Monday, June 19, 2006

the stuff legends are made of

In the winter of 1978, an urban legend started up in Gifu Prefecture in Japan. Within six months the entire country was scared to walk the streets at night for fear of the “Woman With the Torn Mouth” (口裂け女).

It is said that she comes out in the evening - a beautiful woman in her twenties or thirties wearing one of those gauze masks so commonly seen now during cold season. She approaches a child playing in the street and asks, “Am I pretty?” The manner of her speech frightens the child, but he answers politely, “Yes, of course.” She then removes the mask to reveal a mouth spanning her entire face, from ear to ear. She asks again, “And now, am I still pretty?” The child, horrified, runs away as fast as possible, and the woman vanishes in a shadowy alley.

As the story spread across the country, it changed forms as many times as it was told. In newer versions, you could not run from the woman, as she used to be an Olympic athlete and would be able to catch you. Instead, you would recite a short spell to keep her from coming close. In another version she carried a sickle. In yet another, her mask was red.

Michael Foster, a researcher of folk religion in Japan, gave a short lecture on his studies of this “Woman With a Torn Mouth” in my academic Japanese class today. He also brought up this American urban legend of which I was not aware:

An old woman’s cat came in from the rain soaking wet. She thought it looked so pitiful dripping there, so she put it in the microwave to dry it off. Unfortunately, it exploded.

What is an urban legend? Does it need to be frightening? Does it need to tell a dramatic story? Or is it just gossip, a story passed down that sounds like it might be true, and so people believe it? How much of what we hear is something of a legend, and how much is truth?

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