When I was a teenager, we heard that two kids from a rival high school had been "parking" near the reservoir late one Saturday night. A news broadcast interrupted the music on the radio to warn that a dangerous serial killer with a hook for a hand had escaped from a hospital, and was being hunted by police in the area. The teens heard some scratching on the car, and without pausing to investigate, the boy put the pedal to the metal. That car spit gravel as they spun around and sped back out to Route 35. When they got back to the girl's house, they were horrified to find a metal hook dangling from the rear bumper, still bloody from where it had been ripped out of a man's arm. Swear to God, totally true. My cousin's friend's dentist's baby-sitter knew them.
This spook story made the rounds when I was a teen in the 1970s, whispered in huddles of girls in the school halls and in the cafeteria. In fact, it had been steadily making the rounds since at least 1960, when this particular urban legend was first "reported." We greeted the news as marginally credible, totally gross, and perfectly thrilling. Sociologists and folklorists have been collecting such urban legends for years, trying to tease out what these contemporary "myths" reveal about our culture, just as anthropologists search for cultural clues in ancient myths. In the case of the Bloody Hook, the consensus seems to be that it's an effective warning not to go out necking with your boyfriend on Saturday night. Sex = mortal danger, in other words. We were happy to repeat the story, enjoying the thrill of grossing out friends who hadn't heard this "totally true story," yet, and speculating on how likely it was that it actually had happened.
And every Halloween, there were "reliable" reports and warnings about people who gave out poisoned candy and apples with razor blades in them. We didn't really believe it then, but I'm sorry to say that the "reliable" reports have gained potency year after year until now there are communities where Trick-or-Treating is a relic of a "safer" past. Parents are too fearful to let their children go door to door and risk being given chocolate laced with strychnine or arsenic. However, if you go to Snopes.com (the premier hoax-busting website) you will discover that there never has been a case of a person maliciously poisoning candy to give to Trick-or-Treaters.
Why are we so ready to believe our neighbors are capable of such things? Why, when hearing patently dubious claims, are we so gullible? Why do we not ask to see the police reports or news stories? Why, when someone tells us that such-and-such causes cancer, do we not ask for the source of this "information," but dutifully forward it to everyone in our address book? It's tempting to surmise that people just like to believe they are beset by dangers on all sides (otherwise why would they so willingly believe it?). With the Internet handy it's often the work of just minutes to bust a hoax, and yet hardly a week goes by when I don't find some heartfelt warning in my inbox, urging me to share it with my loved ones.
I think back to my teen years and the thrilling sensations I experienced when hearing about The Bloody Hook; among the feelings I relished the most were the ones relating to how safe I felt that my friends had shared it with me! We had each other's backs! No crazy Hook Man was going to get me because my girlfriends were looking out for me! That feels awesome, and it's worth having a crazy Hook Man on the loose. Maybe nameless teen angst needs a scapegoat, a boogeyman we can circle the wagons against.
But seriously. If we actually want to be safe, instead of just feeling safe, it's up to us to be critical consumers of information. A feeling of security is pointless without actual security, and a false sense of danger can distort a secure life in truly harmful ways, not the least by trampling joy and freedom. Intellectual courage can help us dig for verification of the alarms and warnings that come our way. It can help us teach our kids what healthy skepticism is, and teach us to be better at risk assessment (e.g. air travel not statistically dangerous, driving without a seat belt statistically really dangerous). Intellectual courage can save us from the bloody hook.