Page last updated at 12:28 GMT, Monday, 28 September 2009 13:28 UK

Urban legend reveals modern fears

Some urban legengs play on the fears of parents
Some urban legends play on the fears of parents

From Belfast to Boston the story goes round that a child has gone missing in a shop and is found in the toilets with foreigners trying to alter their appearance.

It is every parent's nightmare and has one other underlying theme - it's not true, it is what is termed an urban legend.

There have been a spate of such claims being made to newsrooms across Northern Ireland in recent weeks with one common variant, that immigrants are the ones trying to abduct the child.

Police in Ballymena, County Antrim, had to speak out last week to dismiss one such story after reports of an attempted abduction in the town and there have been similar stores in the Greater Belfast Area.

Snopes.com, a website dedicated to urban legends and similar folklore, lists the rumour as being related to the growth of cities and an increased fears of the anonymity of day-to-day life.

Society

It lists such stories under the heading of Parental Nightmares, and with little wonder.

Combined with fears of "stranger danger" such a story can be round the school gates or office quickly with a remarkable amount of embellishment.

Likewise with the rise of the internet and text messaging such a warning can be around a community before it can be debunked.

The relayer of the story may have heard it from a friend whose wife/husband heard it from an employee at the store or a witness.

The story doing the rounds in Northern Ireland can be read as a warning to parents not to take your eyes off your children for a minute or they may be snatched.

While such advice is sensible, there have been no kidnappings from supermarkets in Northern Ireland and the police press office have been debunking such stories for the last two years.

Spaces

Dr Mikel J. Koven from the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research said how such stories begin can rarely be traced, but they say something about society.

"We don't know where they start - it's impossible to trace them back to the very first time they're used and I don't know if that is an important activity, about where they come from, but what is important is what they say about society.

"This one is clearly a story of fear perhaps about an increase in Gypsies or the Traveller population that's more noticeable, but it is certainly fear of the other and toilets are liminal spaces - they are in-between spaces not quite the shop or the supermarket, a place where you get family food, it is just off to one side - the margins of society.

"Likewise having the assailants as Travellers, who are also off to one side of society."

Other urban legends which may strike fear into the heart of parents include a police officer cyberstalking a young girl to show her how vulnerable she is and how a babysitter high on drugs believes a baby is a turkey and cooks it in the oven. Likewise these are all untrue.



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