Fax or Fiction: When Urban Legends Spread By Fax Machine
In 1993—before email became the standard form of professional communication—fax machines in Memphis, Tennessee, began spitting out strange documents. Instead of the dry information that office workers had come to expect—like HR policies and expense reports—the text warned of a “blood initiation” and gang killings targeting random citizens. The faxes appeared to come from official sources connected to the police, and though the exact origin wasn’t always clear, that didn’t matter. The message was enough to get people’s attention.
Calls from concerned citizens flooded local police lines. Officers were baffled by descriptions of “lights out,” a supposed rite of passage in which new gang members drove with their headlights off, waiting for drivers to flash their headlights as a courtesy—only for the drivers to then become their unwitting victims. No one in law enforcement had heard of the ritual, despite the warning’s official appearance.
The content of these messages turned out to be inconsequential—there was no evidence of such activity taking in place Memphis, or anywhere else in the country—but their delivery method was significant. The lights out hoax was a classic example of “faxlore,” a phenomenon that marked the transition from urban legends spreading orally to the current age of spam emails and copypasta.
Message in a Bot
As long as humans have been able to send text electronically, they’ve used the technology to spread misinformation. Such activity can be traced to teletype machines used at the end of World War II. When Xerox introduced the first modern fax machine in the 1960s, transmitting words and images across great distances in minutes became easier than ever. To “mail” a message to the other side of the country, all users had to do was scan their document and input the recipient’s telephone number. Any building with a standard telephone line could support device.
Fax revolutionized inter-office communications, and desk workers quickly found creative uses for the machine. Early instances of faxlore (originally described as Xeroxlore by English professor Michael J. Preston in 1974) were fairly innocent: Comics, jokes, and spoofs of company memos were all commonly distributed this way. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, the fake documents took on a darker edge. Urban legends were abundant in this era. Some—like rumors that certain bubble gum brands contained spider eggs—were contained to schoolyards, while others—like accusations of daycare workers conducting satanic rituals—inspired real-world panics.
In the past, these falsehoods had mostly traveled by word-of-mouth, as had many myths throughout history, but the fax machine opened up new avenues for similar urban legends to spread. The nature of the technology allowed one person to send a message across a wide area without leaving their office. And because it existed in the professional world, fax lent a level of authority to sensational claims.
Unfit to Print
When they weren’t transmitting jokes or official documents, fax machines were used to spread fear. Similar to the Satanic Panic, these new urban legends often made children the victims of an invented threat. One faxlore hoax that gained prominence in the 1980s warned parents of LSD-laced temporary tattoos. Known as the “blue star acid” story, it described drug dealers distributing contaminated tattoos shaped like stars or cartoon character to kids with the intention of making them repeat customers, and was widely shared via photocopies. A 1988 report from The Morning News reads, “The warnings urged parents to watch for blue star acid in the hands of their kids, claiming that addiction and even death could result from children licking or even just touching the stars as they removed them from the paper.”
Officials debunked the myth numerous times, but they struggled to suppress it. As long as the rumors spread by fax, they were playing an impossible-to-win game of Whack-A-Mole. Fliers surfaced in schools, churches, daycare centers, and other places with a vested interest in the message. The “Safe and Health Alert” was sent to Alaska one day and Peru shortly after. One journalist received copies of the memo from eight different states in the fall of 1988.
The public hadn’t gotten any better at spotting phony faxes by the 1990s. In the Memphis area, the “lights out” myth raised such alarm that the police were forced to hold a press conference addressing it. They assured people that no, gang members weren’t driving around the city with their headlights off, looking for Good Samaritans to follow home and murder as part of a blood initiation. Just months after the police issued their statement and a local newspaper published a report discrediting the story, the same urban legend sent Chicago into a frenzy. Once again, fax machines were the culprit.
Officials didn’t have to worry about this brand of urban legend for much longer, because shortly after the lights-out legend infected the country, faxlore lost its relevance. In 1996, several companies (like Hotmail) began offering web-based email services that were free to use from various locations. This was a huge step up from the server-based systems used previously, and it changed the game. By 1997, 10 million web mail accounts had been opened around the world, and the internet soon became the preferred mode of interoffice communication—meaning those fear-mongering photocopies quickly disappeared from Xerox trays.
Unfortunately, fake news stories didn’t die as easily. The genre of official-sounding “warnings” of nonexistent dangers that had originated with fax machines seamlessly transitioned online. With email, users could send misinformation even faster and to more people across greater distances. As email become more accessible than fax ever was, the amount of people who could send these messages—and receive them—exploded.
Though we’re better equipped to catch misleading stories than victims of the lights out and blue star acid hoaxes were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, electronic urban legends still proliferate. Today’s myths might tell of marijuana gummies being distributed to kids instead of LSD tattoos, or human traffickers targeting random citizens instead of gang members. We may never eradicate such viral lies for good, but at the very least, the modern versions waste less paper than their predecessors.