Friends of friends...

The Skeptic, 4.3

Did you hear the one about the take-away chicken that turned out to be a deep-fried rat? Or the beehive hairdo that concealed a carnivorous spider? Or the alligator in the sewers, the mouse bones in the Coke bottle, the pet in the microwave? These are the kind of bizarre `urban legends' that we all seem to have heard, but they have one thing in common: they've all happened to a FOAF -  a friend of a friend - or, more often, a friend of a FOAF. They're FOAFlore.

Jan Harold Brunvand, Professor of English at the University of Utah, believes that the more variations there are on a tale, the less likely it is to be based on real events. Take, for example, the `Choking Doberman' story. One American version runs like this: a woman returns home from work to find her large Doberman dog lying on the floor wheezing and gasping forair. Unable to see what's wrong she takes the dog straight to the vet, who decides to perform a tracheotomy to let the dog breathe. The woman leaves the dog with the vet and goes back home, to find her telephone ringing. She answers it: it's the vet, shouting Get out of the house straight away! Call the police! During the tracheotomy the vet had found two black human fingers lodged in the dog's throat, and was concerned that they belonged to an intruder who might still be in the woman's house. He was. When the police arrived they found an unconscious black man crammed into a bedroom wardrobe, Lying in a pool of blood, and minus two fingers.

In The Choking Doberman and Other `New' Urban Legends (Penguin, 1987)Jan Brunvand collects an enormous number of American, British and Australian variations on this story. The kind of dog ranges from German Shepherd to Alsatian, the intruder may be dead or appre hended, different parts of the body are missing, the racial element (often present only in oral versions of the story) may be different, and so on. But, the tale is based on a number of `motifs', the key elements which structure the story, and around which specific cultural and prejudicial details swirl. In the Choking Doberman we have -  at least -  the suffering pet, the urgent telephone warning, racial hatred and fear, sexual menace, the come-uppance of the evil-doer.

The Choking Doberman story illustrates one of the key elements in the nature of FOAFlore. While it is in itself an unpleasant story, with its overtones of menace, racial hatred and mutilation, it is somehow not offensive, in the way that we might find a joke unacceptable for being `racist', `sexist' or `sick'. Brunvand's analysis of the origins of the story illustrates that the nature of FOAFlore is enormously complex: the Choking Doberman is a distillate of many other FOAFtales: The Elevator Incident, The `Wagger' story, The Severed Fingers, The Robber Who Was Hurt - each with a similarly tangled provenance.As a tale develops and spreads, motifs are shared and exchanged; some versions fade, but some have such strong elements, with which we can all identify, that they become icons. Anyway, we like to hear tall stories: they help us escape from the humdrum, and they `brighten up Mondays'. FOAFlore is art, and we are the artists.

Perhaps the most well-known FOAFtale is `The Vanishing Hitch-hiker': a man picks up a hitch-hiker; she gets into the back seat; after they've driven for a while, he looks back - she's vanished; he stops the car, scared to death; later he learns that exactly a year ago a hitch-hiker had been killed in that exact place. The extraordinary number of variations on this tale is an indication of the fundamental strength of its basic `ghost' motif. It is painstakingly documented in Brunvand's first urban legend collection The Vanishing Hitch-Hiker (Picador, 1983). There is even a song: connoisseurs of horrible records will enjoy `Laurie' by Dickie Lee (Kenny Everett's World's Worst Fecord Show, Yuk Records, 1978), which is based on `Vanishing Hitchhiker' motifs. One researcher has tried to track down some British versions of the tale, and actually believes that the legend has a basis in fact (The Evidence For Phantom Hitch-Hikers by Michael Goss (Aquarian, 1984)).

Most professions have their own FOAFtales. In computer circles, there are many: the disgruntled ex-IBM employee taking an axe to a multi-million-dollar computer; the secret command built into a computer by a mischievous engineer which causes it to catch fire, or-my favourite-the one about the secretary with her new word-processor. On the sleeve of her floppy disc is the legend: remove disk from outer cover. After a few minutes struggle with a pair of scissors she finally manages to get all the packaging off, and is left with a neat circle of brownish plastic. I happen to know this one is true; I heard it from a colleague who had a friend who knew a bloke. . .


©Toby Howard 1995

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