Senior editor Anne Dingus relays some tales that are tall—even by Texas standards.
URBAN LEGENDS MAY BE FALSE, but they’ve been a tried-and-true source of entertainment for Texans for decades. These scams, hoaxes, and “scarelore” (a term favored by scholars of the genre) are merely the modern version of ghost stories, tall tales, and just plain jokes—new spouses’ sagas instead of old wives’ tales, if you will—that have morphed to keep up with current events, pop-culture trends, and the latest technology. Thanks to e-mail and computers, more people are falling for urban legends than ever before. (In fact, the Web is not just a vehicle for urban legends but fodder for creating them. Killer-virus hoaxes, too-good-to-be-true giveaways, and even good ol’ chain letters regularly make the electronic rounds.)
Older folkloric beliefs range from silly (placing a penny on the tracks will derail a train) to superstitious (if a buzzard’s shadow falls on you, you’re doomed). Their updated brethren often reveal racism (Mexican food contains roach eggs) or technophobia (cell phones attract lightning). Enduringly popular are various monster tales (giant catfish lurk in fill-in-the-blank lake) and homicidal maniacs (one Texas teen’s Web page mentions “Blinko the clown,” whom she identifies as “a mental institution escapee who stalked and killed five people. He chopped off their heads and hands and hid the bones”). The events of September 11, 2001, spawned dozens of cautionary tales about terrorism (a timely one is “Stay Out of the Mall on Halloween”).
Many such legends, urban or rural, are known nationwide in one form or another. But others (like that of Blinko) are indisputably Texan. A famous one is more than a century old and contains more than a grain of truth: the claim that Governor James Hogg named his three daughters Ima, Ura, and Wera. Ura and Wera never existed, but Ima Hogg did (poor thing). In the We’ll Never Know Department is a rumor about Lyndon Baines Johnson that asserts his ears were not his only outsize appendages. And Texas keeps many classics going strong. For example, there’s “The Mexican Pet,” a story about a Texas matron who returns from a south-of-the-border vacation with a darling little doggie that turns out to be [insert dramatic pause] a rat. A creepier story is that of the college student who parties with new friends, gets drunk, and wakes up later in a bathtub filled with ice. A message on the bathroom mirror (written in, depending on the teller, lipstick or blood) reads: “Call 911—or you will die.” The student discovers a deep incision on his lower back: One of his kidneys is gone! In 1997 this urban legend sparked so much hysteria at the University of Texas at Austin that the student newspaper, The Daily Texan, wrote an editorial assuring people it was bogus.
Below is a list of titillating Texas tales that, over the past few years, have duped dudes, dopes, and even us regular folks. Eight of the entries are false; two are true. You must determine which are which—or you will die.
1. The State of Texas offers free towing to anyone whose vehicle breaks down on a state highway. The 800 number is listed on the back of your driver’s license.
2. While George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he attempted to close seven colleges in the state because their enrollments were predominantly black.
3. The anti-litter slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas” was taken literally by certain Wall Street investors, causing oil prices to tumble dramatically.
4. Federal officials thwarted a plan by terrorists to bomb 7-Eleven convenience stores, which are owned by a Dallas corporation, on July 11, 2002.
5. Two men who handed out perfume samples at a Houston mall were actually persuading female shoppers to inhale a substance that rendered them unconscious, allowing the men to rob them.
6. A Texas legislator once sponsored a bill praising the Boston Strangler for his outstanding work in population control.
7. Dallas gang members have been known to drive around the city with their headlights off and, merely for fun, shoot any driver who flashes his own headlights as a warning.
8. Atheist leader Madalyn Murray O’Hair launched a drive to compel the federal government to ban all religious broadcasting in the U.S.
9. A movie scheduled to be filmed in Texas will depict Jesus Christ as a homosexual.
10. Both picking bluebonnets and driving barefoot are legal in Texas.
1. False. There is an 800 number printed on the back of every Texas driver’s license to provide emergency roadside assistance, but paying for a tow truck or anything else is up to you.
2. False. While Bush was running for president, federal officials compiled a list of Texas colleges that had a high rate of defaulted student loans. Seven of those schools had student bodies that were largely African American. A combination of misunderstanding and over-generalization led to a widely circulated e-mail alleging that Bush wanted to shut down the state’s all-black schools.
3. False. This is merely a joke, and a pretty weak one at that.
4. False. Stories of various and sundry terrorist-style attacks flourished after the World Trade Center tragedy. The response to this example of scarelore died down after the date in question passed with no major calamity.
5. False. This is the latest shopping-mall horror story, a thriving subgenre of urban legendry. According to a Houston television station, one Harris County employee was reprimanded for e-mailing the tale from her office computer, thus giving it the gloss of official approval.
6. True. In 1971 Waco’s Tom Moore suggested honoring Albert de Salvo, the Boston Strangler, as an April Fool’s Day joke, while another legislator said it demonstrated that the Texas Legislature often pays too little attention to the content of resolutions and bills.
7. False. This fear-fueled story was spread through e-mail, radio, and other media not only in Texas but also throughout the country, with the particular city changing from state to state.
8. False. This story continues to circulate seven years after O’Hair disappeared (and more than a year after her remains were discovered on a remote Real County ranch).
9. False. Although this rumor first appeared in the eighties, it was revived in May 2000 after dramatist Terrence McNally staged a play set in Corpus Christi that portrayed Jesus as gay.
10. True. But please don’t do both at the same time.