For most of human history, we could make up whatever we wanted to about people who lived in different lands or practiced strange faiths. If you lived in 17th century England and wanted to spread a rumor about how Japanese people bathed themselves using live seagulls as soap, it wasn't like anyone could call up Japan and check.
And yet even with the infinite range of bullshit that humanity could invent about outsiders, over the course of history most of the stuff we've come up with has fit into a small number of very specific categories. What's weirder still is that even though we're living in a time when untrue rumors can be debunked by a short smartphone search while we're on the toilet, a lot of us still believe these things. For example, we keep believing that ...
#5. They Are Having Hidden Religious Sex
A guy in the Middle East once told me that on Christmas Eve, Christians in the West attend midnight services that are actually orgies. He said that at midnight in these churches, "all the lights go off" and "you can imagine what happens next." I tried to tell him that the majority of people in the West go to Christmas services with their families, and that most of us can valiantly fight to overcome our lust toward our children and parents even on the blackest of nights. He didn't seem convinced, though, and that's probably because this particular rumor is several times older than America. The idea of a Christian "dark midnight sex service" has been around since Christianity was still a minority religion in the Roman Empire. According to the Roman stories, worshipers would even train a dog to knock over a lamp at a certain time, plunging the church into glorious, incestuous darkness.
This dog spent most of the afternoon humping a pool float, and he's still the least deviant thing in this ritual.
It isn't just Christianity that is rumored by its enemies to have more poorly lit incest than a Supernatural fan-fic convention. A minority Muslim sect called the Alevi faces widespread discrimination in Turkey to this day, because somehow this completely different religion has picked up the exact same rumor about pitch-black religious orgies. Clearly, something about unfamiliar worship services causes the human mind to make the jump to "They're taking their clothes off and sticking their dicks in each other," because variations of this rumor can be found far outside the Muslim world. In Europe from the 15th century onward, witches were the ones rumored to be having sex at secret nighttime religious gatherings. During the 1980s, Americans of all kinds became convinced that Satanist groups were stripping naked and getting it on in their local woods at night, which sounds like a great way to get your Dark Lord to bless you with Lyme disease.
Those robes are hiding a wicked poison ivy rash.
But what's really weird is that people also believe that ...
#4. They're Not Having Any Normal Sex at All
A while back, I co-wrote an article that attempted to debunk a long-standing myth about Orthodox Jewish couples being required to have sex through a hole in a bed sheet. Since then, many people have insisted that Cracked got that part wrong. Not about Jews, mind you: It was simply that our debunking had targeted the wrong religious group.
Looking at these corrections, it's clear that any even slightly isolated religion will be targeted by those who've come together to express a simple, eternal human need: the desire to find somebody who fucks bed sheets. The sheet-humping rumor is harder to remove than any weird stain on your Egyptian cotton, despite the fact that if you think about it for 10 seconds, the whole concept is pretty ridiculous. Where do the lady's legs go? Don't the sheets get all tangled and hitched up? Do any of the sheet-fucking religious groups overlap with the midnight-church-fucking ones, and if so, do they bring their sheets to the midnight fuck-service? When the lights go off, have there been occasions where everyone's running around in the dark wearing their sheets, and people mistake each other for ghosts or KKK members?
Does this make things more or less sexy?
Whatever the answers to these eternal questions, it's clear that a lot of us are invested in the idea that People Who Aren't Us are ridiculously repressed about human sexuality. Take the story of Victorians covering chair legs because the word "leg" reminded them of shameful human parts: It started as a myth written by a British travel writer about Americans, and now Americans cling to it as a way to make fun of prudish Victorian Brits. Medieval chastity belts are even more obviously impractical than dick-sheets: Do we really believe that it was common for women to wear a belt that rubs trapped poop all around her chafed genital area during an era when treatment for a UTI probably consisted of doctors trying to beat the E. coli out of you? And yet the belief endures that every Crusader put his wife in one.
On the plus side, the smell would probably keep unwanted suitors away.
#3. They're Stealing Our Children
When foreigners and assorted religious minorities are not polluting bedwear or having God-orgies, they're fond of slipping out and stealing a few of our children. The "child-stealing outsider" rumor has been going on probably since the first time we accused the Neanderthal settlement down the road of abducting young Grug and framing a hyena for the crime. History's most popular reputed child stealers are probably the Gypsies, but anyone vaguely unusual will also do. In the Roman Empire, Christians were accused of snatching children, stabbing them up like they were the last piece of bread at a fondue party, and using their blood for religious rituals. When Christianity spread deeper into Europe and became the majority religion, everyone learned from this earlier bullying and avoided spreading any rumors of the sort. Oh wait, no: Some of them accused the Jews of doing the exact same thing.
It was the Canadians the whole time.
Europeans aren't the only ones who are obsessed with kid-grabbing outsiders, either. China's anti-foreigner Boxer Rebellion in 1900 was caused in part by rumors that a Catholic mission was abducting children, mutilating them, and using their body parts to make medicine. In Guatemala in the '90s, after a civil war led to thousands of displaced children and a rise in foreign adoption, a rumor sprung up that foreigners were actually stealing the orphans' organs and exporting them to the U.S., maybe in order to build some sort of weaponized super-Guatemalan out of all the parts. These rumors led to a riot that left an American woman in a coma.
"It's set the Guatemala 5000 Project back by at least 30 years."
But at least such xenophobic rumors are behind us now, right? Except that in the distant past of October 2013, our stolen-child sense started tingling again when Greek officials discovered a blonde-haired girl living with a Roma couple who seemed too suspiciously swarthy to be her biological parents. Newspapers started sobbing about the trafficking of tow-headed innocents into poverty-stricken Gypsy compounds, and authorities soon raided Roma households in Ireland and seized several unusually blond children from there as well. After a few days, investigators discovered that the Greek girl had been given to the parents to care for by a lighter-haired Roma woman, a completely normal occurrence in a culture that commonly practices informal adoption. The Irish kids' dusky kidnappers also turned out to have an excuse: They were the biological parents. After that, the media stopped caring about those kids and the poverty that was punching them in the face daily, because they were Gypsies all along, so who gives a shit.