Collective social neurosis or institutional existential knowledge? Nobody knows but we need it
By Pierre Maré in the Offbeat Series.
No doubt you know the story already. This guy and this girl, looking for a bit of privacy, head out into the bush, park on a deserted spot and get down to business. They turn on the music to set the scene but the tune is interrupted by a breathless newsflash. The announcer warns that a murderous lunatic with a hook instead of a hand has escaped from the local nuthatch. It’s an instant passion killer and the girl insists on heading back home.
When they arrive, the girl gets out of the car in the warm, safe lights of her parents’ porch. They are about to kiss goodnight when the young lady goes into hysterics. The guy protests that he only wanted to kiss her, but she points back to the car. There, hanging on the door of the love-mobile is a bloodied hook, presumably ripped from the arm of the lunatic as the car pulled off. I know it’s true. I heard it from the cousin of a friend of my aunt who heard it from a policeman who knew a guy who saw the evidence bag.
Urban legends are wonderful creatures. They travel from mouth to mouth and head to head, carrying with them more conviction than a kid waiting for Father Christmas to make his appearance.
Once upon a time, just a couple of centuries ago, urban legends were known as old wives tales or fairy stories. Those were the ones about the little girls wearing red hoods, who fell prey to dissembling wolves in the forest, or girls who accepted juicy red apples from sweet old ladies.
They are still very much around. Nowadays we get the e-mails about the dying kids who want postcards to fulfill their last, sad wishes, vicious viruses that will cause your computer to explode and free boxes of champagne or wads of freshly minted dollars, just by sending an e-mail onwards to thirty people within ten minutes of receiving it.
These enduring stories are all linked by two factors: an element of learning and an unflinching belief.
Whether the purpose of the story is to tell you not to go necking in the woods where your parents can’t see you, or to instruct you to experience a moment of sentimental spirituality by sending a postcard to a dying kid, you stop and listen, if only for a moment. And as for the truth of the stories, well they always come from someone credible who heard it from someone else who is credible.
There is a secret river of stories. We stand by its half-glimpsed bank, and occasionally drink from its contents. Where it leads, we will never know: if we followed it for a lifetime we would not reach its end. And even if we discovered its mouth, like someone standing on the shores of a great ocean, we would not be able to comprehend the vast result in its entirety.
But perhaps the most important culmination of that river’s journey is not an ocean of beliefs, so much as the minds and lives of those who drink from it. Getting hacked up by some twisted freak in Lover’s Lane is not a great prospect, nor is an unplanned child as a result of the illicit tryst.
Somewhere, in the recesses of the mind, hidden below the pressing imperatives of eating, sleeping, reproducing, staying warm, safe and dry, there is another urge: to ensure that our offspring and those whom we value have the wits to stay alive and improve themselves.
The secret river, the stream of knowledge in the fairy tales, urban legends, old wives’ tales, campfire stories and e-mails, contains truths that we cannot ignore. Hidden amongst the lurid endings, there are deeper yet less complex messages.
As important as our physical needs, the secret river that flows from head to head, and from lifetime to lifetime, is a template of knowledge that guarantees humanity’s survival and prosperity, in spite of its baser, more stupid instincts.
I have to stop writing now. I hear that burglars leave strategically placed items of litter on the pavement to identify which houses to visit. I saw a sweet wrapper lying on my pavement this morning. Although I am normally fastidious about litter, I just want to make sure that the pavement is extra clean.