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What Debunks a Legend Most? Research

Folklore: David and Barbara Mikkelson consider it their mission to separate fact from fiction. Sorry, Walt Disney wasn't cryogenically frozen.

October 06, 1997|JON STEINMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

AGOURA HILLS — Perhaps it's only appropriate that an antidote to the urban legend comes from the suburbs--Agoura Hills, to be precise.

It is out of their home at the western end of the San Fernando Valley that David and Barbara Mikkelson track down the origins of tales of impossible tragedy, irony and revenge.

More often than not, the Mikkelsons said, a little double-checking is all it takes to debunk a legend told and retold as "verifiable truth."

For those who don't know what an urban legend is, the Mikkelsons offer these popular examples:

* A businessman awakens in an ice-laden hotel bathtub to find his sides covered by crude stitches. Woozy and confused after a night of heavy drinking with a friendly stranger, the man rushes to a hospital, where he is told he is missing a kidney, stolen by black-marketeers trafficking in human organs.

* The late Walt Disney was rumored to be extremely interested in cryogenics--the practice of freezing the body or parts thereof for revival at a later time, thereby offering extended life. Instead of a standard burial, he had himself frozen and hidden in a safe place within Disneyland.

* A gangland rite involves driving without headlights on and shooting oncoming drivers who flash their lights. When lights are flashed, a barrage of automatic weapons fire ensures the initiate entry into the gang.

None of these stories is true, said David Mikkelson, founder of the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society.

Mikkelson, who manages an Internet site for a health-maintenance organization, spends a considerable amount of his free time documenting these tales in order to "clear the air of rumor."

"The Disney story has been around the Valley for a while," he said. "But he was actually cremated and buried at Forest Lawn [cemetery] in Glendale," he said. "We've visited the grave and taken pictures of it for the [society's Web] site."

With a modem and a few clicks of a mouse, anyone can read about these legends and their debunking on the organization's Urban Legends Reference Page (http://www.snopes.com).

"So many of the stories seem to serve as cautionary tales," said Barbara Mikkelson, who answers mail to the society's site "all day long."

"Like when your mother told you not to run around with scissors or you'll hurt yourself."

The society was founded in 1993 to gain credibility for the rumor-busting activities of David Mikkelson. He launched the Web site two years ago.

"When I sent letters out to companies, I found I got a much better response with an official-looking organization's stationery," he explained.

Now 15 members strong, the society's crusade to sort fact from fiction, according to the Mikkelsons, is gaining steam along with widespread interest on the World Wide Web--ironically, the same place where so many urban legends are disseminated.

Urban legends, typically beginning with the phrase, "I heard this from a friend of a friend," spread rapidly from state to state, entertaining the naive and skeptical alike. But tracking the legends' origins is like the work of virologists, following a biological contaminant across continents in what amounts to a needle hunt in a giant haystack.

"It's about making calls and going through old articles," Mikkelson said of the "basic detective work" that goes into verifying legends. Despite the society's efforts, most legends remain unproven or undebunked.

The society's Web site displays legends along with color-coded bullets denoting level of veracity. A green bullet means the tale is true, red means false, yellow means undetermined and white means unverifiable.

Some of the site's false legends are obviously so and have entered the realm of the bizarre--Charles Manson did not audition to join the pop group the Monkees.

The tales that are verified include the one about the death of the original Marlboro Man from lung cancer and Disneyland's denying then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev permission to visit the theme park on his 1959 tour of the United States. Apparently the Los Angeles police, according to the society, felt proper security arrangements could not be made in time.

The gray area of undetermined or undeterminable legends comprises the bulk of those categorized by the Mikkelsons. For instance, it seems that some people can discern the word "Sex" spelled out by a cloud of dust in a scene three-quarters of the way through the animated movie "The Lion King."

"But it's hard to prove it was done purposefully or isn't just some coincidence," David Mikkelson said.

Legends aren't the only reason for the society's existence. "I also get a kick out of writing joke letters, just to see the kinds of responses I get," Mikkelson said.

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