Thursday, January 14, 2016

Page 174: The elevator incident

In this uniquely American urban legend (even when told in other countries, it usually involves Americans), two or three middle-aged women find themselves riding a resort hotel elevator with an imposing-looking black man and his dog. When the man orders the dog to sit, the ladies drop to the floor thinking they are about to be mugged. Some versions have the ladies drop when asked to “Hit the floor” i.e., press the button on the elevator. Only later do they realize they were riding with a celebrity such as Reggie Jackson or Eddie Murphy, who takes it all with good humor. In some telling someone, the celebrity sends them roses and pays their hotel bill as a thank-you for the best laugh they’ve ever had.

Despite the racist subtext of this legend, Campion-Vincent points out that themes of tolerance and modernity run through this and similar urban legends. Mikkelson argues that urban legends tend to portray popular fears, and it is only fairly recently that the racist elements of the Elevator Incident have become secondary for many modern listeners, who instead interpret it as an amusing brush with celebrity and largesse (i.e., having the room paid for and roses sent).

Some have debated whether this 1980s-vintage urban legend was the result of a sitcom joke (its structure certainly resembles one), or whether the legend itself inspired the sitcom. Both Brunvand and Mikkelson point to versions of this legend from previous decades, suggesting that the legend came before the well-known Bob Newhart episode. Indeed, according to Brunvand, one early version of this legend contains none of the racial elements and simply involves an elevator rider dropping to the floor when an authority figure on the elevator calls to his friend, Neil. This is the variant that figures into The Billionth Monkey, and is one of two reasons for our protagonist’s name (the second occurring here).

For Further Reading

Jan Harold Brunvand. “The Elevator Incident.” In Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 131–2.

Véronique Campion-Vincent. “Preaching Tolerance?Folklore 1995, 106: 21–30.

Barbara Mikkelson. “Hit the Floor.” February 13, 2015. Snopes.com.

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