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Dateline: Urban Legends - 2002-03-01

Now, at last, it can finally be revealed! The United States government secretly holds the frozen remains of aliens in New Mexico! A 1996 photograph of Mars taken by the spacecraft Voyager clearly shows a human face! And the U.S. Congress seeks to impose a five cent tax on each e-mail message sent around the world!

As the stories go, the news media didn't report those incredible stories because "they" didn't want you to know. In fact, they weren't reported because they aren't true. They're legends... urban legends.

On this edition of Dateline, Ania Zalewski burrows deep underground to unearth the fact and fiction behind urban legends.

"In the City of God there will be a great thunder, Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures, The great leader will succumb, The third big war will begin when the big city is burning." Immediately following the terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Towers on September 11 of last year, that quatrain, attributed to the 16th-century French physician and mystic, Nostradamus, flooded the Internet. It was also printed in many newspapers and was the subject of several television programs. It sounded eerie, astounding, astonishing. How could a man living in the 1500s predict such a cataclysmic event five centuries later?

Well, the truth is, he didn't. Upon investigation, the Nostradamus quatrain turned out to be a hoax built upon a half-truth; a tale that spread like wildfire and was accepted on blind faith; in short, it became what today is called an "urban legend".

Ironically, the boom in technology and computer networks - epitomes of reason and logic - has spurred the spread of urban legends. Now, however, the online world is fighting back. The husband-and-wife team of David and Barbara Mikkelson investigate and debunk urban legends on their web site,

Barbara Mikkelson said urban legends usually thrive in situations of heightened anxiety. "The legends are often our way of putting onto words apprehensions or concerns that we have about particular events or about a given time in history," she explained. "We saw a huge upsurge in the number of rumors in circulation immediately following the events of September 11, because first of all what has happened was unbelievably horrific, and people were having a very difficult time coming to terms with what had happened. But more than that there was also a pressing threat that was still looming on the horizon which was a possibility existed that there will be further terrorists activities, that the carnage had not yet ended." The horror of the terrorist attacks was one of the motivating forces behind the spread of an urban legend. Barbara Mikkelson noted that urban legends are built on a veneer of truth and that is what makes them credible. "Urban legends are interesting stories that appeal to us because they are funny, or they're scary, they are frightening or they are horrific, and we tend to believe them because they come to us as true tales that are told to us by someone who was closely related to the person to whom it supposedly has happened to," she said. "In other words, we believe them as true because this happened to our hairdresser's sister's mechanic, and therefore we are not as far removed from the news story as we normally are with something that we read in the newspaper."

For instance, a story made the rounds last October that a woman's former boyfriend, an Afghan, warned his ex-girlfriend not to visit shopping malls on Halloween. Well, nothing untoward happened that night, but Barbara Mikkleson said this shows how urban legends help combat the fears of modern life. "It was also a way for people to try to take back a little bit of a sense of control over their lives," she said. "It's hard to accept the idea that an act of terrorism can happen anywhere at anytime, but it is much easier to deal with a notion that staying safe merely amounts to not being in the shopping mall on October 30."

Heightened anxiety is one thing, but why in times of low anxiety do people believe and spread these stories so uncritically? Gary Fine, a Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, in Illinois, says it has to do with what people's ability to believe that something could be possible. "They play off a view of the world that people find plausible," he explained. "That is, if they take their assumptions, their beliefs, their attitudes, their prejudices and transform them into a story which alleges that something actually happened; now often what is claimed [to have] happened, never happened, but it is made plausible because it is a kind of thing that people think could happen."

According to Professor Fine, urban legends confirm beliefs that people already hold, since people are likely to tell these tales to others who think the same way. That is, groups of like-minded men and women can reaffirm their shared beliefs by spreading urban legends. Gary Fine, who recently co-authored the book Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America, says urban legends flourish during times of uncertainty or conflict, and in a way, they allow people to feel justified about their anger and fears. "Americans are still trying to deal with issues of black and white. Now in the United States, obviously, we are dealing with other races as well," he said, "and one way that we deal with these, in terms of the beliefs, the attitudes that we have, both blacks and whites, and as a result, what we often do is come to accept stories, false stories that confirm our beliefs and our prejudices. That's a danger we have to confront, these beliefs, we have to ask ourselves about stories that as we say in the book, 'stories that are too good to be false'."

While the stories can seem unbelievable in retrospect, they can carry the threat to do harm and damage. Barbara Mikkelson says that right after September 11, an urban legend began circulating which said that Coca-Cola's logo was designed in such a way that a mirror image would produce an anti-Islamic message. This story caused the company's sales in Egypt to plummet by as much as 15 percent. Similarly, a widely circulated myth that raged through much of the Islamic world about Israeli agents being behind the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, may have increased tensions in the Middle East, according to Barbara Mikkelson.

"In the specific, a number of legends have damaged a great number of companies," she said. "They have rumors and gossips attached to them, stories that were completely false and these stories have had a huge impact on a number of businesses' bottom line. But in a more general sense, the legends are often damaging to all of us, because they contribute to an ongoing environment of fear in that every shadow is something we feel we have to jump at, every person we meet is no longer we just haven't met yet - they're perceived as a threat and a potential source of danger. So all of it adds into a culture that keeps becoming more and more suspicious, and less and less certain of itself all the time."

While urban legends never seem to stand the test of scrutiny, they nevertheless have great staying power in a society that believed in 1997, by an 80-17 margin, that the U.S. government is covering up what it knows about extraterrestrial life.

Urban legends have their own Internet newsgroups, debunkers, advocates and critics. Which probably means there will be lots of urban legends around to listen to, and wonder about, if only for fun and the all important "what-if" factor.