Don’t always believe everything you hear

It is a dark, moonlit night. A light cover of snow paints the NIU campus in shades of gray and white.

A coed gets into her Renault Alliance parked in the library parking lot. While driving home a few blocks from campus, she notices a strange car tailing her and flashing its brights.

Too afraid to pull over or stop, she instead heads to the police station—the car still follows. In a near panic, she screeches to a stop next to a police cruiser and jumps out of her car. The trailing car also stops and out jumps a young man.

“I’ve been following you because I saw a guy with a hatchet rise up out of your backseat a few blocks ago. When I flashed my brights, he ducked down,” the young man says.

The cop opens the rear door and pulls out an escaped lunatic, frothing at the mouth and wielding a glistening hatchet.

An actual case from the secret files of Police Beat? No, it is what has become known as an urban legend—the stories you hear that are supposed to be actual events that happened to a “friend of a friend.”

An English professor at the University of Utah, Jan Harold Brunvand, has studied these urban legends for years and has written several books about them.

He argues that these myths serve several societal functions and should be studied. But the reason, I believe anyway, that his books are successful is because we’ve all heard some of these legends. Not to mention that they usually make great stories.

Perhaps the most famous urban myth is “the hook.”

A young couple drives to a lover’s lane. They turn on the radio and hear a bulletin saying a deranged killer with a hook for a hand is in the area. The guy slams on the gas to get away from the secluded spot. When they get home, he goes around to the passenger side and sees the bloody remains of a hook in the door handle.

Not all the urban myths are as well-known. Like the one about the Winnebago owner who converted one of his spare gas tanks into a holding tank for the camper’s toilet. One day he comes out to see a would-be gas siphoner retching violently by the Winnebago’s side.

Or the one about the little girl left home alone, with her big Collie dog as protection. In the middle of the night she hears a dripping noise and puts out her hand by the darkened bed. She feels the collie gently lick her hand, so she goes back to sleep. The next morning she discovers her decapitated dog hanging in the shower with a note pinned to it—”Humans can lick too.”

The interesting thing about these legends, aside from the fact that they never happened, is trying to figure out where they started. Many, oddly enough, appear to start out as items in newspaper columns. To test this theory, let’s start one of our own and see if it spreads around the country.

Our test “legend” can go something like this: NIU is named one of the leading academic institutions in the nation and doesn’t raise tuition for two consecutive semesters.

Never mind—some things are just too hard to believe.