Urban legend references have been turning up in all kinds of unexpected places lately. For instance, take this notice of a performance that took place on March 4, at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C.:
" `Monday Night at The National.' WordStage Readers' Theatre presents `Urban Legends,' American tales passed on by word of mouth and adapted by Jim Hickey from the books in Jan Brunvand's collection of American modern stories. Included among others are `The Mouse in the Soda Bottle,' `Alligators in the Sewers' and `Kentucky Fried Rat.' "Hickey sent me a program for the event and commented, "There's currently a Neil Simon play running at The National. The way I see it, he's taking a night off and you and I are filling in."
Then there's this item from a letter written to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, published March 3 and sent to me by Anna Scotti with the comment, "Sounds like an urban legend to me":
"Who has forgotten the times when paint splashed on canvas by anonymous chimpanzees was given awards at art shows by the know-it-all critics?"
I've been hearing this one for years, but I have yet to verify that it actually happened. I'll bet that those critics' "awards" are strictly legendary.
Exhibit No. 3: In early February the syndicated comic strip "Suburban Cowgirls" showed a group of young girls telling stories at a slumber party. One girl said, "Then there was a strange scratching noise at the car door. It was the sound of a metal hook on the hand of an escaped psycho killer. The evil hook man."
In the third panel a girl's mom walks in holding a metal coat hanger, and the kids run away screaming. The last frame has Mom, who's wearing a "Mommy Dearest" T-shirt, saying with a puzzled expression, "Maybe they thought I was Joan Crawford."
When I went to file that strip under the legend called "The Hook," I found that the comic strip "Arlo and Janis" had quoted the same urban legend last October. This time the scene was a campfire, and in the last panel it's the mother rather than the child who is terrified by the story.
A real-life horror story involving an urban legend appeared recently during a murder trial in Cincinnati, where a man was accused of killing a prostitute and burning her body. He claimed as part of his defense that after having sex with him the woman revealed that she had AIDS by quoting the punchline of a common legend: "Welcome to the world of AIDS."
As the Cincinnati Post reported on Jan. 30, the man was found guilty, and before sentencing him to 17 years to life in prison, the judge rejected his story about having killed the woman because she told him she had given him AIDS.
But the San Francisco Examiner, in reference to the same case, referred to the killer as "a man who said he had lived out an often-repeated `urban myth.' "
That's correct, except that the proper term is "legend," not "myth."
Finally, I'll mention an item from the February issue of Inside Litigation magazine that was sent to me by Marc Galanter, director of the Institute for Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin. The report describes "a recent high-technology case" involving the invention of a better ballast for operating fluores-cent lighting fixtures.
It seems that the new device was acquired by a rival firm and "put to sleep," as one lawyer in the case said, in order to keep it off the market. The lawyer compared the situation to stories about "pantyhose that don't run and high-efficiency carburetors."
His conclusion was that here one could observe "a real, live instance of an urban myth that had actually happened: An energy-saving and more flexible ballast was licensed in order to prevent it from reaching the marketplace."
If I ever get into a legal tangle with an urban legend, I'd like to have that lawyer on my side, assuming, of course, that I can educate him to say "legend," rather than "myth."- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.