Space & Innovation

Man Claims AIDS Scare Legend Came to Life

A visitor to Seattle says a stranger attacked him with an AIDS-infected needle, but it may be an urban legend. Continue reading →

A man in Seattle claimed he was recently attacked outside a bar one night by a mysterious woman with a needle who stabbed him and then said "Welcome to the HIV club," suggesting that he had just been infected with the AIDS-causing virus. If true, it would be an urban legend come to life.

KIRO-TV reported that the woman was described as in her late 20s with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair, and was walking with a man about the same age who was wearing a baseball hat. As they walked by the victim and his girlfriend on the sidewalk, the victim "felt a sharp prick and stabbing puncture to his left tricep," according to a police report. The woman made the HIV comment while looking directly at him, the victim told police."

Many details about the attack are murky and suspicious, including the fact that the attack was apparently unprovoked and that the victim and his companion are anonymous. The only identifying details were the victim's nationality and that he was a crew member aboard a nearby yacht.

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Furthermore according to one report the victim "didn't report the assault to police until two days later," which seems curious. Police have no leads and there were no other witnesses to the attack. A review of security cameras have not verified that the incident even occurred, and neither the alleged attacker nor the man she was walking with have been found.

Was It AIDS Mary?

Though police don't know who the mysterious attacker is, folklorists might. Here's another similar scary story about the woman:

"A man traveling on business or attending a conference meets a beautiful woman in a bar or nightclub and accepts the invitation to spend the night with her. The next morning he awakens to find that the woman has gone; she left behind only a message written on the bathroom wall (or mirror) in lipstick reading, ‘Welcome to the world of AIDS.' He reports this encounter to the police and learns that authorities have sought this woman for some time. She is an embittered AIDS victim who has vowed to give the disease to every man she can seduce."

This is not a news story but instead an entry on AIDS Mary, a contemporary legend, described by folklorist Jan Brunvand in his "Encyclopedia of Urban Legends." The details of legends change over time and vary by location, but the theme is unmistakable.

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Brunvand notes that this legend "began sweeping the country in 1986 (and) was rampant internationally, especially in Europe, where the sinister message sometimes read, ‘Welcome to the AIDS club." That this specific, peculiar phrasing of an AIDS or HIV "club" originated in Europe is interesting because according to news reports the unnamed stabbing victim in Seattle is European, and thus the phrase he heard (or claimed to hear) reflects a version of the story from his homeland.

This is not to say, of course, that the alleged attacker - presumably American woman without any noted accent - couldn't refer to an HIV "club," but it's not a typical phrase in the American versions of the urban legend. This is circumstantial evidence that either the attack didn't occur as claimed, or that the victim may have misheard or misunderstood what was said to him.

AIDS Needle Legends There is in fact a whole category of needle attack legends, and the mythbusting web site Snopes has a lengthy discussion of this story:

"A frightening version of the pin prick legend began circulating in the early spring of 1998. According to it, young people partying in clubs or at raves run the risk of being jabbed with an HIV-loaded needle and then afterwards finding a ‘Welcome to reality - you now have AIDS' message stuffed into a pocket or affixed to them by way of a sticker. This warning has so far circulated in Philadelphia, New York City, San Diego, Oakland, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Mexico, Australia, Ecuador, and Germany, each time passed along as something that had already happened to others locally."

Fear over malicious AIDS infection has been around for decades, Brunvand notes: "Prototypes of the modern legend in the 19th century described a vengeful woman spreading a venereal disease among her country's enemy forces." In the early 2000s, urban legend stories of AIDS-infected needles circulated widely, prompting the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control to issue a statement that "CDC has not tested such needles nor has CDC confirmed the presence or absence of HIV in any sample related to these rumors. The majority of these reports and warnings appear to have no foundation in fact.... CDC is not aware of any cases where HIV has been transmitted by a needle-stick injury outside a health care setting."

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Trying to give someone AIDS using an HIV-infected needle is very unlikely to succeed. This is because HIV cannot exist intact for long outside the body. In fact it is rendered inert shortly after contact with air. Thus even if someone got ahold of a quantity of AIDS-infected blood and put it on needles the virus would likely be dead long before the attacker had the chance to prick anyone with it.

Acting Out Legends The Seattle attack story has all the hallmarks of an urban legend passed along as truth, but just because a story is an urban legend doesn't mean that it couldn't happen, or that someone couldn't act it out if they chose to. It may be a hoax, or it may be a woman familiar with the legend acting it out as a sick joke in a phenomenon that folklorists call ostension. This occurred several months ago when a young girl was stabbed by her friends as part of a Slenderman legend, or as people do when they play out the Bloody Mary urban legend or go ghost hunting. Seattle police are still investigating, but it's likely that the whole incident was a hoax or misunderstanding, and Seattle bar patrons need not fear attacks of HIV-infected needles.

Hoaxes have long been a part of history, from the ancient Greeks to modern day. In celebration of April Fool's Day, count down with us some of the greatest moments of trickery known to man.

The Trojan Horse

Whether you believe the tale Virgil tells in "The Aenied" is fact or fiction, the Trojan Horse still stands as one of the greatest hoaxes known to history, real or literary. Legend has it that the Greeks, in a longstanding war against the Trojans, built a giant (and hollow) wooden horse and presented it to their rivals. After the Trojans willingly brought the peace offering into their fortified city, an army of Greeks burst out of the statue and effectively crushed the opposition, using what’s now considered to be one of the oldest tricks in the book.

"The War of the Worlds" Broadcast

On Halloween night, 1938, a radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ 1898 science fiction novel "The War of the Worlds" had people convinced that aliens were invading the United States. The broadcast was orchestrated by the famous Orson Welles (pictured above, answering questions from the press the following day). Much of the show was in an “emergency bulletin” format. Those who tuned in mid-broadcast didn't recognize that they had stumbled upon a fictional show and instead thought they had tuned in just in time to hear emergency announcements that aliens were invading. Welles claimed he hadn't foreseen the hysteria. The event is still commemorated to this day in Grover’s Mill, N.J. (home to the “invasion”) by a stone monument.

The Piltdown Man

The Piltdown Man is literally the definition of hoax. In 1912, Charles Dawson and Arthur Smith Woodward unearthed a strange set of fossils in Sussex, England. These fragments would be pieced together to form the "Piltdown Man" skull and were famously hailed as proof of the "missing link" between humans and apes, according to the British Natural History Museum, which uses the incident as a prime example of "bad science." It would take 40 years, and the invention of better scientific dating, for the skull to be revealed as a fake. To this day, no one (or no group of individuals) has been identified as the mastermind behind the Piltdown Man hoax, although there have been theories.

U-505

In the midst of WWII, on June 4, 1944, the U.S. Navy captured the German submarine U-505 and kept it and its surviving crew members a secret. The Allied forces hoped to use the materials and code books found aboard the sub against the Nazis without the opposition knowing they had an upper hand. And it worked. U-505 was towed to Bermuda. The 58 Nazi soldiers captured during the raid were kept in relative isolation and not allowed to send letters from their imprisonment. The German army considered them dead, even sending notice to their families, according to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where the submarine currently is on exhibit to the public. The survivors were eventually released at the end of the war.

Balloon Boy

Perhaps once of history's most recent hoaxes, the plight of a young boy, Falcon Heene, supposedly launched (accidentally of course) into the Colorado skies in his family's UFO-like balloon, captured widespread media attention on Oct. 15, 2009. Heene would later be found safe and sound, hiding in his family's home. In a news interview the next day, young Falcon Heene would also accidentally mention it "was for the show," revealing the hoax. His parents, Richard and Mayumi Heene, admitted to orchestrating the entire incident for the publicity. They were fined and had to serve jail time.