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'Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends'

By Jan Harold Bruvand

September 21, 1999
Web posted at: 12:53 p.m. EDT (1653 GMT)

(CNN) -- Alligators in the sewers? A pet in the microwave? A tragic misunderstanding of the function of cruise control? No, it didn't really happen to your friend's sister's neighbor: it's an urban legend. And no matter how savvy you think you are, you are sure to find in this collection of over 200 tales at least one story you would have sworn was true.

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Jan Harold Brunvand has been collecting and studying this modern folklore for over 20 years. In "Too Good to Be True" he captures the best stories in their best retellings, along with their latest variations and examples of how the stories have changed as they move from person to person and place to place.


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EXCERPT

If you wanted to invent new urban legends, you might start by imagining ways that people could be led astray by jumping to conclusions. Your UL characters could completely misinterpret, say, a faithful wife’s unexpected behavior, or a beautiful secretary’s intentions, or a pet’s sudden death. The poor schnook in your legend could then end up destroying his own new car, or disrobing for his office’s surprise birthday party, or sending her dinner guests to the hospital for an unnecessary stomach pumping. To prove not only that this principle governs some legends, but also that the stories themselves are much better than mere plot summaries, see the tellings of "The Solid Cement Cadillac," "Why I Fired My Secretary," and "The Poisoned Pussycat at the Party."

All of the legends in this chapter—and many more—center on the natural human tendency to jump to conclusions even when the evidence is ambiguous. A couple of hot new stories follow this same logic, or illogic, if you will. Number one: A guy gets a new computer and calls the manufacturer’s technical support to complain that his cup holder is stuck. Cup holder? He mistook the function of the built-in CD-ROM tray. (I give the full story in the introduction to Chapter 14, "Baffled by Technology.") Number two: A new secretary told to order more fax paper for the office calls the supplier and asks them to fax her a few dozen sheets until the larger order can be filled.

Did many of the classic urban legends actually start that way? Frankly, my friends, I don’t know. After nearly two decades of collecting and studying this vibrant genre of modern folklore, I’m still pretty much in the dark about how such tales originate. It was the same with Bill Hall, a columnist for the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune, who wrote this a few years ago:

It’s a question as eternal as where dirty jokes come from: Where do those untrue stories of amazing things that allegedly happened to someone in your town come from? . . . The same stories surface and resurface over the years [and] . . . most of the people who spread the phony stories believe them to be true.

But if Bill Hall and I — and other journalists and folklorists — are unsure about the ultimate origins of urban legends, we agree on the likely process of how they develop in oral tradition, and this too involves faulty reasoning. Somehow a story gets started, and then, as Hall perceptively wrote:

It’s a funny yarn so it passes quickly from person to person. And each one accidentally embellishes it a bit—jumping to the conclusion, for instance, that it happened to someone right here in this town.

That Bill Hall heard urban legends way out in Lewiston, Idaho, hardly a metropolis, proves how widespread these stories are nowadays. And his apt observation of how "jumping to conclusions" works in the stories proves that human psychology operates similarly on modern legends wherever they are told. The human impulse in Bill Hall’s example is to make the stories more personal and local; in my view, we should also note the impulse to formulate theories even on bad premises.

Folklorists call the process of story reinvention in oral tradition "communal re-creation," but describing it as simply passing stories along with an occasional teller jumping to the wrong conclusion will work just fine, too. You can easily imagine that’s what was going on in the invention and development of the following specimens.

"Miracle at Lourdes"

An Irish Catholic woman, because of poor health, traveled to France in order to visit the famous shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes. The spring water there is renowned for its miraculous healing powers.

The woman became very tired during the long wait at the grotto for the blessing of the sick to begin. And since there happened to be an empty wheelchair among the crowds of pilgrims, she sat down in it for a rest.

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As a priest finally approached to give the healing blessing, the woman stood up from the chair to meet him. And immediately when the people saw her rising, everybody started to claim that it was a miracle.

Crowds gathered around her, and they started to push and shove, wanting to touch her. In all this commotion, and with all the pushing and shoving, the woman fell and broke her leg. So the poor woman came home from Lourdes with a broken leg.

"The Brain Drain"

One scorching day a woman pulled into a parking spot at a supermarket and noticed that the woman in the next space was slumped rigidly over her steering wheel holding one hand up to the back of her head. She felt concerned for the other woman, but went on with her shopping. When she returned to her car with her groceries, the other woman was still sitting in the same position—hand up to the back of her head and bent over her steering wheel.

So the first woman tapped on the window and asked if the other woman needed any help. Was she feeling all right?

"Please call 911," she gasped, "I’ve been shot and I can feel my brains coming out!"

Then the first woman noticed a grey sticky substance oozing out between the other woman’s fingers, so she ran back into the store, phoned for help, and notified the store’s manager.

When the paramedics arrived they carefully pried the woman’s fingers from the back of her head, examined the injury, and checked the rest of the car. Then they started laughing. The paramedics explained that a canister of Pillsbury Poppin’ Fresh® biscuit dough on the top of her grocery bag in the back seat had exploded in the heat. The metal lid on the tube had struck the woman on the back of her head, and the top biscuit had shot out and stuck to her hair.

The sales receipt in the woman’s groceries showed that she had sat there for one and a half hours before anyone had stopped to offer help. The manager gave her a new can of biscuit dough.

This story became popular during the long, hot summer of 1995 and continued to circulate through the following year. A "joke" version developed on the Internet, beginning "Beware the Dough Boy. My friend Linda went to Arkansas last week to visit her in-laws. . . ." The comedian Brett Butler, among other media personalities, delighted in retelling "The Biscuit Bullet Story," sometimes as a supposedly true story. The "leaky brain" motif occurred in several old, traditional folktales, one of which may have mutated into the modern legend. I provide a complete history in The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story.

"The Solid Cement Cadillac"

A cement-truck driver cut through his own neighborhood one day while delivering a load of ready-mix, and he was surprised to see a new Cadillac convertible standing in his driveway. He parked his truck, sneaked up to the kitchen window, and spied his wife inside talking to a strange man.

Suspecting that his wife was cheating on him, the driver backed his truck up to the Caddy and dumped the full load of wet concrete into it. The Cadillac sank slowly to the pavement like the mother of all low riders.

That evening the man came home and found his wife hysterical, with the now-solid Cadillac being towed away. Through her tears she explained how that morning the dealer had delivered the new car that she was going to give her husband for his birthday. She had been scrimping and saving for years to buy him his dream car.

Technically, this legend should be titled "The Solid Concrete Cadillac," since cement is merely the grey powder that, when mixed with aggregate [sand and gravel] and water, hardens into concrete. But "cement" is the folk term for the finished product. This story has circulated in many communities for decades, sometimes claimed to have happened locally as long ago as the 1940s. In an alternate version, the car was won in a lottery. An authenticated instance of an actual concrete-filled car was reported in the Denver Post in August 1960, but the car was a DeSoto, and there was no jealousy motive involved. A 1970 article in Small World, a magazine for Volkswagen owners, claimed that a prototype of the legend, involving a garbage-truck driver emptying his load into a Stutz Bearcat, was told in the 1920s, but we have no concrete proof of when and where this story originated.

"The Package of Cookies"
Who’s Sharing What with Whom?

A woman was out shopping one day and decided to stop for a cup of coffee. She bought a little bag of cookies, put them into her purse, and then entered a coffee shop. All the tables were filled, except for one at which a man sat reading a newspaper. Seating herself in the opposite chair, she opened her purse, took out a magazine, and began reading.

After a while, she looked up and reached for a cookie, only to see the man across from her also taking a cookie. She glared at him; he just smiled at her, and she resumed her reading.

Moments later she reached for another cookie, just as the man also took one. Now feeling quite angry, she stared at the one remaining cookie—whereupon the man reached over, broke the cookie in half and offered her a piece. She grabbed it and stuffed it into her mouth as the man smiled at her again, rose, and left.

The woman was really steaming as she angrily opened her purse, her coffee break now ruined, and put her magazine away. And there she saw her own bag of cookies. All along she’d unknowingly been helping herself to the cookies belonging to the gracious man whose table she’d shared!

From The Pastor’s Story File, Number 1, November 1984, credited to a United Church of Christ minister from West Virginia who heard it from a missionary to Japan at a church conference. The chain of retellings, plus the certainty of other ministers adding the story to their repertoires, indicate one way that this popular legend has spread. Known in England since the early 1970s as "The Packet of Biscuits," the story has endless variations. Sometimes the shared food is a Snickers or a Kit Kat candy bar, and often there is considerable social distance between the participants: a punk rocker and a little old lady, for instance, or a pair of high- and low-ranking military officers. British science-fiction author Douglas Adams incorporated the story into his 1984 book So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Another version of the story provided the plot of The Lunch Date, an Oscar-winning short film of 1990, and the legend separately inspired Boeuf Bourgignon, an independent Dutch film first shown in Europe in 1988. Ann Landers published a letter containing a Canadian version of this story in her November 11, 1977, column. In the May 25, 1998, "Metropolitan Diary" feature in the New York Times a reader reported yet another "Package of Cookies" incident with the same old familiar details, but this time supposedly having happened to the reader’s aunt. Obviously, this is too good to be true, so to avoid embarrassing her, I am not repeating the name of the contributor.

"The Tube on the Tube"

A man working in a small office on an upper floor of a Manhattan skyscraper was exasperated one day when the lone fluorescent tube in his light fixture burned out. Rather than bothering the maintenance crew, who always gave him a hard time about fixing anything, he went out and bought a new tube and replaced the burned-out one himself.

Then he had the problem of disposing of the old tube: it was too long to leave in the wastebasket, and he didn’t want it there for the janitor to find. So he decided to carry the tube out of the building at quitting time and leave it in a Dumpster.

But he still had not found a Dumpster by the time he got to his subway station, so the man, holding the fluorescent tube upright—like a shepherd’s staff—hoping to disturb as few people as possible, boarded his homeward-bound car. As he rode, several other people got on, saw no open seats, and grabbed hold of the tube, believing it to be a pole in the subway car.

When the man reached his stop, several other hands were still gripping the tube, so he shrugged, released his own grip, and quietly left the car.

Although this is hardly a popular urban legend—I’ve heard it just a few times with little variation—it’s one of my favorite stories. My invented title fits London’s "tubes" better than New York City’s subways, but I have no evidence that it was ever told in England. In fact, several people told me they believe they read it in the "Life in These United States" section of Reader’s Digest. That’s no guarantee that the story has any truth to it, of course, and its details seem highly unlikely.

"The Surpriser Surprised"
Version #1: "Why I Fired My Secretary"

Two men sat at the club, and one said, "Say, how is that gorgeous secretary of yours?"

"Oh, I had to fire her."

"Fire her? How come?"

"Well, it all started a week ago last Thursday, on my 49th birthday. I was never so depressed."

"What has that got to do with it?"

"Well, I came down for breakfast and my wife never mentioned my birthday. A few minutes later, the kids came down and I was sure they would wish me a Happy Birthday, but not one word. As I say, I was most depressed, but when I arrived at the office, my secretary greeted me with ‘Happy Birthday,’ and I was glad someone remembered.

"At noon time she suggested that it was a beautiful day and that she would like to take me to lunch to a nice intimate place in the country. Well, it was nice and we enjoyed our lunch and a couple of martinis. On the way back, she said it was much too nice a day to return to the office, and she suggested that we go to her apartment where she would give me another martini. That also appealed to me, and after a drink and a cigarette, she asked to be excused while she went into the bedroom to change into something more comfortable.

"A few minutes later, the bedroom door opened and out came my secretary, my office staff, my wife and two kids, with a birthday cake, all singing ‘Happy Birthday.’

"And there I sat with nothing on but my socks."

Anonymous photocopies—Xeroxlore—of this classic spicy tale are sometimes headlined "The Boss" or "The 49th Birthday"; folklorists sometimes call it "The Nude Surprise Party." The story has been around since at least the 1920s. Ann Landers first printed a version sent to her by a reader in a 1976 column, and she liked the story well enough to reprint it twice more, in 1993 and 1996. Another version made the rounds in newspapers in 1982 via reprints of a Los Angeles Times business column reporting stories told at a local conference of realtors. In the March 1997 issue of Reader’s Digest yet another variation appeared, billed as a true story that happened to the former boss of a reader from San Diego.

Version #2: "The Engaged Couple"

A young couple, engaged to be married, had scheduled a premarital counseling session with a minister. But they failed to show up, so the next morning the minister called the bride-to-be’s home.

"She’s in the hospital," the young woman’s mother told the minister. "She would probably like to tell you herself why she didn’t make it to her session yesterday."

So the minister went to the hospital, and there he found the young woman in traction with a broken leg and collarbone. But, as she explained the situation, the accident had left her feeling more embarrassed than pained.

She said that her parents had been out of town for the weekend, and they asked her to house-sit. So she and her fiancé decided that this would be a perfect chance to "practice for their honeymoon." So as soon as her parents left, the couple set about practicing in her parents’ bedroom.

Not long afterward the phone rang. It was her mother, in a panic. She said she had left the iron on in the basement, and would they please turn it off?

The fiancé playfully picked her up and carried her to the top of the basement stairs. Both of them were still naked. When she switched on the lights, shouts of "Surprise! Surprise!" came from the basement. Her parents were standing at the bottom of the stairs, along with relatives, in-laws, and friends. It was a surprise wedding shower.

The shock was too much for the fiancé, and he dropped the girl and fled up the stairs and out of the house. She rolled down the stairs and lay there naked, while her family gaped. Her grandmother reached for her heart medicine. Everyone was too shocked even to cover the girl.

Sent to me in 1987 by a woman in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who heard it from her niece to whom it was told by a minister. The typical ending has the boy carrying the girl piggyback down the stairs; after the lights come on, usually it’s said that "The girl went crazy, and the boy left town." Among the shocked guests, often, is their minister, but this time he’s involved otherwise in the story. "Practicing for their honeymoon" is a euphemism unique to this telling. A discreet version was incorporated into an episode of Newhart in November 1982: Bob’s wife, wearing a filmy nighty, descends the stairs to their rendezvous beside the fireplace, and guests at the planned surprise party take flash photos of her shocked response when the lights come on. There’s a related legend of nudity involving a dog and peanut butter that has been very popular lately. You can find it in the introduction to Chapter 5, "Sexcapades."

Version #3: "The Fart in the Dark"

Once upon a time there lived a man who had a maddening passion for baked beans. He loved them, but they always had a very embarrassing and somewhat lively effect on him. Then, one day, he met a girl and fell in love. When it was apparent that they would marry, he thought to himself, "She is such a sweet and gentle girl, who will never go for this kind of carrying on." So he made the supreme sacrifice and gave up eating beans. They were married shortly thereafter.

Some months later his car broke down on the way home from work, and since they lived in the country he called his wife and told her that he would be a little late because he had to walk home. On his way, he passed a small cafe and the odor of freshly baked beans was overwhelming. Since he still had several miles to walk, he figured that he would work off the ill effects before he got home, so he stopped at the cafe. Before leaving he ate three large orders of baked beans.

All the way home he putt-putted, and after arriving he felt reasonably safe that he had putt-putted his last. His wife seemed somewhat agitated and excited to see him and she exclaimed delightedly, "Darling, I have the most wonderful surprise for dinner tonight." She then blindfolded him and led him to his chair at the head of the dining table. He seated himself and just as she was ready to remove the blindfold, the phone rang. She made him vow not to touch the blindfold until she returned, then went to answer the phone.

Seizing the opportunity, he shifted his weight to one leg and let go. It was not only loud, but ripe as rotten eggs. He took the napkin from his lap and vigorously fanned the air about him. Things had just returned to normal when he felt another urge coming on him, so he shifted his weight to the other leg and let go again. This was a true prize winner. While keeping his ear on the conversation in the hall, he went on like this for ten minutes until he knew the phone farewells indicated the end of his freedom. He placed his napkin on his lap and folded his hands on top of it, smiling contentedly to himself, and was the very picture of innocence when his wife returned, apologizing for taking so long.

She then asked him if he had peeked, and he, of course, assured her that he had not. At this point she removed the blindfold, and there was his surprise—twelve dinner guests seated around the table for his birthday dinner.

This version is another anonymous piece of Xeroxlore that elaborates on earlier earthy tellings with fairy tale–like language and structure. The legend gained some respectability from its inclusion in Carson McCullers’s 1940 book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. More recent versions of the story set the action in a darkened car with a double-dating couple seated in back who overhear the girl’s flatulence; the same variation inspired a short film shown in 1997, entitled The Date.

Copyright © 1999 by Jan Harold Bruvand

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