Sometimes Children Die
Urban Legends and the Desire for the Supernatural
By Neil Ferron
They Start Somewhat Innocuously...
This was in West Seattle. The boy's name was Andrew and he lived with his father, an out-of-work carpenter and a violent drunk.
Normal people with normal names.
On the night of Andrew’s 16th birthday, the old man is drinking and howling at Andrew about not trying out for football. In the middle of the argument, Andrew reveals to his father: he’s gay.
They often sound like mere gossip.
The father, enraged, hits the boy across the face with a piece of wood. Andrew, a skinny kid, drops dead.
Then there's the twist.
When the father wakes up the next day, he walks outside and sees that his entire house is painted rainbow colors and a large "A" has been tiled across the roof.
The surface reality is ruptured.
The father buys a load of grey paint and repaints the house. The next day he wakes—the house is rainbow—colored. Again, he re-paints. Again: rainbow in the morning. To this day, you can drive out to West Seattle and see the house, rainbow-colored no matter what color his father tries to paint it...
Urban legends are not always supernatural. A woman on vacation unknowingly brings home a deadly spider in her elaborate hairdo. A businessman gets drunk with a beautiful stranger and wakes up with one of his kidneys missing. These stories are clearly fictitious, and yet they persist.
What is their function? Why would Laura Schellhardt bother to use them as a framework for her play The K of D? Is Schellhardt's Narrator correct when she says, "It’s the things that don’t make much sense that’re usually true"?
How to Make an Urban Legend
Andrew’s Rainbow House is one of the most prominent Seattle urban legends. But what, specifically, makes it an urban legend? The term itself has been used by folklorists since the late 1960s, but it wasn’t widely known until Prof. Jan Harold Brunvand published The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings in 1981. In it, Brunvand sets up four key components, which are also used by The Narrator in The K of D.
First, urban legends must be told as if they are true. This distinguishes them from myths, fairy tales, and fables, which are delivered with an open acknowledgement that the characters never existed and the events never occurred (Goldilocks, The Tortoise and the Hare).
Second, they must be transmitted from person to person, typically via speech (but e-mail can work, too). Credibility is not contingent upon a publication's reputation but on the notion of personal liability, i.e. I am your friend telling you a story, and you trust me not to knowingly tell you lies.
Schellhardt’s narrator best explains the third attribute: "An urban legend never happened to the person telling it." Nearly all urban legends come from "a friend of a friend," and this slight distancing from the direct experience alleviates both the narrator and the audience from being deemed "naïve" or "stupid" as they spread the unlikely story. Simultaneously, there is an eerie sense of intimacy because the narrator and the audience become a part of a chain of social connections that eventually leads back to the supernatural or shocking event.
The last attribute is local adaption. In his first study, Brunvand often found the same urban legends told in many towns across the country, and, much like Darwin's finches, each one had adapted itself to the local terrain. It would not be surprising to find the story of "Gill’s Rainbow House" being told in Detroit, in which Gill’s brother murders him with a tire iron or a baseball bat.
The World as it Seems
Here is the issue: urban legends are, by and large, fabrications. Houses do not magically change colors. Businessmen do not wake without kidneys. And yet these stories continue to spread. What, then, is the impetus behind this particular form of deceit?
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek often tells a story of Niels Bohr's horseshoe. Bohr, a prominent physicist, invites a scientist to his home. The visitor notices a horseshoe above the doorway, an object meant to ward off evil spirits. He says to Bohr: "Wait a minute! I thought you were a man of science. Do you really believe in this superstition?" Bohr answered, "Of course I don't believe in it—I'm not an idiot. But I was told it functions even if you don't believe in it."
Are urban legends our own "Bohrian horseshoes," meant to function even if we don’t believe in them? If so, what is their function in a rational society?
The common thread between all urban legends is simple: the world is not as it seems. An ugly house is not just an ugly house. In Schellhardt's play, a dead boy comes back to life as a heron. Inexplicable events occur. Miraculous things happen. And many of us would rather have a world where inexplicable events happen above or beneath the rational surface reality—rainbow houses, resurrection of the dead—rather than a world where the surface level reality is the only reality.
But reality is not fantastical. On WestSeattleBlog, a member named "Gina" left the following posting:
Andrew's Rainbow house is the G------z family home. The father did roofs, painting, gutters and such. To advertise he shingled the roof with a variety of shingles, and painted the house in multi-colors. A series of tragedies involving the family has given rise to crazy rumors...Amazing how the crazy ghost stories pop up [when] people might want to be left in peace.
No magic. No supernatural justice. Just a family with a strange roof.
Returning to Schellhardt’s narrator’s assertion—"It’s the things that don’t make much sense that’re usually true"—we might find that the inverse is more accurate: we don't want the things that make the most sense to be true. Because oftentimes the things that make the most sense are the most difficult to stomach. Sometimes children die and they don’t come back.