Revisiting a web of urban myths

Rebecca Nappi / The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) /

Published Sep 6, 2013 at 05:00AM

Nostalgia hit like a summer rainstorm the other day, prompting some bittersweet longing for all the lazy time we had in our 1960s childhoods, sharing stories — scary, creepy and spine-tingling.

Turns out, nostalgia can be good for you. Writing in the July 8 New York Times, John Tierney explained that “nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.”

So here’s some nostalgia today about those urban myths and half-truths we shared as gospel at slumber parties and around campfires.

Black widows in beehives

The beehive — the big ratted hairdo that indeed looked like a real beehive — combed its way into mass popularity in the early 1960s.

The story: A teen ratted her hair in a beehive, sprayed it into stiffness and neglected to wash it for weeks, due to the hassle of ratting and spraying. Unbeknownst to her, a black widow spider crawled in, built a nest, laid eggs and when dozens of the eggs hatched, they bit the teen’s skull, killing her.

True or false?

False, according to snopes.com, a website that researches urban legends.

The urban legend disappeared in the 1970s when straight, long hair rendered beehives old-fashioned.

However, the urban legend washed back into popular culture in the 1990s. With some modifications.

The victim was a man. The hairdo, dreadlocks. The spiders, unidentified.

High on aspirin in Coke

At slumber parties in the late 1960s, two aspirins dissolved into a bottle of Coke was a secret practice we did after the parents were asleep upstairs. It didn’t make you high, some of us learned from personal experience.

The myth may have started in the 1930s, according to snopes.com, when an Illinois doctor wrote the Journal of American Medical Association “to warn that teenagers were dissolving aspirin in Coca-Cola to create an intoxicating beverage” that was as serious a threat to teenagers as “narcotic habituation.”

Aspirin in Coke turned out to be harmless for society’s young people. It later was discovered that both products can be worrisome for kids, but not because either makes you high.

Too much soda has been linked to obesity. Aspirin taken during the flu can result in Reye’s syndrome, a sometimes fatal reaction.

The babysitter and the hiding man

The story: A babysitter answers the phone. A creepy man asks her if she’s checked on the children. He keeps calling back. She calls the police who finally trace the call and tell her to leave the house immediately because the man is calling her from within the house.

The children are later discovered murdered by the man who had been hiding either upstairs or in the basement, depending on which version was circulating in your 1960s circle.

This story had many holes — even in the low-tech, highly gullible 1960s.

For instance, when you called your own number, you got a busy signal. The police didn’t trace calls, even in the 1960s. The phone company could do traces, but it was an elaborate process that took awhile.

Despite its implausibility, the plotline has been incorporated into several movies, including “When a Stranger Calls,” which was made in 1979 and remade in 2006.

This urban legend would be more plausible in modern time, because the dangerous man could be hiding in the house making menacing calls from his cellphone to the house phone.

The hook hand on the car door

The story: A couple is making out in lovers lane. A man has escaped from an insane asylum (excuse the insensitive description of both mental illness and the institutions that help people with mental illness, but it was the 1960s.)

The escaped man (for unknown reasons) has a hook for a hand. The girl is nervous about the reports that a lunatic is on the loose, and she’s not in the mood to kiss or do anything else.

The boyfriend, angry at her resistance and unfounded fear, speeds off. When he gets home, the boyfriend discovers a hook in the car door, ripped away from the hook man as he was about to open the car door.

What’s fun about this one? Its deeper meanings in the context of the 1960s.

The urban legend spoke to societal fears that women were getting “looser” just like the loose boys who couldn’t be expected to control themselves, theorized Neal Litherland, a blogger and writer from Indiana who describes himself as a “genre-hopping tale teller who isn’t shy about taking his readers to some of the stranger corners of the human heart.”

In an online essay about this urban legend, Litherland wrote: “Though sexually frustrated and upset, the boy realizes that if his girl had let him have sex with her that the maniac would have killed them both. Thus it shows that it is a woman’s responsibility to take the reins of sexual behavior firmly in hand, and that men should always bow to the woman’s lead.”

And the story, told around every campfire in the 1960s, reflected Cold War worries, too.

“The hook is often portrayed looking like a Soviet sickle,” Litherland said. “It was thought that ideas like communism, and its elimination of religion and morality, would destroy youth’s upstanding honor and American traditions.”

Mandatory nude swimming

In the 1960s, we girls were required to wear swim caps in public and private pools. The caps were made of rubberized material and decorated with hideous flower petals. We were told swim caps were required because our hair would clog pool filters.

We disliked the swim cap rule, but we knew that boys had it worse. We heard a rumor that in some schools, clubs and men’s organizations boys had to swim nude.

Turns out, this one’s true.

Jeff Fulton, a freelance journalist, started investigating the urban legend after a friend told him he remembered being required to swim naked at a university function in 1968. In an article published at yahoo .com in 2011, Fulton wrote: “It was indeed not a legend, but very true, especially in high schools.”

Fulton traced the origin of the practice to YMCAs in the 1890s where suits were banned because “men wore wooly suits, which shed fibers, clogging the then sensitive water filters.”

By the 1960s, though, the filters were much better. They couldn’t easily filter hair but those wooly suits were history. The practice continued, however, and Fulton has theories why. Boys weren’t expected to be modest, because their teachers, coaches and youth leaders — who swam nude in their childhood pools — served in World War II when men lived communally with no expectation of privacy.

Sally Jackson, longtime Spokane Valley, Wash., coach and swimming instructor, said: “I remember a neighbor boy — he’s dead now — told me he had to swim nude at the YMCA. We thought that was really something. I’m sure it was true and not a rumor, because it made me realize I’d never apply there for a lifeguarding job. This was the late 1930s. We were just coming out of the Depression. Maybe it was a poverty thing that they couldn’t afford swimsuits.”

Still, pretty creepy, whatever the real reasons.

By the early 1970s, the nude swimming requirement disappeared from society because boomer boys — and their parents — rebelled, Fulton said.

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