How Urban Myths Reveal Society’s Fears By Neal Gabler
Secondhand stories about something horrific, iconic, or even magical, that are told to us in a way that makes them very believable, even though the contents of the stories may not truly be backed with any tangible proof. Urban legends tend to capture our imaginations. In his essay, which was first published in the Los Angeles Times in 1995, Neal Gabler presents the question as to “why are we so willing to believe the strange and even bizarre tales that come to us?
While reading his piece, you will find that Gabler answers this question along with other inquiries that surround urban legends. Right off the bat, Gabler tells a story about a rather unusual wedding reception. It starts out like any other; the groom stands up at the head of the table and hushes the crowd, while all of the guests prepare for what they believe to a typical toast to his bride and a “thank you” to all of them for helping to celebrate the memorable day.
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However, to everyone’s disbelief, he announces that there has been a change of plans and that he and his bride will be taking separate honeymoons, explaining that the wedding will be annulled as soon as they both return home. The groom then goes on to clarify that the reason for the annulment was taped to the bottom of everyone’s plate; a photo of the bride sleeping with the best man. Apparently this story was making its way “up and down the Eastern seaboard, and as far west as Chicago” (2). The question that begs to be asked is “did this really happen”?
It’s hard to know for sure because the actual origin of the story was unknown. There were reporters and civilians alike from all different locations claiming that the bizarre event took place in their hometown. In short, Gabler says that “the whole thing appears to be another myth, one of those weird tales that periodically catch the public imagination” (2). He goes on to compare this story to the legend of alligators lurking in the sewer system below Manhattan, the tales of the baby sitter killers who call the acquitted girls from somewhere in the house, and other well-known urban legends. “These tales are preposterous, but in the mass society like ours, where stories are usually manufactured by Hollywood, they just may be the most genuine form of folklore we have” (2). From the time when we are little kids, we are exposed to folklore and fairytales that are centered on terror and fear. Kids may not realize it but most of the cartoons produced by Walt Disney are actually “dark and complex expressions of fear” (3). A few examples are Pinocchio being swallowed by the whale and Bambi losing his mother at the hands of a huntsman.
In a way these gloomy Disney movies “crystalize our childhood fears and help us with the transition into adulthood”. Much like traditions, superstitions allow for people to band together. They create an atmosphere similar to one experienced around campfire set out in the woods. Superstitions exist because we allow them to exist. Because we need them to. They are a way for us to express our fears and a way for parents to provide their children with warnings that will stick with them. Don’t wander into the woods at night because the boogie man will get you.
Don’t be bad because a fat man in a red suit won’t give you presents; he’s always watching. And so on and so forth. To be brief, Neal Gabler explains that urban legends “testify to an overwhelming condition of fear and to a sense of our own impotence within” (3). Perhaps people feel the need to believe in the “cosmetology of dysfunction” because it’s a way for them to explain the inexplicable in their own lives. In a way, superstitions become a way for people to feel like their own version of Stephen King.