The Stories That Endure

curling iron

As you sit there, struggling to turn the great white blank in front of you into a short story, novel, or screenplay, take heart from these three words: people love stories. Yes, I know, writers are competing for entertainment dollars and time like never before, what with video games, televised sports, news, music, concerts…but nothing beats a good story. Good stories endure, whether true or otherwise.

Some of the best and longest enduring stories are urban legends. You’ve heard them, everything from the one involving the choking doberman to the women on the elevator at a Vegas hotel with the big guy and his big dogs. They are stories which are not true, but which endure. We often know not from where they come but come they do, repeatedly. This was true well before the internet became so prevalent. One of my favorites involves the little hamlet which I live near which the natives call “Columbus.” It happened in June 1993. The internet was there, but it was hard though not impossible to find. AOL was a big deal; an online bookseller called “Amazon” wouldn’t start up for another year. Many people didn’t have cell phones (they were often called “car phones”). That didn’t stop the following story from spreading throughout the city, sans benefit of news media coverage.

The story involved a local celebrity. He was — is — a merchant who sold his wares via a series of television commercials which featured a two word catchphrase which found itself being heard in conversation all over town. Indeed, he even used it at the wedding of at least one of his children. A story began to spread near the end of June that said entrepreneur had been jumping the marital fence and that his wife, when she found out about it, had applied a hot curling iron to his smaller brain, if you will. People who spread this story swore that they had learned it from a friend who who was a nurse’s aide at a local hospital where the now-repentant victim was recovering in a private room. The story was put to pasture, however, when the celebrity — not manifesting any damage — accompanied by his very attractive wife, were seen smiling and grinning, hand in hand, at the local July Fourth festivities. The local newspaper, which had never reported the rumor, debunked it after the fact. The commercials continued and all was well, with the businessman’s wife taking a role in the selling as well. I happen to know quite well a relative of the people involved in this story, and have been told that the first question people always ask is, “That curling iron story…is that true?”  The answer is always “No.”

Here is the rub, however. This same story with different principals cropped up across the country at about the same time from Pennsylvania to Oregon. In one city it involved a politician; in another, a well known doctor; here an attorney; there a restaurateur. The common elements were infidelity, commercials, and fame. These stories did not occur simultaneously, but rather over the course of a few weeks during that particular summer. And no, I never saw it mentioned in an AOL chat room, either. Someone playing telegraph, perhaps? How? It would be fascinating to try to trace its relatively modern incarnation, though well nigh impossible.

One more thing. The story did not originate in 1993, interestingly enough. As with most urban legends, it goes way back. Chaucer writes of a similar though not identical occurrence in “The Miller’s Tale,” and that story in turn may have been based in part on a persistent rumor involving a politician. As Douglas Adams has been credited with stating: “If you can think of it, it has already happened.”

So…for today’s exercise…tell us your favorite urban legend. Give us your own spin, if you wish. All that we ask is that you don’t use political stories. We all want to stay friends here. Thank you.


16 thoughts on “The Stories That Endure

  1. As a little kid, I was totally creeped out by the story of the lovers at Lover’s Lane hearing a report on the radio about a serial killer with a hook for a hand, who had escaped from an insane asylum! The girl is scared, so the boy starts up the car and peels away. When he gets to the girl’s house she gets out, and screams! For there is a bloody hook hanging from the door handle. It wasn’t until years later (after I had regaled scores of fourth and fifth graders with it) that I found out it was an urban legend. And a famous one:

    • Jim, thanks so much for remembering this story. I had forgotten it, but I had my first exposure to it at about the same age that you did when I read a comic book version of it. Great stuff. Thanks again for awakening the memory of that story and that particular summer. I’m sure there are still versions of it floating around.

    • I don’t remember hearing that story, but it reminded me of a somewhat similar plot in an episode of Starsky & Hutch where a guy who was washed up from the theater prowled about at night with a fake arm/hand and used it to strangle people.

        • Or don’t work, as the case may be. I have HUNDREDS of stories for which I can’t recall the origin. Next: I’ll be forgetting the stories themselves. Such is life. Thanks, Chris!

  2. I’m sure I’ve heard many urban legends over the years but of course, when I need to recall one, I can’t. But I love how you bring home in this post how smoothly in transitions into story-telling in general. I don’t think I stop to consider that often enough.

    • BK, thanks as always for your kind compliments. I remember that Starsky & Hutch episode. That was one of my favorite television series. Even the episodes that were a bit far-fetched were terrific. And some years later, David Soul had the starring role in the television mini-series adaptation of “‘Salem’s Lot.” Great stuff. Thanks for reawakening those memories.

  3. Joe, interesting topic.

    I, too, can’t remember any urban legends from our community. I do remember that Paul Harvey always said, “If you want to commit a murder, go to Logan County, Ohio (my community). I guess I was so isolated as a kid that didn’t know what was going on outside my small town.

    I do remember, in high school, being led to believe a legend. School goof-off Nick came running into a group of guys one lunch hour, out of breath, and convincingly scared. Between breaths he explained that he had just mistakenly kicked one of our least favorite teachers in the back side while the teacher was leaning over the drinking fountain. Nick had thought it was his buddy. Nick reported that he had made his escape around the corner before being seen, raced down the steps, and out into the front yard of the school, where he was hiding in the middle of our group. He was a hero for the rest of the year. And it wasn’t until some 40 years later, when I met Nick’s son, that I learned that I had been hood winked.

    People do love stories, especially when they make them up.

    • Thank you, Steve. I used to listen to Paul Harvey and vaguely remembering him saying that although I couldn’t figure out why. I’m sure that it didn’t make your local gendarme very happy!

      So what ever happened to NIck, other than that he managed to procreate? I would imagine that you were the star of that — or any — class. How did Nick turn out? You can answer or not if you wish, of course, and if you feel the need to answer me privately to avoid a lawsuit you have my email address! Thanks and have a great weekend.

  4. A story is, in essence, a narrative. But these days, a narrative has an entirely different connotation. It almost always comes around in politics. A politician will be quoted as saying something and it spreads like wildfire through the internet, generating memes that are reposted with appropriate comments of outrage. Then somebody looks it up and posts a comment that the quote is not true at all, or was taken entirely out of context. Then what happens? That person is usually told that it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true or not. It’s part of the narrative, and therefore whether the subject actually used those words is unimportant.

    • Very true, David. Very true. Thomas Francklin said that a lie flies while truth lags behind. It is more true now than ever. I once took a reporter to task for the failure of the media to investigate the veracity of a particular claim which was adverse to a certain public figure. His response was a shrug and the response “We don’t care.” Just so. It’s more true now than ever, it seems. I wonder what would have happened if the internet had been more accessible when the curling iron story I mentioned was being passed around. Thanks for stopping by and contributing.

  5. The Death Car! This was a new Corvette for sale for $500. The owner had had a heart attack and died in it, and nobody could get the odor out, so this amazing car was for sale for practically nothing. When I was a reporter, I interviewed Jan Brunvand, an urban legends expert. He said these are cautionary tales for suburbanites.I used to love debunking them when I worked at the paper.

    • I had…never heard that one, Elaine. Thank you!!! It kind of reminds me of a country song titled “Riding with Private Malone” by David Ball, though the story is a bit different.

      Here’s a true story that occurred on two different occasions. I worked my way through law school at a Federal agency. A long time employee who had used the same desk for years died of brain cancer. Another employee was promoted to fill the deceased position, and took his desk. HE died of brain cancer six months later. The next person promoted to the position looked at the desk and said “No.” It went into storage. It might still be in storage.

      The second involved a bailiff for a local judge. The bailiff died of lung cancer. His successor did as well. Neither of them smoked. No one was too eager to take the position after that.

      Thanks again! Great story.

  6. I like the scary ones, like hook-handed men who escaped from the local insane asylum, or the killer hiding in the back seat of the car. There was a story going around when I was in high school that may or may not be an urban legend. The story goes that one of the popular hamburger fast food places (that is still in business today) supplemented their ground beef with worms.
    (The photo used for this post is of a flat iron not a curling iron, by the way.)

    • Augustina, I haven’t heard that one but of course everyone has heard about a certain franchise which occasionally accidentally served up batter-fried rodents. There was even a movie made of it.
      Thanks for the reminder. And thank you for pointing out my error re: the photo. I have no idea what the difference is between a flat iron and a curling iron is. My need for either has, alas, long faded in the rear view.

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