Urban Legends and Other Misconceptions
ICSA Today, Volume 4, Number 1, 2013, pages 6-9
Urban Legends and Other Misconceptions Concerning the Threats Cults Pose
Piotr T. Nowakowski
In this paper, I analyze, from the perspective of urban legends, the alleged threats cultic groups pose. I base this analysis on the information that repeatedly appears in the Polish news.
What is an urban legend? This is a popular story alleged to be true that concerns bizarre, humiliating, humorous, frightening, or supernatural events. One of the most widespread urban legends in Poland and other Eastern European countries, mainly in the 1960s and 1970s, was the story about black Volga, a car manufactured in the Soviet Union, which was said to kidnap people, especially children.
For an event concerning cults to be called an urban legend, it should exhibit most or all of the common characteristics of this type of folklore. Namely, information about the event is typically of spontaneous (or indeterminate) origin and in narrative form (a story); circulated by being passed orally or in writing among individuals; alleged to be true, plausible enough to be believed, attributed to putatively trustworthy secondhand sources, but unproven; and likely to take the form of a cautionary tale that will vary in the telling.
The most classic urban legend I have found involved an event in Czudec, a village in southeastern Poland with a population of 3,200. In early June 2003, someone painted a black 13 on buildings and telephone boxes, and in the pharmacy. On the wall of the shopping center appeared the word cult, inverted crosses, and the announcement “To be continued.” There also was a pentagram, a symbol strongly associated with Satanism in Poland. On the main bus stop, the word amen appeared, and also a clock with the hands pointed at 3 pm. It was rumored that Satanists were to kill two people on the Friday following the appearance of these items. Also rumored was that Satanists would sacrifice a virgin, a student of a junior high school. According to the expanded version of the rumor, 180 minions of Satan were to visit Czudec to make a sacrifice during a Black Mass (Czapkowska, 2003a, p. 4). Why on Friday? “Because it’s the sixth day of the sixth month of the year, and the crime was to be committed at six in the morning. As you know, three sixes are a symbol of Satan,” said one of the residents (Czapkowska, 2003b).
Almost every person with whom a reporter of a regional newspaper met had heard about Satanists in the town, and the rumors concerned the members of the local community. Meanwhile, no one was able to specify the source of this information. Most people were convinced that a warning had been posted on a Web site, although no one knew the Web site’s address.
“Not only children but also adults are frightened. Even if it is a silly joke, you never know how this will end,” said one of the locals. People were afraid to go out at night; noisy parks were desolate. Some parents were in doubt about whether to send their children to school.
The local police were reasonably reserved and limited themselves to an investigation of the murals that had recently appeared. “We are looking for those responsible for destruction of the property. This is the work of vandals, not Satanists,” said Witold Wójcik, Deputy Commander of the local police. According to information he gathered, in Czudec there had been no group that could be associated with the cult. Stanislaw Gierlak, Mayor of Czudec, also doubted whether this had been a local case: “We are painting out emerging drawings not to exacerbate the climate of fear” (Czapkowska, 2003a, p. 4; 2003b, p. 4).
Policemen checked out all the information they received from residents of Czudec, and they patrolled the places where Satanists had allegedly appeared—e.g., the nearby quarries. However, they discovered nothing alarming (Czapkowska, 2003a, p. 4). Finally, during the weekend, a larger number of police patrols watched over the residents. The officers initially interviewed a group of people who were assumed to be involved in the making of the satanic drawings and inscriptions. But the testimony of these individuals indicated that the creations were the result of excess rowdiness rather than satanic activity (Czapkowska, 2003c, p. 4).
Another case concerns Augustów, a town with a population of 30,000 situated in the Province of Podlasie. “The cult is to make a couple of dozens of young people commit a suicide”—such a warning in December 2007 was allegedly passed to the faithful during mass by their priest, Jan Wróblewski, of the town center parish of Sacred Heart of Jesus. A policeman who attended the mass then forwarded the message to his superiors. They checked out the information with the priest, who confirmed that it had been passed to him during confession. He refused to reveal anything else, hiding behind the confidentiality of confession, so the officers decided to establish the truth through other channels ([WYS], 2007, p. 3).
The priest’s statement caused some confusion in the town, and as is usual in such cases, it developed a life of its own. Speculations began circulating: “Of course, they will drown in a lake, there are lots of lakes around”; “They will swallow poison; drugs are available everywhere”; “Windows in the funeral home have recently been broken several times. It is obvious that it is the Satanists’ work; who else would do such a thing?” (Zielińska, 2008, p. 4). Some residents were afraid for their children; others hoped that the one who made the confession was a madman ([WYS], 2007, p. 3). A local married couple wondered, “It sounds awful and not very reliable, but is it impossible?” (Zielińska, 2008, p. 4).
As Andrzej Murawski, the spokesman for the police in Augustów, noted, the only certain thing was that the priest knew of a danger an undefined group was posing. It is not certain whether he used the word cult, and the findings of the police “did not prove that any group or cult operated in Augustów and that any tragedy could be expected.” The officer added that “Father Wróblewski is a serious person and he would not waste words. Maybe he meant something else—e.g., a general risk of the current times and that parents pay too little attention to their children” (Zielińska, 2008, p. 4).
Similarly, the high school headmaster argued that
It is a hint for us that we need to watch out for young people. And those 50 people who were allegedly to be recruited by a cult and persuaded to commit a suicide is just a media event ... as the priest mentioned only, that such information is circulating among the youth. (Zielińska, 2008, p. 4)
The police spokesman added that, although no trace of a cult had been found, they did not quit investigating because they could not underestimate the significance of this issue ([WYS], 2007, p. 3).
The first of the described stories is a pure urban legend. The second case also meets the criteria of an urban legend because it has most of the usual features. What differentiates these two events is the role of the priest from Augustów, who seems to be the main source of the circulating rumors in the second story. But this difference is only one of appearance, because in fact the priest was only one of the links in the distribution of the story that had an unclear etiology, a story that developed after it left the walls of the sanctuary. Regardless of how the story’s events were exaggerated, the increased watchfulness of residents and authorities after they heard the story seems natural.
Finally, somewhere in many individuals’ subconscious, there seems to be a conviction that ignoring such news sometimes leads to tragic consequences, as in the shootings resulting in nine deaths that occurred in 2007 at the high school in Jokela, Finland. Such urban legends as the previous examples can trigger parents and teachers to keep an eye on their youth and those they associate with, and to initiate talks on this subject. Of course, the adults must be wise enough in these talks not to make young people feel they are being hounded in an atmosphere of brazen surveillance (Franc, 2008, p. 5). In the two cases I present here, both the police and the authorities of the municipality and school stood up to the task; both soothed heightened emotions and avoided neglecting the issue.
In the context of the above examples is the problem of basic misconceptions that frequently exist concerning the threats cults pose. These misconceptions result from people’s tendency to generalize and demonize specific aspects of cultic groups, and they are qualitatively related to the problem of urban legends. I now will attempt to classify these misconceptions and consider their causes in terms of how such misinformation develops, and fallacies about how many cultic groups there are and who really belongs to them.
How Do Cults Affect People?
Sometimes cults are said to be omnipresent and omnipotent, and that they lead inexorably to the transformation of personality. This belief follows from the fact that the media too often duplicate simplistic schemes, trivializing the complicated issue of cults and classifying the entire spectrum of what they might be to a single, highly stigmatized category. For example, if one cult is extremely dangerous, all cults are perceived to be equally dangerous; if one cult is accused of a crime, all cults are criminal organizations; and if members of one cult committed suicides, it is most likely that members of other cults will finally do the same (Nowakowski, 1999, p. 11).
Commentators also sometimes confuse different groups. For example, someone who suggests that the leaders of the Unification Church urge their followers to prostitution or suicide probably is confusing this organization with the Children of God or Peoples Temple. The idea that Moonies are urged to engage in prostitution must seem particularly ridiculous to those with even basic knowledge about this movement and its doctrines (Barker, 1997, p. 87). Instead of lumping all cults together, one should be guided in one’s judgment by sober insights. Not every cult is as toxic as the Peoples Temple and Satanists. Not every cult uses methods as deceptive as those the Unification Church uses. Not all harmful cults are as serious a threat to the functioning of the state as the Church of Scientology is. The potential harmful effect cults create is qualitatively different, and essentially we also can quantify this information (Nowakowski, 1999, p. 11).
How Many Cults and Members Are There?
In referring to the alleged number of cults and their members, people quite often give in to the “magic” of numbers and percentage values. Worthy of note in this regard are press analyses. In 1996, the public was informed that “every year, several thousand Poles join one of 300 new religious groups” (Filas & Mistewicz, 1996, p. 58). Two years later, we might read that “almost a million Poles belong to cults” (Kozera, 1998, p. 5). (Note that the total number of all Polish citizens is approaching about 38 million.) In 2002, one journalist raised the stakes:
Currently, some 2.5 million Poles are affected by the “cult syndrome”, i.e., broke relations with their families, lost their ability to critically assess the situation, became dependant [sic] on the cult leader, the group or psychedelic drugs. Every year several thousand people become more or less involved in the life of cults. (Kulczycki, 2002, p. 11)
The subject of the number of cults would require a separate analysis. However, crucial for this study is how the media heats up the atmosphere around these groups by “pumping up” figures or interpreting the statistics to prove a preconceived thesis. And the larger the figures are, the more serious the problem seems to be. I take the view that it is impossible to determine how many cults there are in Poland or how many members those groups have. Because of the inherent ambiguity, variability, and frequent isolation and secrecy within these groups, this phenomenon defies precise quantitative assessments. Qualitatively it is not an exaggeration to say that this is a serious problem: Even if only a handful of victims of cultic groups reports to specialists about their experiences, each case is marked with a stamp of personal injustice. We cannot equate the amount of harm experienced in any group or all groups collectively based only on the number of reported victims. And we cannot forget this aspect of quality research in the quest for a variety of statistics (Nowakowski, 2009, p. 23–24).
Who Really Belongs to Cults?
The question of “Who?” refers to celebrities associated with cults, a list that is quite long. Just a cursory glance at online resources regarding this question is enough to produce such a list of stars. Certainly, cults must be quite powerful because people famous from the headlines are joining them in bulk. However, we need to be careful in our calculations. The alleged cult membership of some celebrities could be just an expression of those individuals’ unconscious need to be “trendy” (like those who choose to wear red thread on the wrist), their involvement in a social episode (e.g., participation in a Scientology meeting), or simply a media event for them.
The assignment of cult membership to individual celebrities can be very deceptive, especially given that their preferences often seem to be changeable. A critical statement by Naomi Campbell about her experiences with the Kabbalah Centre reflects this unpredictability: “I don’t like to get hooked on things like that. It reminds me of A.A. but just with different words,” said the supermodel, who, according to journalists’ reports, has participated in both AA and pop-Kabbalah meetings (rem, 2008). At times, news also surfaces concerning the association of some stars with Scientologists, but then those involved finally deny that relationship. That was the case with Michael Jackson, and later, Jennifer Lopez, who denied such speculations about herself. “I’m not a Scientologist; I was raised Catholic,” she said. Similarly, Dannii Minogue was surprised at reports of her alleged affiliation with Scientology (Nowakowski, 2007, p. 16).
Sources of Misconceptions
The most obvious explanation for how individuals develop these misconceptions seems to be their lack of substantive knowledge about cults. Despite considerable ongoing interest in this subject in Poland, even though the attraction is clearly lower than in the 1990s, that knowledge for most people is quite stereotypical. This lack of trustworthy information affects both the recipients and senders of media messages. Admittedly, though, awareness of the threat of cults is quite high among Poles. On one hand, we should regard this as a success, especially of local prevention initiatives; but on the other hand, awareness doesn’t protect against unfair exaggeration in the assessment of the activities of cults, whether by those providing the information or those receiving it.
A second source of misconceptions is the transmission of information about cults. Too often, such information seems to induce strong emotions in the recipient. Rather than inform, media messages sometimes promote the atmosphere of anxiety and fear (Libiszowska-Żółtkowska, 1997, p. 14). This tone often begins with exaggerated titles, such as “Be aware, the cult!” (a cluster of words that frequently appears in the press); “The cult attacks”; or “Cults—the biggest threat at the end of the twentieth century.” As a result, the recipient’s attention is diverted from the essence of the problem to subplots.
To reduce the power of stereotypes and the myths about cults, journalists must pursue with greater diligence a fact-finding mission when they discuss issues related to the intriguing and controversial activities of cults. The need for professionalism in this context seems particularly significant in light of the fact that most cult-related information does not reach the public through conscientiously and professionally designed Web sites, scientific publications, and lectures, but instead through the media. This reality should encourage journalists to adopt a sense of responsibility toward their audience for the cult-related contents they provide, to reliably inform the public, to approach the subject with a professional message based on facts, and to avoid excessive sensationalism.
Also invaluable is the role of reliable preventive actions carried out at schools of different levels. Such actions include providing basic education about potentially harmful groups and their recruitment and retention techniques, to reduce the power of stereotypes and the myths about cults. This approach would help individuals in advance to avoid the tendency to oversimplify discussions they might have about cult-related issues. And although there currently are numerous projects on cults aimed at students, we still need to question the quality of at least some of them.
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About the Author
Piotr T. Nowakowski, PhD, was born in 1974. He is a doctor of pedagogy and Assistant Professor at The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin – Off-Campus Faculty of Social Sciences in Stalowa Wola (Poland). His areas of scientific activity include philosophy of education, aretology, pedagogy of mass media, and pedagogy of resocialization. He is the author of sections in the Universal Encyclopedia of Philosophy (published by Polskie Towarzystwo Tomasza z Akwinu). His books include Sekty – co kazdy powinien wiedziec (1999) (in English: Sects – What One Should Know); Sekty – oblicza werbunku (2001) (in English: Sects – Faces of Recruitment); Fast food dla mózgu, czyli telewizja i okolice (2002) (in English: Fast Food for the Mind—i.e., television and surroundings); Modele czlowieka propagowane w czasopismach mlodziezowych. Analiza antropologiczno-etyczna (2004) (in English: Models of Man Propagated in Selected Magazines for Young People. An Anthropological and Ethical Analysis). The Phenomenon of Cults from a Scientific Perspective (editor, 2007); Higher Education in Nigeria: Selected Aspects (editor, 2010). Dr. Nowakowski is ICSA Today’s news correspondent for Eastern Europe.