Myths and tricks of the mind: urban legends

Jillian Ballard

Do you happen to look through the window in your back seat before you get in to make sure no one’s there? What about not warning someone if their lights are off by flashing your high beams for fear of a gang initiation? How many people will stand in front of a mirror and recite “Bloody Mary,” three times?

If you follow these rules of thumb, it’s because of stories that you’ve heard growing up. Not only are they stories, but they are urban legends. An urban legend starts as a rumor but escalates into stories to keep young people scared and behaved.

“Younger people test the boundaries of reality,” said Sabina Magliocco, a CSUN anthropology professor who specializes in folklore and urban legends.

“Urban legends ask the question could that happen and is that real?” Magliocco said.

There are sometimes ghosts associated with the urban legends, such as the infamous gravity hill. According to Magliocco, ghosts are localized to a particular area.

“There is a legend about a bus full of school children that was hit on a railroad track. According to legend, if (you) put a thin layer of baby powder on your back window, put your car in neutral, and flash your lights three times, then the children from the accident will push your car over the railroad tracks,” Magliocco said. “The hand prints of the children will be on the back window where the baby powder was spread.”

Urban legends change over time depending on who tells the story. There is a gravity hill in Moorpark, near California State Route 23. Snopes.com, a Web site dedicated to finding out information that may be real or true, claims that the legend says in the 1940s a school bus broke down at the bottom of a hill. The children got out of the bus to help push it back up the hill. While the students were pushing the bus, a tractor from a nearby farm accidentally ran over some of the children, killing them. Today, if you put your car in neutral at the bottom of the hill, the ghosts of the children will push you up the hill.

Snopes lists areas of gravity hills all over the world. A gravity hill, according to snopes, is a place where the layout of the surrounding land produces the optical illusion that a very slight downhill slope appears to be an uphill slope. The car left out of gear will appear to be rolling uphill.

Whether you believe in actual gravity hills or not, people (usually under the influence) go to these places late at night around Halloween.

“I remember going to gravity hill (in Moorpark) when I was in high school,” said Jennifer Guerrero, senior health sciences major. “I swear, the car moved up the hill! I was so scared!”

Guerrero said she hasn’t been back to gravity hill and that she would never go back there again.

Many urban legends are told generation after generation to teach younger people morals.

As children, your parents might have told you not to mix Pop Rocks with a can a soda, to keep you from having too much sugar and bouncing off the wall.

A promiscuous college student who gets murdered in her dorm room, but her roommate does not know because she thinks the roommate was having sex. In the morning she realizes that her roommate was killed and a message was written on the wall in her blood: “Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the lights?”

Another urban legend (the one pictured on this page) involves a woman who was killed in a car accident who now spends her time hitchhiking and asking drivers for rides. Those who do not help her are in for a bad surprise of their own, according to some tellings of this urban legend.

A 1998 movie, “Urban Legend,” was about a serial killer bringing to life the urban legends of a college in the Northeast.

Scenes from the movie discuss many of these urban legends. Although the film included a murderer, real urban legends usually don’t.

The most famous urban legend is the one where a college student goes out to a party or club (depending on where you heard it) and meets a guy/girl. The next thing they know is that they wake up to a phone ringing, and they are in a bathtub full of ice water and their liver or kidney has been removed. On the other line is the person who took their liver or kidney telling them not to move and to call 911. The moral of the story is to watch your alcoholic drink while out at Halloween parties or night clubs.

Don’t flash your lights at another car if their lights are off. Legend says that if you warn someone to turn on their lights they will turn around, follow your car and kill you. This legend started as a gang initiation where members were told to go around with their lights off and when a courtesy person tries to warn them they have to kill them. In the Northeast people flash their lights to warn people on the opposite side, that a police officer is up ahead with a radar gun checking speed.

Urban legends vary from place to place. Some urban legends have survived for a long time, evolving slightly over time.

“The mass media helps keep these legends in circulation,” Magliocco said. “Urban legends always involve some type of ritual.”

It is important to know that an urban legend can rarely be traced to its origin because of the many changes that the story goes through.