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Urban legends in and around Brussels

Urban legends in and around Brussels

They have all reached our ears at some point or another, frightening us, making us laugh, or teaching us a lesson. Urban legends undoubtedly contribute to the complexity (and frankly, the strangeness) of modern human communication. What exactly are these urban legends, what can we learn from them, and most importantly, what do they mean for the people who circulate them?

Aurore Van de Winkel, a Scientific Collaborator of Language and Communication at the Institute of the Catholic University of Louvain, specializes in urban legends. She completed a doctoral thesis on the subject, published articles, and wrote the book, “Gérer les rumeurs, ragots et autres bruits” (“Manage rumours, gossip and buzz”).

A game of telephone gone wild

According to Van de Winkel, urban legends are short stories transmitted over and over again through a web of friends and that change a little bit each time they are told. The fact that there are different versions of one story is characteristic of urban legends. They express something surprising, scary, mysterious, moralizing, or disgusting and reflect the underlying “preoccupations of individuals.” It is through these anecdotes that subtle nuances of a culture or of a specific metropolitan area (in Van de Winkel’s study- the city of Brussels) can be discovered, as they pass from friend to friend through a variety of mediums.

Rue Neuve, Ikea, ULB...

The big city of Brussels is not lacking in its own stock of stories. Van de Winkel became interested in them for the emotion that they provoke, given that they could also possibly be a misunderstanding. To study her thesis on urban legends, Van de Winkel gathered about 100 examples circulating in Brussels through writings, internet sites, blogs, news articles, periodicals, etc. You might have heard of the one occurring on rue Neuve, the well-known shopping street in Brussels, regarding perfume samples. The story goes that the perfume sample given out to a young woman was actually a drug. The woman, after smelling it, passed out, was robbed, and “who knows what else,” per the usual wording of the story.

Or perhaps you have heard of the kidnapping occurring in the Brussels IKEA, an urban legend circulating since 2005. The little girl is found after hours in the bathroom in bad conditions. It is as if to say that even the most “family friendly places” can harbor terrible events.

There are many, many more: the student who’s arm was cut off in a vending machine at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), those concerning Mannekin Pis, those that have sprung up after historical events like September 11th, the list goes on.

Otherwise the exact origins of these urban legends are difficult to pinpoint and are probably a combination of various cultural and historical factors. However, Van de Winkel has highlighted the effects that this story-telling has on reinforcing the solidarity of a group. So the Bruxellois who warns you about the fingers that might be in your McDonalds meal or the syringes containing the AIDS virus stuck in movie seats are in effect reinforcing a group of people who identify with each other, who fear the same things, or who at least have heard of similar things happening. Urban legends may continue to exist for this very reason- they help create an in-group, for instance those “in the know” about different incidents in Brussels.

Want to know more?

Learning about these stories shared by the true inhabitants of Brussels will give you a unique foot in the door if you are coming to live, study, or spend any sort of extended time in Europe’s capital. Get up to date with what buzzes throughout Brussels and sign up for the Brussels Urban Legends Tour. Van de Winkel started up these tours where she elaborates and answers questions on some of these interesting stories.

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