In years past, friends have huddled around the dim orange glow of a campfire to recount spooky stories. Now, that “campfire” is typically the dazzling blue light of a smartphone — but the stories being told remain similar.
Folklore experts now refer to these eerie tales as “contemporary legends,” though they are more commonly known as urban legends. They’re a genre of folklore characterized by an obscure origin, little supporting evidence and a wide audience. They can be humorous or horrific, and they often involve a moral lesson, making them perfect for both a literal and a digital campfire.
Unpacking the legend of feral people in national parks
A contemporary legend about feral people living in U.S. national parks — Great Smoky Mountains National Park, specifically — recently went viral on TikTok, but the rumor itself has been around for decades.
“In 2021, there are feral people that are cannibals living in our national parks,” TikTok user @jaybaebae96 said in a viral post, confidence apparent in her voice. “Since I learned this I have not stopped thinking about it … I will probably never go to a national park for the rest of my life because I am absolutely terrified of being eaten by a feral person.”
TikToker @garcious, who claimed she is working on a documentary about feral people, said there are “hundreds of eyewitness accounts about these people that the government refuses to investigate.”
According to TheSmokies.com, a news outlet that serves the area surrounding the Smoky Mountains, people have long believed that a 6-year-old boy who went camping with his father, brother and a few friends in 1969 was kidnapped by feral people. His name was Dennis Martin.
Legend has it that the child sneaked away from his campsite, never to be seen again. Over the next few weeks, the search party “grew to an unwieldy and counter-productive size,” including Boy Scouts, National Guard members and even a group of 71 Green Berets who were training nearby at the time.
A Tennessee man named Harold Key told officials and he heard a “terrible scream” and saw a figure running through the woods around the time of Dennis’ disappearance. At first, he thought it was a bear, then he claimed it was a disheveled man who hid in the bushes.
From there, rumors of “wild men” began to form — feral, cannibalistic humans who live in the mountains and snatch livestock and children at night. Dennis’ father, refusing to believe the child had just wandered off, swore he had been kidnapped.
The contemporary legend grows from there, but it’s important to note that what happened to Dennis, while likely tragic, was not carried out by cryptids or feral humans. The area is extremely dangerous, especially to young children who are lost and alone, and he could have frozen to death, fallen down a mountain or been attacked by wild animals native to that region.
The park system completely revamped the way it conducted search parties after Dennis’ disappearance, becoming more organized and no longer funneling hordes of people into the woods, which may disrupt any trace of the missing person. Sadly, though, Dennis was never found.
Is there any truth to the contemporary legend of feral people in national parks?
Though the tale of feral people does provide an entertaining arc for an upsetting case that has no resolution, it has never been confirmed. In fact, the story is actually harmful to the nearby off-grid and low-income residents, as well as people experiencing homelessness.
Multiple TikTokers from West Virginia and Kentucky have said rumors and stereotypes of “feral people” dismiss serious issues that stem from lack of access to resources. In the Appalachian area near the Smoky Mountains, the poverty rate is extremely high compared to other parts of the country — even other rural areas, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
“These people are living off the land, they’re not eating each other … we’re better than that,” said Appalachian TikToker @rock_bottom_wren. She added that her family has eaten squirrel stew, made flour out of pine needles and made use of all sorts of natural resources for generations. There’s no need to eat people.
“It’s just demonizing [people] who live in remote areas,” one TikTok user said.
“This myth is super harmful and based in classism and racism against Appalachia,” another wrote.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of terrifying contemporary legends surrounding U.S. national parks that don’t needlessly make victims of the locals.
For instance, we can’t possibly know what is present in the depths of densely wooded areas in these parks. It’s remarkably easy to simply disappear in them.
“At least 1,600 people, and perhaps many times that number, remain missing on public lands under circumstances that defy easy explanation,” Jon Billman, a journalist who investigates disappearances, wrote for Outside Magazine. Several TikTokers have quoted that statistic.
If people can seemingly vanish without a trace despite all our modern technology, couldn’t there be “wild people” running amok we just haven’t encountered yet? Technically, yes. But by that logic, they’re nothing to worry about, so long as you’re staying on the proper trails — as experts recommend you do anyway — in order to avoid becoming one of the vanished.
Why contemporary legends (and rumors) spread easily on TikTok
Many people who posted about the Smokey Mountain feral people have since deleted their unsubstantiated claims, but it’s too late to undo the damage — a seed has been planted. Misleading content keeps cropping up, and the TikToks debunking the rumors have far fewer views than the ones spreading misinformation.
This happens all the time — a simple health hack or a celebrity rumor will gain traction on TikTok, and it’ll take days for someone to do enough research to put an end to it. Sometimes, like in the case of the feral people legend, the truth isn’t as viral as the lie.
That’s the trouble with contemporary legends on TikTok. The platform is incredibly self-contained. You don’t seek out content, it finds you based on your interests as interpreted by a mysterious algorithm. Watch one contemporary legend video all the way through, and you’re sure to be served dozens more over the next week.
Since TikTok’s interface doesn’t allow links in posts, anyone curious about a claim has to stop what they’re doing, exit the app and open a different one to verify it. That might not seem like much, but when you’re swiping through hundreds of videos in an hour, the goal for many TikTok users is to use the app as a, as Vox calls it, “dissociation machine.” They don’t want to snap back to reality after every interesting post, that ruins the vibe.
It creates the same atmosphere as a campfire, essentially — you have to take that person’s word for it until you can step away later to do some proper Googling. There’s always the chance that you’ll forget, or the information might not be available yet … or you like the story more than you like knowing the truth.
How to spot contemporary legends in the making
Urban or contemporary legends have become an entire genre of posts on TikTok. They’re not going anywhere any time soon.
Fortunately, they’re not all inherently harmful, so long as people are wary of what stories may be untrue or exaggerated.
Merrill Kaplan, an associate professor of Folklore and Scandanavian Studies at The Ohio State University, told In The Know that people should have a healthy skepticism about what stories are ripe for attaining legend status by noting what tales lie on “credible/incredible edge.”
“They tend to sit at the edge of credibility — the realm of the debatable — where even if you yourself dismiss it out of hand, it’s easy to believe that someone somewhere believes it, and that fact itself seems worth passing on,” she explained.
Though the idea of “feral people” is outlandish, hermits certainly exist, and so do off-grid survivalists. We’ve latched onto high-profile stories of cannibals over the years, too, as well as the similar legend of the Wendigo — a mythical creature said to eat human flesh. According to Kaplan, this places the feral people story smack in the middle of the bizarre and the reasonable.
Research from multiple sources, including a 2008 study by Justin Storbeck and Gerald L. Clore, suggests that we are more likely to pass on information that arouses us in some way, whether it makes us laugh or activates our anxiety, and so on. Stories involving animals or children pack more of an “emotional punch,” Kaplan said.
She explained that it makes sense that the contemporary legend of feral people has once again begun to appeal to young people.
“Every time we turn around we’re being told that another thing is dangerous,” she told In The Know. “I keep seeing jokey news items about how we’re all forgetting how to function in human society while in quarantine. Are we all going, well, feral? And, lo! A rumor about people getting separated from society and becoming less human takes off. Of course it does!”
If stories fit into our existing world view — that people are bad or that the forest is scary — we’re also more likely to believe them, Kaplan said. With that in mind, we should consider the source. Is it a friendly face on TikTok, or an actual resident of the area? An excited acquaintance, or a journalist who has done research?
Ultimately, the stories that are most likely to become contemporary legends are also the ones most likely to get picked up by news outlets. It’s on them to use their credibility to debunk false stories as quickly and effectively as possible, and it’s on you to question fantastical stories before spreading them.
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