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Network of intrigues

Urban legends spread through the internet bring panic to the web

Hélio de AlmeidaThis is the truth and nothing but the truth, you’d better believe it: last weekend, a fellow was seduced and intoxicated by a stunning blonde bombshell in a nightclub and woke up in a bathtub full of ice in a hotel room; a message had been written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror to tell him to get a doctor immediately because one of his kidneys had been removed. A variation of this story is the one about the boy – “my cousin’s neighbor’s son” – who disappeared when he was buying a sandwich at a McDonald’s located inside a famous shopping mall in a city; the boy was found one week later, totally colorless. When his mother put him in the shower, she noticed a huge scar that had not healed yet. The mother took the boy to the hospital emergency ward, where the doctors discovered that traffickers had removed one of the boy’s kidneys.

Any regular internet user all over the world has certainly received at least one message of this kind, passed on by a friend or acquaintance, reporting on a bizarre or absurd case that makes us shiver. The objective of these incredible, albeit possible, stories on threats and conspiracies is almost always to create and disseminate fear and panic. One of the first and most famous messages of this kind told the story of a person who had been infected in a public place by someone who had stung him with a syringe – at the movies, on the bus, or the subway – etc. – and then got the following message: “Welcome to the world of HIV.” There are also dozens of stories on contaminated foods and soft drinks and swindles prepared by bandits to rob distracted people in big cities.

The paranoia that surfaced in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in relation to the U.S.’s interventionist policy led to a story – disseminated in Brazil – stating that US schools were teaching students in geography classes that the Amazon Region was a free international zone or that it belonged to the United States and not to Brazil. Another story swears that a video prepared by a US company ‘sells’ the idea that the Amazon Region is not part of any nation (Brazil) but of the world, and all those who feared that the jungle would disappear should join this group to have the right of ‘buying,’ or taking possession of, their lands.

All these stories, which have never been proven true, are normally referred to as urban legends, tales that were created centuries ago, especially in the oral form, and that seem to have found fertile ground on the internet to multiply and spread. There are so many of these urban legends that they attracted the attention of researcher Carlos Renato Lopes six years ago and drove him to write his doctoral thesis on this issue: “Lendas urbanas na internet: entre a ordem do discurso e o acontecimento enunciativo” [Urban legends on the web: from discussion to expression]. He says that long before poring over this topic, he noticed that some of these stories came and went and reappeared after a while, sometimes with slight changes or additional details. “I tried to become more familiar with this kind of text and noticed that the material was available only on the internet. I decided to submit my doctoral project on this issue by proposing a study from the point of view of discourse, i.e., the social practice of the use of language, which is affected by history and by ideology.” His intention was to study how stories are created and how they circulate within the discursive practices.

For 2 years, Lopes collected and analyzed approximately 12 thousand messages from the internet. If he were to define an urban legend as a narrative genre, with specific characteristics that distinguish them from other narratives, he would basically state, first, that an urban legend is an unusual or absurd report (oral or written) that involves some element of the daily life of the community/ies in which it circulates, the purpose of which is to be believed, not by the person telling the story but always by a third party with whom it would normally not be possible to check the information. “In their most common form, legends contain a warning or an appeal to prepare people in relation to possible threats, or possible damages, that such apparently banal elements could pose to our daily lives.”

The rise of such legends is linked to fears, worries, and recurrent anxieties that are at play at a given historical moment. “Indeed, outstanding events such as September 11, the advent of Aids, the arrival of new technologies, natural catastrophes such as the Katrina hurricane or the tsunami in Asia are all catalysts around which a massive number of unproven – and sometimes frankly fanciful – stories appear.” He adds that it is important to emphasize that the swift and extensive circulation of such stories at such times is directly related to the ‘vacuum’ left by a feeling of powerlessness, the lack of any understanding as to the causes and actual factors that affect these events, which opens up the space for all kinds of speculation and misinformation to proliferate.
In his conclusion, Lopes points out that urban legends are confused with other forms of narratives, both fiction and non-fiction (such as the so-called tabloid journalism), thereby weaving a symbolic interpretation of reality, particularly he adds, of the fears, anxieties and worries that typify contemporary urban societies. According to the researcher, these stories are woven within a dynamic discourse, and do not cling to closed texts, but are inserted in multifaceted practices, such as popular culture media products, bar conversations, and virtual chats, among other contexts.

Like so many other discourse genres of popular culture, the urban legends on the web deserve to be given a consideration that goes beyond the simple anecdotal element, as they transcend the insistent dichotomies between that which is true and that which is false, fact versus myth, placing all readers within a practical context ready for a social experience. “Thus, they are presented as a kind of mark, sign, or symptom which, through discourse, point to the desire of exorcising chance, of providing meaning to the vague and generalized perception of insecurity and lack of control over the ‘risks’ that we face in contemporary societies.”

Hélio de AlmeidaThe life span of an urban legend on the internet varies. Lopes believes that a story can ‘die’ quickly in the case of rumors whose untruthfulness can be easily verified, which is made easier by the immediate communication the web offers. Other stories remain in people’s minds for many years. A classic example of the latter is the legend of the blonde bombshell and the bathroom, which the researcher had already heard about when he was in elementary school in the early 1980’s. “I could hardly believe that the same story was still going around (in São Paulo and apparently in the entire country), even after twenty years, and it frightened children to the point that they were afraid of going to school bathrooms alone.”

The limit of the reach of an urban legend is the limit of belief, says Lopes. They last for as long as there are people who believe or are simply attracted by the enchantment of the stories, which, though always too absurd to be true, seem to survive mostly because of their fictional character. As Jan Harold Brunvand, a pioneer in this field and a researcher who disseminates the study of legends in the United States, cited by the Brazilian researcher, “nothing stands in the way of a story that’s too good and juicy to be true.”

In this respect, Lopes emphasizes, it would be interesting to mention how some of these stories reach people who browse on the web, having been translated literally from other languages, especially from English and French, which attests to their scope on a global level. One of these stories, he says, announced the death of fashion model Daniela Sarahyba’s father because he had drunk beer out of a can that had been contaminated by rat feces. “This is merely a local adaptation of a text with an identical content that had been initially published and circulated in France at least seven years ago.

There are people, says the researcher, that act like true detectives of the legends, whether to prove that the stories are false or to track their history and (try) to get to the original source. “In the discussion group that I analyzed, there were various such participants. In encyclopedias and collections that I consulted, I saw the effort to conduct careful research, well documented on the ‘primary sources’ of the stories.” However, the strangest thing, in his opinion, is that this kind of concern with the source hardly ever replaces the fictional appeal that lets these stories be re-told, re-visited, adapted and updated constantly and increasingly. “It is as if the real attraction of these legends were the fact that they are dealt with as narratives, as fictional (and at the same time, plausible) as any other stories. Perhaps this explains why they are suitable for inclusion in other popular forms of mass culture such as film, television series and comic strips.”

All of this takes place in line with the popular saying: whoever tells the story always adds something to it. This is how grammar corrections and additions of elements that bring more veracity happen. “This is perhaps the most outstanding characteristic of this kind of text. In fact, I tried to show this throughout the entire thesis: how legends, as texts, cannot be dissociated from this dynamic social practice, within which they are created and transmitted; therefore it is virtually impossible for these stories to be restricted to a single version, or to an unchanging plot.”