As Halloween approaches, parents and grandparents nationwide prepare for an annual ritual that has been enacted since the late 1970s: the careful inspection of their children's candy haul. They're looking for evidence of what has come to be known as "Halloween Sadism," or fears of candy that has been tampered with using poisons, drugs or razor blades. The fact that there has only been one true incident of poisoned candy (and that the candy wasn't meant for neighborhood children, but was instead part of a targeted murder plot) has done nothing to quell parental fears.
That's because, although Halloween Sadism stories live largely in the realm of myth as "urban legends," inspecting kids' candy takes minimal effort and certainly won't cause any harm. What's more, with a story as widespread as the "poisoned candy" legend, there's always the possibility of some very sick person deciding to play "copycat." In just this manner, there are several other crime-based urban legends that have been making the rounds for decades that are (mostly) mythical...but which do have some valuable self-defense lessons at their core.
1. The Myth: The Slasher Under the Car The myth, which was originally spread by word-of-mouth, then by fax, then by e-mail, is both simple and nightmare-inducing. The tale states that women in "your local area" have been having problems with would-be kidnappers. These would-be kidnappers are said to have followed women to stores, then hidden themselves under the women's cars with a straight razor close to hand. When the women return, the Bad Guy slashes at their Achilles' tendons with the blade, rendering them unable to run for help.
The Reality: As horrific as that mental image is (if you didn't cringe at it, I would like you to please tell me your secret), there has never been any evidence of any criminal attempting this method of kidnapping. Anyone who has ever had occasion to crawl under a car can attest that this space is tight, claustrophobic and filthy, with little room to maneuver. Even if the Achilles tendons presented themselves right where the criminal happened to be waiting, what assurance would he have that said tendons won't be encased in a tough pair of cowboy boots? What's more, even if the criminal is able to render the woman unable to run, she's still going to be able to scream for help (and maybe a bit more, if she legally carries a firearm).
However, there is still a very real takeaway for the self-defender buried in this myth. Parking lots are rather popular hunting grounds for criminals, especially as the holidays approach and more people are out rushing around after hours. A criminal need not squeeze himself under a car; the ones parked all around his target can provide excellent cover for a sneak attack. After Daylight Savings Time, people shopping after work will almost certainly be doing so in the dark. What's more, it's very easy to get mentally caught up in our to-do lists and slip into Condition White. It's very possible that shoppers will have both hands burdened with shopping, while simultaneously fumbling with keys using whichever fingers aren't being slowly asphyxiated by a knotted plastic bag handle. In other words, sitting ducks.
We should all be in Condition Yellow--a state of relaxed alertness--at all times when we're out in public. If we're heading to our car in a busy parking lot, we should make note of the cars around ours, and be alert to places someone might hide. We should endeavor to leave at least one hand free, and if we simply cannot, we shouldn't hesitate to request a security escort to our cars.
2. The Myth: The Headlight-Flashing Gangsters This myth first made its appearance in the 1980s, and it goes something like this: Criminal gangs in "your local area" have created a new way to initiate members to their gang. The plan is that they drive around at night, and randomly select other motorists for a simple test--they flash their headlights at the other motorist. If that motorist flashes their lights back, they then hunt that motorist down and murder him or her to collect their criminal-gang bona fides.
The Reality: Gangs are real, of course, and so are gang initiation rituals. However, this particular one seems to be completely fictional--there's no evidence that it was ever enacted.
However, there's definitely a kernel of good advice buried in this hoary old chestnut. When we're out on the road, we're frequently treated to drivers who behave erratically, dangerously or recklessly. Whether they're flashing their brights at you even though your brights aren't on, or tailgating you despite the fact that there's an empty lane they could use to pass, or otherwise acting as if their mother never taught them a lick of sense, it's tempting to confront them. The urge to show that other driver what your real brights look like (surface of the sun, thank you), or to brake-check the tailgater, can be overwhelming. It's in your best interests, however, to ignore it.
"Road rage," like gang violence, is also very real. It's also quite possibly the most likely way that an average, law-abiding person will come face-to-face with violence from a stranger. Psychologists can debate why otherwise rational people often let their emotions overwhelm them behind the wheel, but the fact remains that they do. The good news is that as a driver you're encased in a pretty solid steel cage that's capable of moving away from a threat rapidly...and the wise driver will do just that when they realize that a fellow motorist is becoming aggressive.
3. The Myth: The Crying Baby on Your Porch This myth sounds so convincing that it actually made its way into more than one law-enforcement seminar back in the 1980s and 90s! The legend goes that a woman is at home alone one night when she hears the unmistakable sound of a crying baby coming from outside. At first she ignores it, thinking it must be a neighbor walking their child to sleep, but the noise continues. As the cries get louder, more high-pitched and desperate-sounding, she realizes that the sounds are coming from right outside her door. She opens the door to rescue the infant in distress, only to be greeted by the sight of a tape recorder and the rushing shadowy forms of the home invaders coming to overpower, rob and perhaps murder her.
The Reality: Although there's no evidence that anyone ever used this specific ruse to lure a victim into the open, crime blotters and history books are rife with ones built on the same idea. Fact is, most people's first instinct when they see a fellow human in distress is to try to help them...and criminals know this can be used against us. Ted Bundy was famous for pretending to have a broken arm to get his victims to lower their guards. Would-be home invaders frequently feign distress in order to get homeowners to open their doors.
The takeaway from this myth is that you should carefully evaluate a situation before you open your car door, your home or your trust to a stranger who appears to need your help. Remember that a person who is genuinely in need of aid will receive it promptly if you phone 911 on their behalf, and that you don't have to put yourself at risk to do so. Nor should you let worries of seeming "rude" cause you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable or nervous.
Stay safe out there...and enjoy the spooky thrills of urban legends without losing sight of reality!