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25 popular urban legends explained

  • 25 popular urban legends explained

    “Don’t step on the cracks, or you’ll fall and break your back.” Many children found this particular rhyme convincing enough to dance across sidewalks for the majority of their childhood, until enough missteps convinced them that their back was safe from superstition. Urban legends can be unforgiving.

    They also take many forms. Playground rules like the one above, riddled with questionable aphorisms, are easily grown out of, but certain legends stick harder and faster - as seen in the overwhelming surge of fake news (whose abject prevalence is argued by some as an urban legend in its own right).

    There are horrific urban legends of the supernatural nature; there are those founded from an innate distrust of political forces. Some urban legends last the test of time, while others disappear overnight. Whatever the source, the cause, or the interpretation, all urban legends share one core truth: they are compelling enough to share.

    This fact alone has intrigued researchers for decades. In a world where information is at our fingertips, why do we persist in believing fallacies that contradict our own experiences? We’re told as children that urinating in pools will turn the water a different color, and despite never seeing proof for ourselves (and likely having personal experiences that dictate the contrary) one study suggests 52% of American adults believe it.

    So why do we trust these word-of-mouth myths? One answer is that storytelling gave humans an evolutionary advantage. It is programmed in us to warn each other of potential dangers, no matter how mundane they may seem. Urban legends are also a version of modern mythology -  a vessel for the inexplicable and unproven. Their place in society draws from a fundamental judicial principle: innocent until proven guilty. If it is impossible to prove beyond doubt that a story has no basis in reality, the possibility remains that it is, somehow, true.

    And so the stories spread.

  • The truth behind Mr. Rogers

    A secret many have been dying to know: was Mr. Rogers, host of the children’s show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” actually a U.S. Marine - or maybe a Navy SEAL? - at one point in his life? As the U.S. Naval Institute themselves say, no: Mr. Rogers did not wear a sweater to hide a “Born to Kill” tattoo. No-one is quite sure where the ex-killer rumors originated, but even without the U.S. Navy debunking those claims it’s hard to imagine this man doing anything other than teaching children.

  • There are bodies buried in Hoover Dam

    This is one urban legend that just won’t die. While there were many fatalities involved in the making of Hoover Dam, zero involved workers slipping into the mix and being covered up with concrete. It’s not hard to see its prominence in the human consciousness though, with six bodies buried in Montana’s Fort Peck Dam.

  • Pools will turn red if you pee in them

    We all heard this one as kids: you can’t pee in the pool because there’s a special chemical that turns the water around you red...or blue, or green, but the point is that everyone will be able to tell. Fortunately for six year-olds everywhere, no such urine-indicating dye exists.

  • Wedding rice makes birds explode

    No one is quite sure where this particular urban legend originated, but there is nevertheless the pervasive fear that if birds consume rice they explode. Throwing wedding rice was especially feared, as it would provide ample grains for the unfortunate avians. Fortunately, such claims have since been debunked.

  • Needles infected with HIV

    In the 1990s, a scary urban legend emerged - needles infected with HIV positive blood were being hidden under gas pumps, lying in wait to infect innocent bystanders. Despite some stories of attacks featuring needles, no cases of HIV infected needles being distributed in this fashion have been recorded.

  • Historical busts removed by presidents

    Part urban legend, part fake news, part crossed wires describes the coverage of presidents moving historical busts in and out of various rooms in the White House. In Obama’s administration, he reportedly sent a bust of Winston Churchill back to the British embassy: this was false (kind of). Now in Trump’s, controversy surrounded him removing a bust of Martin Luther King (which he didn’t).

  • We only use ten percent of our brains

    It’s tempting to believe: if you can just unlock the other 90% of your brain, you’ll become a genius, or a martial arts superhero. Unfortunately, Britannica is here to ruin our fun with some solid evidence that we are constantly using 100% of our brain.

  • Shaving hair makes it grow back thicker

    A household urban legend is that shaving causes hair to grow back thicker. Although that certainly feels true when dealing with short, stubby hairs post-shaving, there is actually no scientific evidence to back this up.

  • Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences

    In 1964, TIME published an article about a list depicting eerie similarities between the lives and deaths of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln. The list continues to make the rounds today, and contains facts ranging from similar election years (Lincoln 1860, Kennedy 1960) to number of letters in their surnames (seven).

  • Friday 13th is unlucky

    It is widely accepted that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day. The “why” is a little bit harder to unpack. Some think Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” first painted Friday as an unlucky day (“and on Friday fell this all mischance”), but the rise in modern myth came with the release of “Friday, the Thirteenth” by Thomas Lawson. The association of Friday the thirteenth and bad luck spun from there, until it became firmly cemented as a valid superstition.

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