Legends can take on a life of their own
By Gary W. Cramer
The amazing persistence of contemporary legends like "The Devil-Worshippers at the Prom" and "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" is partly due to people sometimes acting out portions of the tales, a Penn State folklore researcher said.
Also adding to the staying power of some stories -- and their ability to crop up across the world in different forms -- is the trend for well-meaning, but overreactive authority figures to insist the stories are true based on flimsy evidence.
"Halloween season is a fertile time for contemporary legends," Bill Ellis, associate professor of English and American studies at the Penn State Hazleton Campus, said. "When real-life actions are guided by a pre-existing legend, as has been seen in some cases, folklorists call it 'ostension.'
"An example would be prankster teens creating a 'satanic altar' somewhere in a town being plagued by rumors that Satanists intend to disrupt prom night."
Another form of ostension occurs when honestly concerned people interpret vague or inconclusive happenings as supportive of some contemporary legend's actual existence, Ellis said. In this manner, puzzling graffiti, dead animals or strangers in town may seem to "prove" Satanists are active locally.
Ellis is widely published on rumor-panics so common that they have their own names, among them, "The Lights Out Gang Initiation," "The Mickey Mouse LSD" and "Welcome to the World of AIDS."
"Legends can help people relieve themselves of contemporary fears, but they may also serve as patterns for mischief makers to provoke the same fears," Ellis said. "Adolescents may feel they can get a rise out of adults by mimicking tampered Halloween candy, 'sacrificing' animals, or spray-painting inverted pentangles and '666' in public places."
Such activity is not confined to the high-school age group, however. College campuses are almost routinely hit by rumors of impending mass murder in dorm complexes, sometimes helped by pranksters faking evidence that some homicidal maniac is lurking about the area. At such times, contemporary legends like "The Roommate's Death" may also spread as an expression of coeds' fears.
According to Ellis, even the practice of people taking "legend trips" to sites with supposed supernatural connections -- a haunted house or suicide bridge, for example -- and concocting faux rituals there can convince gullible witnesses that shadowy underground cults are afoot.
"For the most part," Ellis said, "as disconcerting as these actions may seem, it's just a way of saying, 'See? The legend is true after all!' What's more, it seems likely that different forms of ostension work in synergy.
"That is to say, the more naturally occurring incidents are explained in terms of Satanism, for example, the more certain people will be tempted to experiment with ostension. This includes either acting out narratives as hoaxes, or, more dangerously, taking Satanism seriously and becoming, however temporarily, part of the legend itself."

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A card from Steve Jackson's 1995 Illuminati card game foreshadowing the event's of 9/11 by six years.