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Real story behind Australia's urban legends

From yowies to UFOs to panthers, what's the real story behind Australia's urban legends?

(Getty Images: David Wall)

Did you grow up believing that the decrepit house at the end of your street was haunted? Or maybe you've heard about mysterious large felines stalking the bush just outside your city? If so, you've participated in one of the longest-running human behaviours we know about: myth making.

"[Myths] shape our society, they shape our politics, they shape our pop culture, and so I think, culturally, they're immensely significant," Dr David Waldron, a lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University, tells RN's God Forbid.

"We need to understand what creates them, what generates them, what causes them to evolve and in some cases, fade away."

More than just tall tales

It's not only the great classical stories that shed light on a society, it's also the urban legends told around campfires or in school playgrounds, according to Dr Waldron.

These stories help form local identities and reflect the culture and history of the places they grow.

For example, the small community of Wycliffe Well in the Northern Territory is decked out with murals of aliens to reflect the high number of alleged UFO sightings in the area.

(Getty Images: John W Banagan)

Meanwhile, the Penrith Panthers rugby league team in Sydney is famously named after the big cat that locals say has prowled the Blue Mountains area for over a century. Mysterious big cats have been a staple of Australian folklore for nearly 200 years, and predate Europeans importing exotic felines to Australia. These stories are uniquely colonial, and are of particular interest to Dr Waldron. "In the early stages, early settlers and explorers are coming here expecting to find the same kind of animals they found in Southeast Asia. They're using environmental tools from other continents and finding those tools wanting," he says.

(Getty Images: Simon McGill)

This colonial history also helped form the modern legend of the yowie, despite originally coming from Indigenous folklore. "The thing with the yowie is it's a mythology that's changed enormously over time in relation to Western pop culture," Dr Waldron says. "The first mentions you have of it are from [Indigenous people] around the Hunter River and there it's more complex — a water spirit that kills children … and they also talk about a person's yowie travelling when they sleep," he says.

(ABC Southern Queensland: Nathan Morris)

"There's obviously something quite complex going on, but that gets appropriated and integrated with the bunyip myth, and by the 1890s they're starting to refer to it as Australia's gorilla. "It all gets shoehorned into the Western hairy man narrative and after the Yeti story in the 1950s it becomes Australia's so-called Bigfoot. It's a mythology that has very local and specific meanings to particular people but it's appropriated and spread holus-bolus across the nation. "It's very much a colonial process that the stories have taken on this sort of contemporary meaning," he says. And while strange animals prowling the wilderness is one thing, many Australians are convinced that much more far-fetched phenomena exists.

'Ghost stories tell us profound truth'

A recent survey of Australians commissioned by the Centre for Public Christianity and undertaken by McCrindle, found nearly half of all respondents said they believed in ghosts.

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and has a master's degree in the measurement of paranormal beliefs.

"Everybody has something about them which is not completely rational. Cultures share stories and we see common messages and common themes no matter where we are," she says. "Folklore and all kinds of things open up an understanding of the environment and people's behaviour. It's fascinating. "I don't think people are crying wolf — there are cultural [reasons for] what's going on," she says. In fact, there could be more truth behind urban legends than we give them credit for, says Dr Waldron.

"Ghost stories tell us profound truth — if not so much literal truth that there's a ghost. Rather they tell us about experiences and traumas people have had in their community. They tell us about the risks of certain types of behaviour, and about injustice." According to Dr Waldron, a common story linked to ghosts is that of an unmarried woman being ostracised by the community after falling pregnant. In despair, she commits suicide, leaving behind her restless spirit. "The stories draw attention to these injustices. Until we grapple with the past, these stories will continue to emerge and force people to come to terms with the traumas," he says.

(Getty Images: petesphotography)

Dr Marguerite Johnson, a professor of classics at the University of Newcastle, says this kind of mythmaking goes all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome.

"There is so much to discover when you look at belief in ghosts. In ancient Greece and Rome these stories reflect the concerns people had about a proper burial. If you did not arrange a proper burial for your loved ones, or if someone died a violent death, they would become a restless ghost. "We inherit these belief systems because ghosts usually come from some sort of trauma." Dr Johnson says despite our increasingly secular and rational culture, myths and legends aren't going anywhere soon.

"They've inspired art, literature, television shows and films right up to the present day. They're all around us, and with every generation and every cultural shift and change, you'll bring your own interpretation. So myths and legends, folklore — they're ever-changing."

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