Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Myth America

By Shelly Ridenour

AUGUST 23, 1999: 

Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand, (W.W. Norton & Co.) $29.95, 480 pages

For all the technological advances provided by the development of the Internet, all the ways it's made life easier and faster and more comfortable, all the ways it's improved business and commerce and communication, it still boils down to one lousy fact: the Internet has done nothing if not increased the speed and volume at which urban legends travel.

How many times have you received the e-mail warning about kidney harvesters? The Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe? The request to send business/get-well cards to 7-/14-year-old cancer victim Craig Shirgold/Shergold/Shargold of England/Atlanta/British Columbia/New Hampshire, whose last wish is to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records?

It almost makes you wonder how we spread them before—ah, yes, I recall the junior high days when cafeteria table chat centered on the gerbil pulled from Richard Gere's ass, the semen pumped from Rod Stewart's stomach, the cucumber/candle/Coke bottle extracted from a local newscaster's rectum and, inevitably, someone's neighbor's mom (aka, FOAF—friend of a friend) was working in the emergency room when it happened. Jan Harold Brunvand, who writes a syndicated column about urban legends, has been retracing the paths of such tall tales for nearly twenty years, compiling interviews, articles and those ubiquitous e-mails, and working to debunk the myths by contacting police departments and hospitals—who invariably have no record of such events, but have certainly heard about them.

It's his relentless research that makes "Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends" such a fun read—accounts of each myth are followed by a short summary of Brunvand's research on the matter, tracking it down to the time it started circulating, where it was most popular, how it spread, etc. All the classics are here, from the babysitter receiving menacing calls from the killer upstairs to the Kentucky Fried Rat to the drug-addled mom who mixed up her baby and turkey dinner and popped the kid in the oven. Often, though, you're left wanting more details and more drama. As the accounts are quoted directly from oral interviews, letters or articles, they're sometimes too brief and lacking the power of verbal and facial expression that might push them over the edge (save some of those savvy e-mail tales). It made me long for the way my dad told the tale of the vanishing hitchhiker (I believe you native Chicagoans call her "Resurrection Mary"?), or the way my second-grade crush convinced me LIFE cereal's Mikey had died from a lethal combination of soda and Pop Rocks.

Also missing is a helpful index—with nearly 500 pages and 200+ stories, it's not like you can just whip out the one about the ghost kid in "Three Men and a Baby" and prove someone wrong. What's not missing, though, is content, or surprises (until reading otherwise, I really did believe the college myth that students are expected to wait a specified number of minutes for a late instructor, depending on his/her rank).

So have you heard the one about the tanning-bed-cum-organ-broiler? I'd like to tell you about it, but I want to read this e-mail I just got about the dastardly new hard-drive killer, the Gullibility Virus.

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