Many films, novels, songs, paintings, poems, and plays are inspired by other art, or by other parts of the artist’s culture. Urban legends are certainly a big part of our culture, whether we realize it or not. Chances are, you have seen, or even created, a piece of art based on an urban legend. Most of these are easily debunked. Some turn out to be true. But they can all generate ideas for our work.
The Man Who Changes Tires
A strange encounter at the mall startles you.
You are at the mall. If you’re like me, you are there because you need exercise, or because the mall contains the only branch of a store that sells something you need and can’t find anywhere else. If you’re like a lot of people, you are actually having fun, trying on new outfits, sampling perfumes and makeup, and hanging out with friends. Either way, you are exhausted at the end of the day. Suddenly, a woman shoves a flier into your hand. It is tempting to simply wait until she’s not looking and shove it into a trash or recycling bin, but as you glance at it, a few words jump out that make you keep reading. The flyer warns of a man trying to trick women into letting him into their car by pretending to help with a flat tire. You ask the woman for the full story. She pauses in stopping people to explain.
A security guard was startled to see a frantic customer.
Last week, at this very mall, a security guard was startled to see a woman he had just noticed walking out a few minutes before come frantically running back in and head straight for him. The customer begged him to come out to the parking lot with her, and to call the police.
As the guard and the customer headed across the mall, the woman explained that she was loading bags of clothing and cosmetics she’d purchased into her trunk when a man she had never met before approached her. The man did not stand out in appearance. He was clean and dressed neatly in clothing popular with many men today.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” he said, “I noticed that your tire is looking a little flat. Why don’t you move those bags into the back seat and let me get your spare tire to change it for you?”
The woman was touched someone would notice such a detail about a stranger, and moved that someone would go out of their way to help, so she thanked the man and moved the packages. The man changed the tire, and the woman thanked him and started to climb into her car.
“Hey,” the man said, “I’m late now. I have a job interview to get to, and my car is parked all the way on the other side of the mall. Would you mind giving me a quick ride over, so I can head out right away?”
That “little voice” told her to run.
The request struck the woman as odd. If his car were parked on the other side of the mall, and he remembered parking over there, why did he walk out the door to this section of the parking lot? The woman began to feel frightened.
“I forgot I needed to pick up some socks while I was here,” the woman said. “Watch my stuff and I will be right back.” She ran back into the mall, and told the security guard what had happened.
The guard agreed this was a suspicious situation. He accompanied the woman to her car. When she checked to see if the stranger had stolen any of her purchases, everything was intact. But when she opened her trunk, she was greeted by the sight of a strange gym bag. The security guard peered into the bag and looked up at the woman, all the color drained from his face. The stranger had slipped a bag containing rope, tape, and other items he could use to commit kidnapping, rape, and possibly even murder into her car.
Is it true?
There is no evidence that this particular story ever took place, but dangerous people have used fake offers of help, or fake pleas for help to lure victims. Ted Bundy was known to pretend to have an injury in order to trick his victims into helping him load books into his car. Far from being a kind fellow student in need of help, Bundy would come to be known as one of America’s most famous serial killers, and a near “perfect” textbook psychopath.
While we have not all encountered someone who was later revealed to be a serial killer, most of us have been approached by someone who set off warning bells about trusting them. Most of us have encountered someone who frightened us, or whose presence made us uneasy, despite them initially appearing helpful or friendly.
A few years ago, I lived in a town full of people who could not seem to understand that I took walks for exercise. Every time I would leave the house, somebody who knew me or one of my parents would be pulling up near me and asking me if I needed a ride. It was annoying to have to politely explain to people, often the same people over and over again, that I was taking a walk, and assure them that I knew how to call a cab if I needed a ride.
During one walk, I turned toward the standard “Do you need a ride?” offer to see a man I had never seen before leaning out the car window.
“No,” I said firmly, and turned away. Suddenly, the “helpful stranger” turned aggressive.
“Get in the car!” The man ordered me. He was parked a bit behind me, so I could not see if he had a weapon in his hand. I moved further away from him, closer to the houses along the road, and purposely screamed as loud as I could.
“I said ‘No!’ I yelled toward the homes. “I don’t want a ride!” I sounded childish and overly dramatic, even to myself. But that was the idea. I hoped somebody would mistake me for a disrespectful child or a woman fighting with her friend or boyfriend, and come outside to tell “the kid” or “that couple ” to shut up. I needed witnesses, not new friends.
As soon as the nearest house’s resident came out to see what was going on outside his fence, the man in the car sped off without another word. I explained the situation to the resident, and thanked him for coming outside. After a few minutes had passed, I purposely walked away from the direction the stranger in the car had gone, but also away from the direction of my own house in case he was waiting someplace to follow me. I walked around other populated areas, around a block near an open, well-lit, and populated grocery store a couple of times, and then went home using a different route than the one I typically took.
I never saw the car or the man again, or learned who he was or what he might have done to women who accepted his offer of “help” and climbed into his car. But considering that he seemed about to force me into the car when I refused, and sped off when faced with a woman who might fight back and a witness, I’m guessing he wasn’t really going around town hoping to save people a few bucks on cab fare.
Urban legends vary in truthfulness, with some being completely true, some being entirely invented, and some containing elements of true stories. In the “Help a stranger danger” legend detailed above, the basic plotline of someone pretending to offer or need help is certainly true, though the details about changing the tire, leaving the gym bag, and the woman going back in and finding the security guard were invented in a later version.
While the basic plotline has been used several times, every other detail can be fictionalized from a true story, or changed from a debunked legend to create a new plot for a novel, short story, play, poem, or even a song.