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Andrew Finn


The Mason Spirit: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of George Mason University

Free Money, Fake Recipes, False Warnings

Communication professor seeks the truth behind the urban legend

By Tara Laskowski

“This is a true story that really happened to my friend’s friend in class. She was in one of those big lecture halls, and it was final exam time. When the professor came in, she said that the exam would have only one question. The question was, What is courage? Everyone in the class started writing, filling up pages in their blue books. But this one guy after five minutes walked up and handed in his blue book. Turns out, he was the only one who got an A. His answer: ‘This is.’”

Maybe this story once held a grain of truth. More likely, it was such a good example of a student outsmarting a teacher that it was passed on until it became an urban legend. But more than being just good stories, urban legends are fascinating because of their cultural and societal significance and change, which is why Andrew Finn, associate professor of communication, loves them so much.

“People pass urban legends on because they think the stories might just be true,” says Finn. “The stories get changed, and different versions show up, but the messages are always the same.”

Finn studies primarily Internet-based urban legends and incorporates them into his communication courses as part of Internet literacy and as a warning to students to not be fooled by them. At the end of the course, students compile their own urban legends, which Finn posts in the classroom next to “real” ones and has students guess which ones were classroom-generated.

According to Finn, urban legends are often started as a joke or to see how quickly the story will spread.

“Most urban legends have a hook, a threat, and a request,” Finn explains. The components get the reader or listener interested, frighten or intrigue them, and give them instructions on how to pass the story on. Finn says recipients can usually spot an urban legend by the use of lots of exclamation points in so-called official documents, the lack of a date in the body of the e-mail, or the tagline, “Send this to everyone you know.”

“You can always check them out yourself. There are many web sites that track and record urban legends. Before passing a story on, do a quick search to see if it’s true,” Finn suggests.

Although urban legends have been around for hundreds of years, told around campfires or passed down as family stories, they seem to have increased in number with the popularity of the Internet. A story can get passed to hundreds of people within minutes through e-mail, and because it is false, it wastes people’s time. “I don’t have any figures of how many minutes are wasted each year by reading these false stories, but I can make one up and send it around,” Finn jokes.

While Finn says that most legends are harmless, some try to scare people or scam them out of money. Some of the most popular of this type of urban legend include organ-stealing conspiracies, Nigerian bank scams, or false Federal Drug Administration product warnings. “There are no documented cases of these things happening anywhere in the world, but the circumstances just might seem plausible enough to pass on. Anything that gives people something else to worry about isn’t fun,” says Finn.

Rumor has it that these tall tales will continue to grow more popular and new variations will find their way into your inbox. “We’ll never have enough well-informed people to really stop the spread of the legends,” Finn says. “There will always be some new story making the rounds.”

And Finn’s favorite? He says the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe legend is definitely at the top of his list. It’s the story of a woman who bought a cookie in Neiman Marcus and enjoyed it so much she asked if she could buy the recipe. The clerk said the charge would be “two fifty,” which the customer agreed was a decent price for such a delicious recipe and gave the clerk her credit card. On her next credit card statement, the woman discovered the clerk had meant $250, which the store wouldn’t refund. Her revenge? She passed the recipe along to as many people as possible, thus a cookie recipe is included in the e-mail and recipients are encouraged to send it to everyone they know.

But Neiman Marcus has never sold cookies. The story became so popular that the company put a disclaimer on its web site. “I love that one because it’s such a good, fun story, and completely false,” Finn says.