This article originally appeared in the December 1990 issue of playboy magazine.
Meet Squirmy, the world’s most famous gerbil. As you may have noticed, gerbils keep a low profile. There are no Teenage Mutant Ninja Gerbils on TV, toy stores don’t carry cute stuffed gerbils for kids to play with and there are no known songs—not even country-and-western songs—about pet gerbils. And that makes Squirmy’s notoriety even more impressive.
What did Squirmy do to warrant this fame? Perhaps you’ve heard this story:
A friend of mine knows a nurse at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. She told him that [insert name of a handsome male actor here] visited the emergency room the other night. The actor confessed that he had been engaged in a kinky gay sexual game that involves sticking a live gerbil up your rectum. Only this time, the gerbil got stuck. The nurse actually saw the X ray. It’s absolutely true.
That gerbil was our friend Squirmy, of course. In the story, Squirmy dies—it’s hot up there and the air’s none too good, so we can assume he expired quickly—but his legend was just beginning. People started telling the story, and retelling the story, always about the same actor and always attributing it to someone who worked at the hospital. Someone made a mock movie poster—a take-off on the actor’s current hit film, giving Squirmy his name and making him the film’s co-star, replacing a less furry but more attractive actress. That poster wound up being faxed hundreds, even thousands of times. With amazing speed and efficiency, the saga crisscrossed the country, until it became a story that was pointless to tell—everyone, it seemed, had already heard it.
There was one problem. The story wasn’t true. In fact, the real story isn’t about Squirmy at all but about our eagerness to spread and believe weird misinformation.
At least one person was not surprised by how widespread the story became. “I no longer think it’s remarkable,” says Jan Harold Brunvand. “I see so much of it.” Some people collect baseball cards; Brunvand, a professor at the University of Utah, collects urban legends, those fables that travel the country mostly by word of mouth and get taken as fact by large, gullible segments of the population. Brunvand has amassed enough urban legends to fill four books, and many of the tales he repeats sound familiar: You may remember the one about the married conventioneer who meets a woman in Las Vegas, takes her to his room, has sex with her and awakes to find her gone the next morning. She has left behind a message, written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror: “Welcome to the AIDS club.” Sure enough, medical tests show that the man has been infected with AIDS.
That story’s not true, either. Brunvand has learned to tell the fictional tale from the errant news story. Within a week (yes, they travel that quickly), he’ll hear reports of the same incident—such as the AIDS story—from all over the country, with each area claiming it as its own. And most important of all, none of these myths can be verified—there are never police, medical or newspaper reports to back them up.
It’s no surprise to Brunvand that Squirmy is currently a star. Urban legends are a form of cheap therapy for the masses, allowing people to vent their fears and concerns. Right now, when AIDS has frightened some people into a frenzied state of homophobia and gay-bashing crimes are on the upswing, stories like Squirmy’s and the conventioneer’s are commonplace. It makes the insecure feel better if they can convince themselves that gays are somehow peculiar, not like the rest of us. That’s not unusual. In the Forties, anti-Semitic tales accusing Jews of bizarre rituals were popular; a few years ago, when every milk carton carried the picture of a missing child, urban myths reflected the feeling of panic. This story was typical:
This family was visiting an amusement park with their small daughter. The parents lost sight of her for a second and she was gone. They couldn’t find her anywhere. Later, security guards noticed a suspicious couple carrying a sleeping boy out of the park. They investigated and discovered that the sleeping boy was actually the missing girl. The couple had dragged her into a rest room, drugged her, cut off her hair and put her in boys’ clothing.
Not all urban legends are so grim and Gothic. When microwave ovens were still a novelty, the big story on the folklore grapevine was about a woman who shampoos her cat (or poodle) and then sticks it into the microwave to dry, causing the animal to explode. Other times, they’re just funny, like the one about the man who is driving down a street. A woman passing in the other direction rolls down her window and yells “Pig!” at him.
“You’re not so hot yourself,” he hollers back, as he turns the corner and promptly runs over a pig.
A large percentage of urban legends, for instance, are blatantly sexist—it’s women who do evil or stupid things.
Of course, the more revealing stories betray a darker side. A large percentage of urban legends, for instance, are blatantly sexist—it’s women who do evil or stupid things, such as dry the pet in the microwave or infect innocent men with AIDS. Brunvand first started hearing about the Squirmys of the world in 1984, and in his third book, The Mexican Pet, he gave them their own section, called “The Colo-Recto Mouse,” about people who had supposedly rushed to emergency rooms with this embarrassing symptom. It’s a persistent story, often aimed at local TV newsmen who are uncomfortably handsome, and Brunvand’s file of examples continues to grow.
Like most urban myths, the one about Squirmy made its way across the country without benefit of media assistance. Occasionally, professional hysterics such as Ann Landers and Dear Abby will retell a morality tale, usually to scare teenagers into avoiding sex, but most legends don’t get published in the mainstream press. When they do, they’re usually debunked as the fictions they are. But it hardly matters. “Truth never stands in the way of a good story,” says Brunvand. “I have four hundred and fifty legends in my files, and only a minuscule percentage have any factual basis. Yet people still believe them.”
Squirmy was no different. Journalist Catherine Seipp dissected the Squirmy saga for the gay newsweekly The Advocate. She made an impressive case for the unlikelihood of the story and revealed an overlooked fact that made the rumor even harder to believe: Gerbils are illegal in the state of California. The actor would have had an easier time buying an assault rifle. What did he do? Steal Squirmy from a zoo? Was Squirmy smuggled in from out of state? Is there a gerbil underground?
Recently, Seipp was having lunch with her editor, who introduced her to three friends. “Two of them told me how much they liked my article,” she reported. But the third friend was not impressed. “I happen to know that the story about the gerbil is true,” the woman insisted defiantly. “In fact, I have a friend who knows someone at Cedars….” The gerbil, the actor and other urban legends. Squirmy: A star is born.