it takes place in one of the most densely populated areas on the continent. We're talking of Vera, the hitch-hiking ghost of Meadowlands.

Vera was a Soweto socialite who was shot by her lover in the late 1950s, and has been trying to catch a ride home ever since. Legend has it that she waits for a minibus with only one seat free - which she then claims. And when she boards a bus, the legend goes, the passengers will never reach their destination alive.

Besides its international pedigree, the fact that no one could possibly have testified to this actually happening is proof of the tale's legendary nature. Yet, people have told me to my face that they refuse to accept my argument: they simply won't board a taxi in Meadowlands if there are only two seats left - for they will have to take one, and Vera will then take the other.

Read, among many other stories, more about Vera and the self-proclaimed ghostbuster who claimed to have exorcised her in The Ghost that Closed Down the Town.

And read the book that first turned me on to urban legends, Jan Harold Brunvand's first word on the above topic, The Vanishing Hitchhiker.

Trained to help

Trains are mournful creatures at the sunniest of times, with their wailing hooters and the endless rhythm of wheels over tracks, and many is the tale of a haunted train on its way to some ghostly destination. But at a certain lonely railway crossing in the middle of the Karoo, it is the tracks themselves that are haunted.

One night many years ago, a schoolbus crammed with children on the way back from a day's outing was crossing the tracks when it stalled. Before the driver could react, a train approached, smashed the bus, and killed all the children. Luckily, being children, these are compassionate ghosts. They now hover over the crossing for eternity, waiting for other motorists who get stuck, and push their cars over the tracks if a train approaches.

Equally luckily, this is really an urban legend, told as a true story around the world. You can virtually choose any town from a list and claim it happened there - without anyone contradicting you.

Offroad ghosts

For some strange reason, as we've seen, ghost stories and urban legends usually meet up somewhere on the road. And Vera isn't the only ghost haunting minibuses.

Some years ago,an urban legend emerged out of the lonely roads of the Eastern Free State that a haunted minibus has been abandoned on the side of the road. It was stolen in Durban, and the culprit took the side roads through the Free State on his way up to Johannesburg. But near Ficksburg, he abandoned the vehicle in terror: it had been taken over by a ghost.

It is now parked under the trees on the side of the road - and even the farmer who owns the land is too scared to come near.

If you ask the local police, though, they'll tell you the vehicle doesn't even exist. Except, of course, in the land of urban legends.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Little Old Legend

There was this little old lady who lived with her family in a rambling big house. One night the rest of the family had gone out, leaving her alone and most of the house in darkness.

During the night, she heard a strange noise, and got up to investigate. In the darkness, she made her way down the stairway.

Near the bottom of the stairs she reached out for the bannister. Instead, she felt a human head!

She thought quickly.

"My! That careless maid has left the mop out again!" she exclaimed.

Then she walked calmly but quickly to the front door, rushed outside and screamed for help. The neighbours, as well as a patrol car passing by, acted somewhat quicker than the burglar.

True story or urban legend?

The clue lies in the mop.

One American version of the story has the little old lady living alone. When she feels the head, she scolds herself for being careless with the mop. In South Africa, that element is altered to reflect the more commonplace use of maids in most middle-class homes.

Either way, it reflects the extent to which criminals underestimate their victims in the land of urban legends.

Friday, 09 November 2007

The Misunderstood Bikers

During the Buffalo Rally near Port Elizabeth a few years ago, a gang of about 20 big, mean-looking, unwashed bikers stopped at a small town on their way to the Rally. They all but invaded a little convenience store there, buying crates of Coke, a few loaves of bread, a pile of cold meats and dozens of packets of crisps.

The shop assistant was terrified, and expected at any moment to have a shotgun shoved in his face.

Just then a group of well-built, well-dressed, clean-cut young men who looked like wealthy farmers' sons walked in. The assistant relaxed, sure that these respectable sons of the soil would protect him from the bikers. Sure enough, the bikers paid for their goods without a murmur and walked out.

The assistant turned to one of the young men and said: "Shoo, am I glad they're gone!"

To which the respectable customers all responded, "Ya, so are we!" and pulled out their guns. They cleaned out the till, and disappeared with the money the bikers had just spent.

As in most urban legends, the moral of this story is obvious: don't make assumptions about people based on their appearance. In the land of urban legends, the consequences are dire.

Thursday, 08 November 2007

It's criminal! (or is it?)

It's no surprise that South Africa is home to so many urban legends about crime. Yet, many of these legends have their origins elsewhere. But there is a category of crime urban legend that tends not to translate too well in this country - mainly because they are legends of crimes that never were.

Behind the legends of crimes that never were

Urban legends, like prime time TV, thrive on crime stories. Everyone has a fear of being mugged, burgled, or otherwise becoming the victim of crime, and most people have a secret fantasy of fighting crime as a vigilante.

Fictional crime fighters like Batman are popular precisely for that reason. But breaking the law for the sake of justice is fraught with peril, so it is little wonder that people readily believe urban legends both about criminals getting their comeuppance, and about amateur crime-fighters getting it all wrong.

This urban legend about retaliation gone wrong seems to have happened to a friend of a friend of every second person in New York. It is the legend of ...

The Middle-Class Mugger

A businessman is strolling through Central Park in New York City during his lunch break when he sees a jogger running towards him. The walkways are pretty crowded, and the jogger veers out of the way of a pram, knocking hard against the businessman.

He apologises as he runs off, and the businssman, being a naturally suspicious New Yorker, quickly checks his pockets. His wallet is missing!

He runs after the jogger and, with sweat pouring down his face, grabs the runner's arm.

"Give me that wallet!" he shouts. The jogger, intimidated by the shouting, heavy-breathing, sweating man, hands over the wallet, and runs away.

The businessman arrives back at the office looking much the worse for wear, but with a great story to tell his colleagues. With his co-directors and secretaries gathered in his office, he repeats the tale and, as he reaches the climax, he waves the wallet in triumph.

Just then his personal assistant points to the corner of his desk: "So whose wallet is that one then?"

He had left his own wallet in the office, and mugged the jogger for his.

They don't all end like that. If New Yorkers are in a good mood, they'll probably tell you the one with the happy ending, like the tale of the ...

Fair Exchange

A woman riding the subway to work in New York City moves to the door as the train pulls into the station just before her stop. As the doors start closing for the train to pull out, she feels her gold neck-chain snapping loose. In the same instant that she whirls round and sees her attacker about to leap from the train, without thinking, she grabs at him, manages to hook a chain that is swinging round his own neck, and snaps it off. He disappears out of the door and up the stairs.

She is shocked, but not too distressed, as her chain was an inexpensive fake. But when she takes the mugger's chain to a jeweller to have it repaired, he informs her it is ... pure gold.

The flip side of the Fair Exchange is the story that "legendary" American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand calls ...

The Misguided Good Deed

From the New York Times "Metropolitan Diary" column:

A woman on a subway sees an expensive-looking leather glove lying on the floor just as a well-dressed man is leaving the train. She snatches it up and throws it onto the platofrm before the train doors close. Then other passengers all stare at her, and then one of them, a mild-looking man, asks plaintively, "Why did you toss my glove out the door?"

As with all good urban legends, these are cautionary tales with a strong moral and a warning on appropriate behaviour. The bottom line is, never make assumptions about people you don't know, and especially don't act rashly on those assumptions.

Wednesday, 07 November 2007

Building on a legend

Why do people love telling and believing urban legends, those friend-of-a-friend stories you can never really prove?

One theory is that it's a subconscious way of getting revenge on a world they cannot control. By participating in the spread of stories that undermine the credibility of a person, institution, product or even a building that they associate with their woes, they gain a small measure of satisfaction at having "fought back".

Buildings especially attract an enormous number of bizarre legends, especially where they are large or expensive structures people believe shouldn't have been erected in the first place. So they'll swallow any malicious or hilarious story they hear about the building.

Thus it was with the Lost City at Sun City a decade or so ago, after it had opened to much hype and some outrage over its enormous cost. It quickly became part of a family of international urban legend we can only refer to as ...

That Sinking Feeling

In his rush to get the Lost City complex ready in time for its official opening (so the story went), Sol Kerzner pushed the architects and builders as hard as they could stand, and gave them little time to run proper tests on soils, surfaces, and so on. Sure enough, the complex opened on time, with visitors gasping in awe at the magnificence of the Palace hotel, the intricate detail of the Lost City, and the amazing spectacle of the Bridge of Time, which shakes in a fake earthquake every hour on the hour.

But then the rumour started, and quickly developed into a full-blown urban legend: they'd cordoned off the bridge and closed it to the public, because they'd discovered it was less stable than was desirable even for a shaking bridge.

The architects had not been given enough time to run tests on the soil, but the tests they had run had shown that the surface was solid, and could carry the weight of the bridge as well as the pressure of the "earthquakes". But they had made one mistake: they had tested it in the dry season.

When the rains came, the ground became waterlogged, and could no longer support the bridge - which was slowly sinking away into the ground.

Of course, the bridge still stands today, as do numerous edifices which are supposedly sinking around the world.

Book ends

The most popular of these urban legends focus on magnificent new libraries, especially on university campuses where new students will believe almost anything they're told by old-timers. American folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand has found versions of the urban legend attached to the Robarts Research Library at the University of Toronto, the campus library at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the Sciences Library at Brown University, a new library at the University of California at San Diego, the Charles Deering Library (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) at Northwestern University, Illinois, and the ES Bird Library at Syracuse University.

In every case the story went that, when the architect designed the foundations, he had in mind only the weight of the building itself. It never crossed his mind to take into account the weight of the millions of books that would fill the building. So, naturally, the soil could not support the foundations, and the building began sinking.

The same legend is now emerging about Olympic-sized swimming pools that were designed with the weight of the pool structure in mind, but not the water. When they filled it up, the entire pool began sinking.

Backward logic

That's almost as bad as the urban legend about the architect who designed a building one-way, the plans were misread, and the building ended up facing the wrong way.

One version is told of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, completed for the Glasgow Exhibition of 1901. The main entrance consists of three plain arched entries, while the back entrance is flanked by impressive twin towers - designed to accommodate temporary pavilions during the exhibition. Two architects were involved, but the legend persists to this day that it was one architect, who was so aghast at the mistake, he committed suicide by leaping from one of the towers on opening day.

An older Scottish version of the legend has the architect of Fort George, between Inverness and Nairn, being given instructions that the fort had to be invisible from the sea. Upon completion, he rowed out to see, and discovered that a single chimney of the fort could be seen. Horrified and shamed, according to the legend, "he drew a pistol and blew his brains out".

Plan B

Another popular family of building legends has the blueprints or building materials for similar buildings on two university campuses in the same town swopped round, so that the University of Johannesburg (formerly RAU), for instance, has one very Wits-looking building blotting its landscape, and Wits has a suspiciously modern UoJ-looking structure intruding amid its ivy towers.

The most extreme version of this legend comes from the California State University at Hayward, where every single building was supposedly designed for other universities, the plans were found unacceptable, but somehow they got built on Hayward campus!

Big gas

The most bizarre of all the falling building urban legends must be the Asian tale of the building that collapsed due to a gas explosion from a buried dead elephant underneath the building. Sounds like something right out of the Lost City.

Tuesday, 06 November 2007

Legends of the literate

From the halls of government comes the story of just how low the literacy levels of this country have descended. The urban legend emerges from the Department of Welfare, but is aimed squarely at the Department of Education.

In an assessment of families who were supporting their children only with the assistance of the welfare department, it was concluded that they were often responsible for their own fates, since they had such low educational levels. Proof of this, goes the legend, lies in their applications for welfare assistance and appeals against negative decisions:

"My husband lost his job two months ago, and I haven't had any relief since."

"I have been in bed with the doctor for two weeks, and he hasn't done me any good."

The classic of its kind, however, must be: "I am very annoyed that you brand my son illiterate. This is a lie, as I was married a week before he was born."

The most remarkable aspect of this story is not what it says about literacy, but that it can seems so appropriate to South Africa. The truth is, like the many lists of bizarre language in insurance claims, this is merely a local adaptation of an internationally circulating tradition.

Legendary folklorist Jan Harold brunvand, in his book Curses! Broiled Again!, calls it The Welfare Leter, and has traced the entire collection back to at least the 1930s in the United States.

He has added the following beauty to the list:
"In accordance with your instructions, I have given birth to twins in the enclosed envelope."

Monday, 05 November 2007

The Tallest Tales

Tall buildings seem to hold a peculiar fascination for travellers in the land of urban legends.

Is it their subconscious fear of heights playing tricks on their minds and persuading them to believe any bizarre tale that comes along?

People have been known to leap off tall structures since time immemorial and, generally, they have simply hit the ground and expired. But not in the land of urban legends. Oh no, here the jumpers have to face a few extra indignities...

The wind beneath your wings

Many years ago, a deeply depressed young man tried to take his own life by leaping from the observation platform at the top of the Empire State Building in New York.

What he did not realise was that the winds are so strong at that height, it is impossible to leap out and simply fall down. As the man jumped, a powerful blast of wind hoisted him up, and roughly deposited him back on the observation platform. He was so shocked, he went home to reconsider his ways.

That's what one might call the baseline suicide legend about tall buildings. The result of that little tale is that, today, thousands of visitors to the Empire State Building firmly believe you cannot jump off the top due to the high winds.

The legend has also given rise to a popular joke - often the final resting place of old urban legends - in which a man in a pub at the top of a tall office block is telling a fellow drinker some truly tall tales.

Seeing the man swallow it all whole, he tries a real whopper: he says that, because of the high winds around the top of the building, he could step off the roof and "stand" on the wind without falling. This time the man wants evidence.

So they go out on the roof and, sure enough, the man "stands" on the wind. The other drinker is real impressed. he wants to try it too. So he steps off the roof - and plunges screaming to the road a hundred floors down.

As the man takes his seat back in the pub, the barman turns to him: "Boy, Superman, you sure are nasty when you've had a few drinks."

The fall that had it all

A suicide tale that gripped the world in the 1990s turned into a virtual chain letter, with copies flooding fax machines, e-mail and mail boxes around the globe. It usually comes in the form of a report of a speech made at an awards dinner of the American Association of Forensic Science, where the president told the sad story of one Ronald Opus.

He "had jumped from the top of a ten story building with the intent to commit suicide (he left a note indicating his despondency). As he passed the 9th floor on the way down, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, killing him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the deceased was aware that a safety net had been erected at the 8th floor level to protect some window washers and that the deceased would not have been able to complete his intent to commit suicide because of this... the fact that his suicide intent would not have been achieved under any circumstance caused the medical examiner to feel that he had homicide on his hands."

But then other facts began to emerge, one by one:

The room on the 9th floor from where the shotgun was fired was occupied by an elderly couple. The husband had been threatening the wife with a shotgun, but he was so upset, he couldn't hold the shotgun straight. He pulled the trigger, but completely missed his wife and hit Ronald Opus as he fell past.

It then emerged that the old man regularly threatened his wife - but with an unloaded shotgun. The verdict looked like accidental death.

But further investigation now turned up a witness: their son had been seen loading the shotgun some time before the fatal accident. It turned out that his mother had cut off her son's financial support and he, knowing of his father's threatening ways with the shotgun, loaded it in the hope that his father would shoot his mother. Now the verdict looked like murder again.

Except that it was now discovered that the son had become deeply depressed after several weeks of nothing happening between his parents, and had decided to take his life. As he leaped off the building, he was killed by a shotgun blast through a 9th story window.

Ronald Opus, it turned out, was the son of the arguing couple. He himself had loaded the weapon that accidentally killed him. The medical examiner closed the case as suicide.

Window pains

There are even taller tales from one of the world capitals of highrise buildings, Chicago. Supposedly, urban legend has it, a law firm was having an office party, and one of the associates had a bit too much to drink, and had taken off his shoes to play around sliding on the marble floors. The office had floor-to-ceiling windows, and he went sailing through the window and fell thirty stories.

In another Chicago "glass curtain" highrise, a few windows fell from the 70th floor and shattered in the road below.

People were horrified that they could have been near the windows at the time, and several refused to return to work on the 70th floor.

One executive tackled the problem head on: he invited his staff to gather round, braced himself against a wall, and then ran the length of the office and threw himself at the window. The window didn't even vibrate. he broke his arm, but at least the 70th floor was soon back to full productivity.

Welcome mat

In San Francisco, it is believed, plastic mats used under office chairs to enable them to move around carpets more easily, are banned from the top floors of the city's tallest building.

The reason? It was found in simulations that in an earthquake the buildings were designed to sway but, because of inertia, the person sitting in a chair on a plastic mat would stay exactly where they were, while the building itself would sway with the quake. The result? The floor would appear to zip out from under you and you would be deposited, chair and all, in mid-air.

Sunday, 04 November 2007

Urban legends of the classroom

The rule that urban legends usually emerge in an environment of fear or uncertainty is completely shattered by one distinctive, worldwide community: the student population.

Any campus is a melting pot of characters, situations, hopes, dreams and ... good old mischief. Students like to be believe they are all young Einsteins. From this over-confidence emerges numerous urban legends about just how clever they are. Appropriately, then, we start with ...

The brilliant student

A student went into his final exam with an A average for his year's work, but the pressure had been getting to him, and he wasn't so well prepared for this last hurdle. The exam consisted of just two essay questions and, sure enough, he went blank on the first.

So he filled his first answer pad with anything he could think of, and then requested a second. He labelled it Book II, and began on the opening page with what appeared to be the last sentence or two of the first book. On the second page he wrote down the heading to Question 2, and wrote a beautiful answer. He handed in only the second book.

A few days later he received a postcard from his department head saying he had got an A for the course and apologising for having lost the first book.

The trained professor

Students at a certain university wanted to test the theories of their psychology professor - on himself. They decided to "train" him - without him realising he was being trained - to lecture while standing on a small dustbin.

They would fidget, yawn, cough, and slump in their seats whenever he walked away from the dustbin. The moment he walked towards the dustbin, they would sit up, and stop fidgeting. The closer he moved towards the dustbin, the more interested they pretended to be in his lecture. They would smile at him, and nod their approval every time he made a point.

Subconsciously, he responded to their interest, and spent more and more time near the dustbin. After a couple of sessions, they had no difficulty in keeping him by the dustbin throughout the lecture.

For the next phase of their experiment, they turned the dustbin upside down before he entered the classroom. Now the students began fidgeting and getting bored even when the professor was standing near the dustbin. They refused to "reward" him with their approval until he moved right up against the dustbin, and finally gave him their undivided attention only when he put one foot on the dustbin.

The next lecture was the climax: the professor ended off his lecture standing on top of the dustbin!

If you wonder how such stories get around, this one had some serious help: it was once repeated by no less than BF Skinner, one of the leading lights of the school of psychology known as behavioural conditioning (see a detailed discussion here). His version went like this:

"They (students) began the class period with deadpan indifference. When the professor moved towards the chosen corner, they nodded and smiled. He was soon teetering on the edge (of the lecturing platform). A signal went out, and the nods and smiles were withheld until he turned towards the blackboard. I was told he finished his lecture facing the board and talking over his shoulder - arguing meanwhile that operant (behavioural) conditioning worked with cats and pigeons but not with people."

The sneaky student

Then there was the student who ignored the professor's instruction during a final exam that everyone stop writing and hand in their answer papers. He wrote for another minute and then stepped forward to place his paper on the pile at the front desk.

The professor refused to accept it.

"What will happen to me?" the student pleaded.

"You'll fail, of course," said the prof.

After begging and pleading to no avail, the student suddenly drew himself erect and said, "Do you know who I am?"

The prof replied: "No, and I don't care."

"Good," said the student, thrust his paper into the middle of the pile of identical answer papers, and stalked out of the exam hall.

The not-so-stupid prof

A tough professor was famous for his low grading scale on term essays. But, after years of giving only Cs and Ds, one year he finally gave a paper a B minus.

Word got around, and the student in question sold his paper to the highest bidder the following year. The purchaser than wrote it in his own words, and submitted it to the same prof - and this time got a B!

The paper was recycled again the following year, and given a B plus. Finally, a year later, it was awarded an A. But it came with a written comment at the end: "I've read this paper four times now, and I like it better each time."

Another version, set in a marine-biology course, sees the recycling of a paper that includes a sketch of a whale. By its third re-use, the student accidentally left off the sketch of the whale, and received the paper back with only a B symbol, and the comment, "I liked it better with the whale."

The ultimate version of this urban legend is the tale of the paper that is repeatedly recycled for 20 years. One year the professor gives it an A, saying he always liked it but he only got a B when he first wrote it himself.

Odds and ends

There are many more of the same: all urban legends that require a stretch of belief, but that, just maybe, could have happened on a campus somehow, somewhere. To strike a balance, let's conclude with a clever student AND a clever prof:

* A professor discovers that one copy of an exam paper has been stolen from his office. He cuts the rest of the papers all one inch shorter - and nails the kid who hands in the longer paper.

* And then there's the prof who allows students to "bring in what they can carry for the exam" - and one student carries in a postgraduate student.

Friday, 02 November 2007

Screen (urban) legends

Welcome to the silver screen: that canvas of romance, drama and legend. No, you haven't stumbled across a movie review column, but rather a glimpse at that hotbed of rumour, myth and urban legend called the movie industry.

It is a business peopled with larger-than-life characters who inspire the public's adulation as well as the rumour mills and gossip factories. Little wonder that many an idle Hollywood tale suddenly erupts into an urban legend that refuses to go away, no matter how much it is denied or explained.

It's astonishing, for instance, how many movie fans still believe that the line "Play it again, Sam", was uttered in the movie Casablanca. It happens to be one of the most famous misquotes in movie history, but it still ended up as the title of a Woody Allen movie, helping to entrench the legend.

As a public service then, to save you any future embarrassment, herewith a selection of movie legends voted most likely to be believed:

3 Men and a Baby

Long after 3 Men and a Baby had been a box office smash and had gone into the video stores, a couple hired it one day, and spotted what they were convinced was a ghost in one of the scenes: when Jack's mother comes to look at Mary, supposedly, the ghost of a little boy is standing in a doorway. The viewers contacted the media, others suddenly spotted the ghost, and the urban legend exploded: the apartment where the movie was shot had been the scene of the boy's death, and his ghost still haunted the room where the boy had slept. One small problem with that: the apartment was a Hollywood set. And the ghost? a cardboard cut-out of Jack.

2001: A Space Odyssey

When the ultimate space travel movie hit the screens, hip audiences were quick to spot in-jokes perpetrated by director Stanley Kubrick. One of these, the name of the super-intelligent computer, HAL, was said to be a dig at computer giant IBM. The author of the script, Arthur C Clarke, supposedly disguised it by reducing each letter one space: I to H, B to A and M to L. The rumour has become a full-blown urban legend, despite Clarke himself claiming it had been unintentional, and that he would have changed it if he'd noticed in time.

Plan 9 from Outer Space

Urban legend has it that the legendary horror actor Bella Lugosi died of a heart attack a few days into the shooting of what has been described as the worst movie ever made. He appeared only briefly, and his character suddenly appeared as a taller person with a mask covering his face. The facts: Lugosi died before the movie was made, and director Ed Wood simply took left-over footage from one of his uncompleted projects, and wrote the screenplay around the scenes to make it appear that Lugosi was a star of Plan 9. The original title, Grave Robbers from Outer Space, would thus have been far more appropriate. Ironically, the urban legend lives on in Ed Wood, the Tim Burton movie on the amazingly bad director.

The Shining

The Jack Nicholson horror classic was such a disturbing movie, and the star's performance so convincingly maniacal, it was easy to believe that there was as much to his "act" as met the eye.

The urban legend emerged that Nicholson did go a little mad during the infamous scene in which he broke a door down with an axe to get at his screen wife. Supposedly, he had to be physically restrained after working himself into a frenzy with the axe. Fact: the axe was made of rubber; Nicholson remained sane (by his standards, anyway).

The Wizard of Oz

This most innocent of movies has a deeply controversial behind-the-scenes history: Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West) was badly burned during her disappearance from Munchkinland, and her stand-in was injured by an exploding broom during a stunt shot.

Rumours emerged of wild, drunken orgies by the Munchkin actors, and that Toto was killed on set and had to be replaced. While these rumours have faded, a new one emerged in recent years as the film became more and more popular on video: that a man committed suicide on the set, during filming, by hanging himself from a tree on the set. And, goes the urban legend, by freeze-framing the video, you can see his body swinging from a tree in the shadowy background during the scene where Dorothy discovers the Tin Woodsman. Fact: a large bird is flapping its wings in the background.

My Cousin Vinny

When Marisa Tomei won an unlikely best supporting actress Oscar for her role in this unassuming little comedy, the rumour mill got buzzing, and threw up an urban legend: Marisa Tomei had received her Oscar statue in error. Jack Palance, so the legend goes, went on stage to present the Oscar, but couldn't read the winner's name in the envelope. He took a chance and called out Tomei's name instead of the actual winner.

Fact: at every Oscar ceremony, two members of the accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers stand in the wings. Their instructions: if a presenter announces the wrong name, they are required to head straight for the podium and announce that a mistake had been made.

The movies they never made

Finally, a category of movie that gets everyone's blood boiling, and the urban legend wheels rolling at their fastest: so-called snuff movies, in which someone is deliberately killed for the camera, since this supposedly gives a certain kind of perverse pleasure to a certain kind of perverted viewer who will pay a fortune to see such a film.

So convincing are the claims about such movies, and so emotional do the claimants become about the truth of their claims, it is almost impossible to convince a believer that the snuff film is the greatest urban legend of the movie industry.

Fact: neither the FBI or Scotland Yard has ever found evidence of a real snuff film made for commercial distribution. As senior FBI researcher Paul Lanning has put it, "Simulated snuff movies using special effects are so realistic, there is no point in risking life in jail."

So relax. No one's coming to take you away to make you star in their horror movie.

Quick myth-takes

* Scientist did not name a new species of velociraptor found during the making of Jurassic Park after Steven Spielberg. An ankylosaur that had been found a few years earlier still needed a name and was given one amalgamated from the movie's cast list. A raptor found during the filming was named Utahraptor.

* Anthony Hopkins did not pop into screenings of Silence of the Lambs and scare the pants off movie-goers by tapping them on the shoulder at the end of the show and asking them "Did you enjoy the film?"

* Robert Redford did not go on a TV talk show and give out his phone card number for free calls to celbrate winning a big lawsuit. Nor did Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Sammy Davis Jr or Burt Reynolds.

* And Eddie Murphy did not pay for a little old lady's hotel stay after scaring her half to death in an elevator when he shouted "Sit Lady!" to his dog.

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