Why College Students Need Their Urban Legends – The Atlantic
Legend has it that the forests surrounding Reed College in Portland, Oregon, are home to not only standard flora and fauna, but also a slightly lesser known species: zombie monkeys. The mutant albino monkeys are rumored to be the former subjects of a psychology professor’s secret experiments in his underground lab. At some point, the primates were allegedly freed by an animal-rights activist group and now run amok in the canyon beside the school’s campus—potential threats to students wandering around a little too late at night.
Simon Bronner, an American studies and folklore professor at Penn State Harrisburg, says such urban legends emerge on campuses as a manifestation of student anxiety about the college experience—often serving as an outlet through which they can express their fears about being away from home. In other words, they’re often a means students can use to acknowledge and contain this apprehension without having to be completely vulnerable about it. Bronner, who authored the book Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University, cites legends that center on romantic relationships and roommates as cases when the stories function as stand-ins for students’ own fears. “Telling them is partly ritual, partly humorous,” he says. “Students are using that frame of lore to raise issues about aging, about where they are on a strange place on their own for the first time.” Many of the college legends—which may warn against partying too much or caving to academic pressures or even staying out so late a zombie monkey might appear—are “cautionary tales” that provide nuggets of “cultural advice,” he says.
In some instances, stories that calcify into legend are borne from a kernel of truth and connected to a historical event, serving as a way for students to feel closer to the heritage of a school or better understand it. At Georgetown University, the fifth floor of the Healy Building is rumored to be sealed because an exorcism took place there (the same one that inspired the The Exorcist, later partly filmed on campus), when in fact there is evidence that such an event once occurred at the school’s hospital in 1949. At Sweet Briar College, Daisy Williams—the real daughter of the school’s founder who died at a young age after being stricken with pneumonia—is a ghost who’s believed to watch over the school and appear during times of need to take care of the campus and its students, including after a devastating fire in 1927. The act of telling (and partly believing) these stories becomes a college tradition in itself, says Bronner, forming bonds between generations of students who attend these institutions.
Other legends—particularly those involving statues—may help students feel a sense of control amid the uncertainty they are experiencing during the tumult of college. At Columbia University, as the story goes, the first student in each class to spot the owl on the main courtyard’s Alma Mater statue is guaranteed the status of valedictorian. During finals season, students at the University of Maryland-College Park offer food sacrifices to the Terrapin statue, Testudo, in the hopes of good grades, also touching his nose for good fortune before athletic events. “There are a lot of statues that are rubbed for luck for exams and wins on games,” Bronner says. “A lot of those are because of insuring success.”