Las Vegas lends itself to weird urban legends

Editor’s note: This story was first published in 2011. We’re reposting it today because we think our readers will be just as interested in it now as they were a few years ago, especially with Las Vegas’ ever-changing population. 

Ever hear the one about the guy who went to Omaha to shoot paintballs at bikinied babes and then picked up a hooker and, when he woke up the next morning, he was lying in an ice-filled bathtub and one of his kidneys was missing?

Sounds absurd, right? But replace “Omaha” with “Vegas” and run through it again.

Why does it not seem quite as implausible with “Las Vegas” as the locale?

Call it the Vegas Added Plausibility Effect, the way any urban legend somehow seems more believable when it’s set in, or otherwise involves, Las Vegas.

The phenomenon can be found all over the Internet on urban legend and modern folklore sites that tell stories about dead bodies found at Strip hotels and tales of absurdly lucky gamblers.

For the city’s popularity as an incubator of, or at least a setting for, urban legends, feel free to blame, or credit, the image Las Vegas puts out to the world and the perception that image, in turn, causes the rest of the world to have about Las Vegas.

And, oh yeah, blame reality, too, because some pretty strange things actually do happen around here.

Enter “Las Vegas” into the search engine of Snopes.com, the online world’s pre-eminent urban legends compendium, and you’ll see 70 urban legends that somehow involve Las Vegas. If that’s not enough, Google “Las Vegas myths” and discover even more sites devoted to collecting, debunking or just perpetuating weird stories about the city.

It’s not surprising. David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, notes that Las Vegas is “a place a lot of people are familiar with but very few people can claim to be an expert about.”

So, assert that something weird happened in a Las Vegas hotel, and listeners will know, or think they know, “what that means,” Schwartz says.

Say “Las Vegas,” he adds, and “you’ve got a whole cluster of associations that come to mind in a way it doesn’t when you say ‘Cincinnati’ or ‘Phoenix.’ “

College of Southern Nevada history professor Michael Green says it’s appropriate that Las Vegas would figure into so many urban legends, because “Las Vegas in some ways is an urban legend. If you think about it, a resort city in the middle of the desert at the distance it is from major cities doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Then, factor into this our actual past, which includes organized crime, the adoption of legal gambling before anybody else in the United States had thought of it, and a roster of colorful city fathers who arrived here from elsewhere with shady pasts.

The result: the image of a larger-than-life city in which anything, however outlandish, may happen. And that’s not necessarily bad.

Think, Green says, “of the image and reputation Las Vegas has and has to have if we are going to be interesting to tourists. We probably can’t afford to improve our reputation too much.”

Note, too, our nature as a tourist city, Green says. “Even in bad times, we have a large daily transient population that’s here only briefly and sees very little, but what they do see tends to stand out.”

Jeremy Handel, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, notes that the glut of TV shows and documentaries devoted to Las Vegas testifies to the interest the rest of the world has in all things Vegas.

Our likelihood as a setting for urban legends “comes with the visibility and it comes with the interest and the destination,” he says.

It’s only natural that so many Las Vegas-based urban legends revolve around gambling. Typically, they are about big winners or big losers, and most tend to be unprovable one way or another.

“Look at it this way,” Green says. “From ’31 to ’78, I would guess, (Las Vegas) was the only place in the country with legal gambling. That’s a long time — potentially two generations — for stories about gambling … to develop and become even more interesting than they were at the beginning.”

Deborah Coonts is the author of two Las Vegas-based mysteries, “Wanna Get Lucky?” recently released in paperback, and “Lucky Stiff,” which just hit the shelves in hardback. Both feature Lucky O’Toole, head of customer relations at a Strip megaresort and include only-in-Vegas flourishes that can rival the best of any urban legend.

Coonts notes that urban legends are, at their heart, very short stories. And, like many works of fiction, they can be based upon a kernel of truth that’s then embellished for dramatic effect.

Take the urban legend about the woman whose decaying body is found under the mattress in a Strip hotel room. Maybe, Coonts says, she’s a “hooker, some poor girl from Idaho, and she was the paramour of a mob boss or something or some politician.

“And it just goes on and on, and people create a story around it because Las Vegas is a story. The whole town is a story. That’s what we do in Vegas. We perpetuate those stories.”

Las Vegas works as the setting for Coonts’ novels for the same reason it works as the setting for urban legends. “Everybody believes that anything can happen in Las Vegas,” Coonts says, “and I think that’s one reason people come to Las Vegas, because anything can happen.

“This is a fantasy land, an adult Disney World, and (they) have these imaginative adventures — hopefully not life-threatening or life-ending. But it is part of the whole personification of Las Vegas. It’s just a fantasy, so why wouldn’t it happen in Vegas?”

Take that bikinied woman/paintball thing. “We have the Lingerie Bowl,” Coonts says, and, from there, “it’s a very small step to imagine guys with paint guns going around looking for beautiful women.”

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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