Among the student population of Abbott Junior High, Katie Howe was the first girl to smoke a cigarette, the first girl to kiss a boy, and the first girl to introduce the schoolyard masses to the dirty jangle of the Rolling Stones. Although she much preferred doodling AC/DC lightning bolts in her Trapper Keeper to learning the wonders of long division, 11-year-old Katie, as far as her sixth-grade classmates were concerned, was the wisest person in our sleepy New England town—especially after she unveiled this “totally true story” in the cafeteria one fall Friday:

There was this girl, Heather, who lived a few towns away, like in Littleton or Billerica, and she was about our age. She was a total pretty princess and never did drugs or had any sex. She got all A’s. One day, this new mysterious guy moved to town—really cute but creepy, you know?—and Heather, who thought he was hot, started doing lots of drugs and having lots of sex just to be near him. She needed more and more of everything. She started to go crazy.

So: One night, Heather’s neighbors asked if she could baby-sit their 2-month-old son. Their regular sitter was out of town, at college or something. Anyway, Heather’s boyfriend had gone to a Def Leppard show in Boston, and she was lonely and really needed the money, so she agreed to do it.

Before the neighbors left for the movies, they gave Heather some instructions: “When you put our baby to bed, would you please put our turkey in the oven? It’s thawing out on the kitchen counter.”

Heather said yes and walked the neighbors to their car. As soon as they had driven away, Heather reached into her purse and took out a whole bunch of angel dust. She figured she had lots of time to kill, and there was no way she could get caught, so she swallowed the whole bunch right there in the garage. Really soon, she was totally high.

Well, when the couple got home a little after midnight, they were happy to see that the oven was on full blast and that Heather was asleep on the couch. The mother ran upstairs to check on the baby—but when she pulled back the blanket, she found something else: The raw turkey was in the crib. Confused and scared, the mother started crying, and she ran downstairs and found her husband, the father, screaming and puking on the kitchen floor. The oven door was wide open, and guess what was baking inside?

Supposedly, Heather is in an insane asylum now. And the parents have moved away, but no one knows where.

A couple of her classmates cried bullshit, but Katie Howe had shocked me speechless. Finally, Nathan Proia, who had once wiped a booger on my pants and denied the whole thing, said, “That girl, Heather? I think my sister was on her traveling soccer team.” Yes, indeed: Thank God I was a latchkey kid.

The first night I dipped into Jan Harold Brunvand’s exhaustive Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends—I spent two hours sucking up stories both horrific and hilarious before passing out with the book on my chest—I suffered through a stream of nasty nightmares. The awful, REM-twisted finale was a massive cockroach invasion: crawling near me, crawling on me, crawling in me. In the morning, Brunvand’s doorstop-dense tome was on the floor next to my bed, and—you gotta believe me—underneath it was pinned a Snickers-sized roach still struggling to break free. When the urge to hurl eventually ebbed, I drenched the nasty bastard with half a can of Raid. Too good to be true, my ass.

How urban legends have traversed great distances—say, from Westford, Mass., to Washington, D.C.—and when and where they sprouted new twists and turns, are complex geographical matters, indeed (although e-mail has certainly been an effective facilitator). What’s easier to explain is why urban legends originate: Simply, we dig getting the shit scared out of us (Katie Howe may have been right) and feeling safe at the same time (but she was probably wrong). Stories involving an ax-wielding Goatman waiting in the back seat of a Buick, or the deadly effects of Pop Rocks when mixed with a six-pack of Coke (poor Mikey), threaten our flimsy mortality and reinforce it at once. It’s called feeling alive: sucking in the sweet and sour of existence. Humans, as a rule, are more superstitious than logical, and urban legends help lighten the load of happenstance we can’t explain. We fill in the gaps with the best our imaginations can conjure. We gloss over the cracks in order to skate on by. We tell them—and create them—because we have to.

Brunvand, however, is not interested in the psychological dynamics of oral tradition. (I’d welcome his thoughts on the “Welcome to the Wonderful World of AIDS” story that commenced on college campuses—but somehow had made it back to Mom and Pop by the start of summer vacation.) Comprising the author’s five previous books and his syndicated newspaper columns, Too Good to Be True lists 200-plus of the most resilient legends that have been evolving since, in many cases, recorded history began. He’s tracked them as far back—and I do mean far, far back— as he can follow. For instance, Brunvand likens an episode in the Bible (Matthew 17:24-27, in which Jesus directs a disciple to look for wealth in the mouth of a fish) to a contemporary version titled “The Kentucky Fried Rat”:

This woman was showing off her new wedding band, and when she took it off to show a friend the inscription inside the band, it fell through an open sewer grate. To their horror, the two friends saw the ring swallowed by a large rat.

Sometime later this same woman was eating at a fried chicken place, and she bit into a large piece of meat. Her teeth struck something hard, and it turned out to be her lost ring!

Brunvand breaks his bounty down to 23 different chapters—including “Automania,” “Sexcapades,” “Creepy Contaminations,” “Bringing Up Baby,” and “Campus Capers”—and follows each story with some brief bullshit-detection involving the roots of the story and how it has evolved. An anecdote qualifies as an urban legend by containing certain ingredients: a credible narrator who buys into his or her revelation; a realistic location, such as home, office, or fast-food joint; and a doomed protagonist (Richard Gere and his gerbil excluded) who is usually what Brunvand tags a “FOAF,” or friend of a friend. Most important, all urban legend scenarios could happen; that’s the hook right there. You know, just like Norman Bates could happen. If you really think about it. When you’re in the shower.

OK, so let’s get to the good stuff:

There was a girl who had a dog that would lie under her bed. Whenever she wanted to know if everything was okay, she would put her hand under the bed. If the dog licked her hand, that meant everything was all right.

One night the girl was home all alone, and she was in bed. She heard a noise like a dog panting. She put her hand under the bed and the dog licked it. Later that night she wanted to get something to eat. She went down to the kitchen. When she got to the kitchen she heard, “Drip, drip, drip.” She went over to the sink, but the tap wasn’t dripping. In the sink, though, there was a bloody knife.

After she saw the knife, she backed up and backed into the fridge. Again she heard, “Drip, drip, drip.” She opened the fridge door, and out swung her butchered dog. On the dog there was a note that said, “Humans can lick, too.”

(A 14-year-old girl from Logan, Utah, heard this story at a slumber party in 1984 and repeated it to Simon J. Bonner, who included it in his 1988 book, American Children’s Folklore. Brunvand adds that in some versions of the story the girl’s feet are licked. Many of you who have attended colleges will also see similarities to the urban legend that ends thus: “Good thing you didn’t turn on the light.” You know what I’m talking about…)

Recently my secretary told me this story. It was told to her by a girlfriend who heard it from a coworker who said she heard it from a friend who was in the same wedding party as the victim.

A young woman was going to be in a wedding party, but she was unhappy at her pale un-tanned body. Since there are 30-minute-per-day limits set at tanning salons, she visited several salons each day, thus increasing the speed of tanning in the shortest time possible.

After several weeks of this regime, she noticed that she was not feeling at all well, and she had a foul odor about her body, even after bathing.

So she made an appointment with her doctor, and after examining her he pronounced that she had managed to cook her internal organs by overexposure to the tanning rays. The odor was actually the rotting of these organs, and further, this foolish girl had just two weeks to live.

(Bill Kestell of New Holstein, Wis., sent this story to Brunvand in January 1988, but it was told nationwide in 1987 in two “Dear Abby” columns. In its June/July 1989 issues, Tanning Trends magazine tried to debunk the story. Yeah, good luck.)

A woman I work with at the Sierra Nevada Museum of Art in Reno came back yesterday from a vacation in Los Angeles with a horrible tale of an occurrence at Disneyland. Her brother told her that a friend of his reported that they turned around for a moment during the Parade of Lights one night at Disneyland, and their very young child disappeared. They searched all over and didn’t find a trace of the child. They notified employees and positioned themselves near the exit gate in order to try and discover the child leaving. The child had been wearing very distinctive plaid tennis shoes. The Disneyland employees were helping them look, and suddenly someone saw one of the shoes and hurried into a nearby restroom where the child was found in new clothes and newly dyed hair. Just in time.

(Brunvand calls this “one of the oldest and possibly the most enduring of all urban legends concerning crime”—and links it to Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale.” “It seems as if every time a new shopping mall or amusement park opens, [this urban legend] will pop up again on the local level,” Brunvand writes. “[T]hen, often, citizens become outraged that the newspapers and police are not ‘doing something’ about the problem.”)

Of course, those are just a scant few of the veritable classics served up in Too Good to Be True. (Don’t forget about: alligators in the sewers, exotic pets that turn out to be “Haitian rats,” choking dobermans, Spanish Fly-caused stick-shift deaths, mice in Cokes, worms in Big Macs, baby sitters’ battles with the madmen upstairs, seductive kidney-theft rings…) In order to gather up this treasure trove, Brunvand conducted endless story searches in respected newspapers, cheeseball tabloids, folklore studies, even on Johnny Carson and David Letterman. But his No. 1 source was, is, and always will be, the oral tradition: talking to regular folks who believe what they’ve heard and can’t wait to pass it along. Brunvand is always gentle when attempting to debunk each story, and he always manages to leave just a hint of mystery to the goings-on. He is both a vicious collector and a playful enabler.

On the negative side, there is an abundance of amateur illustrations framing the stories, and Brunvand has an annoying penchant for dry, PG-rated storytelling—sometimes a burst of profanity or a sharper description of sex and violence would really sell the scare. Nevertheless, Too Good to Be True contains the very best of all those campfire, playground, and water-cooler stories that never fail to get the goosebumps to salute. Be forewarned, though: Reading this stuff before bed—and I don’t give a Kentucky Fried rat’s ass about how tough you are—can do some funky stuff to the sleep process. Many of these stories tap into a time when you were much younger—and much more impressionable. And let’s be honest about something else, too: With so many urban legends darting from mouth to mouth for so many years, at least a few of these tales have really happened, right? What if Katie Howe was really telling the truth?

Oh well, sweet dreams anyway. CP