The explosion ripped through the concrete. Large flaming cracks across the forecourt. The awning, above the pumps, peeled back in horror, sending shards of plastic and aluminium up into the air. One of the customers is running to an extinguisher mounted on the wall outside the kiosk. It won't do anything, not compared to a catastrophe of this scale, but at least it is something to do.
There is no sign of the person who caused this. Perhaps they've fled. Maybe they were vapourised where they stood.
All that is left of them is the device. The beautifully engineered rectangle of communications technology. Their mobile phone.
It's a strange term, isn't it, Urban Myths? It suggests that the natural habitat of the myth is rural. Myths only exist in green pastures, or occasionally emerge from hedgerows at twilight.
This is probably linked with the idea that the urban environment is no place for superstition. That science and logic have defeated ignorant beliefs through shining electrical, fluorescent light on them.
There have been several attempts to rebrand, of course. Contemporary Legend is a favourite, yet somehow it hasn't stuck.
They remain urban. Like urban foxes they skulk around the edges of modern life, sporadically darting into the middle to feed or reproduce loudly, and at length.
We are traveling along the A1, between Edinburgh and Newcastle. The sun is bright and the majesty of the coast is illuminated in a flurry of greys and greens and blues.
We are traveling in a Volkswagen Polo, a modern model and a modern marvel. This vehicle propels itself along by detonating the ancient remains of long dead lizards. It has precision engineered cams and pistons, vulcanised rubber, electrical lights for seeing in the dark, and most importantly, an alarm that beeps after a while to remind you, startlingly, that tiredness kills and that coffee is a suitable antidote.
The road hugs the coast, for the most part, and as a passenger I'm treated to an almost perfect view of the horizon. If you are six foot tall, and stood at sea level, the horizon is approximately five kilometers or three miles away.
After that, the curve of the Earth takes over and things disappear below that line. The ancient Greeks had this figured out about 2,000 years before our road trip. They didn't drive about in Volkswagen Polos, they didn't take road trips along the exquisitely surfaced A1.
And yet, they could confidently predict the distance I would be able to observe of the North Sea.
The alarm goes off. Tiredness kills. A little steaming coffee cup appears on the dashboard.
We pull into a small petrol station. Across the road is a collection of static caravans. Due to their elevation above sea level, you could expect that an occupant, looking out of the window as they listen to the television that emits light and sound, powered by electricity that made from heating water with the controlled energy of nuclear fission to spin giant turbines, would be able to see for at least five kilometers and possibly a little more.
If we can see further, it's by standing on the shoulders of giants.
If we can sea further it is by standing on carpet made from nylon.
My phone is lying on the dashboard. Google maps has been tracking us for this trip. Out there in medium Earth orbit, around 20,200 kilometers away from the ground, 24 satellites collaborate to mark out present location to within five meters.
One of the side effects, or perhaps consequences, of mobile phones becoming omnitools -- calculators, timers, cameras, note takers, calendars, chess champions -- is that sometimes you forget that they are still mobile phones.
I'm holding it in my hand when I look up at the sign attached to the pillar of the forecourt,just next to a pump.
Pumps are not to be used by persons under the age of 18.
Do not eat or drink near the pump.
Petroleum spirit - Highly Flammable - No smoking
Switch off mobile or car telephones.
I immediately think of the old gas safety advice, do not turn lights on or off if you can smell gas, that's what can cause the spark. I'm gripped with a mild fear.
Gillian knocks on the window. She tells me that I have to see something.
We walk over to the sign at the entrance to the station. On the back some words are scrawled, nearly all caps, in marker pen.
"RESEARCH FLAT EARtH"
They have then drawn a smiley face underneath.
Below are faded words, a similar hand.
"THE EARTH IS FLAT"
Is this for real, Gillian asks.
I don't know.
[URBAN LEGEND (1998)]
I watched Urban Legend in the ABC cinema in Lancaster when it came out. That was the last time I watched it.
The ABC is no longer there. It was transformed into a Travel Lodge. I hear that now the Travel Lodge has also closed down. Perhaps the site is cursed.
What follows is a review of my memory of the film, including the plot, based on something that happened over twenty years ago, likely whilst I wasn't sober. This is all the truth.
The film opens and we are greeted by Jared Leto and Pacey from Dawson's creek. They explain, directly to me, that over the last decade a renaissance in horror, particularly slasher films has brought us here.
I Know What You Did Last Summer, Scream.
We are then drawn into a narrative where Freddy Kruger explains that he's an expert in Urban Legends, like the one in the film Candy Man, and that there's probably some truth to these, because why would anyone make these things up for entertainment?
The film then cuts to Robert Englund, who portrays Freddy Kruger, in his day job lecturing students who all seem a little too old about the psychology of Urban Legends. It seems he was well cast in his role in this film.
The slightly too old students then start dying in ways that relate to the urban legends referenced in the lectures. The Killer in The Backseat. Eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda, Gangs driving without headlights, Kidney Heists.
The song, 'Total eclipse of the Heart' by Bonnie Tyler can be heard throughout the film if you play it backwards.
Eventually it turns out that the killer is the girl you'd least/most expect it to be. She's enacting revenge for something the other slightly too old students did, possibly last summer.
Everything is then wrapped up with the amazing twist that what you've just seen was, in fact, all an Urban Legend. That is to say that modern media is its own form of inner-city story telling and superstition. The film doesn't judge you for believing wholeheartedly that Jared Leto could be some sort of student journalist reporting the facts.
On the way out, one of my friends comments that the stale popcorn and cigarette smoke atmosphere of Lancaster ABC cinema is actually fake and that they pump it in to make the experience more believable.
This is the truth. Research Urban Legend.
[CLARKE'S FIRST LAW]
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Just because you don't understand it, it doesn't mean it isn't just technology.
The G in 5G stands for generation. Fifth Generation.
3G arrived in 1998. The same year as Urban Legend (Coincidence? Do the research!). It built on the earlier 2G network by alloing for faster data transfer. This was mostly a change in infrastructure and equipment of transmitters.
4G arrived about a decade later, in the late 2000s and is around 500 times faster than the 2mbps speed of 3G. This was achieved by another overhaul of the technology. MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) and OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing). These allow multiple transmitters to coordinate and transfer data at the same time, so rather than a one to one connection, it can be one to many. That's how we get the faster data transfers, sharing the work between multiple points and recombining it.
Interestingly, this technology accompanied the rise in smart phones and their use as multimedia devices that allow users to access social media.
5G takes things a step further and leverages the OFDM technique. Simply put it allows one signal to be transmitted on multiple carrier frequencies, broadening the spectrum used, thus allowing for higher bandwidth and lower latency. It allows more people to be online at once, accessing more information.
[A CIRCLE AND A LINE]
In 2017 the UK Petroleum Industry Association (LTD) made the findings of their latest research public. they stated:
“In the past, there had been widespread but unsubstantiated reports circulating globally of mobile phones igniting petrol vapours on petrol filling station forecourts, or other locations where flammable vapours were present.
“As a result, the Energy Institute in conjunction with Intellect, the trade association for IT, Telecomms and Electronics industries in the UK, conducted a study into the risks of ignition of flammable vapours by mobile phones.
“The results of the study were presented at a technical seminar hosted by the EI in March 2003. The main conclusions where that:
“There were no confirmed ignition incidents associated with mobile phones anywhere in the world."
[EXPERIENCE ISN'T KNOWLEDGE BUT SOMETIMES IS]
It makes sense, when you think about it.
That's the slogan of every conspiracy theory.
take the signs in petrol stations, we've known since 2003 that mobile phones don't cause explosions, they actually researched it. However, even common sense tells you that it is ridiculous. A spark from a relatively low power device causing an explosion when forecourts are full of vehicles that literally start an enclosed explosion of their own using things called spark plugs, each time the car is started.
But maybe it isn't always the case.
Just because your experience of the Earth is a flat plane, more or less, doesn't mean that it is one. Just because 3G and urban Legend, the 1998 film came out at the same time does not mean that they are linked, even if your experience of both is.
To navigate this, we need to trust others, experts, and evaluate their opinions and most importantly the facts that they present.
A common retort to any conspiracy theory is 'do the research' or 'educate your self', but somewhere the evaluation of sources has become reciprocal. It's a form of confirmation bias digitally encoded. If we believe the source because it supports our views we believe the source and it supports our views.
This isn't education or research. It's a myth.
There is a wonderful segment of footage.
The Prime Minister of the UK is touring a hospital. He's there for a photo opportunity, and that is standard practice.
A member of the public, a father of a patient, calls him out on it though.
"The NHS is being destroyed... it's being destroyed and now you come here for a press opportunity."
The Prime Minister looks directly into the cameras and says, "Well actually, there's no press here."
The father says, "What do you mean there's no press here? Who are these people?"
The Prime Minister replies, "They're... they're here..." before trailing off and walking away.
This is the same man that will, some months later be tasked with informing a nation about the truth of a pandemic.
[THE PHONE CALL IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE]
If pushed, I'd say the difference is this.
Traditional, non-contemporary, straight up rural legends and myths are formed in the vacuum of information. They exist to add meaning where scant meaning or sources exist. They try to fill in the gaps as a place holder for fact.
Contemporary Urban myths, however, exist in an abundance of information where all information is given the same weight. They are not there to fill in gaps but exist as a way to simplify the ever accelerating speed of information.
It is sometimes easier to trust the sign on the petrol forecourt because it has a reassuring authority, but when authority is shown to be equally as divisive and misinformed we are left in a void. A sea expanding to the horizon that looks like it just ends and falls off the edge of the world.
It is a terrifying place to be.
It is a place where myth and conspiracy combine. A symbiotic mutant caused by 5G or maybe COVID or both, because they might be the same thing. And this strain is deadly.
We have anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, and people willing to let the elderly and the infirm die because of a notion of herd immunity that probably doesn't exist, and even if it did, it doesn't exist in the way they think it does.
If experts and science contradict this myth then it is a conspiracy. It must be. Besides, we can see those in authority lying to us over such trivial things that they must be lying about the big things too.
And the one thing that used to limit the damage of conspiracy theories, a mistrust of all authority, has been replaced with a monotheistic worshiping of alt-sources and a mantra that sounds as sane as any other.
Do the research, educate yourself.
Do the research, educate yourself.
Do the research, educate yourself.
[URBAN LEGEND 2 (NOT THE SEQUEL)]
The last scene is particularly chilling.
Everyone is dead. Even the ones you thought would get away and maybe get a sequel or a spin off, where they become the professor telling students about the Urban Legends, with a knowing smirk that they have survived all of this, but sadly their corpses are all piled up in the corner of a gym hall somewhere.
The music is a low monotone drawl.
We zoom in.
The killer looks into the camera and says, 'there are no cameras here'.