Recently, I watched the documentary Cropsey, about the urban legend of a serial killer living under a mental hospital that turned out to be true. It made me think about urban legends that spread among the kids in my own neighborhood.
I’m sure local happenings like the 1982 disappearance of Johnny Gosch, and children being kept in cages at an Urbandale daycare fed into these kinds of rumors. The latter is kind of a toned down version of the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s, though in this case it was true.
I’m sure the disappearance of Gosch, the daycare case and general moral panic helped create the first example on my walk to school. At the end of my street was a house with a huge stone retaining wall. The rumor among the kids was that on the other side of that wall was a dungeon where kids were tortured. Someone usually knew someone who had pried out on of the bricks and had gotten a look at the horrors inside.
It didn’t help that the yard of this house also served as a shortcut that could easily shave 30 seconds off the walk to school. Those brave enough to run through the yard would often by yelled at by the man who owned the house. Of course, this only served as proof of his evil nature, and not a somewhat reasonable reaction for a man annoyed by kids spreading rumors about him and using his yard as Grand Central Station.
I don’t think I really believed that kids were being tortured in a dungeon, but I also never took the shortcut.
The other urban legend was less frightening, but certainly more damaging to one child’s life. First, some background.
On my street, there was a boy who was basically my twin. Sometimes I would get called to the school office because someone had seen him doing something wrong and identified me as the culprit. Even people who knew me well would sometimes mistake him for me.
On our walk to school, there was a chunk of sidewalk that had been damaged by something heavy. The result was a big indentation in the cement. The rumor was that my twin’s older sister had peed her pants there with such force that it had shattered the concrete.
Everyone walking the path knew that you had to jump over this section of sidewalk. Walking around it wasn’t an option, and if you stepped in it… Well, I don’t know what would have happened, but it was bad.
One day I was walking home with my sort-of twin. We got to the cursed section of sidewalk and I jumped over it without thinking. I looked back and Bizarro Joe was just standing there, looking at me.
“This has ruined my sister’s life,” he said. I wasn’t expecting that response. This was a kid who regularly tormented others, but this sudden show of empathy humanized him that nothing else could.
I don’t remember what I said, but it changed the way I thought about the pee pit. He told me that she regularly cried about it, thanks to the taunts of other children. I don’t think any of us had realized that what we said would have an impact on others.
It was still a dirty pit that sometimes collected stagnant water, so I kept jumping over it, but I’d like to think I stopped calling it the pee pit after that day. I hope I did, but I can’t say for sure. We all want to find some redemption in our own stories.
I’m curious what the kids walking to school on that route now have come up with. I wonder what the children in my own neighborhood have created as an explanation for the world they live in. There are a lot of old Victorian houses around us, surely one has spawned legends of kidnappers, murderers, ghosts or whatever else scares kids today.
I just hope that my own kids don’t become roped into any “pee pit” legends, either as the subject of it, or the spreader of such tales.