Why All of Those Horrifying Urban Legends About KFC Just Won't Die
A deep dive into why the deep-fried rat and the mutant chickens are seemingly immortal.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Once you've been the victim of a rumour or the unwilling subject of an urban legend, it can be difficult, if not flat-out impossible, to shake it. Just ask Richard Gere. Or read the opening paragraphs of one of those Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: emails from your weird aunt. Or mention a story you heard from a friend-of-a-friend about KFC, and wait for someone to finish your sentence with either "those genetically modified mutant spider chickens?" or "that guy who got the the fried rat?"
For some reason, KFC seems to find itself on the receiving end of one harrowing piece of hearsay after another, an unfortunate situation that has persisted for decades. Although Snopes does its best to dispel these stories before they make their way around the full circumference of the internet, some of these legends are so pervasive that KFC has been forced to confront them head-on. In a section on its website called "Chicken Chattin'," KFC addresses eight of these mysteriously unkillable stories, seemingly trying its best to be cool about it while ostensibly grinding its collective teeth into a fine powder. (And it also introduced me to a couple of rumours I hadn't even heard before. Thanks, KFC!)
The "mutant chicken" story or (one of many variations involving six-legged "spider chickens") made its most recent appearance in everyone's inbox last year, but its origins have been traced back to a pre-internet word-of-mouth story that started to spread in 1995. The legend of the mutant beak-, feather-, and feet-free "Kentucky Fried Creature" began circulating online four years later, and like countless other legends, it seems to have spun off from our collective uncertainty about scientific advances and emerging technologies.
"It's probably no coincidence that the theme of genetically engineered food spilled out of the Internet rumour mill once again so close on the heels of the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle," ThoughtCo wrote. "So-called 'Frankenfoods' were a hot topic of discussion there, and public interest in the issue is burgeoning."
But more than a decade later, the story continued to spread, enhanced with disturbing photos and citing a made-up study from the University of New Hampshire. (The University sighed deeply and issued its own press release denying that any such research existed.)
In a way, KFC is a victim of its own success: If we hear a story about spider chickens or mutant birds or suspiciously fried items, they have to come from KFC, because we've collectively decided that's the most likely target for these unbelievable stories.
Rather than send a series of tweets hashtagged #FAKENEWS, KFC called its attorney. In 2015, KFC China filed a lawsuit against three companies responsible for spreading the mutant chicken story—complete with Photoshopped pictures of what it alleged to be genetically fucked up birds—on its WeChat accounts. According to the legal filing, KFC found 4,000 "defamatory messages" on the chat service that were read more than 100,000 times. In January 2016, a Shanghai court ruled in favour of KFC, ordering the companies to pay $127,000 in damages and, perhaps most importantly, to apologise for spreading the story. (Eric Wayne, the artist who created the mutant chicken image that circulated with seemingly every variation of the story, complained that he didn't "make a penny" from the altered photo, which might just go to show that urban legends hurt us all.)
The alleged deep-fried rat seems to be the second most popular KFC tale that refuses to die, and, sadly, it will probably continue to have (four crispy) legs as long as people post pictures of weird-looking chicken tenders online. Sociologist Gary Alan Fine started deconstructing it way back in 1980 in his piece "The Kentucky Fried Rat: Legends and Modern Society." At the time of publication—now nearly 40 years ago—Fine had already catalogued 115 different versions of the story.
"When that legend started to manifest itself in its early days, the story was typically that a wife and mother—the person responsible for providing for her family, in this 1960s worldview—instead [of cooking] decided to pick up a meal at KFC," Brodie said. "She bites into a piece, it tastes funny and it turns out to be a rat. One of the things about that legend is that there is a specific person who is being punished, and that person is the mother, who should be doing things like preparing food for her family from scratch, but instead is [serving] mass-produced food."
Its most recent incarnation was less a cautionary tale about stepping outside gender roles and more about the virality of internet content—a cautionary tale about how quickly social media can help these stories spread. In 2015, Devorise Dixon posted photos and a video of a strangely rat-shaped item he said he received in his KFC order. "WENT BACK TO KFC YESTERDAY AND SPOKE TO THE MANAGER SHE SAID IT IS A RAT AND APOLOGIZED, IT'S TIME FOR A LAWYER!!! BESAFE [sic] DON'T EAT FAST FOOD !!!" he proclaimed on Facebook, in a post that is—surprisingly—still up to this day.
Dixon quickly retained an attorney, and KFC just as quickly refuted his claims. Dixon turned the "rat" over to a third-party lab, who determined that the creature was … an unfortunately shaped piece of chicken. "The right thing for this customer to do is to apologise and cease making false claims about the KFC brand," KFC said at the time. It seems like a lot of people might owe KFC an apology, but not all of them make their allegations as visible as Dixon did.
"These legends tend to confirm the way that some people see the world. If you are suspicious about the contemporary industrial food complex—as many people are—and you hear a story about contamination or the implicit subtext of a company doing everything it can to cover it up, it's only going to confirm a sense that these are dangerous places," Ian Brodie, an associate professor of Folklore at Cape Breton University and co-editor of the journal Contemporary Legend, told MUNCHIES. "It's not that we are necessarily informed by conspiracies at all time, but we readily accept the stories that fit that expectation and orientation and we'll quickly reject the ones that don't."
That pervasive, underlying sense of fear is probably why some of these food-related legends—like, for instance, that deep-fried rat found at the bottom of a finger lickin' bucket of chicken—have existed in some form or another since the 1970s. KFC itself acknowledges that the story about the chain's supposedly mutant chickens has spread for "several decades," thanks to a frequently forwarded email that probably originated on someone's AOL account before Y2K. ("NO MUTATED CHICKENS ARE INVOLVED IN MAKING OUR DELICIOUS FRIED CHICKEN," KFC insists on its site in an all-caps bold font). KFC and its parent company, YUM! Brands, declined repeated requests for comment via phone and email for this story.
But why does this happen to KFC, seemingly all the time, and less so to other big fast food chains? There are a couple of possibilities, including the fact that its name has long been attached to so many of these stories already, leading to a dogpile of rumours. "KFC might be distinct in terms of how many legends are associated with it because I think we're still talking about a regional food. As ubiquitous as KFC has become, fried chicken still retains that connotation of a Southern food and, to a certain extent, as an African-American food that has been adapted by a white audience," Brodie explained. "That connotation sounds strange in 2017, but it wasn't when these legends started to emerge in the 1960s and 1970s, when a regional food had started to spread into the quote-unquote mainstream."
Another explanation could be the repetition of the same rumours we've already heard – even if we should already know that they're complete bullshit. "[Seeing a 'fried rat'] is the same reason people see faces in clouds and rocks; the human brain looks for meaning and significance," Seeker wrote. "A much more interesting question is why Dixon mistook (or at least claims to have mistaken) the chicken piece for a rat. The answer lies in folklore and cultural expectations: many people are well aware of the urban legend about fried chicken that turns out to be rat." Other psychologists have discovered that the most widely shared urban legends are the ones that elicit a strong emotional response—and the more disgusting a story is, the more it resonates with us, and the more likely we are to remember it.
Or the number of fingers that are repeatedly pointed at KFC might just be because it's the fried chicken place. "Unless there has been a specific incident to change the argument, legends like this tend to associate themselves with the dominant player," Brodie said. "There are a whole bunch of legends about Coke and there are fewer legends about Pepsi in part because Coke has the market share." In a way, KFC is a victim of its own success: If we hear a story about spider chickens or mutant birds or suspiciously fried items, they have to come from KFC, because we've collectively decided that's the most likely target for these unbelievable stories. But the real truth is that none of those tales are true at all.
Except the one about Colonel Sanders cursing a Japanese baseball team. That's totally a thing.