Browsing through Jan Brunvand's eminently salacious and digestible compendia of "urban legends" -- a series of books by a respected folklorist that progressively (or regressively?) shed their academic trappings with each volume and announce themselves ever more unapologetically as the guilty pleasures they are -- one is likely to encounter at least a few stories that are half-remembered from one's own childhood, if one grew up in this society. You've almost certainly heard the "call coming from inside the house" one, to pick the most obvious; or the one about the axe murderer in the backseat of the car (maybe you got it from Otto on The Simpsons, if you didn't hear it first from sadistic babysitters or older cousins or siblings, or from the big kids at school). And surely, at least, you encountered "the hook man" at some epoch of your youth. (Although I have to say, that last one never worked on me as a kid. The "punchline" (Brunvand's apt term), in which the bloodied hook is found clasping the door-handle of the car, always elicited from me a totally blank stare. "How did it get there?" Don't you get it? The guy was trying to open the car door when they pulled away and his hook-hand was ripped off. "... So?" Perhaps when I first heard it, I was too young to intuit the underlying sexual warning of the story. I didn't have the slightest idea what the couple was doing in the car -- or about to do -- before it peeled away.)
If you grew up in my generation, however, you probably were told these stories with at least some amount of ironic distance. Ours is a more knowing age, perhaps to a fault, and I'll bet you knew, even when you heard them, that they were "just stories." Perhaps even, the source from which you were hearing these stories, ultimately, was not your peers and other members of your folk unit, but Brunvand himself. Brunvand, after all, occupies the oddly ambivalent role in our society of being, on the one hand, our most prominent debunker and skeptic of "urban legends"; and on the other, the greatest popularizer of the genre. Many of the stories named in the last paragraph are best known from Brunvand's books themselves; and it is, as I understand it, due largely to Brunvand that the term "urban legend" was promoted from the jargon of specialists and entered our everyday discourse. Some of the stories collected in his books were in fact first retailed to me as "a great urban legend," or, "a spooky urban legend," which has to make you wonder if Brunvand isn't as much the source of the role these tales play in our culture as his anonymous folk sources. Are urban legends the artifact of an "invented tradition," at least in part? Such was the suspicion that crept upon me in my perusal of his books -- much as a hook man sneaks up on unwary teens.
I was forced to revise the judgment entirely, however, once I got to one particularly horrifying tale that I'd forgotten I'd ever heard, but which, as soon as it was mentioned, I knew I had been informed "really happened," and at that young age I believed it. It is a tale that also begins to reveal the darker side of the urban legend -- the close relation the American urban legend has to the worst aspects of our collective unconscious -- which is what I mean to discuss in the rest of this post.
Reduced to its most basic elements, the story is this: a mother takes her young son to a suburban shopping mall, where she allows him to enter the boy's restroom unattended and waits outside the door. When he does not return after several minutes, she goes in to find him, and discovers that a group of teenagers in the bathroom have cut off the boy's genitals while she was away.
Wherever you live, this story always happened in the next town over, perhaps, but it always "really happened."
In truth, of course, there is thankfully no documented case of any such thing ever occurring anywhere in the country; much less taking place in broad daylight in a suburban shopping mall. Patently absurd as it is, however, I remember quite distinctly being told that this was a true story as a small child, and being unnerved by mall bathrooms for years afterward as a result. Sure enough, turning to Brunvand's notes on the story's provenance, one sees that it is traced to "Dallas/Fort Worth, 1992"; and that, according to Brunvand's source, the story was at that time "making the rounds in the Dallas/ Fort Worth metroplex" in the '90s. Just the right time and place for me to be likely to hear it. I guess urban legends do exist, and have an organic "folk" origin.
Essaying my own Brunvandian analysis of the tale, a couple things stand out to me that I could not have processed consciously at the time I first encountered it. One of Brunvand's cardinal dicta is that every urban legend conveys a "moral," in the classically fabulistic sense of the word. At the end of the story, each time, the harsh and forbidding requirements of the collective morality of the folk group are reinforced through a punishment -- often an intensely gruesome one -- in this case, the lesson being that you can never let a child out of your sight, not even in the apparently safest settings or for the most defined periods of time. One notes as well that the lesson is addressed not to parents in general, but to mothers, as the norms of the folk unit in question -- i.e., suburbanites in the greater Dallas/Ft. Worth area in the 1990s -- placed a far greater share of the burden for child-rearing on women, and accorded them an equally unfair portion of the blame should anything go wrong.
Interestingly, though; even as the "retribution" that the inattentive mother faces at the end of the story is an utterly ghastly one, the story invites us more to identify with her than to judge her. After all, her motives are perfectly reasonable. She does not "abandon" her son, or leave him alone for any callous or unnatural reason -- she simply cannot enter the men's room and she assumes he will be safe for a few minutes on his own. As Brunvand's other tales reveal, this is typical of the genre. Most of the people who are "punished" most severely by the story's end are not members of the stigmatized other, or "out-group" (it is the latter, to the contrary, that tend to do the punishing); rather, they are the protagonists of the tale, the members of the in-group, with whom the reader is expected to identify. They act in general from sympathetic -- or at least comprehensible -- motives and only go astray -- as they inevitably do -- through a lack of resolve, or a certain naiveté.
The moral universe of the urban legend is therefore not at all one of cosmic justice, where people "deserve" the fates they receive at the story's conclusion; it is, rather, a world full of demonic presences and forces, but one in which -- so long as one holds to a narrowly proscribed social code -- one can secure some tentative grasp on one's safety. By inviting us to identify with their imperfect protagonists, the stories acknowledge on some level that this social code is unduly harsh, and maybe even unfair -- that no one could actually live up to all its tenets; that no mother, however protective, could keep watch over a child at every instant of the day. This particular story was, after all, most likely told by suburban mothers to suburban mothers, and therefore evinces some sympathy for their human limitations. But, the stories seem to shrug, fair or otherwise, the rules are what they are, and the universe will enforce them, however procrustean they must appear.
It is no less striking, however, that no such tolerant attitude is extended to members of the out-group. The latter are not depicted as people at all in these stories, but as fleshly embodiments of demonic forces. Even they, however, do not act at random. They merely exact the horrible penalties that result from violating the group ethic.
And who are the members of the out-group in question in this story? We see they are described with the racially-neutral term "teenagers." We have to remember, however, that this would have a particular valence and baggage in the 1990s -- those being the years of the "super-predator" scare and other moral panics about adolescent "thugs" who would allegedly soon be terrorizing the streets of America. A "thug" or a "super-predator" could in principle of course be someone of any ethnic or racial extraction. In our democratic American society -- at least pre-Trump -- we tended not to cast racially minorities explicitly in the role of monsters in our fantasies and legends. That doesn't mean we didn't do so more circumspectly and implicitly, however. In addition to the age group of the monsters in this particular story, after all, and what it connotes in context, we notice that there are other clues as to the ethnic identities of the major characters. The eminently suburban setting in which the events take place, after all -- the shopping mall -- and the protagonists' presumption of safety there, suggest not so subtly that the mother and son are white. The place where they are in danger, though, is in the room of darkness, of night soil, of sewers --
And if you still don't believe me, the first and oldest of the three versions of the story Brunvand collects makes the point perfectly explicitly, naming the villains of the story as "three little black boys," who mutilate the other child -- described as a "little white boy"-- as part of "a method of getting into a gang that they wanted to belong to."
-- Interestingly enough, though, in my child's mind I always pictured the dangerous teens in this story as white too. I submit that this was not due to any fortunate freedom from racism in my young unconscious mind, however; nor to a lack of racial animus, however politely disguised, in my social environment. To the contrary, I am afraid it may have been due to the fact that the suburban Dallas in which I grew up was so effectively segregated that black people didn't inhabit my mental universe hardly at all, at that age; except when they appeared in my school history textbooks, usually in heroic accounts of how a white president once "freed the slaves." (Who, though, enslaved them? ... it is a question worthy of Brecht's "worker who reads"; and one that was never so plainly addressed in my Texas schoolbooks, where the Alamo was a battle for freedom, not a hold-out for slavery).
The last thing one notices about the mall bathroom story -- or, more likely, the first and most striking thing one notices -- is its decision to focus on genital mutilation. By the story's end, one knows that the mother is going to find something horrible when she opens the door to the bathroom; but even with that expectation, the grisly climax manages to catch one up short -- as every good "punchline" does.
Why, though, would the "teenagers" in the bathroom want to mutilate a child's sexual organs? Because that's just the sort of thing those people do. The motives of the out-group in such stories do not need explaining; no more than one needs to account for why Jack's beanstalk-giant wishes to grind his bones, or why a troll guards a bridge. It is simply in their nature.
The assumption that the out-group is capable of anything, but is particularly intent on sexual violation of some kind, appears time and again in the folklore of racism and in the venal literature of "moral panic." One has only to think of the fraudulent rape accusations that were used to justify the lynchings of black Americans; or of the semi-pornographic accounts that circulated throughout Protestant American in the 19th century of the secret sexual initiation rites and disguised white slavery rings that were alleged to be found in the inner sanctums of Mormon temples and Masonic lodges and Catholic nunneries.
Closely allied to this theme is the notion that members of the out-group especially cannot be trusted in the presence of the children of the in-group -- usually because, the legend assures us, they will sexual violate these children, or will murder them through negligence or outright malice -- as we see in the mall bathroom story. Think too of the anti-Semitic blood libel of the Middle Ages and its many modern variants.
Let us turn as well to another of the stories Brunvand collects that you may have heard, at least in one of its versions. It describes a "hippy" babysitter who is left alone with an infant while its parents leave for dinner. She proceeds to drop acid while preparing a turkey for her own meal, and, when the parents return home, they discover to their horror that she has accidentally roasted the baby in the oven, instead of the fowl.
Again, I urge you to take comfort from the fact that this never actually happened anywhere that anyone can document.
The story is a warning to the folk unit of the perils of trusting those who live outside its code of heterosexual monogamy and early and conscientious parenting. The "hippies" are unnatural in one thing, by the standards of the folk unit, and so they might be unnatural in many others, including in cooking babies in the oven. The story reflects the fear that, for those who violate one of the mores of the group, there is no telling how many others they may violate as well. It is a theme that shows up in much of the more serious social criticism that has been written in the fallout of the "cultural revolution" of the 1960s as well. Here as elsewhere, one can occasionally run into real examples that slot neatly into folkloristic tropes and thereby seem to lend them learned credibility. In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion may not actually describe a case of a negligent babysitter cooking an infant; but one of her most haunting images of cultural breakdown -- that she apparently really observed-- depicts two deadbeat parents in Haight-Ashberry feeding LSD to their toddler. Could it have happened? Certainly. Does that mean, therefore, "that's just what hippies do?" No. The trouble with folklore, though, is that it makes no such distinctions. It's always "a story," just told "for fun" and titilation --which allows its implicit messages to slink in unexamined.
I keep promising the end of this list, but I observe something else in these stories as well -- it is the fact that the protagonists, despite apparently belonging to the "in-group," are always powerless; they are left at the mercy of the forces of evil, once they transgress the rigid group code. This is a pattern in urban legends more generally. Even when they are related for the benefit of an "in-group" audience that enjoys an actual advantage in American society, whether numerically or by reason of comparative wealth or social power, the stories seem always to reflect a fear of vulnerability before members of the stigmatized out-group -- or even a belief that the out-group is arrayed in conspiracy against them with forces still more potent; that the out-group somehow has access, by however devious a means -- that it represents the true, if hidden, "elite" caste.
Sometimes, the out-group targeted by the stories actually is one that has a certain amount of authority and influence in society (though never as much as the urban legend would imply). They may show up in the form of university professors, or psychoanalysts, or cagey lawyers or callous doctors. More often, though, the out-group is in reality fairly marginal -- or even actively marginalized by the centers of power. Think of Masons, Mormons, Jews, Communists, Feminists and others.
Why, then, do the out-groups inspire such panic among the dominant group? We have not space here to fully sound out the psychological underpinnings of racism and prejudice, but surely some of it has to do with the envy in-group members feel for the close bonds often displayed amongst each other by out-groups, or for the supposedly greater "freedom" enjoyed by people who live outside of the prescriptions of heterosexual monogamous norms. Jewish people were relentlessly accused in not-so-distant memory of "secrecy," and of "particularism"-- most commonly facing this charge, of course, from the worst of racial particularists. Do we not sense, as an undertone of this criticism, a certain hunger to be included, to be let in on the secrets, to be a part of the tribe? (A minister once advised me: "People will hate you in this line of work because they love you" -- I don't know if it's true in my case, but it goes some way toward explaining the internal psycho-dynamics of a certain kind of anti-Semitism.) The same goes for the Masons and the Mormons. Can we not also detect, in the hysterical 19th century literature about Mormon immortality, for instance, a certain unconfessed sexual jealousy? And do not the fears of the in-group in the face of hippy bohemianism evince an inward anxiety -- a creeping suspicion that it might actually be better to be single and unhampered after all? (As someone who is single and unhampered, I cannot at all promise that it is -- but the thought surely underlies some of the animus that the happily married feel toward the inveterate spinster and bachelor.)
To be sure, though, some of the fear evinced in urban legends does stem from real experiences of vulnerability and helplessness. The terror of street crime and urban violence that people of all racial backgrounds experienced in the 1990s was in no way based on mere chimeras and myths. America's cities are genuinely dangerous places, and were even more so twenty or thirty years ago, when crime rates were much higher. There are also genuine acts of terrorism and random violence that could befall any of us at any time. And ultimately, of course, there is no permanent refuge from death, which will come to us all.
The dangerous function served by urban legends, however -- and plenty of them are dangerous, as should be clear enough by now (even the apparently innocuous "hook man" story manages, on closer examination, to cruelly stigmatize the disabled) -- is to prescribe for the in-group a sort of moral key, a narrow path, which allows one safe passage through the maze of dangers this world presents. For members of the in-group who are trying to keep to the path but who occasionally stumble, the urban legend offers a stern warning, but also forgiveness. To those who live permanently -- and perhaps deliberately -- outside its bounds, however -- who have, perhaps, a different moral key -- the urban legends offers nothing but stigma. For them there is no forgiveness. For, if they turned out after all not to be monsters; if they were just people too, who don't eat or kill or abuse children any more commonly than do members of the in-group -- then we might find out that the narrow path isn't the only refuge from the perils of uncertainty. Or we might learn that it is not a sure refuge at all, and then the in-group might be back facing the abyss of unknowing all over again. This accounts for the peculiar and striking sense of urgency that seems to characterize the work of stigmatizing every out-group in paranoid rhetoric-- one has to believe that they are evil; one must convince oneself of it over and over again to ensure one's own psychic survival and thus be reassured of the infallibility of the group code.
The specific identities of out-groups, of course, and of who -- by contrast, is "in"-- are bound to shift and metastasize over time. One hears a lot less about Mormons and Masons in paranoid discourse than one did a hundred years ago. One doesn't even hear much about Communists anymore, come to think of it. But one does hear about alleged ISIS agents squirreling away in the refugee and visa programs. That Mexican immigrants answer similar folkloristic needs in the rantings and ravings of the right should be obvious enough by now. I learned a great many new things from Dan McAdam's brilliant analysis of the mind of Donald Trump that was recently published in The Atlantic -- including the use of the term "out-group" -- but the insight that Trump plays on traditional fears in order to scapegoat minorities was not one of them. Trump's statement about "rapists" coming across the Mexican border is only one of his more blatant deployments of the kind of sexual violation motif that we charted in the stories above.
The legend that the out-group is not only sexually dangerous, but that it routinely targets children in particular, also still rears its head in American discourse -- though it did so more commonly ten or twenty years ago than it does today. It is no accident that feminists and liberals were routinely depicted as "baby-killers" throughout the long years of the Moral Majority and the second Bush presidency. This image of licensed child murder, which the conflation of abortion and infanticide managed to achieve, and of a powerful and secretive caste of "unnatural" women and brutal men who are allied to promote the practice -- has deep folkloric roots. One finds it in the witch trials of early modern Europe and elsewhere.
By the same token, the public's misconceptions about the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals plainly slotted into familiar narratives about secretive societies and the abominations they allegedly perform behind closed doors. While there actually was and is a huge problem within the Catholic church of covering up the sexual abuse of minors -- that is plain enough -- there has never been any evidence to confirm the the notion that celibate priests are somehow more likely to commit child abuse than other sorts of people; yet this idea still has a dangerous degree of currency in our society. As with other out-groups, priests have adopted a lifestyle that is beyond the pale of in-group heterosexual norms and expectations around marriage and procreation; therefore, it is believed, they must rape children -- we saw how this logic works in regard to other out-groups above.
I don't need to remind you as well of all the long decades of baseless accusations that have been directed against gay and lesbian people for similar reasons and in similar ways. In many parts of Africa today, it is widely believed that gay men control numerous social institutions and use their power to coerce children into sex acts and to recruit them into a gay lifestyle. Even the great author Wole Soyinka in a 2012 article-- in the course of which, to his credit, he lays out a case against the current homophobic legislation in Nigeria-- accepts some of the bizarre premises of this prevalent worldview. "No one denies," he writes, "the perverse agency of ‘peer pressure’ in certain societies – or institutions – where homosexuality is considered ‘fashionable’, or even becomes a membership card for advancement in some professions." Really? No one denies that?
But just in case such an assumption sounds "culturally alien" to you now -- just remember that this was the same kind of drivel one could hear routinely about gay teachers and scout leaders on the radio driving through Florida about ten years ago; and remember that some of the most noteworthy "exporters" of homophobic hatred to Africa include well-known American evangelicals.
One observes these same patterns of thought less commonly on the Left, of course -- if for no other reason than the American Left is mostly comprised of an alliance of the various out-groups, including both elite and non-elite out-groups. But still, at the risk of belaboring a point I've already made on this blog -- probably out of all proportion to its general social significance -- (but then, as George Eliot writes, "Our pet opinions are usually those which place us in a minority of a minority amongst our own party"), I can't help but feel that much of this same folklore is feeding into the Left's current uproar against campus fraternities. These, along with elite colleges more generally, fall altogether too neatly into the old narratives about secret societies for me not to be skeptical of the stories that are told about them. See the folkloristic motifs of powerful members of the hidden society holding access and privilege, and even looking out for one another in the courts to ensure their mutual impunity. I don't know how else to account for the Left's current efforts to force the recall of the judge in a campus rape case who handed down a lenient sentence. Much of the coverage of the story has insinuated that the judge is granting special privileges to the accused because they share an alumni network. (For what it's worth, similar allegations about judicial misconduct in a case involving Masons were the proximate cause of the anti-Masonic panic of the 1800s.) I can imagine less sinister motives for why a judge might grant a light sentence to a 19-year-old kid who had committed sexual assault while severely intoxicated. Many of the outlets leading the charge against the judge in this case have on other occasions -- rightly -- called for adolescents' immature brain development and consequent lack of emotional regulation and decision making ability to be taken into account in handing down prison terms in our criminal justice system. One wonders why they are not able to take a similar view in this case. The reason, to be sure, is that sexual assault is actually a massive problem on college campuses, as elsewhere in society, and often goes wholly unpunished.
There again, though, is the great implicit danger of all these folkloristic motifs -- they provide an easy psychic splitting, a conveniently sharp division, in the face of real -- though often ambiguously sourced-- dangers. Urban legends are not based on "lies." If the things they warn against were not in some measure real fears, genuine threats, we would have no use for them, and our folklore would take very different forms.
But in real life, the members of other groups face the same threats we do, and then some -- they are up against the same dangers (it is no accident that the in-group of one folklore will often appear as the stigmatized other, the "teenagers," of another). The world contains many evils; but it is not made up of demons -- unless those be our ugly human tendency -- our wickedest temptation -- to demonize.