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More AIDS/HIV Sneak Attacks

Netlore Archive: False stories of 'sneak attacks' with HIV-contaminated needles continue to circulate in the U.S. and elsewhere.

December 7, 1998

ONE OF the more durable themes in contemporary folklore can be summed up in the slogan "Trust No One." Amidst the fast-paced, impersonal hubbub of city life, every stranger is a potential murderer and any one of us could be a victim.

Consider the persistent urban legend that solemnly warns of anonymous evildoers sneaking up on random victims in crowded nightspots to prick them with HIV-contaminated hypodermic needles. There's no evidence that any such attacks have ever actually occurred, but variations of the same story keep circulating via word of mouth and email in every part of the world.

A recent example is this forwarded email, circulating since September 1998:

Subject: Be careful!

This is sick. Please pass on to those you know who go to the movies.

***************************
Subject: Movie Theatre Alert

I'd like to share this note that was sent to co-workers in my sisters office. It happened to one of her friends and it can happen to anyone of us. If you must go to the movies, please, please check. One of the safest way is not by sticking your hands between the seats, but at least, move the seat part up and down a few times and really look. A lot of us just plop down into the seats...

INCIDENT AT THE MOVIE THEATRE

Please check your chairs when going to the movie theatres. An incident occured when a friend's co-worker went to sit in a chair and something was poking her. She then got up and found that it was a needle with a little note at the end. It said "Welcome to the real world, you're HIV Positive."

Doctors tested the needle and it was HIV+. We don't know which theatre this happened at, but it happened here in Hawaii. Be cautious when going to the movies.

This closely resembles an earlier warning that took the Internet by storm four months ago. In that version, the victim was said to have been pricked with an HIV-contaminated needle in a crowded cinema in Bombay, India. She allegedly found a note which read: "Welcome to the world of AIDS."

Another message circulating at about the same time reported "gangs running around Britain sticking HIV-infected needles into people and then handing them a card/leaflet reading 'Welcome To The World of HIV.'"

Even before the email versions appeared, similar stories were spreading by word of mouth in the United States. In March 1998, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported allegations that a high school student in Escondido, California had been assaulted with an HIV-tainted syringe at the Ice House, a local night club. The syringe (left behind by the attacker?) supposedly bore the (now familiar) message: "Welcome to the world of AIDS." The Union-Tribune found the rumors to be false, but by the time the story appeared, business at the night club had already dropped 50 percent due to panic.

The rumor has reportedly circulated in other big cities such as Toronto, New York, and Philadelphia. This Usenet posting from last month cites a typical instance:

Recently I was told a story by a workmate concerning someone whom he knew, by sight at least, who was out for a night on the town. During the course of the night he felt a slight pin prick. Later on he discovered that he had been stabbed probably with a needle and then went on to discover that he had contracted the HIV virus.

Folklore vs. reality

Taking such testimonials at face value, we'd have to conclude that at any given time and place there are a whopping number of sneaky assailants out there covertly infecting people with AIDS. Yet, so far as I've been able to determine, not a single victim anywhere has stepped forward to report such an assault to police. I haven't come across one case of an "HIV sneak attacks" on a random victim documented in the media. There are simply none on record.

It's a folktale. As such, it gives visceral expression to a conglomeration of fears we all share about life in the 1990s: every time we go out in public, we face circumstances beyond our control (often out of control); AIDS is a deadly disease of epidemic proportions for which there is still no known cure; and malevolent madmen walk among us.

If you boil the legend down to its essence, it conveys a trite but true message: Life is risky. This is something we all have a gut feeling about, of course, but rarely do we affirm it consciously. Sometimes what it takes is a good horror story to usher our subconscious fears out into the light of day.


Further reading:

Welcome to the World of AIDS
A previous iteration of the same legend

Pump at Your Own Risk!
HIV needles hidden under gas pump handles? It's a weird world out there!

AIDS Mary
From the UL Reference Pages: discussion of a legend from the mid-1980s featuring an identical punch line

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