Commentary 27 Mar 2009 06:52 pm

Urban legend infiltrates State Street business

Here is my print column from March 26:

Our daughter called at 9:30 p.m. last Thursday to warn us about Wal-Mart.

She was studying at a friend’s house when she received this text message: “Police are asking all women not to go to Walmart (sic). 3 women will be shot due to a gang initiation. This is no joke pass it on.”

So she did. Apparently, lots of other folks did, too, judging by newspaper reports. Police in Alliance stepped up patrols on West State Street, and Canton cops did the same at their Wal-Mart locations.

While I appreciated the warning, I didn’t give it a lot of credence, since it sounded like the stuff of urban legend. A quick trip to snopes.com, the closest thing to an official urban legend Web site, revealed similar gang initiation threats attached to various national retailers in most states. Details differ, from alleged purse snatchings and rapes in North Carolina to body burnings in Texas.

All are listed as false, because no evidence exists about organized gang activity at any big-box retailer involving initiation by abduction, mutilation or death.

Urban legends are subject to misinformation because they are a type of evolving folklore, the descendants of stories passed around a campfire. In later generations, they were water-cooler fodder and chain mail topics. Today, they are spread by e-mail and, in the case of this latest effort, cell phone text message.

The legends may include deliberate hoaxes, but most do not depend on a concerted effort to deceive. The original message may indeed be a prank, but it is just as likely the work of a concerned, if misinformed, do-gooder and may even contain the kernel of truth. After all, people have been abducted from stores, just as people have been shot, strangled, burned and otherwise dismembered in parking lots. But these things can happen anywhere and often randomly, arbitrarily, without being symptomatic of a larger conspiracy.

With urban legends, verifiable details are either completely absent or incredibly sketchy, which is why they are sometimes known as FOAF (friend of a friend) stories, as in, “My wife’s friend’s brother knows a guy who swears this happened to him …”

In The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand notes several similar urban legends involving retailers. The most persistent involves shopping malls, and still pops up in e-mails around the holidays: “The Slasher Under the Car.”

The story, which bears some similarities to the Wal-Mart rumor, involves assailants who hide beneath cars in shopping center parking lots, waiting for unsuspecting shoppers to return so they can sever their Achilles tendons. Some of these reports even include the gang initiation theme, where would-be members hijack a grisly body-part trophy after immobilizing their prey. They usually end with a warning to stay away from a particular store or shopping center, or at least to wear very thick socks and boots. (OK, I made up that last part.)

Besides forcing police to allocate resources they likely can’t spare, rumors like the one circulating last week negatively affect retailers’ bottom lines at a time when our economy can’t afford another hit. They also create the unlikely — but not impossible — scenario of some misguided individuals deciding that parking-lot trolling sounds like a good idea, and so a self-fulfilling prophecy is born.

There is even a name for urban legends that attach themselves to the biggest name in a particular market: the Goliath Effect. Because more people shop at Wal-Mart than, say, Target or Kmart, it is more likely that gossip will attach itself to the dominant retailer, which is why there are more Coca-Cola than Pepsi rumors, more McDonald’s than Burger King legends.

A few years ago, a well-meaning but misguided individual was sending me weekly warnings about computer viruses that would eat my hard drive the way Pac Man gobbles ghosts. It only took me a few visits to snopes.com and replies with the same story, often verbatim and dating back several years, for my e-mail friend to realize he was part of a disinformation campaign. I no longer receive his e-mail warnings.

We all need to be a little more discerning about information. Urban legends are fun to talk about and share, as long as we are talking and sharing with others who recognize them as folklore.

Otherwise, we incite panic and needless headache. And that’s no joke. Pass it on.

2 Responses to “Urban legend infiltrates State Street business”

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