Urban legend
Overview
An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore
Folklore
Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called...

 consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true. As with all folklore and mythology, the designation suggests nothing about the story's veracity, but merely that it is in circulation, exhibits variation over time, and carries some significance that motivates the community in preserving and propagating it.

Despite its name, an urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban area
Urban area
An urban area is characterized by higher population density and vast human features in comparison to areas surrounding it. Urban areas may be cities, towns or conurbations, but the term is not commonly extended to rural settlements such as villages and hamlets.Urban areas are created and further...

.
Encyclopedia
An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore
Folklore
Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called...

 consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true. As with all folklore and mythology, the designation suggests nothing about the story's veracity, but merely that it is in circulation, exhibits variation over time, and carries some significance that motivates the community in preserving and propagating it.

Despite its name, an urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban area
Urban area
An urban area is characterized by higher population density and vast human features in comparison to areas surrounding it. Urban areas may be cities, towns or conurbations, but the term is not commonly extended to rural settlements such as villages and hamlets.Urban areas are created and further...

. Rather, the term is used to differentiate modern legend from traditional folklore
Folklore
Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called...

 in pre-industrial times. For this reason, sociologists and folklorists prefer the term contemporary legend.

Urban legends are sometimes repeated in news stories and, in recent years, distributed by e-mail
E-mail
Electronic mail, commonly known as email or e-mail, is a method of exchanging digital messages from an author to one or more recipients. Modern email operates across the Internet or other computer networks. Some early email systems required that the author and the recipient both be online at the...

. People frequently allege that such tales happened to a "friend of a friend
Friend of a friend
Friend of a friend is a phrase used to refer to someone that one does not know well, literally, a friend of a friend.In some social sciences, the phrase is used as a half-joking shorthand for the fact that much of the information on which people act comes from distant sources and cannot be...

"; so often, in fact, that "friend of a friend," ("FOAF") has become a commonly used term when recounting this type of story.

Some urban legends have passed through the years with only minor changes to suit regional variations. One example is the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo. More recent legends tend to reflect modern circumstances, like the story of people ambushed, anesthetized, and waking up minus one kidney, which was surgically removed
Organ theft
Organ harvesting refers to the removal, preservation and use of human organs and tissue from the bodies of the recently deceased to be used in surgical transplants on the living...

 for transplantation
Organ transplant
Organ transplantation is the moving of an organ from one body to another or from a donor site on the patient's own body, for the purpose of replacing the recipient's damaged or absent organ. The emerging field of regenerative medicine is allowing scientists and engineers to create organs to be...

 (a story which folklorists refer to as "The Kidney Heist").

Origins and structure

The term “urban legend,” as used by folklorists, has appeared in print since at least 1968. Jan Harold Brunvand
Jan Harold Brunvand
Jan Harold Brunvand is an American folklorist. A professor emeritus of the University of Utah, he best known for spreading the concept of the urban legend, a form of modern folklore...

, professor of English at the University of Utah
University of Utah
The University of Utah, also known as the U or the U of U, is a public, coeducational research university in Salt Lake City, Utah, United States. The university was established in 1850 as the University of Deseret by the General Assembly of the provisional State of Deseret, making it Utah's oldest...

, introduced the term to the general public in a series of popular books published beginning in 1981. Brunvand used his collection of legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings (1981) to make two points: first, that legends
Legend
A legend is a narrative of human actions that are perceived both by teller and listeners to take place within human history and to possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude...

 and folklore
Folklore
Folklore consists of legends, music, oral history, proverbs, jokes, popular beliefs, fairy tales and customs that are the traditions of a culture, subculture, or group. It is also the set of practices through which those expressive genres are shared. The study of folklore is sometimes called...

 do not occur exclusively in so-called primitive or traditional societies, and second, that one could learn much about urban and modern culture by studying such tales.

Many urban legends are framed as complete stories
Fable
A fable is a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized , and that illustrates a moral lesson , which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.A fable differs from...

 with plot and characters
Fictional character
A character is the representation of a person in a narrative work of art . Derived from the ancient Greek word kharaktêr , the earliest use in English, in this sense, dates from the Restoration, although it became widely used after its appearance in Tom Jones in 1749. From this, the sense of...

. The compelling appeal of a typical urban legend is its elements of mystery, horror
Horror (emotion)
The distinction between horror and terror is a standard literary and psychological concept applied especially to Gothic literature and film. Terror is usually described as the feeling of dread and anticipation that precedes the horrifying experience...

, fear or humor. Often they serve as cautionary tales
Cautionary Tales
"Cautionary Tales" is the ninth episode of the second season of the NBC science fiction drama series Heroes. It aired on November 19 2007.-Plot:...

. Some urban legends are morality tales
Moral
A moral is a message conveyed or a lesson to be learned from a story or event. The moral may be left to the hearer, reader or viewer to determine for themselves, or may be explicitly encapsulated in a maxim...

 that depict someone, usually a child, acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up in trouble, hurt, or dead.

Propagation and belief

Like older legends and myths, these narratives can rarely be traced to an original source. Moreover, as Jan Brunvand pointed out antecedent legends including some of the motifs, themes and symbolism of these urtext
Urtext
Urtext is a word of German origin; ur- means "original," and text is as in English.In the humanities and social sciences, the word is often used in a metaphorical fashion to refer to a primitive, seminal, or prototypical example of an artistic genre or the basis of an ideological movement...

s can readily be identified. Cases in which there is some likelihood that at least a partial inspiration has been located include "The Death Car," traced by Richard Dorson
Richard Dorson
Richard Mercer Dorson was an American folklorist, author, professor, and director of the Folklore Institute at Indiana University.Dorson was born in New York City. He studied at the Phillips Exeter Academy from 1929 to 1933....

 to Michigan
Michigan
Michigan is a U.S. state located in the Great Lakes Region of the United States of America. The name Michigan is the French form of the Ojibwa word mishigamaa, meaning "large water" or "large lake"....

, United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

; "the Solid Cement Cadillac" and the possible origin of "The Hook
The Hook
The Hook is a classic example of an urban legend. The basic premise involves a young couple parked at a dark lovers' lane. The radio plays music as the couple make out. The music is interrupted by an announcer who reports that a serial killer has just escaped an institution which is nearby. The...

" in the 1946 series of Lovers' Lane murders in Texarkana, Texas
Texarkana, Texas
Texarkana is a city in Bowie County, Texas, United States. It effectively functions as one half of a city which crosses a state line — the other half, the city of Texarkana, Arkansas, lies on the other side of State Line Avenue...

, USA. The urban legend that Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola
Coca-Cola is a carbonated soft drink sold in stores, restaurants, and vending machines in more than 200 countries. It is produced by The Coca-Cola Company of Atlanta, Georgia, and is often referred to simply as Coke...

 developed the drink Fanta
Fanta
Fanta is a global brand of fruit-flavored carbonated soft drinks from the Coca-Cola Company. There are over 90 flavors worldwide. The drink debuted in Germany in 1941 and originally sold only in Europe.-History:...

 to sell in Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

 without public backlash originated as the actual tale of German Max Keith
Max Keith
Max Keith was the head of Coca-Cola GmbH, the major bottler of Coca-Cola during the Nazi period of German history.Coca-Cola GmbH was unable to obtain Coca-Cola syrup during World War II, because of the Allied blockade...

, who invented the drink and ran Coca-Cola's operations in Germany during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

.

The teller of an urban legend may claim it happened to a friend, which serves to personalize, authenticate and enhance the power of the narrative. Many urban legends depict horrific crimes, contaminated foods or other situations which would affect many people. Anyone believing such stories might feel compelled to warn loved ones. Not seldom, news organizations, school officials and even police departments have issued warnings concerning the latest threat. In the "Lights Out" rumor, street gang members would drive without headlights until a compassionate motorist responded with the traditional flashing of headlights, whereupon a new gang member would be required to murder the citizen as a requirement of initiation
Initiation
Initiation is a rite of passage ceremony marking entrance or acceptance into a group or society. It could also be a formal admission to adulthood in a community or one of its formal components...

. A fax received at the Nassau County, Florida
Nassau County, Florida
Nassau County is a county located in the state of Florida. As of 2000, the population was 57,663. The U.S. Census Bureau 2008 estimate for the county was 69,835. Its county seat is Fernandina Beach, Florida....

 fire department was forwarded to police, and from there to all city departments. Even the Minister of Defence for Canada
Minister of National Defence (Canada)
The Minister of National Defence is a Minister of the Crown; the Canadian politician within the Cabinet of Canada responsible for the Department of National Defence which oversees the Canadian Forces....

 was taken in by the same legend; he forwarded an urgent security warning to all Ontario
Ontario
Ontario is a province of Canada, located in east-central Canada. It is Canada's most populous province and second largest in total area. It is home to the nation's most populous city, Toronto, and the nation's capital, Ottawa....

 Members of Parliament.

Many urban legends are essentially extended jokes
Joke
A joke is a phrase or a paragraph with a humorous twist. It can be in many different forms, such as a question or short story. To achieve this end, jokes may employ irony, sarcasm, word play and other devices...

, told as if they were true events. Urban legends typically include one or more common elements: the legend is retold on behalf of the original witness or participant; dire warnings are often given for those who might not heed the advice or lesson contained therein (this is a typical element of many e-mail phishing
Phishing
Phishing is a way of attempting to acquire information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details by masquerading as a trustworthy entity in an electronic communication. Communications purporting to be from popular social web sites, auction sites, online payment processors or IT...

 scams); and it is often touted as "something a friend told me," while the friend is identified by first name only or not identified at all. One of the classic hallmarks of false urban legends is a lack of specific information regarding the incident, such as names, dates, locations, or similar information.

Persistent urban legends, however unlikely, often maintain at least a degree of plausibility, for instance a serial killer
Serial killer
A serial killer, as typically defined, is an individual who has murdered three or more people over a period of more than a month, with down time between the murders, and whose motivation for killing is usually based on psychological gratification...

 deliberately hiding in the back seat of a car. One such example since the 1970s has been the recurring rumor that the Procter and Gamble Company was associated with Satan worshippers because of details within its nineteenth-century trademark. The legend interrupted the company's business to the point it stopped using the trademark.

Belief and relation to mythology

The earliest term by which these narratives were known, “urban belief tales,” highlights what was then thought to be a key property: they were held, by their tellers, to be true accounts, and the device of the FOAF was a spurious but significant effort at authentication. The coinage leads in turn to the terms "FOAFlore" and "FOAFtale". While at least one classic legend, the “Death Car”, has been shown to have some basis in fact, folklorists as such are interested in debunking these narratives only to the degree that establishing non-factuality warrants the assumption that there must be some other reason why the tales are told and believed. As in the case of myth, these narratives are believed because they construct and reinforce the worldview of the group within which they are told, or “because they provide us with coherent and convincing explanations of complex events”. Recently social scientists have started to draw on urban legends in order to help explain complex socio-psychological beliefs, such as attitudes to crime
Crime
Crime is the breach of rules or laws for which some governing authority can ultimately prescribe a conviction...

, childcare
Childcare
Child care means caring for and supervising child/children usually from 0–13 years of age. In the United States child care is increasingly referred to as early childhood education due to the understanding of the impact of early experiences of the developing child...

, fast food
Fast food
Fast food is the term given to food that can be prepared and served very quickly. While any meal with low preparation time can be considered to be fast food, typically the term refers to food sold in a restaurant or store with preheated or precooked ingredients, and served to the customer in a...

, SUVs and other "family" choices. Here the authors make an explicit connection between urban legends and popular folklore, such as Grimm's Fairy Tales
Grimm's Fairy Tales
Children's and Household Tales is a collection of German origin fairy tales first published in 1812 by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the Brothers Grimm. The collection is commonly known today as Grimms' Fairy Tales .-Composition:...

 where similar themes and motifs arise. For this reason, it is characteristic of groups within which a given narrative circulates to react very negatively to claims or demonstrations of non-factuality; an example would be the expressions of outrage by police officers who are told that adulteration of Halloween treats by strangers (the subject of periodic moral panics) is extremely rare, if it has occurred at all.

Other terminology

The term urban myth is also used. Brunvand feels that urban legend is less stigmatizing because myth is commonly used to describe things that are widely accepted as untrue. The more academic definitions of myth usually refer to a supernatural
Supernatural
The supernatural or is that which is not subject to the laws of nature, or more figuratively, that which is said to exist above and beyond nature...

 tale involving god
God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

s, spirit
Spirit
The English word spirit has many differing meanings and connotations, most of them relating to a non-corporeal substance contrasted with the material body.The spirit of a living thing usually refers to or explains its consciousness.The notions of a person's "spirit" and "soul" often also overlap,...

s, the origin of the world, and other symbols that are usually capable of multiple meanings (cf. the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss
Claude Lévi-Strauss was a French anthropologist and ethnologist, and has been called, along with James George Frazer, the "father of modern anthropology"....

, Ernst Cassirer
Ernst Cassirer
Ernst Cassirer was a German philosopher. He was one of the major figures in the development of philosophical idealism in the first half of the 20th century...

, Mircea Eliade
Mircea Eliade
Mircea Eliade was a Romanian historian of religion, fiction writer, philosopher, and professor at the University of Chicago. He was a leading interpreter of religious experience, who established paradigms in religious studies that persist to this day...

, Joseph Campbell
Joseph Campbell
Joseph John Campbell was an American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work is vast, covering many aspects of the human experience...

, Carl Jung
Carl Jung
Carl Gustav Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of Analytical Psychology. Jung is considered the first modern psychiatrist to view the human psyche as "by nature religious" and make it the focus of exploration. Jung is one of the best known researchers in the field of dream analysis and...

, and Northrop Frye
Northrop Frye
Herman Northrop Frye, was a Canadian literary critic and literary theorist, considered one of the most influential of the 20th century....

 for various interpretations). However, the usage may simply reflect the idiom.

The term urban myth is preferred in some languages such as Mexican Spanish
Mexican Spanish
Mexican Spanish is a version of the Spanish language, as spoken in Mexico and in various places of Canada and the United States of America, where there are communities of Mexican origin....

, where conventional coinage is "mito urbano" rather than "leyenda urbana." In French, urban legends are usually called légendes urbaines; the terms légendes contemporaines are still preferable because "légendes urbaines" is an improper and meaningless verbatim translation, though used by some French sociologists or journalists. But neither expression is commonly used: for ordinary French people, the more genuine terms rumeur or canular, not to mention more colloquial and expressive words, describe this phenomenon of "viral spread tall story" properly enough. The term hoax (in "Frenglish") is known in the Web community.

Some scholars prefer the term contemporary legend to highlight those tales with relatively recent or modern origins. An eighteenth-century pamphlet alleging that a woman was tricked into eating the ashes of her lover's heart could be described as a contemporary legend with respect to the eighteenth century.

Documenting urban legends

The Internet makes it easier to spread urban legends, and also to debunk them. Discussing, tracking, and analyzing urban legends is the topic of the Usenet
Usenet
Usenet is a worldwide distributed Internet discussion system. It developed from the general purpose UUCP architecture of the same name.Duke University graduate students Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis conceived the idea in 1979 and it was established in 1980...

 newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, and several web sites, most notably snopes.com. The United States Department of Energy
United States Department of Energy
The United States Department of Energy is a Cabinet-level department of the United States government concerned with the United States' policies regarding energy and safety in handling nuclear material...

 had a service, now discontinued, called Hoaxbusters that dealt with computer-distributed hoaxes and legends.

Television shows such as Urban Legends, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction
Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction
Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction is an American television anthology series created by Lynn Lehmann, presented by Dick Clark Productions, and produced and aired by the Fox network from 1997 to 2002. Each episode featured five stories, all of which appeared to defy logic, and some of which were...

, and later Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed
Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed
Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed is a docudrama about urban legends and re-enacting them and researching their credibility. It aired on The Learning Channel from 2002 until 2004. It ran for four seasons. Early episodes were hosted by Natasha Henstridge...

feature re-enactments of urban legends detailing the accounts of the tales and (typically) later in the show, these programs reveal any factual basis they may have. Since 2004 the Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel
Discovery Channel is an American satellite and cable specialty channel , founded by John Hendricks and distributed by Discovery Communications. It is a publicly traded company run by CEO David Zaslav...

 TV show MythBusters
MythBusters
MythBusters is a science entertainment TV program created and produced by Beyond Television Productions for the Discovery Channel. The series is screened by numerous international broadcasters, including Discovery Channel Australia, Discovery Channel Latin America, Discovery Channel Canada, Quest...

tries to prove or disprove urban legends by attempting to reproduce them using the scientific method
Scientific method
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

. The 1998 film Urban Legend
Urban Legend (film)
Urban Legend is a 1998 horror film starring Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Jared Leto, Michael Rosenbaum, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Loretta Devine, Robert Englund, John Neville, Joshua Jackson, Regina King, and Tara Reid...

featured students extensively discussing popular urban legends while at the same time falling victim to them.

See also

  • Bloody Mary (folklore)
    Bloody Mary (folklore)
    Bloody Mary is a ghost or witch featured in English folklore. She is said to appear in a mirror when her name is called three times or sometimes more while in a dark room, depending upon the version of the story, often as part of a game or dare.-Overview:...

  • The Hook
    The Hook
    The Hook is a classic example of an urban legend. The basic premise involves a young couple parked at a dark lovers' lane. The radio plays music as the couple make out. The music is interrupted by an announcer who reports that a serial killer has just escaped an institution which is nearby. The...

  • Japanese urban legends
    Japanese urban legends
    Japanese urban legends are enduring modern folktales of paranormal creatures and their attacks on innocent victims. They rarely include the fantastical or animistic yokai of earlier Japanese superstition, and are mostly based on onryo, Japanese ghosts who have become vengeful spirits and take...

  • Killer in the backseat
    Killer in the backseat
    Killer in the Backseat is a common, car-crime urban legend well known mostly in the United States and United Kingdom. It was first noted by folklorist Carlos Drake in 1968 in texts collected by Indiana University students.-Legend:...

  • The Licked Hand
    The Licked Hand
    The Licked Hand, known sometimes as The Doggy Lick, is an urban legend popular among teenagers. Like all urban legends, The Licked Hand has several versions including a story told in Indiana.-Plot:A girl is home alone with only her dog for company...

  • List of common misconceptions
  • Snopes.com
  • The Spider Bite
    The Spider Bite
    The Spider Bite or The Red Spot is a modern urban legend that emerged in Europe during the 1970s. It features a young woman who is bitten on the cheek by a spider...

  • Vanishing hitchhiker
    Vanishing hitchhiker
    The vanishing hitchhiker story is an urban legend in which people travelling by vehicle meet with or are accompanied by a hitchhiker who subsequently vanishes without explanation, often from a moving vehicle...


External links

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