5 Ridiculous Origins of Famous Urban Legends
We don't expect our craziest urban legends to exist for good reasons, but we do at least expect their origins to be mysterious. If you can just point to the guy who made up the crazy story in the first place, what are we doing here? It turns out that's a good question for everyone who has ever found themselves debating the authenticity of legends like ...
El Chupacabra Came from a Shitty Sci-Fi Movie
When farm animals die out in the open, they have a tendency to come out at the end of a week looking like they've been the victim of some pretty disturbing animal torture. As we've explained before, an FBI investigation revealed this to be the work of pretty common farm conditions and some pretty bored farmers: The sun causes bloated corpses to burst along straight lines that look surgical in their precision. Maggots drink the blood that doesn't drain out of the burst skins, making them look like they've been drained.
"Sure, we're disgusting now. But one day we'll blossom into flies, and then the world will appreciate our beauty!"
Rather than letting such boring truths go unexaggerated, Northern farmers invented an animal torturer that had to be investigated by the FBI, while farmers down Mexico way invented El Chupacabra -- a small, possibly extraterrestrial critter believed to attack goats and cows, drinking their blood and leaving the empty husks behind.
Before you start getting all judgy, you should know that goat blood margaritas are delicious.
While it sounds like the sort of thing that comes down to us from the days of witch burnings, it turns out the legend of the Chupacabra isn't that old: The first sighting occurred in 1995. It's become so prevalent since then that every single unidentified animal that turns up is usually plastered on the news as a potential Chupacabra for a couple of days.
"We don't know what this is, and after you watch our special report, neither will you."
The Ridiculous Origin:
There's another important thing that happened in 1995, just weeks before Madelyne Tolentino's original Chupacabra sighting: The theatrical release of the soft-core porn/sci-fi flick Species.
The movie is about an alien creature, Sil, who attempts to get pregnant by boning every dude she sees while in the guise of a human. During the last third of the film, we finally see her in her true form, courtesy of H.R. Giger.
File this in your porn drive under "Cleanse Hands With Holy Water After."
The creature Tolentino saw in her yard had bulbous eyes and spikes up and down its back, walked on two legs and leaped everywhere it went. She even had an artist draw what she saw.
The result of one alien fucking an entire zoo.
It was similar enough that an editor from Skeptical Inquirer, Benjamin Radford, decided to track Tolentino down and find out if she'd seen the movie. While the body shape isn't exactly a spitting image, Radford picked out over a dozen morphological similarities between Sil and El Chupacabra. Added bonus: The opening scenes of the movie are set in Puerto Rico.
Ha! Classic Puerto Rico.
When he finally interviewed Tolentino, she totally copped to seeing Species shortly before her initial sighting, even noting the similarities between the two creatures herself and saying it would be a "very good idea" to watch it. So this national phenomenon that has been reported on by literally every local news station in America is based on the testimony of a woman who can't tell the difference between B-movies and reality. We suppose the truth will come out soon enough, as Tolentino claims to have hired a detective who specializes in animal crimes and is able to talk through his butt.
El Dorado, the City of Gold, Was a Distraction Tactic
El Dorado, the famous ancient Mesoamerican city of gold and immeasurable riches, is the ultimate hidden treasure. Discovering it would fulfill mankind's long held dreams of getting diamond-pissingly rich with minimal effort.
"Hi, can you direct me to the solid gold pyramids, please?"
With easy money on their minds, countless conquerors and fortune seekers launched painstaking, often deadly expeditions searching for the fabled city. Of course, nobody ever came close to finding it, which, oddly, didn't stop the city from popping up in modern pop culture. There was The Road to El Dorado, the first animated film from DreamWorks to be a critical and commercial failure. Despite the clear message that nobody cared about the legend anymore, DreamWorks revived the Indiana Jones franchise only to have Indy hunting for Crystal Skulls in Akator, the Mayan name for El Dorado.
For some reason, ambitious world beaters of every era just couldn't figure out what everybody else intuitively understood: Cities made of gold, and people who search for them, are both pretty goddamn silly.
"That wealth will buy me a gentleman's death from mercury poisoning,
rather than a pauper's death from syphilis."
The Ridiculous Origin:
It turns out El Dorado was a real thing, just not at all what the Spaniards thought. The whole legend was based on a Muisca tribal ceremony where they covered a new chieftain in gold dust. The Spaniards heard them talking about a golden person and made the natural assumption that he must be from a golden city, the same way that filthy French people come from filthy French cities.
Since the conquistadors' attitude toward all gold was decidedly Scrooge McDuckian, they were intrigued by the legend they had willed into existence. And when the natives realized that the white guys had willfully misunderstood their way into a magical city made of gold, they didn't exactly go out of their way to correct them.
"There's a whole city of diamond blow-job robots deep inside that uncharted jungle. You can't miss it."
After all, what would you do if you were invaded by an army that:
1) was obsessed with gold for some reason,
2) oppressed the living hell out of your people and
3) believed you were stupid and incapable of complex thought?
The correct answer was to tell them that there's a big ass city completely made of gold and precious gems juuuust over those mountains that are really, really far away from you and your people, then watch the dust from their boots settle as they rush off on their exhausting, dangerous journey. Since the Spaniards couldn't conceive of the natives outsmarting them, they never looked back.
"Hey, do me a solid before we go. Are those little colored toads poisonous, or delicious?"
And so, the whole golden city myth that cost entire armies their lives and has been fascinating Westerners for centuries was actually the oldest trick in the book. The natives pump-faked a tennis ball into the woods, and the Europeans have been chasing it for the past 200 years.
"Paul Is Dead" Was Caused by a School Newspaper
In a bizarre twist on the Elvis phenomenon, during the late '60s, Paul McCartney's biggest fans all were convinced that he was dead. The legend was that, after storming out of a heated studio session in November 1966, Paul crashed his car and had the top of his head chopped off.
Paul is the one with the ridiculous hair.
Depending on their level of insanity, the fans believed that the greedy record executive had replaced Paul with an actor, a doppelganger or a lizard man. Cowed into keeping the whole thing a secret, the rest of the Beatles (and the doppelganger himself, apparently) spent the next four years sending hints to the public like kidnapped children trying to send a message to people at a gas station, if those children were the four most famous people on earth.
How else could you explain the fact that Paul was the only Beatle not wearing shoes on the Abbey Road album cover?
Dead people hate shoes. This makes perfect sense!
Or the raised hand that appears over his head on the Sgt. Pepper's album cover?
Hand over head. "Head" rhymes with "dead." Do we have to spell it out for you?
Of course, not all the "clues" were such absurd stretches. For the next few years, the Beatles did seem to single Paul out in strange ways. The picture on the inside of the Sgt. Pepper's album under the lyrics was definitely weirder than the one of the front:
And the lyrics themselves were creepily ambiguous at times (especially when played backward) and sometimes even seemed to be acknowledging at least the rumor that the top of Paul's head had been chopped off in a car crash, like when Ringo sang, "You were in a car crash/And you lost your hair."
Since the conspiracy theorists usually start each dissertation on the subject with the line that "Nobody knows where or when the rumor began," the bizarre specificity of the rumors seemed to be the hardest thing to explain away. It's not like everyone just decided to make up the same bizarre lie at the exact same time, right?
It was all clearly the work of the Ringolluminati.
The Ridiculous Origin:
We actually have a pretty good idea of exactly where and when the rumor started. Like pretty much everything that was cool in the '60s, the rumor started in London:
The seventh of January was very icy, with dangerous conditions on the M1 motorway linking London with the midlands, and towards the end of the day, a rumor swept London that Paul McCartney had been killed in a car crash on the M1. But of course, there was absolutely no truth in it at all, as the Beatles' press officer found out when he telephoned Paul's St. Johns Wood home, and was answered by Paul himself ...
That's from the magazine of the official Beatles Fan Club from February 1967. The rumor got so big in London that year that McCartney alluded to it at a press conference. That same year, the New York Times reported on a London party where the rumor was joked about by the Beatles. The hip people of New York read that and started joking about it, too. And that's where it would have ended if everyone were as hip as Londoners and New Yorkers.
However, two years later, Tim Harper, a school newspaper editor at Drake University in Iowa, needed something to write about. Scrambling for ideas, he remembered a confusing, in-no-way-stoned theory he had "heard from someone" regarding how "Paul is, like, totally another guy." Employing the kind of journalistic integrity college newspapers are known for, he published the shit out of the story, and college papers around the Midwest began picking it up, too. After a bunch of tabloid-quality radio and TV outlets picked up the story and ran with it, the mainstream media began reporting on the craze (though never that it was actually true). Things got so out of hand that McCartney was forced to do an intimate interview for Life magazine in 1969 to prove that he was still very much alive. In 1973, he flaunted it in the soundtrack of the mediocre Bond movie Live and Let Die.
Very funny, Paul.
While Paul's refusal to die has been confirmed, the debate over whether the "Paul is dead" messages were actually hidden in the Beatles' music rages on. The thing that both sides of the argument seem to ignore is that Paul and the rest of the Beatles were acutely aware of the death rumors from 1967 to 1969, the years when they recorded all the albums the messages were supposedly hidden in. It's entirely possible that the band made accidental allusions to the car crash rumor along the way because it was something that they encountered on a regular basis.
There's nothing better than taunting conspiracy nuts while tripping your balls off.
It's important to point out that this doesn't make the theory any less profoundly stupid. Singing about being dead and actually being dead are two completely different things, as fans of metal can attest.
The Illuminati Was Dreamed Up by a 20th Century Paranoid Anti-Semite
When you woke up this morning and had your breakfast cereal, it's only because the Illuminati decided to let you live another day. It's the Chuck Norris of conspiracies -- an all-powerful, all-encompassing shadowy entity that runs everything and has leverage everywhere. Their ultimate goal is something called the New World Order, which is basically a planet-scale re-enactment of 1984.
Chuck Norris is the likely choice for America's Big Brother. Think about it.
The organization is said to be led by the queen of England (so that's what a queen does), and lists of known members include pretty much everyone of influence who isn't her. This flowchart should clear things up for you ...
C'mon, Zombie Pope, get your act together. The Queen Mother is counting on you.
The Ridiculous Origin:
Nesta Webster was a 1920s British historian, writer, propagandist and Nazi sympathizer who had a less-than-secret vendetta against Jews. If you're unfamiliar with the Roaring '20s, you might be wondering how such a person could gain influence in pre-WWII Britain. If you've read The Sun Also Rises, or a biography of Henry Ford, you know that anti-Semitism was up there with stupid-looking pants and the Charleston in terms of things rich white people lost their goddamned minds over.
Webster was married to a superintendent of the British police, which rendered her pretty much untouchable, and she was even tight with Winston Churchill a few decades before he came to his goddamn senses. While Webster wasn't the only crazy anti-Semite working at the time, she used an ability to weave far-reaching conspiracies and a willingness to have sex with powerful men to become hugely influential. And then she got really crazy.
The deuce, you say!
While laboring in the bullshit mines of run-of-the-mill anti-Semitism, Webster struck gold when she proposed an elaborate historical bad-guy cult that worked in alliance with the Jews and was responsible for everything bad that had ever happened. She was studying a fringe conspiracy theory that the French Revolution was secretly orchestrated by a tiny, long extinct secret society called the Bavarian Illuminati, when she decided "What if that, but like the Jews are in on it, too!?"
Thankfully, Cracked Conspirologists have charted out who really runs the world.
Noticing that people rather liked her theory that the decisions they disagreed with were secretly decided at secret meetings they weren't invited to, she started expanding it to include various other historical events she deemed unsavory. The theory was too elaborate to blame just the Jews and Illuminati, so she had to construct a vast network of secret societies, all working together. Basically, if you dared to dabble with suspicious concepts such as "science" and "free thought," you were in on the conspiracy.
Pretty much all the legends of the Illuminati in today's public consciousness and popular culture can be traced back to Webster, who greatly exaggerated and even completely fabricated the facts. Her massively ballooned, cartoonishly evil version of the Illuminati is the version that Americans first heard about, and the one whose mythology has since been further twisted by various authors.
You have to admit, the U.N.'s logo is pretty supervillainy.
The moral of the story: You can get away with saying some pretty crazy stuff if you fuck the right people.
Gray Aliens Came from a TV Show
The strength of the alien abduction theorists has always been their consistency. The aliens always come for you in the middle of the night, take you up in their spaceship and usually stick things in uncomfortable places. But the strangest thing is the way that the aliens, nicknamed "The Grays," always look almost exactly the same in everyone's descriptions. They're shorter, thinner humanoids with long fingers and big upward-sloping eyes.
The last thing your anus will ever see.
Victims would always have these memories come flooding back after the fact, and it seemed strange that aliens who can cross the vast distances of space apparently don't possess the memory-wiping ability of 10 beers. But if a bunch of unrelated people get held up in the same way, and the guy who does it looks identical in every description, you're going to have to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The Ridiculous Origin:
Almost all of the tropes of the modern alien abduction story come from one place: The Barney and Betty Hill abduction of 1961. The Hills were driving along when they got chased by mysterious lights, had a bout of "missing time" and were later hypnotized into remembering all the usual alien abduction stuff we already went over.
"They were doing a study on the anuses of middle America."
It was the first significantly publicized abduction in history, and very few since have deviated from the formula. The Hills were even the first people to identify the gray aliens we all know and love today.
Now, the idea of an alien abduction itself wasn't all that new, as Buck Rogers comics from the 1930s had featured pretty much that exact thing with the "Tiger Men from Mars" story line.
Mars needs women, and they're sick of asking nicely.
But gray aliens? Who had ever heard of such a thing? Not only that, but they were peaceful. Up until that time, pop culture had featured little green men with wrinkled foreheads, catlike eyes and sharp teeth who came to wreck shit.
The Hills had totally undermined the typical alien with something no one expected. No one was thinking about gray aliens with large eyes and no noses. No one except for the costume designers working on a popular sci-fi anthology series called The Outer Limits, anyway.
Twelve days before the Hills described their alien encounter under hypnosis, an episode of the show titled "The Bellero Shield" aired, and it featured a peaceful gray alien with large eyes and no nose.
"How does he smell?" "Quite pleasant, really."
And, on top of that, even the guy who hypnotized the Hills into "remembering" their experience thought the whole thing was bullshit, pieced together by various anxieties and experiences in their everyday lives and conflated with a nightmare that Betty Hill had a few nights after the "incident" had occurred. Experiences, presumably, like the television shows they watched a few nights beforehand. Just imagine what the UFO culture would be like if they'd watched I Love Lucy instead.
For more from Ashe, check out Weird Shit Blog on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. Pauli Poisuo unveils very different kinds of mysteries at Year of the Fat Bastard. You can read more of his Cracked articles here.