Campus legends: Are they the truth or fiction?

By Janet

When the bad news is that your roommate committed suicide, the good news is you’ll get a 4.0 grade point average for the term. Since most student’s academic work wouldn’t be up to par in the aftermath of such a tragedy, that’s the university’s policy.
Right? Yeah, right.
Campus legends and rumors abound — and there’s no shortage of people who believe them. According to college lore, Halloween-night maniacs prowl dormitories and cafeteria vegetables are coated with a secret starchy substance.
The hottest rumor at the University of California-Davis is that the food service sprays the vegetables with a high-calorie substance to discourage anorexia among female students, said Patricia Turner, an African-American studies professor at Davis and the author of a book about rumors entitled “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
One Davis food services staffer burst out laughing when she heard the calorie-booster rumor about the university’s salad bar. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I’ve never heard that one before.”
Since the mid 1980s Turner has kept an ear to the student grapevine. “Sometimes there’s a kernel of truth that gets blown up. But by the time a story has circulated for a time, it bears little resemblance to the original story,” she said.
“As people repeat rumors they add things and misunderstand things,” said Jan Harold Brunvand, author of five books about urban legends and professor emeritus at the University of Utah. “I don’t think there is any one individual sitting in a room and making these stories up.”
Sociologists have called such rumors mind viruses. “They jump very quickly from campus to campus,” said Bill Ellis, a folklorist at Pennsylvania State University at Hazleton. Some legends manage to infect campuses across the nation.
Take the rumor about the roommate committing suicide guaranteeing a 4.0 grade average. Versions may differ slightly from campus to campus, but the story stays essentially the same. “The story goes that some kid jumped out of a dorm window,” said Adam Miller, a senior at the University of Florida in Tallahassee. “And supposedly his roommate got straight As.”
Why do such far-fetched rumors spread from campus to campus? “Maybe it’s just wishful thinking,” said Mary McArthur, director of the publications department at Colorado University-Boulder. “Students have the idea that there’s some central authority that tells faculty members what to do, and there isn’t.”
According to Turner, “Students may see the university as a great benevolent force taking care of them in place of their parents.”
Many campus rumors reveal hidden fears that students may harbor. Brunvand writes of a rumor that he calls The Gay Roommate in his book “The Baby Train.”
“A male student consulted a doctor because of a soreness in his rectal area; the doctor blamed his problem on homosexual activity,” Brunvand writes. “But the student insisted he was straight, although he did have a gay roommate. He decided to search their dorm room.
“What he supposedly found, hidden among his roommate’s possessions, was a bottle of ether and a sponge. The straight student concluded that his gay roommate had been sedating him when he slept in order to have sex with him.”
Brunvand said he heard this rumor in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Turner and Brunvand agree that the diabolical-gay-roommate scenario is born of homophobia.
Those repeating strange rumors will likely say they heard it from a friend of a friend, Brunvand said. They may also claim that they have a cousin who was standing right there when the outrageous occurrence took place. “There is always somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody,” he said.
“It’s impossible to stop a hot rumor,” Ellis said. “Stories that aren’t interesting and virulent die out quickly. The more outrageous a story is, the more likely it’s likely to spread.”