It always goes something like this: "Please Read! Your Safety Matters!" And it's an email or Facebook post about some horrible story that makes you want to run and hide under a rock (after you've forwarded the item to all your friends).
The one I got recently was about a "smart woman" who just barely managed to save herself. Apparently, this "woman" had gone out to the mall parking lot and found she had a flat tire. She was about to fix it, when a nicely dressed man with a briefcase walked up and offered to help. She gratefully accepted.
When he was done, he threw the tools in her trunk, shut it and asked for a ride to the other side of the mall, where he'd parked his car — but something felt strange. She told him that first she had to run back to the mall for something. Run she did. When she returned with a mall guard, the man was gone. They opened the trunk, and there was his briefcase — filled with rope, knives and duct tape!
"When the police checked her 'flat' tire, there was nothing wrong with it. The air had been deliberately let out," read the email. "Please forward to all the women you know. It may save a life."
Yeah, and so may warnings about the Abominable Snowman.
Look, this story is clever. It's creepy. It's just like the ones we used to tell at slumber parties: "Their wish on the monkey's paw had come true!" It sends a chill up your spine, apparently leaving your brain too frozen to ask some simple questions, such as:
—A serial killer lets the air out of someone's tire at the mall and then hangs around hoping the owner will come back, what, an hour later? Two? Four? He just keeps hanging around?
—No one notices him?
—He just hopes that the car belongs to a single lady and not a family of five?
—He bothers with a huge, elaborate plot when he could just snatch someone from a seedy rest stop?
As my friend who passed this along noted with annoyance, "please. Has this EVER happened to ANYONE?"
And the answer is: No. You can find the scenario, word for word, on Snopes.com, the very valuable website that tracks and cracks urban myths.
Now, obviously, urban myths have been around for a long time. Spider eggs in Bubble Yum, anyone? Heck, witches in Salem, anyone? What's different is that today, thanks to social media, they keep getting recycled, almost always by well-meaning people. Unfortunately, those people are making the world a little LESS safe each time.
After you've read your third or fourth email about a good Samaritan who turns out to be more devious than the Joker, it's hard to trust anyone who says, "Can I lend you a hand?" It even becomes hard to offer a hand, knowing how suspicious you may look. Thus begins the breakdown in community. People feel stupid reaching out.
Moreover, urban myths portray a society in which the worst is commonplace. Just the other day, my friend told me she was scared to take her eyes off her daughter while shopping because she'd heard of a little girl who was snatched from the aisles of a Target and found minutes later in the bathroom with half her head shaved! (The better to disguise her and smuggle her out.) That's an urban myth that dates back to the '50s, if not before, according to Snopes.com, and over the years, it has "taken place" at the county fair, at Sears, at Ikea... The fact that it never dies means parents still are being scared out of their wits by an event that never occurred.
Really, why would a predator waste valuable getaway time staying in the store? What about all the hair on the floor? And how common are child snatchers anyway?
In truth, they're very uncommon. Ditto serial killers with butcher knives in their briefcases. But when we are warned about them constantly, they start to seem as common as a shopping trip turned deadly.
Or an email forwarded by a friend.