Do you know what really annoys me? Apart from chavs, idiots on the night bus, engineering works on the London Underground, people who can’t use a ticket barrier, over-attentive shop assistants and Slough, that is? Urban legends.
Well, no, that’s not entirely true. I love urban legends. A good ghost story or conspiracy theory is generally pretty entertaining, even if it is utter hogwash. There’s a specific type of urban legend that really does make me facepalm in frustration and mutter “Christ almighty.” The type in question might broadly be defined as the “scare rumour.”
I came across an example of this on Facebook on Sunday. One of my friends, who shall remain unnamed and also doesn’t read this blog, had this as her status:
WARNING TO PEOPLE OF SOUTH LONDON…tip off by south london police…two major dog fights are being arranged…small dogs and cats are being stolen for blood baiting…please warn all areas
Terrible, right? I mean, it’s hard enough to get meat on a budget without some bastard stealing the dogs and cats. I’m not going back to fox, that’s for sure.
But if you’re remotely analytical, you’ll have spotted a few problems with this apparently well-intentioned warning. Notably, it’s very vague. “Tip-off from South London police.” Which police? Any names? Where in South London? I live in Colliers Wood, I’m often abroad in other parts of London that may be called “South” (and god damn I do not want to hear yet another person whining about where South London begins and ends, there’s an S in my postcode and that’s good enough for me), yet I have never heard about this. Maybe it’s only taking place in some part of South London that I don’t visit very often – but in that case PC Nameless is being unnecessarily vague.
Let’s do a bit more research. Let’s Google “South London dogfights.” Nothing. Well, nothing relevant, unless you count an advert on Gumtree. Given that Gumtree has been known to advertise apartments in Mayfair for £100 a week from non-existent estate agents, I think we can safely discount them as a reliable source.
So, a policeman or the police in general have given out a tip-off. Presumably they want people to know about these dogfights. Yet they have not gone to the press about them. Now, do not tell me the local press wouldn’t be interested in a story about cute widdle pussy-cats and puppy-dogs being kidnapped by nasty men, they’d leap on a story like that. It’d fill people up with righteous fury, sell loads of papers.
Taking that line of questioning further, how do the police know these dogfights are happening? There’s been no news of any recent busts, any caches of dogs and cats, any people running to the police in horror to say what they saw. All we have is that dogs and cats are being kidnapped. How do we know that they’re being kidnapped, as opposed to merely going missing in that way that pets are wont to do? Have a larger number of small animals than usual gone missing?
Now, I responded to said friend’s status by pointing out that it sounded like an urban legend. And Oh My God you should have seen the uproar. Now, yes, I can understand the desire to defend your friend’s honour (whatever that is), but the apparent wish for this rumour to be true verged on the disturbing. One chap kept posting links, none less than two years old, saying that dogs had been kidnapped at some point in time and space, that dogfights happened at some point in time and space, that dogfighters might use small dogs and kittens for bait and that one time a dog had gone missing in South London. Another pointed out that, no, I could be wrong, because sometimes these things happen and they don’t get reported (presumably the police are hiring psychics these days).
Notably lacking was any evidence that linked all these factors together to give us the terror mishmash of the above warning. For the sake of sating this morbid desire, I have posted a picture of a kitten being mauled below.
But in all seriousness, why do people come up with rumours like this? I can understand those public information films that scare the living crap out of you to warn you of a particular danger, and even those commercials that do so in order to sell you something. But how does it benefit a person to come up with a scare story such as this? These rumours won’t net them any glory or credit, for the most part the inventor won’t even see people getting freaked out by them.
Anyway, here is my simple guide to tell whether a story is true or an urban legend:
1. Is there a reliable source?
I don’t want to diss your friends, but unless they work for some sort of journalistic organisation (as it happens, several of mine do), they might not be best-placed for all the facts. So if you hear some remarkable story, check it out for yourself. If there’s some sort of terrible ongoing crimewave, it seems unlikely that it would be known to everyone except the news.
Every crime has a victim (except murder, in which the victim is dead). Are there names for these victims? Or for any party involved? Are there dates and times? Where did it happen? If the warning came from the police, the police where? Vague and missing details make for an unverifiable story, which makes me stroke my beard suspiciously.
3. Has this happened before?
There are such things as copycat crimes, but it makes me twirl my moustache quizzically when I hear a rumour of something dreadful, only to hear that the exact same story has played out somewhere else, a few years ago, and similarly not made the news. In the case of email forwards, the story might even have the exact same wording. It’s my experience that when you point this out to people, they say “Well, yes, it was fake there, but this time it really did happen!”
I’ve met people from three different universities who are adamant that the story about the student killing themselves with a couple of pencils up their nose definitely happened in an exam at their uni. The truth is, of course, that it happened at the uni that I went to.
Holy craps, Tom, there are no reliable sources, no names and it’s happened fifteen times before!
Then, my friend, you most likely have an urban legend. Glad I could help you with your problem there. Anyway, I’ve got to run, I hear there are dwarf pirates terrorising the canals of Brentford. I heard it from a friend of mine, who got it from an email.
Inevitably, a link to Snopes. If you hear a stupid rumour, it’s probably on here.