© Copyright 2000 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino
It started with a few e-mails from around the country. Then came a couple of phone calls. We mentioned it at one of our classes and nearly everyone nodded in recognition. When we received a forwarded e-mail from a major ministry leader with the cryptic message “Real warning or urban myth? Skeptical minds want to know,” we knew we had a candidate for “urban myth of the month.” There was only one small problem. Although it bore all the earmarks of an urban myth, we hadn’t actually checked it out. What if it were true? We couldn’t take responsibility for dismissing any story, no matter how improbable it seemed, without checking it out. After all, we encourage others to conduct responsible research, to question their presuppositions, and to go to the source. We needed to be just as responsible.
“Urban myth” is a term used to describe an apocryphal – and actually false – story that plays on a general assumption or feeling shared by many, usually of fear or distrust, and that usually claims to expose a public danger. Some address general population fears, such as the one about flashing your high beams being a gang signal that will result in your car being sprayed by automatic weapons fire. Some address the fears of a particular subgroup, like the one about atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair petitioning the FCC to ban Christian broadcasting. Others involve celebrities, such as the one about the tough-looking male star (Robert De Niro, Puff Daddy, etc.) and his Dobermans (Rottweilers, Shepherds, Pit Bulls, etc.) entering a posh hotel elevator in which are two timid old ladies who fail to recognize him. The star shouts, “Down!” and the two little old ladies dive for the floor and throw him their purses before they realize he is telling his dogs to sit. Urban myths usually skirt the edge of believability. At first they appear to be plausible and they usually come with some sort of official endorsement (the FCC, the local police department, the Washington Post, etc.). Only when one thinks carefully about the details or tries to verify the story does it fall apart. For example, there is the story brought to one of our classes by an agnostic about why Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC. Supposedly, the chicken giant had developed a more efficient way of growing and harvesting chicken meat by genetically engineering its chickens to be born without heads so that the bodies could be hooked up directly to mechanical tubes, sensors, and power supplies to automatically feed them the optimum diet in the smallest amount of space. Of course, the FDA realized that headless chickens were no chickens at all and so ordered Kentucky Fried Chicken to eliminate the word “chicken” from its name. But wait a minute – Isn’t a headless chicken still a chicken? And how could it be more cost effective to raise techno-chickens dependent on complex machinery than normal chickens dependent on feed? And why do the menu items and television ads still use the word “chicken”? And why in the world didn’t the FDA object to KFC advertising “chicken fingers”? (In fact, the name change was a marketing decision in part designed to divert attention from “fried” food.)
The myth with which we were currently concerned allegedly came from “Captain Abraham Sands of the Jacksonville, Florida Police Department.” Supposedly he was asked by “state and local authorities” to make a public email concerning a “dangerous prank” that “is occurring in numerous states.” “Some person or persons have been affixing hypodermic needles to the underside of gas pump handles. These needles appear to be infected with HIV positive blood. In the Jacksonville area alone there have been 17 cases of people being stuck by these needles over the past five months.” The rest of the email gives other details and suggestions about reporting any incidents you encounter. It closes with the name, title, phone number and email address of State Bar official.
Why did we immediately suspect that the hypodermic/gas pump handle report was an urban myth? It bore a number of features that are commonly (but not exclusively) found in urban myths. First, it makes its initial appearance as a personal referral (via email or conversation) rather than in a mainstream public news source (such as ABC World News Tonight). Second, there is no referral to a mainstream news source for documentation. Third, while the e-mail purported to originate with a named police officer at a named department, no contact information is given about him. Fourth, the style of the message is inconsistent, some of it reading like a police report, some of it sounding like an article in the supermarket tabloid Weekly World News. Fifth, it depends on the vigilance of the individual gasoline consumer to discover the tampered handles rather than on public safety personnel or oil company staff. Sixth, while it gives specific numbers of individuals pricked and infected, it does not identify the source of the statistic and does not list the states in which the problem occurred. Seventh, there is no information on how the HIV virus can survive in an active form for an extended period of time outside a biological host. Eighth, “Captain Sands” gives blanket authorization for anyone receiving the email to pass it on to all of their email correspondents. Ninth, the danger is universal and involves a situation in which nearly everyone finds himself or herself on a regular basis (pumping gas). Tenth, the danger (HIV infection) has high media visibility, low public education levels, and high public fear. These are just some of the reasons that initially caused us to doubt the story.
It didn’t take long for us to check the story out. We asked directory assistance for the Jacksonville police department and discovered that both the police and the sheriff’s departments are united into one force. We contacted both the community affairs office and Harry Reagan, the public information officer (904.630.2120). There is no employee of the Jacksonville force named “Abraham Sands.” The report did not originate with them, is actually an evolved form of an urban legend that first appeared three or four years ago, and has absolutely no law enforcement substantiation. In other words, they are unaware of a single verified case anywhere in the nation. The urban legend was exposed by the Jacksonville Times Union. We also checked news archives via the Internet (Lexus and other sites) and were unable to find a single verified case, although we found a couple of other versions of the story reported as urban legends. Finally, we contacted the state bar official listed at the bottom of the e-mail. Tobia E. Cuney (919.828.4620, x 227) was frustrated. He had nothing to do with the story, had not sent it to anyone, had no idea where it had come from, and had never heard of any actual incident such as that. Conclusively, this story is an urban legend and has no basis in fact.
Aside from cluttering our email boxes and wasting paper, are there any other ramifications from such “harmless” scare stories? Yes. First, Christians serve the God of truth (Is. 65:16) and the One who claimed to be the truth (John 14:6). We should never be party to perpetuating falsehoods. Second, people are needlessly scared and their daily lives are impacted by false stories. Third, as the community affairs office explained, until it was discovered that the Jacksonville force did not start the story, the integrity and professionalism of the office was compromised and the community’s confidence in the force was diminished. Fourth, those who are especially vulnerable or fearful, such as the elderly, must be treated with care and extended time by law enforcers whose time should otherwise be occupied by crime fighting and public safety issues. Fifth, the drain on law enforcement time becomes considerable when stories like this cross the country and are repeated by thousands or millions of unsuspecting people. (The community affairs representative said she alone had fielded more than 300 calls regarding this story.)
There are thousands of urban legends circulating on the Internet and by word of mouth. As Christians we are commanded to “test all things” (1 Thess. 5:21-22). We cannot afford to associate with false stories that discredit our trustworthiness as bearers of the truth of the gospel found in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Be a good researcher and critical thinker. Don’t fall for urban legends.