skew * eight *  july '95

The Sections Legends in our own time
Folklore didn't end with Paul Bunyan

by Eric Schmoyer

Anyone who recently purchased a cactus, please be warned. There was a woman in Seattle, who bought a large cactus from a local florist. A few days after she bought it she thought she saw it moving, almost as if it were breathing lightly, but she dismissed it as a symptom of fatigue. After coming back from weekend vacation, the cactus was very obviously moving as if it were taking large, bellowing breaths. Getting quite alarmed at the sight, the woman called the florist, who told her to get out of the house immediately. Apparently there was a nest of thousands of scorpions who were in the process of hatching inside the cactus.

subscribe! Don't believe me? Heard that one before? That's quite possible, as it is based on a common urban legend. These modern-day folktales always seem to take the form of believable, newsy stories. Unlike local folklore, ghost stories, and the like, which are usually geographically based, these stories have been passed from person to person across the world, originally by word of mouth and, thanks to fax machines, chain letters. Now, e-mail and Internet news groups make the propagation even easier.

image of a cactus Personally, I've seen or heard the "breathing cactus" story about five times over the last few years at parties, posted on the Net, and so on. It almost always is a "true story" that happened to a friend of a friend of a friend (AFOAFOAF). Of course, as we all know, this is a very reliable source.

By far one of the most popular urban legends is a story of someone who has a cookie at a big department store and asks for the recipe. He's told that the recipe costs two-fifty (as an arbitrary number) and asks the clerk to charge it on his credit card. When the bill arrives it turns out that the price was not $2.50 but $250.00. As revenge the person is asking that the recipe enclosed be passed on to as many people as possible. I first received it about five or six years ago from an e-mail mailing list. Since then, I've seen it countless times posted to various newsgroups and e-mail lists, and in a few faxes. In fact I think it just appeared recently in I've made the cookies; they're nothing special. They're a little to dry for my cookie tastes. The stories change often, as legends normally do. The cookie story has featured Mrs. Fields, Nieman-Marcus, and others as the bad guy. The cactus type and the icky critters tend to vary in the cactus story.

alligator A few of the legends are actually based on true events, but are passed on in twisted versions that never seems to die and that people tend to believe blindly.

A long-standing myth is that there are alligators in the sewers of New York City. Allegedly this is based in fact. According to then-Commisioner of Sewers Teddy May, there was a problem with alligators in the sewers in the 1930s. The alligators were an average of two feet long, May said, and were all exterminated by 1937; yet to this day there are still stories of alligators in the sewers of major American cities.

Two of the more believable urban myths seem to live on despite many people's attempts to quell them. The best example of this is how soda-can tabs can be redeemed for kidney dialysis. This was never the case, yet it still is believed today by many schools and civic organizations. In 1969 General Mills instituted a program in which Betty Crocker coupons were used to purchase about 300 dialysis machines. The company received complaints that the program "traded in human misery" and quickly stopped it. For some reason the public hung on to the idea and converted it to pop-can tabs.

alligator The story survived through the years, and was so frequent a misconception, that in 1988 Reynolds Aluminum and the National Kidney Foundation decided to play along. Today,at a Reynolds Aluminum there is a place to deposit pull tabs "for kidney dialysis"; all that happens, though, is the aluminum is recycled and a donation sent to the Kidney Foundation. It's one of those wink-wink, nudge-nudge kinds of things. You'd be better off turning in the whole can than just the pull-tab.

Another popular campaign for virtue is for a boy in England who wants to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for receiving the most get-well cards. Often the story is altered to be business cards. Craig Shergold had cancer and wished to be a record holder. It happened; he was cured and went on to live his life happily. Guinness closed the category, with Craig receiving about 33 million cards. Unfortunately people still keep sending these things. The Make-A-Wish Foundation estimates it has more than 100 million greeting cards that were sent to them to be forwarded to Craig. They stopped counting but today still have an 800 number dedicated to answering questions. It's 800-215-1333 x184.

image of a cactus

These bits of folklore are often believed by a surprising number of people, without any solid facts. The number of drives and campaigns run by respected leaders of organizations to collect such things is amazing. There was a school in Kennewick, Washington, that collected close to 60,000 business cards to send to Craig a few years ago. No one bothered to check out the story beforehand.

If you're interested in folklore, skip Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and the blue ox, and check out some of the more true-to-life stories out there. It may give you a nice smug grin the next time you hear an AFOAFOAF story. If nothing else, maybe this will remind you to check with some authoratative source before doing that public service pop-can pull-tab drive. For more information of modern folklore check out the the Usenet group alt.folklore.urban or the Urban Legends gopher.

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