essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Alligators in the sewer, the serial killer in the room upstairs, insects in the beehive hairdo, and the vanishing hitchhiker. These are among the urban myths identified by Jan Brunvand in his 1981 book called The Vanishing Hitchhiker.
And the word myth is both serious and intentionally used. These are not untrue stories that people tell each other, Brunvand claims. They are myths and legends. Like the stories the ancient Greeks told about Oedipus and about Prometheus and about Orpheus and Eurydice. Myths are not just stories ancient people told, but something all people do, and have always, and do still, because they need to.
I’m talking here about contemporary myths, not gossip about film stars or current events, scam or superstitions, but about stories that have a meaningful purpose in the telling. That Michael Jackson was a pedophile is a scam, that Elvis Presley died from too many hamburgers is gossip. Though if ‘hamburgers’ stands for too many drugs it might put Elvis in the ‘died through excess’ categories of tales, which does mean something, about the negative side of fame that we need to know, just as much as we need to know about our abuse of the famous.
A definition of ‘myth’ seems called upon here. Plenty of people still use the word in its pejorative sense. “It’s just a myth” they say, meaning it’s not true. Leaving aside the worrying question of just what ‘truth’ is, we can describe a myth pretty accurately, given all the work of people like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell we can draw on.
Nature of myth
A myth serves a purpose. It serves several purposes. One is psychological. Through myth we express uncomfortable awareness at the limit of our comprehension. The idea, for instance, that forces more powerful than we, which we sometimes call gods, may limit, and even destroy, our existence. The idea that Oedipus, knowing he would kill his father and marry his mother, cannot escape that fate no matter what he does. Or that death awaits us all no matter what we do, and death something we cannot grasp nor understand. The feeling of helplessness we usually keep well hidden is bought out and expressed in myth, and the expression is liberating. The social function of myth is important too. It is important we share the same disquiets and apprehension, and can trigger a release of such feelings in one another by telling the story of the myth.
To understand myth we first have to drop the dichotomy we have fallen into of thinking of everything being divided into ‘true’ and ‘false’, ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ and even ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’. Ancient people didn’t know those divisions; they were arrived at and practised during the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe by less than one percent of the population, and by about the same proportion of the population today. The rest of us, ancient and modern, just don’t know. We all agree on a definite maybe. Myth is definitely not a rational explanation, a primitive science. It’s more an emotional guide for a rite of passage.
A good example of myth and how it is used is seen by looking at religions. Myth is part of all religions. It has to be, because religion concerns itself with matters we can’t possibly know about. A look at the Christian religion is easy and familiar and a good place to start. So we have a myth about religious texts being the word of god, for example. And we supplement what’s in the book by a plethora of beliefs whose origins we just don’t know. Angels and archangels, their names and functions; the saints, whose mythological function has been admitted by the Papacy which removed some from the calendar as unhistorical (many saints turn out to have been worshipped as gods before the advent of Christianity). The harrowing of hell (Halloween), the last judgement, the Antichrist, the devil in Eden, the torture of hell fire, the pearly gates, harps and gold and jewels we’ll find in paradise. None of this in scripture or in dogma, all of it believed by millions. Myths.
Not untrue. Just making life easier and more fulfilling for the faithful.
Myth is always current. Today there’s the invincible military commander, the sinful Hollywood star, the entertainers who died young. And many more. Of course there really have been outstanding military commanders, over self indulgent stars, and singers and actors who have died too soon, but the reality of these people is comparatively unimportant compared to the way we use them as symbols, as myths.
In fact even when there really are film star drug addicts we make up stories about stars which conform to the pattern which are just not true, myths in both senses of the word. Truth comes in second place to the need to express the myth. The Fatty Arbuckle scandal of 1921 is a case in point where press, public and studio made up a story about Arbuckle and ruined his career and his life, a story of a drunken revel in which a woman was brutally raped and died as a consequence, the victim of a grossly fat, wealthy and arrogant film star and his unbridled lusts (real story: a procuress tried to blackmail Arbuckle using one of her prostitutes).
So the fact that James Dean died at 24, Marilyn Monroe at 36, Buddy Holly at 23, doesn’t matter compared to a story of the fragility of fame. That Heath Ledger, River Phoenix and John Bellushi died of drug overdoses doesn’t matter as much as the story of the destructive pressures of a star’s lifestyle.
A myth, inside or outside of religion, is a mechanism that enables us to come to terms with an incomprehensible awareness. It maintains our sanity.
We don’t know much about ancient myths and their role in religions, except that of Christianity. They really have become just stories now. But we do know something about modern myth which is probably equally true about ancient myth.
Firstly, the story is always alleged to be true. The people who retell it are convinced they read it in a newspaper or heard it on TV news broadcasts. But it can never be traced. Probably there are ‘real life’ antecedents for Robin Hood, David and Goliath, buried treasure, femme fatales and ghosts. But they can never be pinned down reliably. Their mythic value is the important part.
Second, the story is structured. It bears a strong resemblance to the joke, always told the same way no matter who does the telling. Roughly speaking, when the point of the story is merely narrative, it can be regarded as folklore; when it acts out an emotional quandary, it is myth.
Often, confusingly, both occur in the same story. Robin Hood tells a colourful and romantic tale, but also expresses resentment at being exploited, and a wish for a fairer distribution of goods. If only there were a Robin Hood, think the heavily taxed people who don’t know how to avoid the tax.
Third, the story is oral. We don’t write down myths, we tell them. This might seem surprising in a literate culture, but the growth of a predominately graphic culture since the 1950s has caused a revival of tale as a medium of social exchange.
And lastly the myth is self referent. We tell a story based on a RPG based on a retelling of an ancient myth which gives it a SF context. We constantly requote the story and it doesn’t matter because its truth is not historical.
The vanishing hitchhiker story is at least 100 years old. It’s a ghost story. Driving along a deserted road, a man picks up a hitchhiker. He or she gets in the back seat, and doesn’t say a word. They drive to wherever they are going, and the driver turns to let his passenger out, and they have vanished. Telling the story later it turns out the passenger was murdered several years earlier, and is often picked up but vanishes before the car arrives at its destination.
The story is always true. It was read in a specific newspaper on a certain date (and can’t be found), happened to specific named people, often relatives of the teller, occurred at a certain junction of named roads outside a certain town and so on. Only the details always change on each retelling.
Just as much as the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (of which it is a version) this story helps us negotiate the fact of death, something we wonder about all our lives but can never realise, no matter how often we see it. Soldiers in combat see dead people but somehow don’t. Like the doctors in M.A.S.H. they have to put it at a distance to survive. Birth and death. Still the final frontier.
The man upstairs is another story, the subject of many horror movies. A babysitter minding the children gets a call late at night from someone who cackles eerily and hangs up. This happens several times, so she rings the exchange, who monitor the calls. When another call comes and she calls the exchange they tell her the call is from the upstairs extension. Down the stairs comes a maniac with a butcher’s knife. The babysitter runs for the police, who find he had slaughtered the children.
This starts as an expression of the unease we all feel at tales of serial killer atrocities. You can’t trust anyone, the serial killer is always described by neighbours as a nice guy. By turning it into a story you can release your resentment at death, always unexpected, unfair and unjust. This kind of tale acts the same way a detective story does. It is meant to reassure. Unlike the detective story, which focuses on justice and retribution of the law, this reminds the hearers that death is indeed, as in medieval times, the Grim Reaper, the man with the scythe.
The insect in the hairdo is an old one, one I heard myself when at school (as fact). A girl with an elaborate hairdo (often a 50s beehive style) doesn’t wash it or comb it, just adds more hairspray. She develops headache, and doctors examine her hair and discover an insect or spider has nested in her hair, bred, and the young are eating her scalp. Talk about tyranny of fashion! Don’t girls secretly resent some of the girl stuff they have to go through to be accepted in society?
Another one I once heard long ago was about alligators in the sewers. Supposedly flushed down the toilet when the baby grew too big for comfort, these beasts grew to a huge size, became white, blind, and flourished underground, where they were encountered at times by sewage workers, who had to flee for their lives. A bit like the plot of Conan Doyle’e Lost World or Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park! Never assume that pulp fiction is just pulp fiction!
These stories all come from Brunvand’s 1981 book. They’re ancient. While urban myths have a long shelf life (as do some of the ancient myths, in RPGs for example), there’re bound to have been many more since Brunvand’s book was published. What the book suggests is that we are all myth makers, tellers and listeners of myths, and have always been so, from before civilisation began. There’s the one about Y2K, yet another millennium story. Snopes mentions the Coca Cola story of its acid content, which cleans up whatever object is left in a glass of it overnight. That’s obviously untrue, but the sugar content is really bad for you. Not a myth, more an expression of unease at our self destructive tendencies. I wonder which ones you’ve heard lately?
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.