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Urban Legends

Entry updated 18 May 2021. Tagged: Theme.

Modern oral folklore – also spread via newspapers, photocopier graffiti and, now predominantly, the Internet (see Creepypasta). An urban legend is typically a Tall Tale [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] with a frisson of deserved comeuppance or Horror, very often related as having actually happened to a "friend of a friend" – a term usefully abbreviated to "foaf" by Rodney Dale in his The Tumour in the Whale: A Collection of Modern Myths (1978), whose title commemorates the World War Two story of tinned whale meat (offered as a substitute for beef) which proves to contain a live, pulsing tumour. Urban legends can feed into genre fiction, and vice versa. Randall Garrett builds on the old belief that the image of a murderer can be photographed from the dead man's retina in "The Eyes Have It" (January 1964 Analog), a notion previously used in Rudyard Kipling's "At the End of the Passage" (20 July 1890 Boston Herald), with slight variations in Dr Berkeley's Discovery (1899) by Richard Slee and Cornelia Atwood Pratt, and in Jules Verne's Les Frères Kip (1902; trans 2007 as The Kip Brothers); it also features in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Feet of Clay (1996). Harlan Ellison's "Croatoan" (May 1975 F&SF) makes creative use of the urban-legend alligators which have supposedly grown from unwanted, flushed-away pets to infest the New York or California sewers; this trope also features in V (1963) by Thomas Pynchon, the film Alligator (1980) and – extending the range of wildlife to rogue Mutant sharks – Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1996) by Matt Ruff. Terry Pratchett's already-cited Feet of Clay inverts and spoofs a familiar urban legend told against ethnic restaurants, when customers from a racial minority (here dwarfs) are outraged to discover that owing to a supply shortage their favourite speciality dish, rat, is in fact disguised chicken.

Conversely, the titular urban legend of The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (1981) by Jan Harold Brunvand (1933-    ), whose eponymous female ghost (see Supernatural Creatures) disappears from a moving car, is so wearily reminiscent of innumerable ghostly Club Stories that it cannot be told as fiction – only the spice of "foaf" pseudo-factuality gives it life. There are legends of ghostly truckers driving immaterial vehicles along US Interstates, updating the Flying Dutchman; Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971) owes something to this story. The Greek myth of the poisoned shirt of Nessus resurfaced as a 1930s-1940s urban legend involving a fatal dress taken from a corpse, allegedly tainted with embalming fluid and unscrupulously resold to a woman who died from wearing it. A classic case of a supernatural story published as fiction but retold as urban legend – often with irrationally indignant insistence on its truth – is Arthur Machen's tale of ghostly intervention in World War One, "The Bowmen" (29 September 1914 London Evening News). Larry Niven's non-fantastic "The Deadlier Weapon" (June 1968 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine) similarly slipped from fiction to urban legend, owing to the strong appeal to Paranoia made by its duel of words between motorist and murderous hitchhiker: Niven records being told his own story as something that really happened. The 1970s urban legend of Rudolph Fentz or Fenz, who seemed from circumstantial evidence to have undergone a Timeslip from 1876 to 1950, proved to be a retelling of Jack Finney's "I'm Scared" (15 September 1951 Collier's) [see links below].

Tales of Rays that inhibit Power Sources, typically causing the ignition of a car's or plane's internal combustion engine to fail, gained popularity in the 1930s and abounded during World War Two. W H Auden's The Orators (coll 1932) may be nodding to this belief in the semi-parodic hymn which amid an ambience of Nissen huts and zero-hours begs God to be merciful: "... with ray disarm, / Illumine, and not kill." W E Johns's Biggles Hits the Trail (1935) and John Creasey's The Missing Monoplane (1947) feature overtly sf instances, while a post-war example is found in Revenge with a Vengeance (1952) by C Lestock Reid. Such disabling rays were later incorporated into the UFO mythos, where the trope of Close Encounter reports beginning with the mysterious failure of the supposed contactee's car ignition on a lonely road has attained the status of Cliché.

A particularly popular vein of urban legend is the suppressed Invention, typically a cheap or free Power Source which has been "bought up by the big energy interests", ranging from magic pills that allow a car to run on water (a notorious twentieth-century scam) to Tesla-style broadcast power, Pseudoscience devices like the Dean Drive (see Scientific Errors), and – more recently – cold fusion, whose persistent failure to deliver useful energy is ascribed to multinational corporate sabotage. Sf sometimes actualizes such dreams, as with the Antimatter-based broadcast power system which is launched despite strong vested-interest opposition in Jack Williamson's Seetee Shock (February-April 1949 Astounding as by Will Stewart; 1950). But these myths are also subject to Satire: Robert Sheckley's "Forever" (February 1959 Galaxy) as by Ned Lang posits multiple independent discovery of an Immortality serum which in every case is suppressed by a conspiracy of established business interests – that is, the undertakers. The enduring belief in and fear of plans to put LSD in the New York water supply – not in fact a practical terrorist proposition – may well derive from William Tenn's portrayal of exactly this in "Did Your Coffee Taste Funny This Morning?" (January 1967 Cavalier; vt "The Lemon-Green Spaghetti-Loud Dynamite-Dribble Day" in The Square Root of Man, coll 1968). The trope was soon echoed (with a different and weirder Drug) as the culmination of an Alien Invasion plan in Chester Anderson's The Butterfly Kid (1967); it is also central to June Drummond's The Gantry Episode (1968; vt Murder on a Bad Trip 1968) and features in the film Wild in the Streets (1968).

Perhaps the richest area of hybridization between sf and urban legend lies in the ramifications of the UFO and Area 51 mythos. One of its ancillary legends – the mysterious Men in Black who are field agents of the perpetual cover-up conspiracy – is foregrounded in the Comic-based film Men in Black (1997) and again in The Shadow Men (1997). Many such crossover zones are explored in The X-Files (1993-2002); a rather less resonant exploration of the mythos is Roswell (1999-2002). Terry Pratchett nods to the Men in Black legend in Night Watch (2002), where his History Monks – a kind of Time Police – are referred to as the Men in Saffron. [DRL]

see also: Batman Films; Charles Fort; Hangar 18; Klaatu.

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