Friday, November 12, 2010

Urban Legend has it

 I'm a sucker for an urban legend. I've even been know to adopt a few for my fiction. I have my favourite ones too, mainly involving the London Underground, whose subterranean mystery generates more than its fair share of myths (underground spaces do generally - alligators in the sewers of New York anyone?): the guy who wakes up on a stopped tube train late at night and thinks it's his station and so gets off, only to reach the surface and find it bricked up - turns out he's in a disused station, lit for the purpose of maintenance, and he's going to be in there overnight bwahahaahaa etc); the stories of secret tunnels that pass Buckingham Palace and/or Downing Street to whisk away the Royal Family and cabinet in times of national emergency; another (which I even tried once) that said if you you encounter an emergency on the tube network, where there is no mobile phone signal, you could still dial 112 and reach emergency services via satellite. It wasn't true.

So I was delighted to be told one the other day by a friend. It goes like this: a young woman gets on the tube late at night. The carriage is empty save for a young man. Three other people embark; two men and a woman, all looking the worse for wear and rather seedy. They sit, the woman between the two men. The young woman, like all good city dwellers, does the right thing when faced with undesirables and avoids any eye contact whatsoever.

While the young woman is reading an advert for throat pastilles or wondering how to pronounce Plaistow, anything to avoid looking at the others, the man in his thirties sits beside her and whispers in her ear: 'Get off at the next stop.' She is obviously taken back by this, not one for trusting orders given by strange men, but something in the man's eyes and the urgency of his voice tells her she should obey, and she doesn't want to be left alone with the other three. So off they get. As the train starts to pull away the man points to the three still on the train, their backs to the window. The woman clearly sees a pair of scissors sticking out of the back of the skull of the woman on the train. As it departs the young man tells her she was dead and he saw them drag her on to the train.

Very creepy. So much so that I had to Google it. It turns out that it is an urban legend par excellence. The story is told relocated to Sydney, Australia, though this time featuring three girls, with the one in the middle staring out at the subject of the story. Later she discovers the girl was dead, strangled by the other two. Then there was another tale where a doctor is involved and recognises the woman opposite is dead.

It doesn't stop there. Variations on the story date back to the 1980s, pre-Internet and the rocket boosters it puts on rumours and conspiraces. One emanates from Manchester, with two girls observing and the later realising the girl with the intense stare is dead. There's a New York version too, dating back before the tube. This time a husband and wife travelling by stagecoach, when three ruffians board, one seeming insensible with drink. The two others get off leaving him there and when the couple try to rouse the last they discover his throat has been cut.

There is even an Italian version, told this time from the point of view those smuggling the corpse on board. The father dies and to save the cost of a coffin to take him home for burial, his two sons take him in the carriage and prop him up either side. So the story has it, they leave the body unattended, but when they return he is gone and a family are sat there instead. Under questioning the terrified family reveal that the train jolted unexpectedly, their heavy suitcase fell on the elderly gentleman below, and when they checked to see if he was ok they found he was dead. Thinking it was their suitcase which killed him, they threw his body from the train. More darkly comic than creepy, but cut from a similar cloth.

It was an instructive exercise, revealing how the stories evolve and are adapted over time. My theory is that like most  of these legends, this story contains a kernel of truth - that an event happened somewhere in which a body was found on a train, or a stagecoach, which other people initially thought to be alive, and because it resonates so much - perhaps due to the impersonality of public transport, where strangers are crammed together in a confined space and rarely speak or even look at each other - it has mutated into myth. There are countless urban legends of bodies riding around and around on the tube for hours on end, dead as doornail, but everyone is too preoccupied to care.

One article even took me to a recent story in which two German women attempted to smuggle the body of a dead relative on to a plane. I learned there is a phrase to describe the phenomenon where real life shares a parallel with urban legend - 'ostension of folklore.' Which then set me to thinking about how much ostension of folklore takes place in crime fiction, and vice versa. I have spoken before how I wrote a scene for my latest book in which someone is poisoned eating a curry, and only a few days later a woman stood trial accused of doing exactly that to her husband. Of course, she had not read my draft, but the reports of her being arrested and charged might have appeared a few months before and seeped into my subconscious.

That or I'm blessed with psychic abilities. Come to think of it, I do remember walking to a sports shop in my home town when I was a kid humming Pinball Wizard by The Who, only to arrive at the shop and hear it playing on the radio. Spooky.


Dan - Friday

nb. Scary footnote. Just paid a quick visit to the BBC website and read that Circle Line trains are returning to normal after being delayed when the body of a young man was found in a tunnel near Bayswater (cue Twilight Zone music.)


  1. "...I do remember walking to a sports shop in my home town when I was a kid humming Pinball Wizard by The Who, only to arrive at the shop and hear it playing on the radio. Spooky."

    Dan, I think this is an urban legend... Frank Harrison's would never play music !

  2. Boston has its own urban legend but it is like a fairy tale compared to your story, Dan.

    In January, 1919, in a warehouse in Boston, there was a vat of molasses being prepared for the purpose of making rum.

    The rum part is believable because Boston was one of the stops on the Triangular Trade route before American independence. Goods like cloth went from England to Africa, goods were off loaded and slaves were loaded on, then the ship went to the colonies where it dropped off the slaves, and picked up molasses, rum, and timber for England.

    Anyway, in January, generally the coldest month of the year in New England, the vat containing all the molasses exploded and the stuff ran through the streets of the North End at 35 miles per hour, according to eye witnesses who were likely scared witless and not clocking the speed.

    Twenty-one people died and 150 were injured. There were also many horses that died in the mess, too.

    There are two parts to the legend. One is that molasses can be smelled in the area on a hot day in summer. Hot days in summer can reach into the 90F degree zone so maybe some people can stretch their imaginations to include the smell of molasses. The other part says that molasses can be smelled on the anniversary of the flood. That one is a little harder to believe in that mid-January offers Bostonians the opportunity to be so swaddled in clothes and scarves that they wouldn't smell molasses if it was waved under their noses.

    So, our legend is pretty tame.


  3. Giles, it wasn't the legendary Frank H - it was Merlin sports (next to where the video shopo used to a, actually not sure what it is now, will check at xmas)

    Beth, I actually read about that during my urban legend trawl! A fascinating tale for sure. There's a similar story in 19th century England of people drowning in beer from a brewery flood. What a way to go!

  4. Ah; urban legends are great. But sometimes real life is just as good.

    In the remote part of Jutland where I live, there was a youngish (none-too-bright) man who lost his old father a few years ago. He wanted his father to say goodbuy to the area in style so he put the body on the backseat of his motorbike and drove around to the father´s favourite spots - until the police who had been alerted by the residential home spoiled their fun.

    Absolutely true. And afterwards it was made into a film.

  5. Dan--

    In 1993 I wrote a spec script that opened with an Arab terrorist going in for plastic surgery and getting snatched off the operating table by a CIA black ops team; when the guy wakes up he's on a plane headed for the US.

    The script didn't sell. But a year later Carlos The Jackal was grabbed during plastic surgery.

    Convinced the CIA had someone in Hollywood reading every screenplay that mentioned them, I tried to get my agent to send a bill to Langley. Wouldn't do it.

    Another fun post. Thanks, Dan.


  6. The next thing you'll be telling us is that there is no Santa Claus.


  7. We had an experience a bit like your curry one with A Carrion Death. We thought we'd invented a neat scam to circumvent the Kimberly Process for authenticating diamonds and we handed it to our characters to get on with it. After the book came out, a group at a mine were accused of pulling exactly that scam. Someone always thinks of it first!