Once, while standing around the water cooler with several friends, a colleague told us all the following true horror story:
The wife of a friend who had been off shopping in Reading was rather astonished to find an elderly lady sitting inside her car when she returned back to it. Being sure that she had left it locked, she nervously tapped on the window and demanded to know who the occupant was and what she was doing there. The ashen faced frail old lady explained that while on her way home she felt faint and had needed to sit down somewhere out of the cold, then finding the car unlocked had taken advantage. She then claimed that she was still feeling very dizzy, and pleaded for a lift home.
With alarm bells ringing in the back of her mind, the car owner reluctantly agreed, but with no intent to comply, she explained that she always had trouble getting out of parking spaces , so asked the elderly lady if she could help to direct her out of the parking space. The moment that she had clambered out to help direct the car, the wife of my friends friend rapidly jumped into the driving seat, locked all the doors and quickly drove off.
Feeling very guilty that she had totally failed an elderly distraught lady, she called the police, gave all her details and explained what had happened. She was much relieved to hear that they would immediately dispatch a unit to assist.
Awhile later the police caller her back with an update. The two officers who arrived at the car park could find no sign of any elderly lady in distress, so they carefully searched the car park just in case she had fallen and passed out. They never did find her, but what they did find was an old suitcase that contained a gray wig, a long knife and some rope. Apparently her instincts had been bang-on; she had just saved herself from a rather gruesome fate.
The colleague who told this story was clearly being sincere, and since he had no reputation for making stuff like this up, we all believed him. The others no doubt, just as I did, subsequently repeated it to friends.
Several years later I discovered the real truth. While on a visit to the US, I just happened to hear exactly the same story. The location, and some details had mutated, but the essence of the story was exactly the same. It was not true and never had been, all subsequent attempts to try and track it back to a real incident failed. The friend of a friend turned out to have heard it from another friend, who in turn also had received it from others. It had never actually happened.
It appears that down through the ages we have always been telling each other urban legends such as this. We receive them as truth, as dire warnings of what might happen if we don’t pay attention, yet its all fiction.
Is there a form of natural selection for such memes going on here? I suspect so. The stories that are suitably shocking and tickle the mind will thrive and get passed on, while the bland fade and don’t persist. Does it also lead to another form of natural selection. Imagine such stories being told around a camp fire hundreds of thousands of years ago about monsters and vengeful gods. Those who believe and pay attention survive because they respond by being suitably cautious, while those who dismiss it all as nonsense, end up as dinner in the jaws of some prowling saber-toothed cat.
No wonder we have some many who readily believe all sorts of nonsense these day, we have been naturally selected to do so.