Urban legends are all around us, playing a part in our everyday lives and becoming ingrained in our culture. Most people are familiar with the more common legends like The Killer in the Back Seat, Bloody Mary, or Bigfoot, but there are others that you might not be as familiar with. Here at Nightmare on Film Street, each month I’ll be taking a look at a different urban legend and revisiting a famous movie (or, sometimes, one that’s not so famous) that plays off that particular myth. For this installment, I’m doing something different. I won’t be talking about one particular legend; instead, I’ll be taking a look at how urban legends are started and how the stories are spread. Fittingly, I’m pairing all of the urban legend talk with 2000’s psychological thriller, Gossip.
Urban legends are stories that are told repeatedly until they become part of a specific area’s culture and beliefs. It should come as no surprise that on college campuses, urban legends abound. From secret tunnels that run underneath the dorms to the idea that if your roommate dies you automatically get passing grades in all of your classes for the semester, college life is ripe for this kind of thing. Not surprisingly, a large number of college-centered urban legends are based on partying and sex. Several campuses have tales of stone statues that come alive when a virgin walks past, and the good old kidney theft legend has been adapted to fit the college lifestyle, turning the traveling businessman into a drunk frat boy who goes home with the wrong girl.
The college legends mentioned above, as well as others, turn up within the folklore of many schools, but the stories vary slightly from campus to campus. It is difficult to discern the exact origin of most urban legends, but it is interesting to wonder where they started and to read about how they have changed and adapted over time. The psychological thriller, Gossip, plays like a condensed example of how such legends begin, change, become ingrained in our minds, and, ultimately, cause some sort of reaction.
With an impressive cast that has gone on to make big names for themselves, Gossip stars Lena Headey (TV’s Game of Thrones and The Purge), Norman Reedus (TV’s The Walking Dead and The Boondock Saints), Kate Hudson (Almost Famous and The Skeleton Key), James Marsden (Disturbing Behavior and X-Men), and Joshua Jackson (TV’s Fringe and Scream 2). The film was written by Gregory Poirier and directed by Davis Guggenheim.
The movie centers around a trio of university students who plan a class project on how fast gossip can spread. The rumor they start quickly spirals out of control and results in a dangerous and deadly scenario. In the movie’s opening scene, we get a quick peek into the way rumors catch on. While at a bar, Derrick tells the bartender that his roommate Travis is the son of a popular musician and supermodel. Soon, the story has been spread over the entire establishment, and the three friends (Derrick, Travis, and Jones, played by Marsden, Reedus, and Heady, respectively) are getting free drinks because of Travis‘s supposed status. Of course the friends laugh off the prank as nothing but a good time, but here is where the seed for the central plot and themes of the movie is planted.
Derrick believes that gossip and news are really the same thing; both are stories that are passed along. How can you know what is true and what isn’t? Back at school, Derrick acknowledges to the entire class that a lot of stories begin by a tribe member while sitting around a fire. Taking a cue from the university lectures on urban legends and myths in the 1998 slasher Urban Legend, gossip, rumors, and truth are a topic of conversation in the classroom of Gossip. Soon Derrick, Travis, and Jones decide to pull the trigger on their group project, and they start a rumor that virginal Naomi Preston (Kate Hudson), who is known to be saving herself for marriage, was seen having sex with her boyfriend, Beau Edson (Joshua Jackson) at a party.
As mentioned earlier, urban legends often change over time, adapting to various locales, situations, and beliefs. Take, for example, the legend of alligators living in the sewers below New York City or the common legend of Crybaby Bridge. In both cases, different aspects have been added to the myth. In various iterations, the alligators have been albino from lack of sunlight, mutated from toxic chemicals, etc. Throughout the US, there are supposed Crybaby Bridges found in many rural areas. It is believed that a baby can be heard crying from the bridge, but, in each case, the legend has been embellished to fit the specific area. Legends, like gossip, is kind of like the old game of Telephone, where a simple phrase is started and then whispered from player to player until it reaches the end of the line, oftentimes resulting in something vastly different from what originated.
In Gossip, the spreading of the rumor concerning Naomi and Beau is shown in a montage of college co-eds telling the camera what he or she heard. It is a clever way to show how fast rumors spread and, over the course of the sequence, the story of what happened between the couple drastically changes (several times) by the end. Midway through the film, Naomi takes everybody by surprise (both the characters and the audience) when she accuses Beau of rape. Suddenly, the reaction and the ramifications of the initial rumor take a much more consequential, dangerous, and possibly even deadly turn.
Like rumors and gossip, sometimes the effect that urban legends have on individuals or a group of people can also be damaging. In the internet age, urban legends can begin and spread faster than ever. Take the concept of Creepypasta, where short stories are posted and shared via the internet and social media. One of the most recognizable stories to emerge from Creepypasta is that of Slender Man, a tall, blank-faced figure who goes after kids. In 2014, the legend spawned a real-life stabbing where two young girls in Wisconsin lured their friend into the woods and repeatedly stabbed her with a knife in order to appease Slender Man. You can read more about the case here.
Gossip failed to spread good word among audiences when it was released in April of 2000, and the movie quickly became a box office dud. On a reported budget of $14 million, the movie only made $12 million in ticket sales. I recently re-watched the film for the first time in years, and I enjoyed it. Gossip is currently streaming for free on Vudu.