As a kid, my nose was almost always in a book and chances are that book was probably (A) Nancy Drew, (B) Harry Potter, or (C) a collection of urban legends.
Growing up, I loved urban legends: alligator-infested sewers, vanishing hitchhikers, stolen kidneys … you name it, I’d probably heard it.
Why do such stories persist generation after generation? With modern technology, you’d think that obviously untrue stories would fade away after a quick Google search.
But even though we know many — if not most — of these stories are untrue, we still tell them, waiting for our avid listener to gape in astonishment or shiver at the thought of some unbelievable misfortune.
Just as one example, here’s a story I’m sure many of you have heard. It begins with a woman driving down a dark road at night. After a while, a strange car pulls up and starts flashing its lights. The car follows her, still flashing its lights, all the way to her home.
The woman, terrified, runs from her car, ready to lock herself inside, when the stranger jumps out of his own car yelling, “Call 911!”
Turns out, the stranger had seen a man hiding in the backseat of the woman’s car, holding a butcher’s knife. The driver behind the woman, rather than being the threat, had been trying to warn her.
That urban legend, even though it’s one I’ve heard time and time again, still gives me chills – and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
These stories have an unusual staying power, not only in our culture, but also in our own minds. For example, we’ve all wondered, I’m sure, what might – just might – happen if we ate Pop Rocks with Coke.
There is just something about an urban legend that stays with you and that makes you want to pass it on to someone else.
Perhaps it’s how innately unbelievable they are – the fact that they are lies neatly wrapped in maybe-truths. We know, after all, that the world we live in is unpredictable, so maybe, just maybe ….
Or perhaps it’s that unexpected twist at the end of so many. Just as in the example of the backseat killer, the threat isn’t the mysterious car following the motorist, but instead an unseen, unknown danger.
Or perhaps it’s the fact that they teach us lessons. How many urban legends feature a young couple meeting an unfortunate end because they listened to their passions rather than their heads?
But I think, above all, we love urban legends because we love sharing. The act of telling a story is one of coming closer, of connecting.
When I was a kid, I can’t count how many recesses were spent with my friends and I huddled around an urban legends book as I read one after another aloud. And I would often hear, some time later, those same stories being retold again and again.
Urban legends are one of the many ways we make ripples – sharing, not only a fun or scary tale, but also some of our most basic fears and hopes. After all, what makes an urban legend so good is that question: What if that would happen to me?
The stories we tell help us to see each other and the world that surrounds us for all that it is: the good and the bad; the unbelievable and the well-known; the unexpected and the predictable.
Because despite the many grisly and unnerving moments we all know are simply a part of life, there are also times of decency and virtue – just like in this next famous urban legend.
It begins with a Good Samaritan who stops on the side of a road to help someone fix a flat tire. When the job is done, the person turns to the Good Samaritan, asking for his address so he can send him a reward.
The story ends with the Good Samaritan receiving a check in the mail for $10,000. Turns out the person he’d helped was a celebrity – usually, Donald Trump.
And while urban legends with happy endings are fewer than those with shock value, they do still exist.
What a reflection of our own lives – where, even when the world seems consumed in grief and hardship, there are still moments that remind us that we, as humans, are still capable of (and still do) good.
Stories like these not only make us think – really and deeply – but they also make us wonder.
As author Neil Gaiman once said, “We owe it to each other to tell stories.”
Sarah Allen is a columnist for the Hillsboro Times Gazette, a Civitas Media newspaper in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter at @SarahAllenHTG.