Twenty-five years ago this past January, Houston middle-school playgrounds were a-hum with fear and loathing. Rumors were crackling like wildfire about a deadly, remorseless street gang with the cuddly name of The Smurfs.
That their name was so ridiculous only enhanced their bad-assery in the minds of many kids. You just knew that any gang that would call itself the Smurfs were total psychos.
Smurfophobia reached such a fever pitch, Newsweek picked up the tale. A researcher on Snopes.com’s message boards dug up the story from that magazine’s archives:
It started out innocently enough: in January a Houston TV station reported that several juveniles believed to be called "the Smurfs" had been arrested for a series of petty crimes. Before long though, rumors were sweeping elementary and junior-high schools that a vicious gang was terrorizing youngsters and murdering principals all across the city. The marauding Smurfs were variously reported to be wearing blue body paint or black jackets, carrying knives or machine guns. Some students said kids wearing sky-blue clothes were in danger; others insisted that sky-blue clothing would ward off attack. At the Aldine school district, the Smurfs were said to be hiding out in restrooms. "Some of our sixth graders refused to go to the bathroom," said district spokesperson Judy Williams. Attendance in some schools dropped. Frantic parents deluged administrators with calls. "One of my friends was so scared she moved back to Philadelphia," reported Janie, a seventh grader at Fondren Middle School.
Recently Houston police charged about 40 youngsters and 7 adults with Smurf-related goings-on -- mostly burglary and petty theft -- but wearily insisted that the Smurf gang had never been in the Houston schools. "Kids desperately wanted to believe [that the Smurfs were there] -- they wanted some excitement," said Franklin Turner, principal at the Johnston Middle School, who, according to the rumors, had been murdered by the Smurfs. At the Welch Middle School, meanwhile, Principal Bill Morgan decided to fight fantasy with fantasy. Morgan announced over the school's public-address system that Garfield the cat and the Greatest American Hero were on their way to protect the students.
The story picked up variations and embellishments as it passed over the grapevine at debate contests, sports events and skating rinks – wherever teens and pre-teens gathered.
Press Web editor Keith Plocek, a northwest side native, was told by a summer camp counselor that the Smurfs had raped a little girl with a broomstick.
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A poster from Spring Branch on the Snopes message board remembered hearing that the Smurfs were attacking kids in junior high bathrooms all over town and that Spring Branch was due an assault soon. The poster said that kids were so paranoid that they refused to go to the bathroom and the principal had to announce over the loudspeaker that the Smurfs were not poised to attack.
A year after the Smurfs Scare, I was a freshman at Strake Jesuit and was told by kids from Missouri City that despite the official debunking, everybody knew that gang leader Papa Smurf was a student at Willowridge, or at least had been until he was sent to juvenile. One kid even claimed to know him.
Does anybody else remember these cuddly and imaginary psycho-killers?
– John Nova Lomax