Can someone invent a legend that sounds geniune and then later hear the story being repeated in variations?
Folklorists' stock answer is "no," because legends like other folk tales usually develop from collective efforts. Countless people retell a story, each unconsciously adding or changing details until it acquires a life of its own in oral tradition.Everybody telling legends is part of this composing process that scholars call "communal re-creation."
Still, John W. Cork of Los Angeles thought he'd try to start an urban legend. Recently he sent me his creation, "The Psychic Videotape":
"A young married couple who had just moved to (insert city name), rents the movie 'Always' at (insert name), a local video store. After the credits roll at the end of the film and the screen turns to snow, they are startled to see the ghostly image of Richard Dreyfuss, star of the film.
"He says 'Call your mom!' and disappears.
"Neither of the viewers call their mother , but the next morning the wife gets a call from her brother. He tells her that Mom died in her sleep last night.
"All the tapes of 'Always' at the video store were checked for the image, but none had it. 'Always' has become the hottest rental at that store since the story got out, but so far Richard Dreyfuss' ghostly image has yet to warn another viewer."
Reading Cork's story I thought, hmm, not bad. He cleverly grafted the traditional motif of a spiritual death warning onto a technological theme.
"The Psychic Videotape" legend could fit any big city or video rental store. The story could also be interpreted -- in typical urban-legend fashion -- as a ploy to promote tape rentals.
Incidentally, Cork concluded his letter saying, "I am NOT in the video rental business."
As far as I know, this invented legend has not caught on. But a similar story about a ghostly image on a videotape is running rampant in my home state of Utah, and it seems to be well known elsewhere too.
Chris Hicks, film critic for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City dubbed the strange story "Three Men and a Spectral Vision." Every film commentator in the region, he wrote, "has been inundated with calls about it."
Shortly after I spoke to Hicks about it, a television newscaster in Las Vegas called about the same story, saying it was circulating on computer nets.
It turns out that in the film "Three Men and a Baby" you can make out the figure of what appears to be a young boy standing near a window in the background of a scene involving Ted Danson and Celest Holm, who plays his mother.
The boy seems to be wearing jeans and a T-shirt and staring stiffly ahead, partly obscured by sheer curtains. The main characters ignore the boy, and he never appears anywhere else in the film.
This oddity is explained, according to the story people tell, by the notion that a New York apartment was leased by filmmakers from a couple who moved out after their son committed suicide there. When the couple saw the film, they supposedly recognized their son wearing the same clothes he had died in.
Several variations help validate this story as a genuine legend: Some say the son was murdered, or that the couple has appeared on a national TV program discussing the case, or that those who filmed the scene never saw the boy, or that the boy is visible on video cassettes but not at theaters.
The story is easily debunked. As Chris Hicks (and Don Porter of the Ogden, Utah Standard-Examiner) reported, the apartment scenes in the movie were filmed on a sound stage in Toronto.
There was no actual New York apartment, no dead son and no bereft parents. But there definately is an unexplained human figure visible in the scene.
In a follow-up column Chris Hicks offered his own most likely explanation for the mystery person in the background.
Maybe you should rent the "Three Men and a Baby" video, find the scene, and then invent your own legend to explain the mystery.
(No, it's not a studio publicity stunt, and no, I don't have any connection to the video rental business.)