Hoax Museum Blog: Urban Legends

Placebo Walk Buttons — I've previously posted about the issue of placebo walk buttons -- that is, the widespread suspicion that the walk buttons at intersections don't have any effect on traffic lights. (There's also a separate theory that you can control the traffic lights by pushing the button in a special way.)

An article on canada.com addresses the issue of placebo buttons at some length. They insist the idea of placebo buttons is a myth (at least for the city of Victoria), and they interview a traffic planner to discover what really happens when the button is pushed:

Brad Dellebuur, city transportation planner, says pushing the button sends a signal to the intersection's traffic controller that a pedestrian is present and enters the "walk" signal into the system's cycle.
"If you don't press it, some intersections won't give a walk signal," Dellebuur says. The traffic light timing is also determined by the amount of vehicular traffic, which is picked up by sensors imbedded in the road.
In other words, pushing the button won't make the light change right away, or within a certain time from when the button is activated. You'll still have to wait, but a shorter period as the traffic light interval is shortened.
If you don't push the light, the pedestrian walk signal still comes on, but, for instance, after 60 seconds instead of 40.

Of course, many people insist on pushing the button even if it's already been pushed, in which case it isn't having any effect. Why do they do this?

It's not just distrust that makes people push a crosswalk button that has probably been pushed already. It's also ritual, says Jim Gibson, social psychologist at UVic, and very much like pushing an elevator button that is already illuminated.
"It's part of crossing the intersection," Gibson says. "We want to cross, and pushing the button first is part of that ritual.
"We go on automatic pilot because ritual behaviour saves our brains from having to think about activities that are very routine."

(via Legends & Rumors)
Posted: Wed May 07, 2008.   Comments (11)

It’s a cab, innit — Many British papers have reported the humorous story of a young woman who called the operator trying to order a cab, but instead had a cabinet delivered to her home. Her problem was too much Cockney, and too little Queen's English. From Ananova:

the Londoner, 19, wanted a taxi to take her to Bristol airport, and first used the Cockney rhyming slang "Joe Baxi". When the operator told her she couldn't find anyone by that name, the teen replied: "It ain't a person, it's a cab, innit." The operator then found the nearest cabinet shop, Displaysense, and put the girl through. She then spoke to a bemused saleswoman and eventually demanded: "Look love, how hard is it? All I want is your cheapest cab, innit. I need it for 10am. How much is it?" The sales adviser said it would be £180 and the girl gave her address and paid with a credit card. The next morning, an office cabinet was delivered to her South London home.

Two things make me suspicious of the story. 1) It sounds a lot like the classic "lost in translation" urban legend. 2) It originated from a Displaysense press release, which means that it's probably the invention of a press agent.
Posted: Tue Apr 15, 2008.   Comments (14)

Libraries and the Weight of Index Cards — Paul Collins has an interesting article in New Scientist about the Mundaneum, a mid-twentieth century effort to create a vast, interlinked archive, like a "proto-internet," using index cards. But what caught my eye was the first paragraph:

UNLIKELY as it sounds now, the hottest thing in information technology was once the index card. In the US, for instance, the War Department struggled with mountains of medical files until the newfangled method of card filing was adopted in 1887. Soon hundreds of clerks were transcribing personnel records dating back to the War of Independence. Housed in Ford's Theatre in Washington DC - the scene of Abraham Lincoln's assassination a generation earlier - the initiative succeeded a little too well. Six years into the project, the combined weight of 30 million index cards led to information overload: three floors of the theatre collapsed, crushing 22 clerks to death.

It's like the old urban legend about a library sinking because the engineers forgot to include the weight of the books in their calculations. Though I'm not sure that the weight of the index cards was the cause of the collapse of Ford's Theater. The wikipedia article about the Ford's Theater disaster (I was surprised to discover there is a wikipedia article about such a now obscure event), notes that workmen had removed part of the theater's foundation and had failed to shore up the building above it. Thus, it came crashing down.

So the Ford's Theater disaster may not be a real-life example of the sinking-library urban legend. But I'm sure there's an example somewhere of a library that collapsed because of the weight of its books.
Posted: Wed Apr 09, 2008.   Comments (17)

Do casinos pump in oxygen? — Do casinos pump extra oxygen into the air in order to make gamblers feel more energized? I've heard this rumor quite often. The Betfirms.com blog uses some common sense to debunk it:

According to my Captain at the local Fire Department, “pumping oxygen into a casino would be a tremendous fire hazard that would greatly increase the flammability of all other objects. Any small fire, anywhere in the hotel, would be fanned and magnify itself by pumped oxygen.” As for the risk/reward opportunity, no casino would ever entertain the thought.

That makes sense. It wouldn't be good for a casino to encourage fires to spread, especially since people like to smoke a lot while gambling.

Betfirms.com traces the legend back to Mario Puzo's book, Fools Die, in which Puzo described a fictional Las Vegas Casino, Xanadu, that pumped in oxygen.

But casinos definitely do pump in smells, which they believe encourage people to gamble more. (They tend not to identify the smells, because they don't want to give away trade secrets.) In Elephants on Acid I described a 1991 experiment conducted on the gaming floor of the Las Vegas Hilton, in which it was found that gamblers exposed to a pleasant odor spent 45% more money at the machines than those who were not exposed to the odor. A lot of retail stores have also bought into the "smell sells" theory. Though I think it's more marketing hype than reality.
Posted: Mon Mar 10, 2008.   Comments (9)

Tom Jones’s Million-Dollar Chest Hair — Last week the Daily Mirror reported that 67-year-old singer Tom Jones had insured his chest hair for £3.5million:

With tough tour schedules and big money at stake, It's Not Unusual for stars to insure their bodies. So it should come as no surprise to learn that Sir Tom Jones, 67, whose mop of luxurious curly brown hair has made him a hit with the ladies, has had his chest hair insured - for the princely sum of £3.5million!
Top insurance house Lloyd's of London was approached about the deal and, after initial concerns that it might prove too much of a risk, went ahead.
"Like a vintage wine, Tom just gets better with age," says our body hair mole.
"Even at the grand old age of 67, the ladies love his hip-thrusting moves and catching a sneaky peak of his famously rugged chest hair."

The story was soon picked up by other media outlets including AOL, Fox News, and the Miami Herald.

I remember seeing the headline and thinking it sounded odd, but I figured it was a publicity stunt. Turns out it's not even that. David Emery of About.com has debunked the report. He writes:

I contacted Lloyd's of London and they said no such policy has been issued. A note from Tom Jones' management on the singer's official website confirms: "No such insurance policy exists or has ever been considered." The story is based, in fact, on years-old scuttlebutt about a policy drafted for an anonymous male celebrity who never actually purchased the coverage.

Posted: Mon Feb 11, 2008.   Comments (2)

Urban Legend ER — I don't check out CollegeHumor.com very often, but I came across this short movie they put together called "Urban Legend ER," which I thought was amusing. It imagines what an ER might look like if all the most popular urban legends were real. Warning: It's a little gory in a few places.

Update: Posted previously in the forum by Tobester.
Posted: Thu Jan 31, 2008.   Comments (8)

Video Game Urban Legends — Yahoo! Games has an article about urban legends involving video games. Though half the legends they list are true. Here's a summary:

Donkey Kong was a mistranslation of Monkey Kong.
False. Donkey Kong was the original title. "Donkey" was apparently meant to indicate stubborn stupidity. "Kong" was a reference to King Kong.

Saddam Hussein tried to build a supercomputer out of Playstation 2s.
False. The rumor was offered as an explanation for a shortage of Playstation 2s, but if an evil dictator did want to build a supercomputer, using game consoles would be a bad way to do it.

Sony first developed the Playstation for Nintendo.
True. Back in the late 1980s Nintendo and Sony were considering a partnership, but negotiations fell apart and the two went their separate ways.

Million of Atari games are buried in the New Mexico desert.
True. Atari buried millions of games it couldn't sell.

A video arcade game called Polybius was actually part of a military mind-control experiment.
False. I posted about the Polybius legend back in 2004.

A man died by playing video games nonstop.
True. Apparently this has happened more than once. Technically, they died of exhaustion.
Posted: Tue Jan 29, 2008.   Comments (8)

Real-Life Kidney Thieves — A kidney transplant ring has been busted in India. Hundreds of poor people were forced into having their kidneys removed. ABC News reports that victims were promised a job, then taken to a private house and forced at gunpoint to sell their kidneys.

One victim's story sounds just like the kidney-transplant urban legend:

"I was approached by a stranger for a job. When I accepted, I was taken to a room with gunmen," Mohammed Salim told India's local NDTV television channel. "They tested my blood, gave me an injection and I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I had pain in my lower abdomen and I was told that my kidney had been removed."

The kidney transplant ring was found out when suspicious neighbors "noticed blood running out of the house's gutters." Yeah, that would kind of be a giveaway. (Thanks, Stephen)
Posted: Mon Jan 28, 2008.   Comments (4)

Twins get married… or maybe not — Last week this story was EVERYWHERE. A pair of twins in Britain, who had been adopted into different families, met and fell in love... without realizing they were twins. They then got married, only to discover the terrible secret they shared. Their marriage was promptly annulled.

When I first read about this, it sounded pretty fishy to me -- very much like an urban legend being reported as news -- but on a cursory reading of the story I also got the impression that there were officials involved who knew about the case but couldn't disclose the identity of the twins. So I accepted the news as true. I think the paragraph in the BBC report linked to above that got me was this one:

Mo O'Reilly, director of child placement for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, said the situation was traumatic for the people involved, but incredibly rare.

To me, this sounded as if Mo O'Reilly actually knew about the case first-hand. Unfortunately, I didn't read the article closely enough. Apparently the only person who knew about the case was Lord Alton who used it as an example during a House of Lords debate on the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill. Lord Alton had heard about the case "from a judge who was involved." In other words, the source is a FOAF (friend of a friend), one of the classic signs of an urban legend.

Jon Henley of the Guardian summarizes the situation:

Here's the thing: it all came from a single remark more than a month ago by the vehemently anti-abortion Roman Catholic peer and father of four, Lord Alton, in favour of all children having the right to know the identity of their biological parents.
He had heard about this particular case, he said, from the judge who handled the annulment. Or perhaps (he later admitted) a judge who was "familiar with the case". Britain's top family judge, Sir Mark Potter, has never heard of the story. And, as the excellent Heresy Corner blog notes, the whole thing is statistically improbable, procedurally implausible (for 40 years, adoption practice has been to keep twins together) and based on the equivalent of a friend in the pub saying, "Hey, I heard the most amazing story the other day."

So it looks like this piece of news needs to be categorized as an urban-legend-reported-as-news until proven otherwise. (Thanks, Joe)
Posted: Tue Jan 15, 2008.   Comments (15)

Husband meets wife in brothel — This story sounds suspiciously like an urban legend being reported as news. It could, of course, be true, though the source (a Polish tabloid called Super Express) makes it difficult to fact check:

WARSAW (Reuters) - A Polish man got the shock of his life when he visited a brothel and spotted his wife among the establishment's employees.
Polish tabloid Super Express said the woman had been making some extra money on the side while telling her husband she worked at a store in a nearby town.
"I was dumfounded. I thought I was dreaming," the husband told the newspaper on Wednesday. The couple, married for 14 years, are now divorcing, the newspaper reported.

Posted: Mon Jan 14, 2008.   Comments (6)

Phantom Tent City on Roof — According to a rumor that circulates among the population of South Carolina's Hilton Head Island, there's a group of Mexican immigrants living on top of one of the local supermarkets. It may be the Bi-Lo Supermarket, or the Port Royal Plaza, or the Harris Teeter. Supposedly this tent city of roof-living immigrants tapped into the store's electricity and even diverted the air conditioning system to cool their tents.

The Island Packet News is pretty sure that the story of the rooftop tent city is just an urban legend:
by all official accounts -- and satellite imagery available through Google Maps -- there's never been a sign of anyone squatting on a grocery store roof on Hilton Head. The Sheriff's Office says it has never had any evidence of people living on the roof of the store, and Bi-Lo officials say the story is just an urban legend, though a particularly potent one. Company officials would not agree to let a photographer on the roof of the store, but a Packet reporter who was able to get near the roof also saw no signs of habitation.

This urban legend is new to me, though I'd be surprised if other towns don't have similar rumors. I'll have to do some research into this.

My wife and I often think we hear things moving about on our roof. We assume it's possums, rats, or crows. They can make a lot of noise. I assume a belief that an entire tent city of immigrants is living on a roof must stem from similar causes.

(Thanks, Joe)
Posted: Thu Jan 03, 2008.   Comments (6)

Has Ho, Ho, Ho Been Banned? — Last month a rumor began to circulate alleging that Santas were being banned from saying "Ho, Ho, Ho" because "Ho" is a slang term for a prostitute. As is often the case with such rumors, there was an event that triggered the rumor, but that event had been twisted and blown out of proportion in the course of being repeated.

What really happened was that Westaff, a firm in Australia that trains Santas for appearances in shopping malls, had cautioned its trainees that many small children are initially scared by Santa. So they told the Santas-in-training "to try techniques such as lowering their tone of voice and using 'ha, ha, ha' to encourage the children to come forward and meet Santa." They never banned their Santas from Ho, Ho, Ho-ing.

Westaff's words of caution transformed into the Ho-Ho-Ho-Banned rumor. And as the rumor spread details were added, such as a claim that two Santa trainees had quit the course in disgust.

The ho, ho, ho rumor has been widely debunked, but it's still circulating around. Here's a recent sighting of it in UIC's Chicago Flame:
Westaff sent a memo out to encourage Santas to say "ha ha ha" because "ho ho ho" may scare children or offend women. Unless a woman is a "ho," she most likely won't be offended by the phrase.

Posted: Mon Dec 10, 2007.   Comments (6)

Quick Links: Dec. 3, 2007 — Pie in Santa's Face
"A 22-year-old University of Montana student was charged with assault Friday for shoving a pumpkin pie into Santa Claus’ face at a shopping mall while a teen sat on his lap."

Save the Park
Four students in the UK created a hoax website as a social experiment to test the influence of the media. Their website, savethepark.co.uk, claimed there were plans to build a 220,000 tonne waste incineration plant in a South London park. Within a few weeks their site had received thousands of hits, and they had been contacted by a newspaper. They claim that their experiment, "showed how rumours can spread and how easy it is to get information out there that isn't true." But also that, "we are still a community and we can still stand together."

Venezuelan Toilet Paper Shortage
"Venezuelans have been buying large amounts of toilet paper on rumours it could be the next hard-to-find thing amid shortages of products like milk and meat."

Death by Cell Phone Report Disputed
It turns out that the death of a South Korean man was not due to an exploding cell phone, as many media outlets recently reported. Instead, police are attributing the death to a co-worker who backed into him with a drilling vehicle, and then tried to frame the cell phone. (Thanks, Joe)
Posted: Mon Dec 03, 2007.   Comments (4)

Searches for gold—Finds ammonia — Here's a case that could be described as what you get when you cross Mythbusters with the Darwin Awards.

A 16-year-old boy living in the Tampa area heard a legend that a pipe that ran under the U.S. 301 bridge was filled with gold. Other people told him that it was actually an ammonia pipe leading to a fertilizer company. So the kid decided to test it out for himself and find out what the truth was:
The anhydrous ammonia that flows through the pipeline from the port to fertlizer companies in Polk County is highly caustic. It causes burns on contact and can cause respiratory distress. The teen was burned when he drilled into the pipeline.
The cousins who were with him told the boy not to break into the pipeline and had turned to leave when they heard a noise as he breached the pipe, Carter said. The boys then went home. When the injured teen's symptoms worsened, he told his mother what had happened, and she called an ambulance.

I bet he next sues the county, claiming they should have put a sign up warning people not to drill into the pipe in search of gold.
Posted: Sat Nov 17, 2007.   Comments (9)

The Dwarf in the Trunk — About four months ago (on June 3, 2007) this brief article appeared in the London Sunday Times:
Police moved swiftly to foil a child kidnapping when a witness spotted a boy being locked in a car boot. Officers set up road blocks, flagged down a Mercedes that fitted the description, and opened the boot -where they found mechanic Klaus "Shorty" Mueller, 27, who had climbed in to find the source of a rattling noise. A spokesman for police in Bremen, north Germany, said: "It seems the driver had been worried by inexplicable rattling noises in or near his boot. He called a mechanic, who was very small, and who climbed in the boot to get to the bottom of the problem."

Similar versions of the article appeared in other papers, all with the same vague details. To Peter Kenter of CanWest News Service, the story sounded like an urban legend that had made its way into the news. For instance, Kenter cited old stories of stoned teenagers tossing "leprechauns" into the trunk of their car, only to discover later that the leprechaun was actually a frightened child. Kenter also thought it was strange that Klaus Mueller would have an English nickname, "Shorty." And why was no one but Mueller identified by name?

I think Kenter was absolutely right to be suspicious of the story, but what he did next was even smarter. Instead of just figuring his hunch was correct, he did some more research. He emailed the press officer of the Bremen police, and to his surprise received this reply:
Dear Mr. Kenter:
The story is true. Have a nice day.
Ronald Walther
Polizei Bremen

So unless the press officer was pulling his leg, that means the tale of the dwarf in the trunk was true. But the tale of the dwarf eaten by the hippo remains false.
Posted: Tue Oct 16, 2007.   Comments (7)

Cursed Japanese Kleenex Commercial — A commercial for Kleenex that aired in Japan during the 1980s became the focus of an urban legend. Derek Bassett last year described the legend on his blog Mohora:
So the story is this commercial for Kleenex tissues was shown on Japanese TV back in 1986 or so. It features an actress in a white dress sitting next to a child made up to look like a baby ogre. There is a really creepy song in a foreign language that when researched, is actually an old German folk song with the words “Die, die, everyone is cursed and will be killed.” Soon after the debut of the commercial, alot of people complained that it was creepy, or 気持ち悪い, and it was quickly pulled off the air. Soon after though, accidents started to befall the actors and crew of the commercial, including the child playing the baby ogre dying of sudden organ failure, the actress being committed to a mental institution where she is either still there, or at some point hung herself (depending on the version of the story).

Here's the commercial, which Derek uploaded to YouTube.

The ad is kind of creepy, but as you can hear, the song is not an old German folk song, but rather "It's a fine day" by Jane & Barton. Derek also notes that there were no strange deaths associated with the commercial. The woman in the ad, Keiko Matsuzaka, is still working as an actress.

There was also an "angel version" of the commercial that aired at the same time as the "demon version," and Derek has uploaded this to YouTube as well. (via The Home of Ads)
Posted: Mon Oct 01, 2007.   Comments (8)

Real-Life “Killer in the Backseat” — A real-life version of the "killer in the backseat" urban legend has been reported. Folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand gives the following description of this classic tale in his Encyclopedia of Urban Legends:
"Would-be killer lurks in back, detected by motorist or gas-station attendant." In all versions, the intended victim is a woman. In the versions in which another motorist spots the assailant, the driver notices that the car or truck following her keeps blinking his lights or shifting them to the high beam. When she reaches home -- still followed by the blinking vehicle -- the other driver rushes to her car and pulls out the lurking stranger. In the gas-station versions, the driver is asked by the attendant to come into the office because of some problem with her credit card. The attendant then locks the office door, tells her about the threat from behind, and calls the police.
In the incident that was recently reported, a 23-year-old woman reported finding an intruder lurking in the back seat of her SUV as she drove home from a class at Calhoun Community College. From The Decatur Daily News:
McNatt said she arrived for her 4:30 p.m. class at Calhoun, parked behind Harris Hall and locked her SUV.
She remained on campus until about 9 p.m. She used her secret code to unlock the SUV.
As she drove, she talked on her cell phone to her brother.
"When she got on the river bridge on Interstate 65, a white male sat up in the very back of her vehicle," McNatt said. "He said he wanted her to take him somewhere."
The woman's brother heard a scream and then lost the phone connection with his sister.
Nothing happened to the woman. She simply parked the car, got out, and the guy walked away. Police are investigating the incident. It seems harsh to be suspicious of someone who's been through a scary event like this, but it's hard not to be a little skeptical about whether this really happened, given how closely it parallels the urban legend.
Posted: Fri Sep 14, 2007.   Comments (9)

Neiman Marcus Cookie Giveaway — Today was the 100th anniversary of Neiman Marcus. The retailer celebrated by giving away free chocolate chip cookies in most of its stores, as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the $250 Cookie Recipe legend that has caused it so much trouble over the years.

And if you missed the cookie giveaway, you can still download the recipe for its cookies free from its website. One of these days I'm going to have to try them out to see how they are. (via David Emery)
Posted: Mon Sep 10, 2007.   Comments (1)

Chinese Arrest Creators of Urban Legends — Joe Littrell forwarded an interesting story from the People's Daily Online. It reports that police in China have arrested or warned 60 people this year for spreading rumors or threats through text messages and the internet. Wow. If spreading urban legends was a crime here in America, just imagine how many people would be in jail.

Some of the messages that rumormongers circulated:
On July 11, a text message began circulating in Jiangsu, claiming victims of full-blown AIDS were spreading the disease by using toothpicks at local restaurants and returning them to the containers on tables. The message warned recipients against using toothpicks in Jiangsu. The police traced the rumor to two businessmen surnamed Du and Cao through Du''s cellphone.

an Internet user known as Laoshi Heshang (Honest Monk) on July 31 posted a story with the Taiwuliao portal, based in Taizhou, Jiangsu, about police allegedly chasing a man and his pillion passenger son on a motorbike through the streets of Jingjiang city. The man had failed to stop as required by police after he was seen not wearing a helmet. The bike crashed and the son, who had been enrolled at prestigious Qinghua University, was killed. The posting caused outrage against the police, who were obliged to contact all six Jingjiang students who had been enrolled at Qinghua University this summer to confirm the story was a hoax.
Personally, I think the real criminals are not the ones who start these rumors, but the people who feel compelled to forward along every idiotic rumor that lands in their inbox.

Posted: Wed Aug 22, 2007.   Comments (7)

Do babies born on buses get free rides for life? — About a week ago Lydia Irvin gave birth to a daughter while riding on a New York City Transit bus. Apparently it even specifies on the baby's birth certificate that she was born on a bus. So now Ms. Irvin is hoping that her daughter will qualify for free bus rides for the rest of her life. She'll just have to wave her birth certificate at a driver, and be able to go wherever she pleases. After all, according to urban legend that's the freebie that bus-born babies get.

However, the transit authorities have splashed cold water on Irvin's hopes:
MTA officials said if that ever was the policy, baby Lydia missed the bus by some 60 years. "I don't know if we've ever done that," a spokeswoman said. "Maybe in the 1940s, but that's before my time."
Gee, you would think they could at least give her a free one-month pass, or something. (Thanks, Joe)
Posted: Wed Aug 08, 2007.   Comments (2)

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