Semi-plausible campfire stories take a scary idea and customize it by adding topical information or local details to make it sound credible, as in:
Okay, so, I know this guy who was making out with his girlfriend in the MATC parking lot, when a special bulletin came over the radio about how a mental patient had escaped from the Mendota Mental Health Institute. His girlfriend was getting all freaked out and saying that she heard something scratching at her door, so he finally drove her home. She was too scared to go inside by herself so he agreed to walk her to the house, and as he was coming around to open her door, he saw that there was a hook hanging on the handle... just like the one he'd donated to Goodwill!The water-cooler anecdote, on the other hand, happens when somebody thinks of a punchline but isn't creative enough to turn it into a joke. Usually it's something dirty which you wouldn't want to repeat to your parents. That one about the girl and her dog and the peanut butter and the surprise party is a perfect example. The movie American Pie is a patchwork quilt of these stories.
I wouldn't go as far as to say that most urban legends have some basis in fact, but I think a lot of them do. The details get changed so that they're more interesting, funnier, or hit closer to home. A lot of these changes happen by accident: Chuck tells Bernie about something he heard from Vernon. Bernie just assumes that Vernon was personally connected to the incident, so he starts telling people about "this thing that happened to a friend of a friend." In other situations, a real event ("hey, remember that guy with the hook? I guess they institutionalized him last week.") gets mixed up with a hypothetical story ("wouldn't it be creepy if he escaped and..."). Finally, I'm sure that many of the stories dealing with sexual deviance probably started out as a way for somebody to test his particular taboo in the waters of his social group ("I know a guy -- it's not me -- who likes..."). When Dan Savage prints letters like this in his Savage Love advice column, he refers to them as HDTHs -- "How did that happen?"
There's another class of urban legend which isn't really an urban legend, but it circulates the same way. It's a story that's entirely feasible, interesting enough to pass along, and happened to you or your friend or somebody your friend works with. Consider this one:
One time Karl and I went through a drive-thru and he ordered a hamburger with extra cheese. They gave it to him and he only had to pay for a hamburger. He says he's never paid full price for a cheeseburger in his life.I heard that one about ten years ago, and though you can't get away with it now it was probably true when I heard it. Even if they're not scandalous, stories like this one get passed on because they're interesting, they sound credible and sometimes they're potentially useful.
Anyway, this all brings me to the story about pornography above the ceiling in the office/school/restaurant bathroom. We've all heard this one -- somebody you know (or (more frequently) somebody they know) lifted up one of the ceiling tiles in the bathroom the other day and a stack of Penthouse magazines fell out. Something about this has always bothered me: why are my coworkers (or my coworkers' coworkers) lifting up the bathroom ceiling tiles? Are they going to hide their own stuff up there? Was part of the ceiling sagging?
In the back of my mind I've always assumed that the original occurrence (after all, there must have been one) was a "how did that happen?" moment, where somebody was reaching for his porn and it fell out just as the boss was walking in. "Oh, hey Mr. Osterman. Lookit what some uh, sicko was keeping above the toilet here."
There's also a variant of that story in which the magazines are stored between the toilet tank and the wall.
The point of mentioning all of this is to say that somebody where I work seems to be taking their cues from these stories, but must not be finding our bathroom conducive to magazine concealment. Our toilets don't have tanks to stash stuff behind, and since none of them have lids, standing on the seat in dress shoes is a risky proposition. The solution? Roll up your magazine and store it somewhere that you can reach unassisted: above the urinals.
There's a bank of fluorescent lights mounted on the wall a few feet above the urinals. The bottom of the lighting enclosure is a plastic grating, and resting on top of the grating is a rolled up magazine. It's pretty obvious what kind of magazine it is. I discovered it while stretching my neck. Did they think nobody would bother looking up? The enclosure isn't even a marginally effective hiding place, but the magazine has been undisturbed all day because I'm sure nobody wants to pick it up.