WiredWomen: Debunking Urban Legends


Nov. 7, 2001 -- Ironing your mail will kill the anthrax spores.*

Seven women have died from sniffing perfume samples they received in the mail.

And 4,000 Israelis didn't go to work at the World Trade Center Sept. 11 because they'd been warned in advance of the impending attack.

Believe this stuff, and I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. You and the tens of thousands of other Internet aficionados who can't keep your fingers off that "forward" button when you get yet another too-good-to-be-true tale delivered to your inboxes.

The stories are as creative as they are — OK, let's be honest about it — stupid. Osama bin Laden owns Snapple. Daisy the golden retriever rescued more than 900 people from the crumbling World Trade Towers. An Afghan man — who disappeared on Sept. 9 — warned his girlfriend not to go to the mall on Halloween.

But it's all true. Really. I'm not kidding.

Pass it on.

Spotting the Fakes

Sooner or later, somebody always passes it on to Barbara Mikkelson. She and her husband, David Mikkelson, are the Web's best-recognized debunkers of urban legends great and small. Owners of The Urban Legends Reference Pages, the couple spends most of its waking hours tracking down the truth — about Snapple, about Daisy, about all of those stories we'd love to believe. But shouldn't.

Traffic to the site — www.snopes.com — has increased tenfold since Sept. 11 — up to 2.5 million page hits a day. And Mikkelson is getting e-mails from people all over the world who want to know whether what they've heard, read, or seen is true.

Most of the time, it isn't.

Take, for example, the three biggest legends to come out of Sept. 11: Nostradamus, the Accidental Tourist, and Mall-o-ween.

Nostradamus is the 14th-century astrologer who is supposed to have predicted that World War III would begin with the fall of "two brothers," a reference to the World Trade Center towers. Problem is, the verse was written not by Nostradamus in 1654 (Nostradamus actually died in 1566, but let's not get distracted by details); it was authored by a student at Canada's Brock University in 1997. Neil Marshall offered the quatrain as an example of how a prophecy written in sweeping but vague language could be used to "predict" all sorts of events — including, as it turns out, the terror of Sept. 11.

Then there was the accidental tourist — the picture of the guy standing on the observation deck of the World Trade Center just as the plane was about to hit. The time of day is wrong, the type of plane is wrong, the season of the year is wrong. But the image made its way around the world, and back again.

"The photo provokes sensations of horror in those who view it," explains the Urban Legends site. "It apparently captures the last fraction of a second of this man's life ... and also of the final moment of normalcy before the universe changed for all of us."

The image was such an Internet hit that it spawned an iconic genre all its own: www.touristguy.com is just one of the sites that serves up images of the accidental tourist throughout history: he's in Lincoln's box at the Ford Theater, in Kennedy's convertible in Dallas, and on the deck of the Titanic as it pulls out of port.

"Healing takes place in many fashions, and the Accidental Tourist has … become part of that healing process," says the site.

But the biggest Internet hit of all was the Mall-o-Ween story, says Mikkelson. That's the one about the woman whose Afghan boyfriend warns her to stay away from the shopping mall on Halloween.

"That story spoke directly to our deep-seated fear that terrorism isn't a thing of the past, it's a problem of the future," says Mikkelson. "It reflected the average person's need to feel some control: terrorism can happen anywhere at any time, but all I have to do is avoid the mall on Halloween and I'll be safe."

Fighting Back One Click at a Time

Urban legends serve a cultural purpose, she says. "These stories let us come to terms with our fears by putting them into words. And it's a way of getting a reality check from the people around you: it's like saying 'I'm frightened by these events, do you feel that way, too?'"

Passing along what looks like important information gives the senders a sense of purpose, a way to fight back, Mikkelson says. "You're doing what you can to combat terrorists, you pass along this information and it can save lives."

Despite those altruistic motivations, Mikkelson says, we should fight temptation. "Don't forward things," she says. "Instead of hitting that forward button, sit on your hands."

OK, we can do that.

But in the meantime, did you know that zapping your mail in your microwave will kill the anthrax spores? Really.* A friend of mine knows a guy who works at the CIA and that's what they're doing to all of their mail. I'm not kidding.

Pass it on.

*Ironing your mail won't really kill anthrax. It's just another urban legend. And microwaving your mail not only won't kill anthrax; it can start a fire.

A teacher and a journalist, Dianne Lynch is the author of Virtual Ethics. Wired Women is back from a brief hiatus..

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