The Pursuit of Crappiness XII: Myth only you believed me.
March 26, 2015
I remember exactly where I was yet I could not see a thing. The mist had suddenly enveloped from all sides. There I stood, alone, one hand gripping my bicycle brake and the other tapping nervously on the handlebar. There was complete silence; a feeling of being increasing entombed from all sides, yet with the constant reminder that I was in a vast open square, in the oldest courtyard of a centuries-old college. Then suddenly a single sound: the sound of my friends screaming in the distance. I felt the mist around me turn into an old man’s breath on the edges of my neck hairs, and as fear exuded from every part of me, I gripped my bike and pedaled as hard as I could with screams my only navigation out of the square where a college Dean famously hanged himself…except this was what my friends told me as we’d entered the grounds as a dare, 15 minutes earlier, on Halloween night as 10 year olds. I caught up with them, the fear still with me and the shakes haunting me through an entire night of non-sleep. I still remember the smell and feel of the mist, and it’s clearer in my mind than any IMAX or digital cinema film I’ve ever experienced.
We all need urban myths. They are similar to my experience of a snake farm in South Africa: we’re excited yet terrified at the same time. I have always had a healthy belief in the disbelief of urban myths. I even watch the film Urban Legend believing time and time again that it is no rotten tomato, yet knowing full well that it’s crapness truly defies belief. Urban myths, legends, unsolved mysteries (whatever you want to call them) are born out of a desire for humans to absorb crap: dissatisfaction with the current state of life’s affairs, which we perceive as too straight laced or ‘happy’. Urban myths are a way of handpicking instant drama without having to click on the Netflix tab on our computers (face it – we’ve all got a shortcut tab for it). Yesterday I watched a program on the unsolved mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle to go alongside a documentary on the ‘new’ Bermuda Triangle – an area of covering the southern state of the U.S where planes go missing…funnily enough Area 51 is in the area.
The commentary was by Mark Strong, the theories claiming to ‘solve’ the mystery were anything but strong. That’s the catch 22 with these programmes, and with urban legends in general: we’re attracted to claims of old mysteries being resolved, but then our naïve bias kicks in and even with the latest scientific methods of proof, we still resort (before our brains even realize) into wanting to reject the obvious or scientifically proven. In other words: we resort instantly in our brains (spontaneously and subconsciously even), into finding and accepting the crap in any situation. I truly believe we put men on The Moon, because science tells me it was possible, and there’s real people and footage associated with it. My brain however, tells me that the crap side is that we may not have got there at all. Space is a risky and improbable environment, yet it’s highly improbable that there’s any conspiracy theory stating that it was completely faked. If anyone has ever seen the movie Capricorn One, you will revel in how it’s actually more difficult to keep a fake act secret than the effort that goes into actually just doing the thing for real.
No matter how logical my brain likes to think about things, you can’t escape the element of crap that wants to sneak in there first. Andrew Shtulman of Occidental College talks about our deeply engrained 'naive beliefs': a hitch in our mental gait which indicates that as we become more scientifically educated on any topic, we "repress our naive beliefs but never eliminate them entirely...they lurk in our brains, chirping at us whenever we try and make sense of the world". I'd call this our crap bias. We don't like to beleive it but we really do lean towards finding the fantastical. And it’s because, just like our favorite movies, we are drawn towards life’s dramas. If we can’t choose to believe in them ourselves, we let Hollywood and conspiracy theorists do the work for us. Hell – Conspiracy Theory is one of my favorite films. And that’s not to say some conspiracy theories are not valid and worth investigating in terms of credible sources and argument. Some theories merely won’t go away because even with an explanation, people want to hold out for something more improbably and fantastical. They’re a good metaphor for life and that dangerous word: ambition.
We often create our own urban myths in order to solve needs which we believe will make us happy. What we don’t realize is that the end result often leads us (just like unsolved mysteries themselves) to a fresh set of needs which need solving in order to continue to make us happy. Maybe Jack the Ripper was a royal, but maybe he was just a murdering everyday bastard who managed to evade the authorities. Maybe Area 51 does house Aliens and strange UFOs, but maybe it’s just a military base that’s working on covert everyday operations that are deemed too secret to reveal for fear of Russia grabbing hold of them (and it’s odd how all UFO’s seem to gravitate towards a small area of our vast earth: and it’s odd how all Alien cultures know to go straight to America for their first earthly encounters). There might be giant crocodiles living in New York’s sewer system (a favorite from when I was a kid) or maybe there’s just some plain old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles down there. Maybe climate change is indeed a hoax, and maybe we’re all descended from a distant Martian race (just not John Carter, anything but John Carter).
The point is that it’s the existence of these myths purely in their mythical form which excites us, because it highlights the fact that our lives our crap and need more than what we’re currently being given. It actually fact, yes they may be crap for the majority of the seconds we exist on this planet, but once you realize that there’s extreme contentment to be had in realizing that myths are myths for a reason, you’ll learn to appreciate what is actually in front of you and really start achieving things. And that doesn’t mean I’m off to erase all my favourite urban legend highlights. I genuinely do hope that 2001: A Space Odyssey was NASA employing Kubrick in secret as a funded research project to see how good space sets could really appear...in order to make us all believe man really did take one giant leap. I’m not bothered about the moon anyway, it’s a hoax and doesn’t affect tidal patterns. It’s actually made of cheese and being hung on a string by Elvis, on a giant stratospheric fishing rod that none of us can see because the fake sky we live under in a Truman Show-style studio is painted by the highest craftsmen that Marvin the Martian’s army could offer. How fun would all this be in real life? Well, we’d all be scared and depressed that the Martians were controlling us and that we were living in the highest rated live TV show on Venus. I’ll stick to my crap life for now, because it’s real…and is open to change in whatever way I want. Suddenly that seems kind of exciting.