The “Science” of Myth-Building
Hello Grimericans! It’s been awhile! Trust me, it’s not from a lack of wanting to write, just a matter of time. Truth be told, I’ve been practically salivating over getting this one out of my head and onto the web (that sounds like a hit 80’s song) so without too much ranting, let’s get into it. What’s this post about? It’s about those stories you were told and believed as a kid, why you believed them, why you shared those stories, why those stories morphed and changed as you told them and why those stories are told in the first place. Damn, that seems like a lot of subject to cover. I hope I didn’t bite off more than I can chew. Speaking of, have you heard the one about the kid who bit off more than he could chew?
Yep, he was eaten by a snake.
Think back to the first urban legend or bit of local folklore that you heard. How old were you? Who told you? Did you instantly believe or did you slowly come to hold true what was told to you? Do you think about it today and wonder how you could have ever had believed such a thing? Or maybe you still believe it and don’t know it’s fictional. Maybe you know it’s probably false and some part of you can’t help but still believe. Why do we believe seemingly fantastic tales like an escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand or an unlucky babysitter watching some unfortunate children in a house with a weird telephone configuration? Turns out there are a few factors. But before we get into the logistics of why we pass, listen and believe these stories, let’s define some of these words.
This portion of the blog sponsored by…
Myth: A myth is more of a story that is told traditionally that usually aims at explaining supernatural events, cultural beliefs, traditions and all around mysteries that plagued the people at the time. They include things like the origin of mankind, the world and the universe to how a lake was formed or why water falls from the sky. They can include gods and other supernatural creatures and are generally told in dramatic and fanciful styles.
Folk Tales: In contrast to myths, folk tales are not about gods nor are they about the origins of race, mankind or the world. They are told mostly for entertainment and are not taken as factual by the ones being told the story. The characters in folk tales are ordinary humans or anthropomorphized animals. The humans are often of the lower rung of social structure in regards to wealth and are frequently portrayed as having higher values than those of higher classes. Each character is usually representing one human trait, e.g.: curiosity, greed, anger, etc. The mystical realm of magic can play a lead role in these stories as well. These tales usually have a simple themes – doing good is rewarded and those who chose not to do good are forced to listen to Justin Bieber for the rest of eternity.
Legend: Legends are considered factual by those who tell them and many have some a basis in historical fact. For example, the legends surrounding the outlaw Robin Hood are believed to be based on a real outlaw (although it is still up in the air who exactly he may be based on). They tend to be set in a past more recent than myths and may include elements of magic or the supernatural as in the case of Paul Bunyan with his enormous size and giant blue ox. They often tend to be told with great emphasis on the seemingly impossible feats performed.
Urban Legend: This was a 1998 slasher film that started Jared Leto, Alicia Witt, a stunning Rebecca Gayheart and a young Tara Reid. The film was followed by Urban Legend: Final cut in 2000 and Urban Legend: Bloody Mary in 2005. I only watched the first one and decided to quit whilst I was ahead, something the movie itself failed to do. But really, these stories are just a modern take on folk tales and are told as fact usually with a no solid origin. They can contain elements of horror, comedy, warnings and life lessons in humility and empathy. These can be completely fabricated, have some basis in fact or largely true, although usually having been exaggerated greatly whilst being spread spontaneously.
Bonus!: Fakelore: Folklorist will often debate that tales of obvious fabrications or a story with extremely loose connections with the original tale that are told through the representation of classic or traditional materials that are written by professional authors as reproductions of the oral traditions of historically cultural accounts should be considered ‘Fakelore’. Some fakelore is total fabrication, utterly unconnected to any actual folklore source, taking for example the Paul Bunyan stories that are found in cartoons and schoolbooks were never told by lumberjacks; Pecos Bill was not a cowboy hero who lassoed a twister (sadly) and was not talked about by cowboy contemporaries of the time. Although these tales do make awesome Disney cartoons.
You haven’t really lived until you’ve seen it on Blu-Ray.
Now I felt it necessary to define those words as they are often used interchangeably especially by those who write about the world of the weird. Myself being guilty of this as well. Now while I will be focusing on more of an urban legend aspect in this post, I still felt it necessary to make the distinction. The devil is in the details and I want to be as thorough as my attention span (and yours) will allow. Have you thought about that first urban legend that you were told yet? Have you thought about why you may have believed it? The first one I told was by my mother. It was about flashing your headlights at oncoming cars with their lights off. For those of you unaware, flashing your headlights at another vehicle that is driving without theirs on (at night of course, or dusk) is a common way of letting the driver know, “Hey, stop being stupid. Jackass.” The story goes (at least the first version I heard) that gangs and hooligans alike would purposefully drive around with their lights off waiting for a good Samaritan to do their due diligence and try to warn them, and when one would, BAM! They would flip their lights on, chase the vehicle down, force them to pull over and eventually, they would dispatch the would-be good-doers. I was told that this was part of an initiation into the gang. I believed it. Every word. It was my mother who told this to me after all. This was the woman who raised me and my five siblings single handedly. Her word was the gospel and anyone would be foolish not to head her warnings. This brings me to the first part of this post. Well, the first part on the ‘science of myth-building’.
I use the term ‘science’ loosely of course. I first heard the phrase ‘The science of myth-building’ on the podcast ‘Ecto-Radio’. A really awesome show hosted by the founder and members of the Southwest Ghost Hunters Association. By far, the most in-depth, no B.S. show on ghost hunting I have ever heard and I highly recommend you give it a try (After you’ve listened to the latest episode of Grimerica of course). I won’t be going into too much of what was talked about on their show as it dealt with mainly of their local tales and their own experiences. This did however start me wondering more on how things like urban legends get spread and ‘built’ with great speed and veracity. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start off with why we tend to believe these stories. In the story I mentioned about the headlights being related to me by my mother, it was who told me that really sunk this story into my mind. My mother was and is very important to me and I take what she says to heart. I instantaneously believed what she said as a matter of fact and anyone who said otherwise was a charlatan trying to deceive me. When we are told these stories, they are usually told to us by friends and family. We inherently want to believe what they say (for the most part) especially if they are in a higher position in the hierarchy of our social or family circles. We, ourselves, want to believe that we have good judgment and therefore, if we have chosen a friend, we want to believe that we chose wisely, and that our friend wouldn’t lie to us. And we might not be able to choose our family (despite us sometimes really wishing this was a possibility) we are raised to respect our elders and even our own contemporaries. So why do we pass these stories on?
Because everyone loves a story. People love telling stories. Especially ones that come with a warning that can be perceived as wisdom. It helps if the person telling the story genuinely believes the story they are telling themselves. They want to warn you of the dangers of sewer spelunking or parking up at pecker’s point that is dangerously located to the mental institution with questionably lack security for a make-out session. You’re doing a public service in telling these tales of knowledge. Just to get your point across, you might even change the story around so that it hits home a little more. It changes to it happened to a friend of a friend, or your cousin from the next town over. You might even say that it was you that slept in a motel with a fowl stench and a lumpy bed only to discover the next morning that while you dreamt, there was a dead prostitute underneath your mattress. But why would you tell such an outlandish lie? Because if you truly believe there is a danger, then you are more likely to smudge the facts to get your warning across. You might say to yourself, “It’s ok because I might be saving them some strife and mental trauma. Hell, I might just be saving their life.” And so people lie a little and mold the story to a more personal level so as to make the legitimacy of the story more solid. More believable. Hey, if there really is drug laced Halloween candy then it doesn’t really matter why you’re more cautious of biting into those sweets that you got from complete strangers. Does it? People reason that the ends justify the means and if they can prevent you from losing your kidney’s after a drunken night out and if they have to stretch the truth a little to do it, then hey, you’re welcome. It also helps that by telling these stories, the person may come off as well informed and knowledgeable, which you know, helps the ego.
So we just covered a little on how these stories can change from person to person but there are other ways of the story changing. Stories about teens out in the woods have changed to a more urban setting because it’s the urban areas that most of us populate. Stories that take place in isolated areas such as forests and country side may change to having taken place to three blocks from you. When we lived in a more rural setting, it was this setting that frightened us. Don’t get me wrong, being alone in the middle of nowhere can still be frightening, but urban legends of today are more of city setting because this is where we usually are and this is what scares us. And with the rise of the good ‘ol internet, these stories have transformed into fast spreading global affairs. Although reading an email or a Facebook post takes away from the personal feelings conveyed from hearing a story in person, it does allow for more extravagant variations of a personal note. That’s because you don’t have to have the body language and tone in your voice to show what you’re saying is real on the internet. A well thought out email can convey just as much insight into the new “dangers” of the world. And because they are on the net, they can spread more rapidly and to a wider audience than before. You might think that people would be more cautious of what they read on the net with today’s trolls lurking under every USB and Wi-Fi bridge, but it is still surprising what one comes across while reading forums and posts. The internet does have a redeeming aspect to it when it comes to these tales. The truth of these stories that are passed as fact can often be found on websites debunking such hilarious claims. Snopes.com is an awesome website for such activities. It is usually my go-to when trying to get to the bottom of such claims. So can these tales be dangerous? Can anything be learned from them? Nope. Thanks for stopping by. See ya next time and stay classy Grimer… Oh, fine. I’ll keep writing. Anyone ever tell you you’re needy?
While not all urban legends contain a warning with a basis in reality, some of them do. And even the ones that aren’t based on fact, some could make the argument that it’s better to be safer than sorry. Parents should be vigilante on what candy goes into their children’s mouths on Halloween and people should be weary of thinking about traveling into the maze of pipes and tunnels that run beneath our feet; that’s just gross. That’s were poop goes. Eww. But moreover, people have been telling stories like these since time immemorial. It is part of our culture, not just yours or mine, but mankind’s. A child is more likely to remember not to go to near a lake or river or any body of water for that matter if he or she thinks that there is the spirit of a mother who lost her own children to the watery depths and is always looking for replacements, than their parents telling them, “Stay away from the water. Seriously. Stay away.” And while we are not children, the premise is the same. Humans learn from our mistakes or the mistakes of others so why not give an example of what could happen when a mistake is made? Let’s not forget that if we didn’t have them, the stories we tell around the campfire or the water cooler for that matter would suffer greatly. And like I said before, not all of these stories have a morsel of moral knowledge embedded in them. I also said that some of them are based in fact like the laced Halloween candy (which like many urban legends grew and changed over the years. Warning: Sensitive material contained on link) or the dead body underneath a motel mattress, so I’ll leave you with some links to a few of those. Enjoy. Well that’s it for me. Until next time, stay classy Grimerica.