Where does an urban legend come from?

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Remember the story of the snake lurking in the dressing rooms of Robinson's Galleria? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In October, Robinsons Galleria launched a new digital campaign featuring actress Alice Dixson in an effort to advertise the mall’s recently renovated interiors. In the ad, Dixson can be seen browsing through racks of clothing and walking into the fitting room to try them on, but she feels as though she is being watched. A humanoid snake reveals itself — but it’s actually just a child in a costume.

In a little over a month, the campaign has reached 2.3 million views and tens of thousands of likes, comments, and shares on Facebook.

If parts of this story seem familiar to you, you’re not alone. The campaign makes a reference to a decades-old urban legend which claims that the mall was a secret hideaway for “Robinson,” supposed mutant son of John Gokongwei and twin brother of Robina Gokongwei-Pe. According to the legend, Robinson hid out in the department store fitting rooms to prey on unsuspecting young women, and certain versions state that he had attacked, or perhaps fallen in love with, Dixson herself. Celebrities tend to be common elements of urban legends, after all — there’s Richard Gere’s gerbil incident, and Lady Gaga’s secret life as a hermaphrodite.

“Urban legends are part of a broader concept that is folklore,” says Prof. Carlos P. Tatel, Jr., anthropologist and coordinator of the folklore studies program in the University of the Philippines. Folklore has two root words: folk, which corresponds to people, and lore, which corresponds to stories and narratives. “Put them together,” Tatel explains, “and it means ‘narratives [or] things about a group of people.’”  

Operationalized, he adds, the concept boils down to a knowledge of people: “What [they] do, their daily lives, their ideas, their habits, behavior, rituals, even what’s on their minds. All of it make up [the school of thought called] ‘kaalamang bayan.’”

Collective consciousness and creating culture

Specifically, urban legends are parts of “kaalamang bayan” that are rooted in urban areas and cities. “The thing about urban legends is that they prove that folklore is not relegated to the rural area,” Tatel says. “Folklore is common everywhere, whether it is rural or urban.” Regarding the dichotomy of city and province, the legends counter or disprove the idea that there is a divide between rural and urban sensibilities. Instead, Tatel explains, “there’s one continuous general consciousness of the people.”

More often than not, by the time we hear an urban legend, because of the speed at which it spreads and its wide reach, it will have become difficult to point out exactly where it came from and how it started. It gets told over and over and repeated, as though an object in a game of telephone or pass the message, and details are blurred and changed, resulting in different versions.

“Urban legends help you understand the nature of life, the nature of the people, of collective consciousness, because [the urban setting] helps you understand city norms and city life.” — Prof. Carlos P. Tatel, Jr.

“People will talk about it and some will remember what happened, and they will pass it on from one generation to another, hanggang sa maging part of the collective consciousness,” Tatel explains. “This is no different from other forms of culture na you don’t know when or where it started, pero people just do it. In time, it becomes part of the culture.” This, he adds, makes urban legends a factor of culture making.

The concept of a city is fairly recent, having existed within the past 200 years or so. Urban legends, then, are fairly modern examples of folklore. Tatel says that common factors include “popular culture, media, capitalists, buildings and transportation, crimes, [and other] elements that occur in or are associated with a city.” A friend of a friend of a friend may have been injected with a syringe along Recto, only to find a note that said, “Welcome to the HIV world.” Your mother may have told you about Agapito Flores, the Filipino man who supposedly invented fluorescent lights. You may have found yourself on Balete Drive, just waiting to catch a glimpse of a white lady in the rearview.

The making of a myth

The Robinsons Galleria story became mythical hearsay precisely because it’s set in a mall, which has become a familiar part of life, if not a way of life, in Filipino municipalities.

Tatel and Dax Carnay, creative director of advertising agency Echochannels which produced the Dixson campaign, are both familiar with the urban legend, and each had his own recollection of having heard of it.

Tatel, who was in high school at the time, attributes its beginnings to good, old-fashioned commercial rivalry. “You can say that it’s just a way to undermine the success of Robinsons [by other malls], kasi may competition, and it caught on.” In a way, this tactic seemed to have worked for Carnay, who was in elementary school when he heard it, as he remembers that “people wouldn’t even go to Galleria because we were scared it was actually true.”

Another urban legend that appears to have been brought about by attempts to ruin a business is the rumor that Chinese food, specifically siopao, contains cat meat. The success of Ma Mon Luk, one of the country’s pioneering modern Chinese restaurants, became a catalyst for others to open restaurant of their own. Ivan Man Dy, who leads walking tours of Binondo, Manila’s food culture called the Big Binondo Food Wok, told Pepper.ph that the “siomeow” myth may have come from their efforts to bring Ma Mon Luk down. Kowloon House, which also rose in popularity in the ‘90s, suffered from similar hearsay. In the same article, the Philippine Food and Drug Administration confirmed that inspections were conducted at Chinese restaurants, and no traces of cat meat were ever found.

Part of the reasoning behind the persistence of this rumor is the stereotype that Chinese immigrants are “cheap” and would prefer to slaughter stray cats than spend on real meat. Fact-checking website Snopes states that the cat meat urban legend has been found to have been around since “the earliest years of the British Empire in England and to the 1850s in the United States,” and even then, it was arguably rooted in racist and xenophobic notions, perpetuated by the difference in cultures between China and other countries.   

As a historical figure, Jose Rizal is also the subject of a few strange myths. One such story supposes that he may have been the biological father of Adolf Hitler, following a one-night tryst in Germany or Austria. However, accounts of Rizal’s travels across Europe prove this false, as he was in London and then France at the time of Hitler’s conception and birth between 1888 and 1889.

Rizal’s time in London is tied to an even more interesting possibility — that he was notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper, who struck fear and panic in the city when he was staying there. In historian Ambeth Ocampo’s book “Looking Back 5: Rizal’s Teeth, Bonifacio’s Bones,” he writes about this legend, noting that Rizal made a passing reference to Jack the Ripper in an essay on the Guardia Civil for La Solidaridad.

Theorists reasoned that Rizal was roughly the same height (“Jack” stood no more than 5’7”), had a mustache, was around the same age, and even had the same initials. Jack the Ripper killed victims with surgical precision, giving investigators the impression that the menace may have been a doctor, and Rizal was a doctor, as well. Most interesting is the fact that the killings are believed to have ceased at the same time that Rizal left London.

Lore in the time of social media

Perhaps one of the most well-known local urban legends in the Philippines is that of the above mentioned white lady on Balete Drive, which dates back to at least the 1950s. A story published in a newspaper in the mid-2000s purports that the myth was fabricated by a reporter in the ‘50s to make for an interesting story, combining multiple accounts.

This reporter may have been Neal H. Cruz, who wrote in the Philippine Inquirer about his experiences investigating Balete Drive. A “friend” of the white lady shared that she was actually a victim of a hit-and-run; a lost soul looking for revenge. He also interviewed a police captain who said he picked up a hitchhiking woman wearing all-white, only to find that she had disappeared into thin air at the end of the street.

The police captain’s story has become a common iteration of the urban legend; only today, it’s most attributed to taxi drivers on night shifts. In a modern spin, a Grab passenger now claims that her driver was dropping off a passenger at Robinsons Magnolia, only for her to vanish once they pass Balete Drive. There were supposedly records of unpaid transactions with routes along Balete Drive. Though one has to wonder, however, how a ghost can even create a Grab account.

“Sometimes, people spread stories because they're interesting, not necessarily because they’ve been verified to be true. In social media where likes and shares are a currency, urban legends and fabricated stories will inevitably arise.” — Mac Arboleda

In the early days of the internet, urban legends would be diligently and routinely passed along as “warnings” through forwarded emails. In the age of Twitter threads and Facebook posts, the viral nature of hearsay has only intensified. Various classic urban legends have actually begun popping up again and gaining thousands of interactions on Twitter, from the sperm cell in one student’s tissue sample in class to the kiss with a necrophiliac that results in body horror.

It can be said that it’s now much easier for such stories to get out of hand. Case in point: You may have heard that religious groups protested and demanded the cancellation of The Killers’ concert in Manila in 2013 because of their band name. But the truth of it was that it was a satirical Facebook post meant only for a small group of people to see and laugh at.

“It was mostly inspired by the absurdity of the actual protests that happened when Lady Gaga did a concert here,” says Mac Arboleda, who wrote and posted the fake article. He had done it to poke fun and to point out what a ridiculous idea it was, but when his friends began commenting, he realized that they actually believed it. “The entire time I really thought they would understand that it’s a joke, but apparently not.”
 

The post reached nearly 3,000 shares overnight, and it was even picked up by news sites and other websites.

Arboleda eventually used the event as a basis for his undergraduate thesis, which revolved around online audiences and satirical news. “With social media, it’s so much easier now to spread misinformation,” he says. “But many people still lack the literacy needed to be able to distinguish [what’s] satire from what’s not, the motivation to read entire articles, etc. Being familiar with current news also helps, and the problem with people who aren’t aware of what’s happening around them could easily be fooled by stories that are even just a tiny bit believable.”

And as with most urban legends, details are constantly being blurred the more it’s passed on — especially online, where knee-jerk reactions have become a normal part of the conversation.

“Sometimes, people spread stories because they're interesting, not necessarily because they’ve been verified to be true,” Arboleda adds. “In social media where likes and shares are a currency, urban legends and fabricated stories will inevitably arise.”

Making sense of the world

Tatel posits that if urban legends reveal anything about us and our customs, it’s that “we are indeed a very folkloric people.” It’s ingrained in our beliefs, our culture, and how we interact with the world around us. “[Folk tales] did not leave us when we supposedly became more modernized or urbanized. They’re a part of our lives.” He adds that folklore, by nature, is passed down orally — keeping the story alive and sustaining it by continuing to tell it.

“Urban legends aren’t just stuff that we hear; they create a world that we [don’t necessarily] see,” Carnay says. “They stick with us because we learn about them when we’re kids, trying to figure out the world.” Eventually, we outgrow these beliefs, but he says that the wonder never really goes away. “You choose to believe [or hold on to it] because it’s more interesting. It makes our lives interesting as people.”

According to Tatel, however, urban legends also have social relevance beyond giving us tales to tell around a campfire: “Urban legends help you understand the nature of life, the nature of the people, of collective consciousness, because [the urban setting] helps you understand city norms and city life,” he says. “They help you understand society better.”