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Saturday August 2, 2008

Telling a tall tale from truth

There are hundreds of bizarre stories floating around. But can you tell truth from fiction?

If you want to cause a sensation, wander into a coffeeshop with a durian and announce you’re in the mood for a few stiff vodkas.

“Whhaa! You crazy woman, don’t you know any better?” an uncle shouts out. “You eat durian and then drink, and your stomach will explode!”

Are you in for a nuclear explosion if you mix beer with durian? —AP and LEW YONG KAN/ The Star

Act unconvinced, and everyone else will pile in with similar horror stories. Funny thing is, nobody actually knows anyone it’s happened to. And there’s never been a mention of an exploding stomach in the press during durian season.

Say hello to the urban legend, an animal defined by the New Oxford University Dictionary of English as: an entertaining story or piece of information circulated as though true, especially one purporting to involve someone vaguely related or known to the teller.

Modern folklore or urban legends are everywhere, but with the help of the Forward button, the e-mail remains a rich resource.

Last month, there was a message warning everyone of a huge python in a national park that had eaten a camper. Apparently, the government was keeping it out of the regular channels so that this incident wouldn’t kill the tourism industry. But pictures of a dead body inside the reptile are circulating nevertheless.

Also doing the rounds is the news that there’s a mix of the sterilisation pill Progesterex and date rape drug Rohypnol being used by crooks at parties to rape AND sterilise their victims.

Plus, it’s now lethal to flash your car lights at someone as a message that they’ve forgotten to switch on their driving lights. This is because prospective new gangsters “make their bones” by going about and killing the first person who flashes their lights at them.

These fantastic stories have great appeal and there are plenty of people who believe in the exploding tummy, ravenous python, sterilisation pill and weird gangster games. However, every one of these tales is completely false.

If you look through the hundreds of urban legends that circulate, you’ll find a few that have a grain of truth, but the vast majority are entirely made-up. Curiously, urban myths remain compelling. Funny stories often die out for years before being resurrected but the horror tales have an apparently unlimited shelf life.

“The most powerful tap into fears that already exist and exploit that fear,” Pang Khee Teik, arts programme director of The Annexe, Central Market, muses.

“Fear of others, fear of the unknown, and fear of death are at the root of classic story plots everywhere.”

There’s even a myth about halloween candy concealing razor blades. — Filepic

Folklorist Maria Tatar echoes the opinion in The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales but warns, “This is not to say that folktales and folklore function as repositories of a Jungian collective unconsciousness. Rather, they capture psychic realities so persistent and widespread that they hold the attention of a community over a long time.”

Classic tales feature wolves, snakes and stepmothers as the symbols of evil; today it is the mega corporation and the good-looking stranger you’re giving a lift too.

The symbols change but the essential stories remain the same. Even so, we recognise Cinderella stories as parables from a mile off but the modern versions can be beguiling.

Mythical beginnings

Nobody knows how urban legends start. “Some are updates of older traditional legends,” American folklorist and author of The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Dr Jan Brunvand notes on his site.

“Some were probably made up by individuals, and some may even have sprung from an actual incident. Many of them, I believe, just evolved as people talked about some of their concerns and mixed bits of fantasy with real incidents.

“I also think the ‘what if?’ principle played a part, as in ‘What if someone put a small animal into a microwave oven?’ or ‘What if someone’s grandmother died while a family was driving somewhere on vacation?’ To attempt to determine origins of an urban legend, one has to study a particular legend in depth and detail. But you still may not be able to figure it out.”

Folklorists and other academics who study urban legends look into the origins of the tales but they are more interested in what they tell us about ourselves and the society we live in.

Of particular interest are the urban myths that have a moral element. Typically these result in someone being punished for “bad” behaviour.

The classic of this type is the man who goes out of town on a business trip, picks up a hooker, and wakes up in a bath full of ice, having lost a kidney to transplant thieves. The other is the party- goer who gets drunk, has unprotected sex and wakes up to a message scrawled in lipstick on the mirror: welcome to the world of AIDS.

Such urban legends can be a lot of fun if you take them the same way as you would a horror movie. The 1998 Urban Legend film was so successful that it inspired two sequels. Also, these modern tales of horror can also give useful warnings: it’s dangerous to put yourself in a compromising position with a stranger — with or without a condom.

But some urban legends do harm in that they aim to create genuine fear. Stories like the Progesterex hoax aim at making women too afraid to go out. Tales like the gang initiation myth may foster a climate where we are too afraid to give strangers the heads-up on a possibly dangerous situation.

There are also stories spread to discredit particular companies or institutions. Worse are tales of needles dipped in HIV-positive blood lying about here and there, planted deliberately by terrorists/racial supremacists/particular racial groups/angry AIDS victims that seek to incite hatred against particular groups.

“There are folks that believe in whatever they read,” Pang points out. “I would say this is due to a lack of access to information and the fact that the focus on rational thinking is missing in our education system.”

In addition, there is so much information about that it can be hard to tell truth from fiction. Anyone can be caught out at any time. A classic case is that of US newspapers and police warning parents and kids each year at Halloween not to accept apples and sweets from strangers without checking for hidden razor blades. However, as writer Tom Harris notes in How Urban Legends Work, there are no documented cases of contamination of Halloween candy!

So when you hear of a shop chain that refuses entry to a particular race, of certain foods that are contaminated in some way, or some other outrageous piece of news, take a quick look at the urban legend debunking resources below before you decide if it’s worth a giggle or an outraged letter to the editor.

Top three local myths

#1 Drinking alcohol after eating durian will make your stomach explode.

False. Dr Alan The of palmdoc.net and medicine.com.my notes, “As far as I know, as long as you ingest them in moderation, the durian-alcohol combination is physiologically not possible to cause death.”

Timothy Tiah, co-founder of Nuffnang online advertising and keen blogger, got together with a group of mates and tested the matter thoroughly on July 4. Check out the durian and beer pictures on his blog at timothytiah.blogspot.com. Not an exploding tummy in sight.

#2 A foreign worker fell into a large syrup tank in a drink factory and drowned. Because nobody realised he was missing, they didn’t find the body till a week later. By then the body had decomposed and millions of bottles had already been shipped.

False. A beer version of this circulated in the US in the 1960s. Updated versions cover soft drink, fruit juice, tinned good and other factory food and beverages. While this story is basically untrue, Snopes.com notes that four-year-old Kali Poulton’s body was hidden in the Northern Telecommunications building water tank in Rochester, US from 1994 to 1996. Yikes!

#3 Malaysian cats are born with straight tails but people deliberately break them when they are kittens so they grow up with bendy tails.

False. Curly tails, short tails and other peculiar looking tails are the result of genetic heritage. Purebred Manx cats, American Ringtails and Japanese Bobtails all have short or hooked tails.

The original wild Siamese and Thai cats from this region inherit genes that cause kinky tails too. Modern breeders have opted to breed out the characteristic but the wild varieties still sport their original charming curves and hooks.

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