Urban legends are a kind of folklore consisting of stories often thought to be factual by those circulating them (see rumor). The term is often used with a meaning similar to the expression "apocryphal story." Urban legends are not necessarily untrue, but they are often false, distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized. Despite the name, urban legends do not necessarily take place in an urban setting. The name is designed to differentiate them from traditional folklore created in preindustrial times.
Urban legends are sometimes repeated in news stories and, in recent years, distributed by e-mail. People frequently say such tales happened to a "friend of a friend"—so often, in fact, that "friend of a friend", or "FOAF", has become a commonly used term for this sort of story. In the UK, urban legends are sometimes referred to as WTSes (Whale Tumour Stories), from a famous World War II story about whale meat.
Some urban legends have survived a very long time, evolving only slightly over the years, as in the case of the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo. Others are new and reflect modern circumstances, like the story of people being anaesthetized and waking up minus a kidney surgically removed for transplant. Urban legends often are born of fears and insecurities, or specifically designed to prey on such concerns.
Jan Harold Brunvand professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah in the United States, first promoted the concept of the urban legend in his 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings. Brunvand used his collection of legends to make two points: first, that legends, myths, and folklore do not belong solely to so-called primitive or traditional societies; and second, that one could learn much about urban and modern culture by studying such legends. Brunvand has since published a series of similar books. The field also credits Brunvand as the first to use the term vector (after the concept of a biological vector) to describe a person or entity passing along an urban legend.
Most urban legends are framed as stories, with plots and characters. The urban legends resemble a proper joke, especially in the manner of transmission, only that they are much darker in tone and theme.
The compelling nature of the story and its elements of mystery, horror, fear, or humor are part of what makes the tales so attractive. Many of these legends are presented as warnings or cautionary tales. Other urban legends might better be called "widely dispersed misinformation", such as the erroneous belief that you will automatically pass all of your college courses in a semester if your roommate kills himself. While such "facts" may not have the narrative elements of traditional legend, they are passed from person to person and generally have the elements of horror, humor or caution found in legends.
Similarly to the legends of older traditional times, urban legends also concern unexplained phenomena, like phantom apparitions.
Propagation and belief
Many urban legends are about horrific crimes, contaminated foods or other situations that might affect a lot of people if they were true. If one hears such a story, and believes it, a person might feel compelled to warn friends and family.
A person might also pass on non-cautionary information simply because it is funny or interesting. Many urban legends are basically extended jokes, told as if they were true events. In some cases they may have originated as pure jokes that some teller personalized to add point and force to the story.
Some urban legends originate from parents who wish to scare their children into behaving. This often leads to stories where someone (usually a child) is acting in a similar manner and winds up hurt, dead, or in trouble. One such urban legend is that a ceiling fan can decapitate a person jumping on a bed (this was disproved on MythBusters). The supposed argument for the creation of such stories is that it lowers the instances of misbehavior without the need to resort to actual punishment. Drawbacks include the creation of phobias, and a general distrust of one's parents when one learns that many of the stories one has been told are false.
People apparently take urban legends to be true instead of recognizing them as tall tales or unsubstantiated rumors because of the way the story is passed on. A friend who tells an urban legend may say it happened to a friend of somebody else. This apparent accountability adds force to the narrative and personalizes it. Since people, unconsciously or otherwise, often exaggerate, conflate or "clean up" stories when passing them on, urban legends can alter over time.
- See also:
Urban legend versus urban myth
Some people use the term urban myth to refer to this type of folktale. Jan Harold Brunvand notes that the use of urban legend is less prejudicial because myth is commonly used to describe ideas and tales that are widely accepted as being untrue. The more academic definitions of myth usually refer to a supernatural tale involving gods, spirits, the creation of the world, and so forth.
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Documenting urban legends
The advent of Internet e-mail has allowed the proliferation of many old and many new urban legends. At the same time, it has also allowed accelerated investigation of this social phenomenon.
The United States Department of Energy has a service called Hoaxbusters that deals with all sorts of computer-distributed hoaxes and legends. A TV series, MythBusters, tries to prove or disprove urban legends by reproducing them.
Many early historians recycled hearsay and anecdotal accounts as historical facts. These writings served as the basis for other accounts, and thus inaccurate historical narrative created self-perpetuating, vicious circles.
Well-known modern urban legends include the person who tried to dry off a wet poodle in a microwave oven, killing it; the vanishing hitchhiker; and alligators said to live in New York City's sewers, where they grow to enormous size after having been flushed down the toilet by dissatisfied pet owners.
- Sewer alligators
- Conventional wisdom
- Drug urban legends
- Folk etymology
- Legend tripping
- Old wives' tale
- The Straight Dope
- Urban Legends Reference Pages, also known as the Snopes website
- Barometer question