Thursday, August 26, 2010

Urban Myths, Creepy Pasta, Fakelore and Legends: A Selection

Custom Urban Legends Search

A staple of even better online sites devoted to urban myths is how simple--sloppy, even--in all, both prose and storytelling are.

Yet still, in their un-self-consciousness, these clunky nail-biters often turn out more imaginatively in unearthing the terms of the symbolic than your most daringly reaching of contemporary artist.  

In cadence, language often resembles children retelling their own dreams. Tonally (but rarely thematically, or in a direct way), one hears the recurrent cry of powerlessness in regards to the institutions that be: corporate, detentionary, medical, scientific. 

Now and again, the stories grapple with subjects that, if laid out plainly, even the more saber-rattling of radicals would shrink from (i.e. the urban myth of the kindly terrorist, sparing judiciously potential victims on moral grounds).

Of course, this is hardly radical fair. Mostly these are small moral plays, if that. Sometimes, they are no more than gross-out pot-boilers, cringe fair of bodily embarrassment or bodily excoriation and excruciation. 

Different from pre-modern folklore, where cunning peasant heroes regularly outwit the horrors of myth, urban myths stand in awe before myth's boundlessness. Indeed, characters are sacrificed routinely to mythic forces in the most violent, troubling and inventive of ways.

We are in a subterranean (often suburban) realm, in the sway of a brutal and child-like Fate, trembling before the exaggerated imperium of the daily authorities. 

Video Footage of a UFO in Texas

The storyteller's typical first move is to paint a sheen of wonder (or terror) over the drab palette of what's conventionally possible, allowing her or him to narrate freely from the strict observations of naturalist constraint. The rules apprehended darkly from authoritative spheres--the complex specialties of doctors, scientists, government--are cast aside. But to limit the drift of wild imaginations, these spooky hobbyists instinctively parody the vocabulary of speacialization. Plot points are often science-y-sounding or reportage-oriented, attributed to untraceable but mundane sources (a friend of a friend, a TV show, an unattributed snapshot, a pamphlet). Dread substitutes for where since diapers we're trained to respect cause and effect. 
48K gif image of the mythic rasselbock
Midwestern Jackalope

All this whispers of a reality behind reality haunted by the uncanny, unlucky signs, coincidence and deja vu. Yet, strangely, consistently modern in framing, rarely does a god appear from a machine. Everything that comes has been exhaustively prepared for beforehand with props and sensory clues, then, post-reveal of their "shocking" conclusions, provided with a rationale, however weak. Significantly, despite the frequent interpolation of supernatural agents, terrible ends often derive from banal, contemporary objects. We are speaking of a world of human equipment, mundane experience and consumer products that has become mythologized.

Sometimes refinement in storytelling is a luxury not only of hindsight but also pretension or ambition. By contrast, this type of naive storytelling is very connected with motivations and improvisations that one imagines were present in even the first of story tellers: the boast, one-up-man-ship in regards to other entries in a genre, cheap dramatic thrills, liberal borrowing from other sources, base creep outs ingratiating base fears.

One must admire that they often do the work of entire horror films in a sentence or few.

Certainly one intuits the ongoing mutual exchange between urban legend and genre horror.
Photo with Tape Measure Helpfully Illustrating 
the Existence of Fairy Fossils

Economical in expression, free-wheeling exercises in letting the world have meaning, these invented memories take life via the fixation on a fear as it passes through half-recalled replays of the everyday. The situations each construction sets up unfold like sprung contraptions inside a fun house. They make as their allure the ionized thrilling of the blood, a lizard brain automatism applied to a world of facts and prosaic happenstance, and miraculously made legible.

The stories mostly resolve themselves around one surprise turn in narrative. I feel it is fair to judge them on their success not in terms of the virulence or speed of their being repeated as stories (often, now, these start their life as Internet hoaxes or tongue-in-cheek rumours), but how truly surprising that single surprise turn is. Therein lies the art.

Misdirection is the usual tactic. But there is an elegance, even a classicism or dream-like quality, to the story that motors, chockablock with dread, exactly to what terrible ends it presages from the start. 

Occasionally the stories resolve themselves around conventions familiar from clowning (jokes that take as their punchline too literal interpretations of language or mistakenly plain readings of how the world works) or truly imbecilic misrecognitions, something macabre and deadly mistaken for something common and benign. 

A prolific subgenre, Christian urban legends, serve by route of contemporary news items and modern props to illustrate the literal truth of a bible passage, particularly for those tenets which find no ally or correspondence in science, history, experience or nature.

The most sophisticated narrative trick that I observed in my brief survey of this material (and one that's possibly a happy accident) is the teller locating the original source of  her or his admitted urban legend (a cannibalism yarn) as the scarcity climate and moral zero hour of post-war Germany. This seemingly innocuous, single detail is as unverifiable as the story itself. Each such layered blurring of a frame invites the reader to slip a little more comfortably into the suspension of the-world-as-is.

This is an advanced technological society at its most primitive, its newly minted demons sparsely sinewy and brutal, its priests indifferent to both tradition and specialized knowledge alike. Yet these amateur shamans, sans religion or a grand tradition, are intent on having recourse to the grandest, most unknowable of themes.

Some Settings
A catalog of settings in urban myths goes a ways in explaining what our shrines are, our haunted or sacred woods, our temples. These are locations which we believe to be pregnant with enchantment, where magic perennially tips through, moving from the mundane into the mythic.

convenience store, mall, "secure facilities" (often shadowy), McDonald's, a drug store, a school, a gas station, an International House of Pancakes, lover's lane, inside a car (listening to radio), a woman in a car in a grocery store's (or shopping center's) parking lot,  a country house, under the bed, showers, dangerous and/or significant rod intersections (i.e. where a small town's main road crosses with highway), bus ride home, crowd, Berlin, babysat house, Las Vegas, Tjiana (border town), border check points, veterinary clinics, homes, transatlantic flight, airport, service counters, at a party of friends of a friend, death bed visitations, NASA, archeology digs, mountains of Ararat (the supposed site of the ruins of Noah's ark), Liz Clayborn, Southern California, Home for the dying in Calcutta, societies construed as exotically pre-modern (hence pre-civilized), inkwell, Halloween, boats, collapsing chapel, stairway, Kentucky, equinox, college dorm, Canada, a lake,a house under construction,

I am being broad with my definition. I include not just the grotesques and perversions of creation, but threats to one's body and being, and "enchanted folk" also. As well, as in the Christian variant of urban legend, those proud sinners of science, the skeptics and conceited materialists who repent disbelief and disavow factual mastery when confronted with an event that illustrates beyond a doubt the literal accuracy of (usually) an eccentric interpretation of The Bible.

Cottingley Fairies
murderers ("sex maniacs," "the insane"), those armed with cruel and eccentric weapons (hook for hand),  the incarcerated, people missing body parts, benign objects of convenience ( lid of a pressurized dough can), stranger posing as the family dog, dead daughter, corpses mistaken for the living, blind man with envelope, obscene phone callers, man dressed as old woman, rat mistaken for dog, dead baby embalmed and filled with) drugs for smuggling, Darwin, NASA astronomers, Janet Reno, underground screams of agony,  bat-winged creature, Russian text "I have conquered,"scientists, archaeologists, Proctor and Gamble, Satanists, Coca Cola, Japanese business managers, doubting theologians, porn industry, abusive father, exotic cannibals, Satan as living force, Popes, money, world government, world economy, asteroid, secular power grabs, a three story computer in Belgium called The Beast, whales, gays victimizing and murdering hets, collapsing chapel, atheist activists, students, stupidity, the Holy of Holies, Harry Potter, professor, landowner, Mormons, Advanced sub-dermal implantable device, Canadian radio transmitter spy coins, a nest of snakes in water, snakes,

Instruments of Fate
Often a prop or more specific setting-within-the-setting serves to preface or propel the turn in narrative, and clutch, reveal or surprise. Examples:

passenger side or back seat of a car, blood, blood writing, kind terrorists, the radio, dogs, medical surgery, doctors, a note, envelope, the Internet, mirror, computer programs (especially ones that calculate), legislation, ornithology ("reports of a massive build up of vultures in the valley of armageddon"), pamphlets, microphone, sky writing, radio carbon testing, corporate logos, complex mathematical symbolism, talk show, department store displays, women whom one is attracted to, a "dark-sinned" preacher, George W. Bush, porn films, a devout foster family, prophetic announcements in demotic bible-speak, riddles, hitchhikers, a beautiful soft light, Moth Theresa, cameras, ink, apples, money, the mark of the beast, sworn allegiances, the Bible, dinosaur footprints, blow up sex dolls, man dressed as Jesus, bottles thrown against wall that will not break, rain rolling off broken roof down walls as if roof still in place, an early-stage foetus living outside the womb, therapy (especially "cure" therapy), fillings turning to gold, men unschooled in religion walking on water, improvised enema with compressed air hose, angels as tough guys, rope, the canceling of (particularly christian) network programming, Einstein, scientific study, tornado, science experiments, revelations, a mark on the skin, backma.sing on recordings,

Tricky Territory Navigated
A topmost level of meaning in these stories is a conventional situation, not conventionally addressed in normal conversation, occurrences sometimes taboo or even only mildly embarrassing. If the story arc provided is severe, outre or melodramatic, nonetheless, the stories often hone in on all the begging contemporary questions, if through an indirect route. 

how to act on a date, whether governments can do wrong, is it ok for women to be alone, how to trust doctors when one does not understand medical science, how to experience a social bond with strangers, what is evil, is it possible for enemies to do good, where does Truth reside, do specialists make mistakes, the difference between appearance and reality, 

A Few Representative Sites and Sources
  • The portal page at the Open Directory Project is a good stepping off point for the most giddily amateur, most mission positive and cavalier of these sites, maintained with waning or swelling enthusiasm.
Totemistically, many of these sites are the way urban myth sites should look, if form is to compliment content: tonnes of backgrounds, ads, terrible fonts, indefensible graphics, no oasis of negative space--perfect. Magical shrines, generally syncretic, find their modern aesthetic in gaudiness.
  • Urban Legend Zeitgeist is a store house for urban legends, with the advantage of having an index searchable by key word, although at present there is not much here.
  • Snopses dedicates its site two retelling and debunking of urban myths, as well as Internet rumors, email hoaxes, doctored jpegs, and so on.
  • The Museum of Hoaxes. Similar to the above.
  • Religious Tolerance - a small island quixotically devoted to spiritual rationalism in an otherwise very perturbed sea. Many Christian urban legends retold here, but in a debunking fiat.
At the Memory Palace:
icon for podpress  a gas gas gas [5:46m].

A podcast about the Mad Gasser of Mattoon: "In 1944, the small town of Mattoon, Illinois was terrorized by a creepy black-clad prowler who sprayed anesthetic gas in his victims' faces. Or maybe it was all a case of mass hysteria based mostly on myth."

Some other Mad Gasser context from Boing Boing:
City Like Lizard (1934)

Source. "Did strange people live under site of Los Angeles 5000 years ago?" the article asks, supplying a bizarre treasure map through the city's undersides in the process.

c/f Ancient "Lizard People" Underground in LA?

Texts, Histories and Pre-Modern Sources

Other Wikipedia Entries on Urban Myths:
Other Urban Folklore
Folklore and the unintentionally or sensationally parodic anthropological disciple of the "paranormal" I include here, though structurally these are often less stories than brief vignettes relating one or several *witnessings.* Common with urban folklore however is their stock characters and intuition for setting and logic, their rationalizing while speculating on fate, unanswerable questions (what happens after Death being chief among them) and the ineffable. Whereas the pre-modern tradition of the occult often pursued more obscure and tendentious lines of truths as presented by canonical or traditional-but-apocryphal texts by digging deeper (both philosophy and religion are filled with such extravagant and even semi-blasphemous departures), the paranormal takes its narrative cues from the chronicler of natural phenomenon, the reporter and the tourist and the researcher. Photographs or video footage with blemishes play a large part in establishing an air of veracity. Transcripts become a novel mode of telling.

Ghosts, Haunted Houses, Possessions 
"Real" poltergeist footage.

Angels and Fairies

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