Another Close Call at the Mall

An Urban Legend

Close-up of car with flat tire and young woman with hands on his head
Stockbyte/Getty Images

We explore the case of the murderous good samaritan who never leaves home without a knife, rope, and duct tape in the trunk of his car — the Internet version of a classic shopping mall horror story!

Description: Forwarded email / Urban Legend
Circulating since: July 1998 (this version)
Status: False (see details below)

Email text contributed by a reader, July 1998:

I received this email from a friend and since I care about all of you I wanted to share it. It is just a reminder to be aware when you are out and about. There are a lot of creepy people in this world, I am sad to say.

A woman was shopping at the Tuttle Mall in Columbus. She came out to her car and saw she had a flat. She got her jack, spare out of the trunk. A man in a business suit came up and started to help her. When the tire had been replaced, he asked for a ride to his car on the opposite side of the Mall.

Feeling uncomfortable about doing this, she stalled for awhile, but he kept pressing her. She finally asked why he was on this side of the Mall if his car was on the other. He had been talking to friends, he claimed. Still uncomfortable, she told him that she had just remembered something she had forgotten to pick up at the mall and she left him and went back inside the mall. She reported the incident to the mall security and they went out to her car.

The man was nowhere in sight. Opening her trunk, she discovered a brief case the man had set inside her trunk while helping her with the tire. Inside was rope and a butcher knife! When she took the tire to be fixed, the mechanic informed her that there was nothing wrong with her tire, that it was flat because the air had been let out of it!

The moral of this story...learn to change your own tire, call someone you know and trust to help you or call mall security in the first place to assist you.

Please Be Safe....and not sorry. Although this happened in Columbus, it could happen anywhere there are NUTS around. Just a warning to always be alert.

Pass this along to every woman you have access too. Never let your guard down. Good story for women to know about -- although with the NUTS in today's world, everyone needs to be careful (not just women).

Analysis: Horrifying, if true. Which it's not. It is an urban legend, and hardly a new one at that (see "The Knife in the Briefcase" and "The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker" for older variants).

For weeks after the above story began circulating on the Internet in 1998, however, security personnel at Tuttle Crossing Mall in Columbus, Ohio fielded call after call after call from panicked patrons and scoop-hungry media types, nearly all of whom seemd to assume the story was at least based on a real-life event. It wasn't.

"It's not true!" was the constant refrain at the mall switchboard during that time. The security office issued a statement saying no such incident had ever been reported. Columbus police investigated and said they found no evidence to substantiate the story.

"It was nothing but a false, stupid, ridiculous, sick rumor," an on-duty security guard told me when I called the mall to verify the story in July 1998.

He was relieved when the rumor seemed to be dying down in April, he said, then became audibly perturbed when I told him it was back with a vengeance and had dozens of forwarded emails to prove it.

'Trust no one'

Other versions circulating concurrently — including variants set in Milpitas, California and Savannah, Georgia — featured only slight modifications. "FYI - Ladies Beware!" began one specimen of the email. "Be safe, Beware..." warned another. At least one variant concluded with this cautionary warning:

People, it is unfortunate that in today's world, we can trust no one. This woman was smart and lucky. The next one of us (male or female) might not be. Trust no one! Be safe!

A fairy tale for adults

"Trust no one." That's the moral, explicit or implied, of a good many popular urban legends, including such classics as "The Kidney Snatchers," a chilling tale of doping and dismemberment at the hands of a global cabal of organ reapers. The persistent message is that it's a dangerous and terrifying world out there, one in which any stranger, well-dressed or otherwise, might have a knife (or a scalpel) concealed in his briefcase with which he plans to do us bodily harm.

Apocryphal stories like these — essentially fairy tales for adults — tap into deep-seated, universal fears that are at once rational and irrational. There are dangerous people in the world, to be sure. Wisdom dictates behaving cautiously around strangers depending on the circumstances. These are givens. On the other hand, it's surely a rare and unlikely occurrence to be accosted at shopping malls by well-tailored businessmen with arsenals hidden in their briefcases.

Beyond the cautionary tale

Just because these stories take the form of cautionary tales with a gripping moral message doesn't mean they have anything truly useful to teach us about the world. Taken with a grain of salt, it may serve as a useful reminder to pay attention to our surroundings and guard against potentially threatening people and situations, but "Trust no one" is hardly a practical credo to live by.

We oughtn't conduct our lives as if every stranger is a potential axe-murderer because, among other reasons, it simply isn't the case.

No, if urban legends teach us anything at all, they teach us about ourselves and how we perceive the world. They're a window on human psychology, exposing some of our deepest fears, wishes and resentments.

Consider the Tuttle Mall story in particular. It's improbable in its particulars and demonstrably untrue, yet has been widely taken for fact and circulated from friend to friend to friend across the U.S. and around the world as a deadly serious warning to all women. It doesn't prove that that there are madmen lurking in parking lots everywhere, nor that our lives are in grave peril when we accept the help of strangers. It doesn't prove that every time we set foot outside our homes we ought to be afraid.

What it does prove, by its very existence, is that we are already afraid.

Last updated 08/23/13