The Hanging Munchkin


The Hanging Munchkin

Yesterday, at my new job, a bunch of people were discussing something I had never heard of: I learned that a depressed actor, who was a “munchkin” in the original 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz”, hung himself during the production. Further, his body, hanging from a tree, was accidentally captured during the filming and was not noted until the film was released. So, with careful watching of that scene, the hanging munchkin can be clearly seen.

The Outsider

I started this new job two weeks ago. The folks I am working with have worked together for several years and are tightly bonded. I am an undesirable outside in several ways — which I won’t go into here — but I am trying to be patient as I slowly become an insider myself (a process I have done many times).

Outsider Challenges a Bonding Myth

On hearing the munchkin story, I was immediately skeptical and said, “Seriously? That sounds like an urban legend [a phrase most of the other seven workers did not recognize] and I quickly ‘googled’ the story. Indeed it is a myth! There are tons of sites on this, but here is one to start:

I then said, “Yep, it is a myth, check in out on this site ….”, naively thinking (as I have done many times in the past), that they too would be excited to learn the truth. But my proclamation was met with puzzled, hostile and rejecting eyes. One person looked, and said disappointingly, “Yeah, looks like it may be a legend” but the conversation stopped and no one pursued it further. I dropped it too.

See the obvious religious parallels?  I wager most of the folks had no real desire to know the truth. My new colleagues were collectively were OK with turning off their skeptic switch for all the pleasure the Hanging Munchkin Myth offered.  Atheists also face such repugnance when they challenge religious myths.  But this example shows that the believing-myth-building mind operates well outside of religious circles also.  Remember, “truth” is not valued highly, when fun/community-cohesion/identity and such are an alternative.  See my post called Sacrificing Rationality: The Tooth Fairy.

Question to Readers: Have you seen secular versions of this phenomena? What is your analysis?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

24 responses to “The Hanging Munchkin

  1. That’s funny, Sabio, when you began the story I immediately thought urban legend myself. I’m glad you didn’t fall for it. My analysis is from my own personal experience: no one likes to be corrected in front of others. Especially at work.

    It doesn’t really matter how small the correction is, and I’ve seen non-religious people fall for much sillier things. Maybe their families taught them well enough to not be tricked by religious zealots, but their personality leaves them vulnerable to other things.

    Maybe they think herbs will cleanse their liver, maybe they’re always someone’s ride home.

  2. (It took me many years of seeing those disappointed looks to realize I should not point out other people’s mistakes, LOL)

  3. @ amelie,
    That could very well be part of it. I rained on their enthusiastic parade. These folks were otherwise all smart doctors and nurses, so that they never even began to doubt this before was absolutely amazing to me. I still think the initial believing is a trade off sacrificing of rationality for the tantalizing dangling munchkin — I won’t even touch why this gives them so much pleasure, but it ain’t pretty.

  4. Very true Sabio. Although I think a slightly bigger part of it is simply telling someone they’re wrong. About anything. Makes people feel foolish be it myth or science. Doctors even more so. Not all but many probably hate being told they’re incorrect. Although this does go beyond simple error, kind of silly (and as you pointed out, bizarre) to take pleasure in such a depressing rumor.

  5. amelie, I am wagering your are like me in that you and I both love to have our false beliefs dispelled with evidence. I love learning that something I held true was false and learning the more accurate explanation.

    I think such values are not common.

  6. I think this post illustrates what I think you mean when you speak of the “taboo part of the brain.” This story tapped into that: little people, suicide, a “hidden-in-plain-sight” sorta thing. Kinda like all the sex things in Disney films lots of people look for.

    Sad thing that you poured cold water all over their taboo party.

    I recently read a quote from Bono: It’s not enough to rage against the lie. You must replace it with a better narrative. Some people LOVE new facts and seem to collect them like Pokemon. I think you are one of these peeps Sabio. However, I think the majority of people need the story. And granted, this is based on nothing but my own experience and thinking, but I think it holds up. So the question is, how would we replace the story? I mean a dead lovelorn munchkin is a powerful story. The truthful story… is well… boring.

  7. Yes, Luke, you nailed it concerning Taboo — and that is what I was alluding to in my last reply to amelie.

    But now, onto your constant “We Need Story” theme:

    It is true that humans are story making animals.
    But it is also true that many stories are harmful.
    Replacing a story with another story is one strategy.
    But sometimes, blowing a fake story out of the air is another good strategy.
    Blowing bad stories out of the air leaves the responsibility of the new story on the believer (the story author) so it fits their new needs — it may be hard for me to predict them.

    So, atheists myth destroyers and Christian reformist have blown up Christian stories used poorly and allowed the creation of new stories, new myths — secular and religious. And just simple growth of knowledge has successfully withered most of religion — shrinking their miracle gods.

    Truthful stories are far from boring — if you understand the deep complexity of reality. Truthful stories are deeper and more exciting than most imagine. But that requires education and that is tough.

    Sure we love stories and they fill our lives, but we don’t need stories of spooks, spirits, miracles and gods any more. Well we don’t need them if we live in an educated and safe society — at least that is what the statistics show.

    Untruthful stories — sure they are fun, they are not always needed, and you can still have fun with them and admit they are fiction.

  8. rautakyy

    Magnificent post Sabio!

    Dealing in history, I run all the time into people who believe myths and legends to be true. And no matter how insignificant a myth, or how little meaning it has on their person, there are a bunch of people who prefer to hold on to the myth even when presented with the contrary evidence.

    Such myths as for example, that medieval people did not wash themselves more often than a couple of times a year, or that armour was terribly heavy and cumbersome are believed by otherwise intelligent, educated and I am sorry to say sometimes even academic people. And when challenged with historical source material, that this can not have been the case, they still try to make up for their original false belief. As if it was true and the new information they acquired just had to be somehow wrong.

    I can only imagine how difficult it must be facing actual researched information about religious beliefs, when those are not only taboo subjects not to be critically examined, but also part of the identity of the religious person.

    I have been taught to appriciate reality (in my case it is not my own doing, but rather an achievement of my parents, that I mostly tend to do so). I would rather be shown to be wrong once and take heed of my mistake, than go on pretending, that some false information I once embraced has to be true.

    But I have also run into extremist fundamentalist religious people who openly admitted they could not appriciate a story if they thought it was fiction. To me this struck as a very odd admission. And it made me sorry for them, as it sounds their lives must be very dull indeed. I wonder if that is a case of lacking in empathetic skills, as if the person could not set themselves into a position of an imaginary character and imaginary set up? If they can not engage in such a simple emotional game, does it mean they lack the ability make belief themselves into a nother persons position at all?

    We have a proverb here in Finland, wich roughly translated would be something like: “The truth is allways more magnificent, than the tale.”

  9. Stories are my thing, no question. I like the Muriel Rukeyser quote “The Universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” which is a line from one of her poems. You can try to shoot down stories, but they always come roaring back in one form or another. The resistance to tell a story around whatever truth you know is folly. There’s more power in story than in “fact.” There’s even MORE power to tell a story which is factual. Seen/read Life of Pi? That’s where I’m coming from. I’m all about critical examination.. yet I’m also about the power of myth. Myth in the non-pejorative, truth-behind-the-truth sense of Joe Campbell.

  10. Typical of your rhetoric style, Luke, you’ve latched on to a tool, and you will play with language vagueness etc to make it work for you. We have run into this dialogue snag before.

    You are running to safe ground of unfettered metaphors.

    Some stories are harmful and dangerous, Luke. Some stories are used for to create irresponsible or even dangerous behavior. Re-read my comment.

    I have seen “Life of Pi”. I had to explain it to a few friends who saw it and who missed what it said. A kid sees his mother and others killed and turns into a killer himself to rightfully survive. Then he [his brain] makes up a fantasy to protect the further pain of seeing himself as a killer and remembering the horror as it really happened.

    Myths also are used to make people blow themselves up to reach paradise. I understand the power of stories. We just need better ones or none at all in that case.

    Yes, yes, I get it, myths and stories are your heros. I’ve heard nothing new. No one denies the power of myth. No atheist I know denies them. It is how they are used.

  11. I think we tend to talk past each other on this. I too am more concerned with how they are used. The question is, when we find a story that is harmful, how would we replace the story? Or counter it? Or provide a better interpretative practice of said story? Or replace the meaning with a less harmful one? That’s what I was after when I asked “o the question is, how would we replace the story? I mean a dead lovelorn munchkin is a powerful story. The truthful story… is well… boring.”

    I totally agree with your assessment of “Blowing bad stories out of the air leaves the responsibility of the new story on the believer (the story author) so it fits their new needs — it may be hard for me to predict them.” That’s one angle. Yet one can look and say, “What does olde Sabio know?! He’s not one of us!” or use an ad hominem. Or be dismissive and look down one’s nose at you (I had that feeling reading your last comment.) My question is simple yet goes a step further, one maybe where you’re unwilling to go. When a story is harmful, how do we proceed?

  12. When a story is harmful and a person believes the story is true, it is sometimes enough to just point out that the story is not true.

    Just today, Mother Jones has a good article on why we don’t believe science but believe harmful myths. It talks about the tenaciousness of myths. And those wrapped in sacredness are the worst because they capitalize on taboos and fears for protection.

    When a story is harmful, there are many strategies:
    1. Reveal the lie
    2. Reveal the harm
    3. Make up a better one and trick them into believing a more benevolent untruth
    4. Stop speaking in religious myths
    5. Offer real meaning through relationships and jobs.
    6. Offer what ever they need to give up the story.

    All work in one way or the other. The point is, when a story is harmful, different folks using different approaches to counter them may change different people. No right answer. Just stop the harmful lies.

    Funny, this went from a simple story about munchkins and tenacious beliefs and we took off on your love of stories and pomo ideology.

  13. @ rautakyy,

    That was a fantastic comment — thanx. Sorry, didn’t mean to lose my reply in Luke and my banter.

    Wait, armor is not cumbersome and terribly heavy? Links? If the stuff is safe, light and nimble, I may wear it when I drive next.


    Like you, I too love having treasured beliefs blown out of the water with evidence, because I am more enamored with understanding than my own habits.

    Yes, Christian literalists are often extremely black and white and really can’t enjoy fiction. They cling hard and fast to simple stories with no depth. And they aren’t the least interested in testing those stories. The only way I see of fighting those folks is to offer them prosperity, safety and better education to their children and then they will wither away with their beliefs — dialogue is almost impossible.

    Concerning the munchkin believers — they will keep seeking out silly stuff. My shattering of their simple belief only did me harm at my work place. I was naive to expect otherwise.

    I love your Finnish proverb — it counters Luke’s myth that “The truthful story… is well… boring.”

    How do you say your proverb in Finnish?

  14. rautakyy

    @ Sabio. Believe it or not, but I have driven in a regular small car with my armour on. 😉 Though I’d prefer a horse.

    If you are interrested, I think this is one of the best presentations made about the issue:

    It is funny though, that even when you present the facts about armour not being terribly heavy, people who held that myth as true (indeed regardless if it had any personal bearing to their lives), tend to use other as silly myths as cover. My favourite is that since people were so much smaller the armour must have felt heavier to them than to the modern researcher. Perhaps this is a bit the same as what you encountered with your new collegues about the munchkin story?

    The proverb in Finnish goes: “Totuus on aina tarua ihmeellisempi!”

    “Boring” is a very subjective measure of anything. It might be, that a person finds a particular myth more pleasing than the truth, but more, or less boring is a ridiculous measure to evaluate the truth value of a story.

    Myths are wonderfull entertainment when people recognize them as mere myths and fiction. The clever part of good fiction is that it incorporates subtle nyances of reality to give it plausibility. So, that one does not need so much “faith” to hold on to the suspension of disbelief.

    The harm of a myth is revealed when people derive their morals as direct commands from said story. When people are not educated and equipped to understand ethics, but just to follow arbitrary commands by an authority, that is when evil happens.

    When a person delves into a mystery, is it not the entire point of the exercise to find out what really happened? What the author of the story meant and often even why that author wanted to convey that particular idea? And is it not important, that the story is consistant with itself? To me at least mythical elements often ruin a good mystery, by adding “deus ex machina” wich was recognized as poor narrative allready in the antiquity. Yet, it is these “gods from machines”, that seem to be the key characters of most religions.

  15. From the Mother Jones article: “We may think we’re being scientists, but we’re actually being lawyers.”

    I love that line!

  16. @ Shadow,
    Yeah, I loved that line too. All thought is tied with affect — to think otherwise is naive.

  17. I think one issue here is the usage of the larger term “story.” There is a difference between a fictional work written by an author meant to be understood as fiction, which reflects back elements of the real world, and a story that people believe is a real event, which proves to be an urban legend. I’m not sure what the exact danger would be in believing the Munchkin story, but it isn’t hard to see how believing certain ideas in religious myths can be dangerous when understood as literally true, especially ones that denigrate other groups.

    However, the issue seems to be not dangerous stories per se, but rather confusing fiction with reality.

  18. @ Dark,
    Yeah, confusing fiction and reality can sometime be dangerous — just as sometimes it is fun. It certainly is inevitable.

  19. I love your Finnish proverb — it counters Luke’s myth that “The truthful story… is well… boring.” -rautakyy

    No. You misunderstand. The truth vs. the hanging munchkin is boring. There’s no good way to tell a compelling counter-story as there’s too much taboo power in the untruth. Best to just blow it out of the water. The quote about the truthful story being boring is just for this story… not for all stories.

  20. @ Luke,
    Ok, so your general statement was an accident on your part — you meant to say “Sabio, your truthful story was boring.”
    Actually, I know tons of folks who would find it far more interesting to find out how many people were suckered into the munchkin story than to actually believe it happened. So, it may have been boring to you or many others, but that is the point — truth is not boring to everyone.

  21. It is partly my wording, I thought it was pretty clear, but thus the limitation of the written word. Also, I am in the crowd which likes urban myths debunked. Seems like you and rautakyy are there as well. The problem is for those who don’t like that, how to approach? How to make the truth palatable for those who find the non-taboo version boring? Unlike you and maybe rautakyy, I think there’s a better approach than “I’m blast’n with my truth bomb and letting sit in the rubble!” I’m not sure how that’s done. But that’s also my problem.

  22. When an urban myth is spoken of, gently helping folks know it is a myth can be a thoughtful thing to do. “Blastin’ the truth bomb” or insult folks or acting arrogant may not be the best method. When a myth puts down another group, being ruthless may be very effective, however. It all depends. Ignoring, gentleness or blasting are all techniques that can be both useful and harmful — as in all techniques. Universals prescriptions don’t apply for these approach methods.

  23. “Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them.”
    —Jules Verne

    Ran into this quote today and thought of rautakyy’s Finnish saying:

    “Totuus on aina tarua ihmeellisempi”
    [Truth there-is always fiction more-wonderful]
    The Truth is always more incredible than fiction.

    (linguistic note: Finnish is complex in that it allows SVO, VSO, OVS and all the rest)

  24. Indianasnow

    This is a distraction to take away from the real suicide. The real one happend in the background during the munchkin parade. This obvious fake is to detract from the real one. You can no longer see the real one in the newer version.

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