4 Irrational Fears That Aren't as Irrational as They Seem

#2. Serial Killers

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Again, like everything else on this list (except June bugs), I'm not saying you should live in constant, mortal fear of being attacked by a serial killer. If you find you're having that objection to everything mentioned here so far, fucking stop, because that's not the point. What I'm getting at instead is that it's very possible that we're underestimating the threat presented by some legitimately dangerous stuff.

Case in point, there's a pretty interesting situation unfolding in the Midwest right now that I didn't have time to touch on in last week's fantastic column about misconceptions people have about the area. In Lacrosse, Wisconsin, depending on who you ask, there is either an epidemic of young, athletic white males, usually of college age or close to it, getting drunk and accidentally drowning in rivers, or someone is purposely murdering victims fitting that description in alarming numbers.

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Good luck catching this one!

The people who claim foul play aren't doing themselves any favors when it comes to convincing people they aren't lunatic conspiracy theorists. For starters, the most common theory is based on a phenomenon called "The Smiley Face Killings," which sounds exactly like the kind of hokey shit someone would think up for a movie about serial killers. Then again, the case for murder isn't completely without merit.

Initially put forth by two retired NYC detectives, the theory claims that dozens, possibly hundreds of drowning deaths, in as many as 11 states, are all the work of one killer or group of killers who leave a calling card in the form of a smiley face spray painted at the point where each victim's body was dumped in the water.

So the killer is a professional artist, write that down.

Yeah, fine, so what are we talking about, a few deaths connected by way of the most common graffiti known to man? Well, more like 40 deaths. That was the approximate count when the theory first surfaced back in 2003; others estimate the number of "victims" to be in the hundreds.

Is it all just an urban legend, though? That's how almost every police precinct that's found one of these cases in their jurisdiction has handled any talk of a serial killer hunting college-age white males. Most of the cases are closed with a brief investigation that ends with the police determining the cause of death to be accidental drowning. That's how things initially unfolded when a Minneapolis college student named Chris Jenkins went missing on Halloween night in 2002. He turned up four months later in the Mississippi River, and police quickly wrote the incident off as a mere accident.

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This picture seems as appropriate as any other at this point.

When the family of the victim asked for a second opinion, an independent investigator noted that Jenkins' body was found fully clothed, his shoes on and his shirt still tucked in, with his arms folded in front of him, all of which is completely inconsistent with death by drowning. A person's natural instinct when drowning is to try to swim out of harm's way, which means most drowning victims are found floating face down, arms outstretched, and usually missing several articles of clothing. There's also a surveillance camera pointed at all times at the bridge Jenkins fell from. He never appeared on that video footage once in the hours and days surrounding his disappearance. Finally, after years of claiming otherwise, police reopened the Jenkins case as a homicide in 2006. It remains unsolved.

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One more time, for good measure.

Or how about the case of Jesse Maness? He was last heard from in a cellphone call from his car at around 2 a.m. Police searched the area he was last seen for days and found nothing. Then, as if by magic, his overturned vehicle was found in the exact same area six days later. The theory was that Maness hit a DOT construction sign, causing him to drive off the bridge and ultimately drown. It sounds relatively normal, save for the six days without finding the car part, but it gets weirder. Maness was actually found outside the vehicle wearing different clothes from those he was seen wearing on the night of his disappearance. He was also without shoes, but only because they were just kind of sitting in the car as opposed to actually being on his feet. According to the official police reports, his death was the result of drowning in approximately 18 inches of water.

As suspicious as it may seem, authorities still write all of these cases off as accidents and coincidences. College students get drunk and separated from the group of friends they're partying with all the time, and bad things happen as a result. It's the kind of thing that can happen to anyone. That it seems to only be happening to white, athletic males who attend college near the I-94 is surely just a coincidence. Right?

Oh, and speaking of structures overlooking intimidating bodies of water ...

#1. Bridges

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We all have that one overly worried friend who curls up in the fetal position and trembles with fear every time they're in a car that passes over a bridge. Unfortunately, every single one of that friend's fears was justified a few years ago when the I-35 bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. The tragedy killed 13 people, injured another 150, and exposed huge flaws in our nation's bridges that, if not addressed, could lead to that scene being repeated several times over throughout the country. Well, guess what? Those flaws, for the most part, have not been addressed! If you're the video kind, you can hear all the sad details in this New York Times documentary (relax, it's less than 10 minutes):

If you prefer your disheartening information to be delivered via text, please note that of the 607,000 bridges in the United States, more than 65,000 are considered "structurally deficient." In Pennsylvania, 1 in 4 bridges qualifies for this label. Even worse, there are approximately 20,000 bridges in the United States that are classified as "fracture critical," which means that if just one component breaks, the entire thing will collapse. That bridge in Minneapolis was fracture critical.

Janie Airey/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Keep in mind that these are the numbers today, a full seven years removed from the most tragic bridge collapse in recent memory. We've had many years to start getting this shit in order, and we are not doing it. In fact, when a lot of the bridges we drive on today initially went up, they were built to have a 50-year lifespan. Most of these bridges were built in the 1950s. Do the math, then think about it the next time your work commute has you stopped on a bridge with hundreds of other motorists. The flaw that brought down the I-35 bridge went undiscovered for over 40 years, and for many of the bridges we rely on every day, their biggest flaw is simply that they've been around as long as they have. The bridges of America weren't built to last forever, but we haven't stopped pretending that's not true.

Adam wants nothing more in life than for you to come to a live recording of the Unpopular Opinion podcast on May 20 at the Hollywood Improv. Get tickets here. Barring that, you can see him this Saturday at Westside Comedy Theater and follow him on all of your most favorite social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, and Friendster (link forthcoming).

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