Contemporary Legend – USA

“There is like that one urban legend. A lot of people know this one. Umm… supposedly, if you flash someone with your high beams to put on their headlights at night, it supposedly could be a gang initiation, because gang members are supposed to drive with their lights off. And so they are supposed to run those people that flash them off the road.”

Katherine said that she heard this story during her elementary school years, when she was around 11 or 12. She attended St. Brendan School, located in Los Angeles, where she said her friends probably told her the story while on the school playground. Later, when she was older, Katherine saw the story play out in the movie “Urban Legend.” She said the story was especially popular after this movie. She also received a chain letter through email that spread the story. Katherine said that she does not remember the specific time in which she learned of the legend, but pinpointed it to sometime during the 1990’s. At the time, everyone talked about the irrational fear of getting assaulted by a gang member.

This legend has been spread through a variety of ways. In general, the story is told while in a car and someone sees another car with his or her headlights of, thus spawning the appropriate warning. Katherine said it would also be suitable to tell this story when a group of people are talking about gangs or urban legends.

This legend is not exclusive to any one cultural group. It can be told in basically any context. People of all ages were aware of this story, despite not actually knowing anyone who had that happen to them.

Katherine does not believe in the story and believes it is just an urban legend created to scare innocent people. However, the story still sits in the back her head when she sees a car without headlights on. Although she is doubtful of the truthfulness of the story, she said that she is still often hesitant to flash someone and would rather not take her chances.

I had heard of this legend before as well, and had actually taken this piece of advice to heart. However, upon closer inspection, the story does not seem to hold up as well as I thought it would. In the September 24, 1993 issue of the Los Angeles Times, an article reported faxes being sent all across Southern California making claims about a “Blood initiation weekend,” where prospective gang members in Los Angeles would drive around with their headlights turned off and shoot to death those who high beamed them as a courtesy warning. The article goes on to say that the transmissions were deemed a hoax in which the perpetrator had been detained.

After finding concrete evidence that this ritual simply was not true, I realized that the legend probably stemmed from other areas of the United States and had been changed enough that it could be applied locally. Since gang activity in Los Angeles is quite high, it would be easy to draw on the fear evoked by these groups to make the story believable. Logically, it is against a gang’s best interest to publicize a “blood initiation” because the fear would spark a closer investigation on their activities. But despite the irrationality, I think that this urban legend is particularly far reaching and continuously transmitted (at least 15 years now) because it draws on easily applicable situations. Many residents of Los Angeles can quickly relate to flashing other drivers on the road to turn on their lights, which puts them personally in the victim position.

Annotation: Merl, Jean. “Fax Warnings of Gang Initiation Rite Are a Hoax, Authorities Say :[Home Edition]. ” Los Angeles Times (pre-1997 Fulltext)  [Los Angeles, Calif.] 24  Sep. 1993,3. Los Angeles Times.