Living Legends

Are there alligators in Houston's sewers? Does a mysterious lady haunt Dallas' White Rock Lake? You'd better believe it.

October 2002By Comments

I ALWAYS HAD MY DOUBTS about the jackalope, and I figured out early on that Pecos Bill hadn’t really roped that tornado. But I admit I have fallen for my share of a newer form of folklore: the urban legend. One story in particular first masqueraded as grandmotherly wisdom. Back in the seventies, when I was a college student, I often visited my grandparents in Bay City. Every time I got ready to leave, my grandmother Mimi would tell me, with great solemnity, a horrifying tale: While traveling alone at night, she said, a local woman pulled into a service station to get gas. The attendant filled up her tank and took her cash but then told her there was a problem with the car and asked her to step inside for a minute. She balked at first, but he was insistent. Once both were safely in the office, he said, “Sorry, ma’am, but I had to get you out of your car. There’s a man hiding in the back seat.”

At age eighteen, I was petrified by this story—but not for long. Soon I heard the very same thing, breathlessly related during a late-night dorm-room gabfest. I oohed and aahed along with everyone else, but I also heard the faint sound of my bullshit detector going off. The story was obviously just that: a story. I’ve enjoyed keeping up with the backseat-bad-guy tale as time has passed; it continually morphs to keep its plausibility rating high. In one newer version—adapted to reflect the rise of self-serve gas pumps—a woman at a filling station slides her credit card through the card reader on the pump only to have the display screen repeatedly flash the message “Please see attendant.” Irritated, she storms inside, and the clerk tells her that he saw a man sneak into the back seat of her car. The Austin friend who told me this updated rendition enhanced its believability by identifying the station as “the Texaco right over there on Seventh.”

The word “folklore” may sound old-fashioned, and suggest geezers whittling on the porch while spinning yarns, but it simply means the traditional knowledge of any culture. That is the definition favored by Francis Edward Abernethy, who has served as the secretary-editor of the Texas Folklore Society for 31 years, so he ought to know. Thus urban legends are merely bits of Johnny-come-lately folklore that pertain to (or have adapted to) city living. The stories are wildly divergent, but they have one thing in common: The protagonist is invariably nameless, described by the narrator as “my neighbor’s cousin” or something equally vague. The unidentified source is such a constant that folklorists now use the term “FOAF,” which stands for “friend of a friend.”

Many a Texas legend is nothing more than a revisited ghost story. There’s the oldie about the “murder steer,” an apparition said to appear to cowboys wherever foul play had occurred, and the more recent rumor about Dallas’ defunct Olla Podrida shopping center, which closed in 1996. It was doomed, some say, because it was built atop an old cemetery, a popular theme in American folklore that also underpinned the 1982 movie Poltergeist (directed by Texas native Tobe Hooper). But these days it’s actually rare to find traditional spookiana—haunted houses, moaning ghosts. Much more common in urban legends are the ever-popular psychopaths-at-large (the ax killer, the hook man) or endless variations on the theme of technology gone haywire, HAL-style. For example, the popularity of tanning salons in the eighties produced a cautionary tale about a Texas cheerleader who spent too much time under a sunlamp and cooked her own innards (she kept trying to shower off the spoiled-meat odor before she died).

Speaking of the evils of technology, the Internet has proved a more efficient broadcaster of urban legends than the back fence or office watercooler could ever be; to pass a story on to scores of friends, all a user has to do is click on the “forward” icon. In my office, for example, a concerned colleague recently e-mailed everyone on staff a memo detailing a redoubtable but doubtable incident at a shopping mall parking lot. Here’s the short version: A woman discovered that her car had a flat. A well-dressed man approached and offered to help change it. Something about him bothered her, so she made an excuse to go back inside the mall. When she returned with a security guard, the man was gone, but he had left behind his briefcase, which contained handcuffs and a knife.

According to J. Rhett Rushing, who teaches folklore at both Southwest Texas State and Texas Lutheran universities, all urban legends play off human fears. Abductions and attacks are obviously a greater real threat, but scary critters populate many a story today, just as the cyclops and the fire-breathing dragon used to. Border residents still whisper about the chupacabra, a “goatsucker” generally described as half-dog, half-lizard, with big wings and nasty fangs, that feasts on the blood of livestock and even—ooooh—innocent sleeping babies. In Houston, part of the local folk canon is the tale of man-eating alligators in the sewers. How’d they get there? They were acquired as pets while still babies, of course, but—when they proved uncuddly—were flushed down the toilet by disenchanted owners. A nice au courant touch: The giant reptiles are crazed from eating mutant marijuana, which sprouted in the sewers after panicked dope smokers flushed their stash. (The good news: How fast can a stoned gator run?)

Like the gator story, most urban legends in Texas are customized to fit the people and the place. In one hoary story, a rancher dies of a rattlesnake bite. The man’s grief-stricken son inherits his father’s hand-tooled boots, but the first time he wears them, he too is fatally poisoned—by the very same fang, which is still embedded in the leather. (Is this possible, herpetologically speaking? Details, details.) Another bogus snake story that has slithered around forever concerns a water-skier who dies an agonizing death when he plows into a nest of water moccasins. Larry McMurtry couldn’t resist including this tale in Lonesome Dove, though he substituted a river-fording cowpoke for the water-skier.

A classic urban legend is that of the vanishing hitchhiker, which may be the apotheosis of the genre. According to Rushing, it’s a pancultural tale that predates the automobile; ancient incarnations involve passengers in wagons, buggies, and even chariots. The gist of the modern version: A couple driving at night stops to help a young woman standing by the side of the road. They offer her a ride home, but when they arrive at the address she has given, they discover that she has mysteriously disappeared. Curious, they knock on the door of the house; the man who answers reveals that his daughter died exactly a year earlier. (Baby boomers will remember the 1965 song “Laurie,” which was based on this story.) Dallas has its own distinctive and venerable take on the vanishing-hitchhiker saga, in which the damsel in distress is known as “the lady of White Rock Lake” and is clad in a dripping-wet white evening gown. The good samaritans are teens on their way to the prom; nevertheless, they detour and take the girl home. When they arrive, they find nothing but a puddle of water on the back seat and learn from her sorrowful father that she drowned a year before on her own prom night. A final detail: Her elegant dress bore a Neiman Marcus label. (How would the couple know this? Doesn’t matter—no point trying to unravel a fabrication.)

Neiman Marcus isn’t the only famous Texas institution to figure in urban legends (an ancient and erroneous one holds that Waco’s greatest invention, Dr Pepper, contains prune juice), but references to the revered retailer abound. The best known is the tale of the Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie, in which a customer dining in the Zodiac Room is so delighted with the store’s version of the sweet that she asks the waiter if the recipe is for sale. Yes, he says, for two-fifty. Later she receives her Visa bill and discovers the store has charged her $250. Neiman Marcus’ vice president of public relations, Ken Downing, has heard this urban legend so often that he researched its history. “The cookie myth originated in New York at the Waldorf-Astoria,” Downing says. “This was a long time ago, sometime after World War II. Supposedly a customer ordered the red velvet cake and loved it so much she asked for the recipe. When she checked out, she found she’d been charged a hundred dollars for it. The story used to be told about Marshall Field’s in Chicago too. Somehow over the years it became about a chocolate chip cookie from Neiman Marcus. But one little detail is a giveaway,” he adds wryly. “Neiman Marcus doesn’t take Visa. We accept only American Express and Neiman Marcus cards.”

Like the cookie recipe, most urban legends can be dismissed simply by checking the facts—or, more likely, the lack thereof. A couple of decades ago, rumors ran rampant about poor Mexican children being abducted and smuggled into the U.S., where they were killed for the sole purpose of harvesting their organs. Writer Debbie Nathan shot that one down in a 1990 Texas Observer article. A currently hot story concerns a child who, while on a playground at a McDonald’s, picks up a discarded syringe from which he contracts AIDS or accidentally injects himself with heroin. Some enterprising legendaire made this a full-fledged hoax by adding a specific name (Kevin Archer) and city (Houston). The story sparked so many calls to the Houston Chronicle that the beleaguered newspaper finally put a permanent disclaimer on its Web site.

It’s only natural that regional storytellers would Texanize urban legends. But even the doyen of the genre, Utah’s Jan Harold Brunvand, who has studied urban legends for twenty-plus years, often prefers the Texas version. For example, in his book Curses! Broiled Again!, Brunvand examines one academic neoclassic as it was circulated at Southern Methodist University. A sophomore there wrote him an is-it-true letter about the “suicide rule,” which supposedly guaranteed a 4.0 for the semester to anyone whose roommate committed suicide. Brunvand lists many other Texas-linked legends in his various anthologies, which you can find at most any library or bookstore.

But don’t forget to check the back seat before you drive home.

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