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Pop Quiz: Urban Legends

Donate Test your knowledge of popular urban legends, and the science underlying them.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions, Urban Legends

Skeptoid Podcast #663
February 19, 2019
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Pop Quiz: Urban Legends

It's time once again to rip you out of the comfort of wherever you are, and stick you on the hot seat, and force you to take our occasional quiz. This week's topic is urban legends. Consider yourself the expert, do you? Familiar with all the Skeptoid episodes, are you? Here are 10 questions to test your expertise not just on the urban legends themselves, but on the general science literacy that underpins your ability to evaluate them critically. Are you ready?

1. The Philadelphia Experiment

It's spawned books and movies. This most incredible of all naval experiments supposedly tried to take a Navy warship in 1943, the USS Eldridge, and make it physically invisible, and even instantly transport itself hundreds of miles; unfortunately with disastrous results, with some sailors re-materialized inside the ship's decks and bulkheads, and others with lifelong disabilities. But that's the fictional urban legend version. What did the actual Philadelphia Experiment try to accomplish?

A. The experiment was about trying to make the ship invisible to radar
B. The experiment was about demagnetizing the ship's hull to evade torpedos
C. There was no experiment at all

Reveal the answer

2. Polybius

The famous urban legend of the mysterious arcade game called Polybius tells of teenaged players who were driven to either insanity or to suicide — with all their personal information transmitted to government agents. Supposedly, it happened in Portland, Oregon in 1981. Which one of the following three statements is not true?

A. Government agents actually did escort players out of arcades.
B. Government agents actually did seize arcade consoles.
C. At least two Portland arcade players were rendered unconscious.

Reveal the answer

3. The Amityville Horror

In 1975, a family spent just under a month in a house in Amityville, Long Island. Their stay was to become a foundation of American urban legendry. For, upon publication of the book The Amityville Horror, it turns out their month was among the most terrifying hauntings anyone ever endured. Which character from the book was fictional?

A. George Lutz, father of the family victimized by the haunting
B. Father Mancuso, whom the Lutzes called in to exorcise demons from the house
C. Butch DeFeo, who murdered six members of his family in the house a year before the Lutzes moved in

Reveal the answer

4. The Lost Ship of the Desert

In 1933, a couple exploring the Anza-Borrego desert of southern California crossed paths with a dying prospector who swore he'd seen the bow of a Viking longship protruding from the side of a canyon — which would have put it in sediment that was at least 2.5 million years old. However, in past centuries, it would indeed have been possible for a ship to sail from the Sea of Cortez up into what is now southern California. Onto what ancient lake would it have sailed?

A. Lake Cahuilla
B. Lake Lahontan
C. Lake Manly

Reveal the answer

5. The Devil Walked in Devon

A popular story tells that in 1855 in Devon county, England, a track of footprints 100 miles long appeared in the snow overnight. The tracks went through walls, through pipes too small for a person to fit, and across bodies of water. It was quickly and widely reported that the devil himself had walked through Devon county that night. What did the footprints look like?

A. There was no one consistent description
B. Exactly like a man's footprints, with an X in the heel of the left boot
C. Small cloven tracks, just a few inches long, like a small animal

Reveal the answer

6. The Curse of Macbeth

The most famous urban legend from the theater world is that of "the Scottish play", Macbeth, whose name you're not even supposed to utter. Supposedly actors die or get injured, or other tragedies happen, whenever the cursed play is performed. Which of the following is true of the curse of Macbeth?

A. Data does indeed support more injuries at Macbeth performances than in the rest of the industry at large
B. Data does not support the claim that Macbeth is more dangerous to perform than any other play
C. Insufficient data exists to either prove or disprove the existence of any curse

Reveal the answer

7. Subliminal Seduction

We've all heard that messages flashed onto a movie screen so fast you can't perceive them will make you want to go out and buy a Coke, and this is still taught today in college advertising classes. The 1974 book Subliminal Seduction was based largely on the results of one groundbreaking study performed at a movie theater in New Jersey by market research consultant James Vicary. Vicary flashed subliminal messages lasting .003 seconds onto the movie screen advising people to go out and buy Coke and popcorn. What were the results of this study?

A. Sales of both Coke and popcorn increased dramatically.
B. There was no improvement in sales, and so Vicary falsified some positive results.
C. No such experiment ever actually took place.

Reveal the answer

8. Animal Earthquake Prediction

Unless you've spent your whole life living under a rock, you've heard that animals have some extra sense that warns them when an earthquake is coming. According to our latest science, about how long before an earthquake can some animals predict it?

A. A few seconds
B. About three hours
C. About three weeks

Reveal the answer

9. The Min Min Light

As long as authors have been writing about the Australian outback, they've told tales of the Min Min Light, a mysterious ghost light dancing about in the distance, luring travelers to their doom. This particular light has finally been conclusively solved as a type of mirage, making an actual light that's not within any direct line of sight visible to the observer. What type of optical phenomenon is it?

A. A superior mirage
B. An inferior mirage
C. A Fata Morgana mirage

Reveal the answer

10. John Wayne and the Nevada Test Site

John Wayne's death from cancer in 1979 is often said to be the result of radiation poisoning suffered on the set of the movie The Conqueror in 1954, filmed on location near St. George, Utah, just downwind of the Nevada Test Site in the days of atomic testing. Nearly $2 billion have been paid out to residents of St. George as compensation for various cancers. Decades later, with our vastly improved data, we now know that it would have been risky to be in that downwind area for how long after an atomic test?

A. There was never any significant risk
B. Risky for about one day
C. Risky for about one year

Reveal the answer

So how did you do? Tweet me your score, at @BrianDunning. If you got all 10 right, then you are indeed an expert on urban legends and the science behind them — a prideful thing indeed.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Pop Quiz: Urban Legends." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 19 Feb 2019. Web. 19 Jun 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

American Geographical Society: Approximate Status of 1933. "Map of the Colorado Delta Region." SDSU Center for Inland Waters. San Diego State University, 1 Jan. 1936. Web. 4 Jun. 2010. <>

Ault, A. "Ask Smithsonian: Can Animals Predict Earthquakes?" Smithsonian Institution, 10 Aug. 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2018. <>

Bernauw, P. "The Curse of Macbeth." Unexplained Mysteries., 10 Aug. 2009. Web. 4 Nov. 2010. <>

Dash, M. Fortean Studies Volume 1. London: John Brown Publishing, 1994. 71-150.

DeSpira, C. "Reinvestigating Polybius." Retrocade. 1 Apr. 2012, Volume 1, Number 2: 141-148.

Karremans, J., Stroebe, W., Claus, J. "Beyond Vicary’s fantasies: the impact of subliminal priming and brand choice." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 14 Nov. 2005, Volume 42, Issue 6: 792-798.

Pettigrew, J. "The Min Min light and the Fata Morgana An optical account of a mysterious Australian phenomenon." Clinical and Experimental Optometry. 1 Mar. 2003, Volume 86, Number 2: 109-120.

Radford, B. "The Amityville Horror.", 15 Apr. 2005. Web. 7 Dec. 2009. <>

Shaw, M. "Was The Movie The Conqueror Really Cursed? A Look At Radiation Paranoia." Health News Digest. Interscan Corporation, 14 Sep. 2009. Web. 25 Dec. 2010. <>

Vallee, Jacques F. "Anatomy of a Hoax: The Philadelphia Experiment Fifty Years Later." Journal of Scientific Exploration. 1 Oct. 1994, 8: 47-71.


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