What is an Urban Legend?

Before we can start on specific urban legends, also referred to as urban myths, let's explore exactly what they are. Dictionary.com says "a modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence that spreads spontaneously in varying forms and often has elements of humor, moralizing, or horror: Are there alligators living in the New York City sewer system, or is that just an urban legend? "

There are a ton of urban legends out there and no one really knows where they came from. Often times you hear that it happened to "a friend's cousin's friend's dad!" or some other untraceable source. Some urban legend's can be traced back centuries and are world wide. Others can only be traced back a few months such as some of the scams and such on the internet. While others are very localized to a specific town or village.

Urban legends are stories that have become common amongst movies, books and even periodicals. The very subject has gained interest with each passing year that the legends are told. Some legends contain high comedy while others explore the world of the terrifying. Often a person will shun urban legends because they seem arbitrary and pointless. “These are stories told with some conviction as if they are true, attributed to a friend or a friend of a friend that are too coincidental or bizarre to be literally true. The same basic stories are told in lots of different places, always localized and with different various. Those are the crux of what I call urban legends.” In America, urban legends have become a popular method of oral folklore due to the media’s ongoing fascination with the stories as well as the human’s desire to be scared.

Although they are common in modern North America, they have existed for much longer. “Today's folktales are much more universal than their medieval counterparts. The rapid flow of information and people from one country to another makes these legends spread at lightning speed around the world.” It is the common fears and the interests that effect what the legends of today are based on.

, “Legends differ from rumors because the legends are stories, with a plot. And unlike myths and fairy tales, they are supposed to be current and true, events rooted in everyday reality that at least could happen.” .The common hoaxes over the internet are one of the many new legends that are exchanged due to the advancement of technology. Cell phones causing tumors has also been a passing legend that still may hold to be true. With each new invention, an urban legend is bound to exploit it.

There are many urban legends that have become popular in the print media. The story known as “the hook” tells the tale of a teenage couple that narrowly escapes the hook of an escape mental patient who is out to make victims of the naïve teens. Teenagers are a common theme among legends, mostly due to legends often being cautionary tales for the youth of America. The media and urban legends make for good correlation because urban legends are about telling a story and the media thrives on juicy stories even if they have no proof of being real. Brunvard theorizes that, “I think the media plays a big role. You find ULs in the newspaper columns, repeated on talk shows, worked into television programs and films, comic strips, and popular songs. Even if the context of a newspaper article is to debunk the story, some people tend to remember the story rather than the discussion of it.”September 22, 1999.

Dead Hoax Giveaways

Signs that a story you’re hearing is likely a false urban legend: • It happened to a friend of a friend, not to the storyteller.

• There are many variations.

• The general topic is one that’s often on the news or what people gossip most about — death, sex, crime, contamination, technology, ethnic stereotypes, celebrities, horror or beating the system.

• It contains a warning or moral lesson of some kind.

• It’s just too weird or too good to be true.

Urban Legends and the Internet

The Internet actually accelerates the spread urban legends, but it has also allowed more efficient investigation of this social phenomenon. Thrashing out, tracking and analyzing urban legends has become a popular interest. It’s the topic of the Usenet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, and urban legend web sites — most notably Snopes.

Urban legends are most often false. Occasionally some turn out to be essentially true — inspired by an actual event — but evolved into something different as they become distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized over time in their passage from one person to the next.

Some urban legends have passed through the years with only minor changes to suit regional variations. Case in point is the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairstyle. More recent legends typically reflect modern circumstances, like the story of people picking up dates in bars that become anesthetized and wake up minus a kidney, which was surgically removed for transplantation, and a phone set beside the tub with a note that read, “Call 911 or you will die.”

While these ‘facts’ don’t always have the narrative elements of traditional legend, they’re passed from person to person and commonly have the fundamentals of caution, horror or humor. Particular urban legends may be spread either as fact or as a story.

Few urban legends can be traced back to their original source which appear to come out of nowhere. But some exceptions include:

• The Submarine, which is the name given to a particularly large and aggressive great white shark that’s falsely claimed to have dwelled in False Bay, near Cape Town, South Africa, during the 1970s and the 1980s.

• The Steam tunnel incident which refers to a set of urban myths for which players enacting live action role-playing games perish, often in the utility tunnels below their university campus.

• The Hungarian suicide song “ Gloomy Sunday” — known as the ‘Hungarian Suicide Song’ in the US. According to urban legend, it inspired hundreds of suicides.

Despite the name, a typical urban legend doesn’t necessarily originate in an urban setting — the term is simply used to differentiate modern legend from traditional.

Urban Legend Makeup

Many urban legends are framed as complete stories, with plot and characters. Most are typically characterized by some combination compelling appeal of humor, horror, warning, embarrassment, morality or appeal to empathy. Some can resemble a joke but are much darker in tone and theme. They often have some unforeseen twist that’s bizarre but just plausible enough to be taken as truth.

Many stories are presented as warnings or cautionary tales, while others might be more aptly called ‘widely dispersed misinformation.