“Drug pushers are giving school children tattoos soaked in LSD. The children innocently put the tattoos on their skin and the drug soaks through to their blood stream entrapping them into drug addiction. In this way the drug pushers enlist new recruits into the world of drugs…”

This terrifying story is, I am glad to say, complete fiction. But it has fooled police, health authorities and school teachers around the world. As the modern day fairy tale gets spread by word of mouth, it is fuelled by the authorities issuing warning letters to parents. In the summer it went around the Oxfordshire area. It is impossible for LSD to be taken via a tattoo and the tale is one of many Urban Myths or Friend Of A Friend tales recorded by sociologists.

In this country, as in many others, the tales are logged and studied as a sociological phenomena akin to the fairy tales of yesteryear.

I remember as a child firmly believing one particularly gory FOAF (so called because it always happens to a ‘friend of a friend’). It concerned someone visiting a Chinese restaurant and putting a grisly bit of meat into a napkin and hiding it in their pocket intending to throw it away later. But the person forgets about the napkin in their pocket and hands the coat to the cleaners. A few days later the police knock on the door inquiring about the coat. The police revealed that they had examined a mystery object in a napkin in the pocket and forensic had revealed it to be a human finger…

The hallmarks of FOAFs are that the teller firmly believes them to be true and it happened to a Friend of a Friend who can never be traced. Many years ago The Thame & Chinnor Star exposed a FOAF doing the rounds in High Wycombe that a woman had bought a yucca plant and discovered a nest of tarantulas in the roots. A member of staff from the advertising department went to see the editor after the paper was published to say: ‘You’ve made a dreadful mistake. That story really did happen to my sister’s friend.’ She phoned the sister there and then. The sister said: ‘Oh, no it wasn’t my friend, it was a friend of a friend of hers. But it is definitely true…’ And so it goes on.

These FOAFs demonstrate the power of word of mouth. Remember all the rumours about street riots in the late 1970s? They travelled much quicker than the media could ever spread the message. They also go back further than you think. One that was popular in the 1960s about spiders nesting in beehive hairstyles was also found to exist in the 13th century. And the evergreen story about a hitchhiker who vanishes from the passenger seat and turns out to be a person who died at the spot many years before, also had its roots in a 13th century folk tale.

The tales can also be costly. The numerous myths about contact lenses slipping behind the eye and into the brain have cost that industry thousands. Sex crops up as much as horror in these tales. One of the more popular sex and horror myths concerns lovers who drive off in a hurry from a lovers lane after hearing on the car radio that a murderer is on the loose. This murderer has a hook instead of a right hand. When the couple get home the girl opens her car door and discovers a bloody hook swinging from her door handle. Alligators in the sewers, cats in microwaves and buildings that have been erected upside down or back to front are just some of the plethora of delightful tales that will remain popular for many years to come. New ones will also appear – what about phantom social workers trying to abduct children, or Satanists breeding babies for ritual slaughter? And of course I know they are true because it happened to a friend of a friend of mine.