Have you come across the story of the tourist who smuggled a stray dog back from Hong Kong (or it might have been Buenos Aires, or Addis Ababa), and left it in her flat? When she came back that evening, she found the dog foaming at the mouth and her cat nowhere to be found. When the vet was called, he told her three things. One, there was nothing wrong with her dog. Two, her dog had eaten her cat. Three – her dog wasn’t a dog: it was a huge sewer rat from the Far East... or South America... or North Africa.
You’re sure the story is true. It must be. It happened to someone you know – or at least it happened to a friend of someone you know... or a friend of a friend of someone you know. But you’ve never been told the name of the tourist. Or the vet. Or the friend to whom she told the story. I first heard that story when I was a child; I’ve been told it many times since. It’s odd. Each time I’ve heard it, the details have varied. But the heart of the story is always the same.
How about the story of the United States (or was it UK?) warship that found itself on a collision course with another vessel? The captain of the warship demanded that the other vessel change course, and issued more and more explicit threats if it failed to do so. To which the unidentified vessel finally replied, ‘This is a lighthouse. Your call.’
Again, I’ve been told that story many times and each time I’ve been assured that it’s true. Okay, no one’s ever been able to tell me the name of the warship or its captain. I’ve never managed to find out exactly where this is supposed to have happened or when. Some of the details are different each time it’s told. But the person who’s told me knows that the story is well documented and to be trusted.
These are urban myths. Stories passed on from one person to another by word of mouth, or these days via the internet; reported as true, but with little or no information about their sources, and no evidence at all that the events described ever happened. I’ve given you two, but there are countless others in circulation. People enjoy hearing such urban myths and they enjoy repeating them. Some of the stories are funny, some are frightening, most depend for their effect on a startling punchline.