An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend is a modern genre of folklore rooted in local popular culture, usually comprising fictional stories that are often presented as true, with macabre or humorous elements. These legends can be used for entertainment purposes, as well as semi-serious explanations for seemingly-mysterious events, such as disappearances and strange objects.
Urban legends can be spread by any media, including newspapers, e-mail and social media. Some urban legends have passed through the years with only minor changes to suit regional variations. More recent legends tend to reflect modern circumstances (such as the common legend of a person being ambushed and anesthetized, only to later wake up and realize they are now missing a kidney that was supposedly surgically removed for transplantation).
Urban legends are commonly told and used in folklore and tend to play on the fears and emotions of people. They can also be used to contribute to the fears of society, creating anxiety and even adding to the prejudice of a society.
Origins and structure
The term "urban legend," as used by folklorists, has appeared in print since at least 1968. Jan Harold Brunvand, professor of English at the University of Utah, 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 and folklore 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 with plot and characters. The compelling appeal of a typical urban legend is its elements of mystery, horror, fear or humor. Often they serve as cautionary tales. Some urban legends are morality tales that depict someone, usually a child, acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up in trouble, hurt, or dead.
Propagation and belief
As Jan Brunvand points out, antecedent legends including some of the motifs, themes and symbolism of these urtexts can readily be identified. Cases which may have been at least partially inspired by real events include "The Death Car" (traced by Richard Dorson to Michigan, United States); "the Solid Cement Cadillac" and the possible origin of "The Hook" in the 1946 series of Lovers' Lane murders in Texarkana, Texas, United States. The urban legend that Coca-Cola developed the drink Fanta to sell in Nazi Germany without public backlash originated as the actual tale of German Max Keith, who invented the drink and ran Coca-Cola's operations in Germany during World War II.
The teller of an urban legend may claim it happened to a friend (or to a friend of a friend), which serves to personalize, authenticate and enhance the power of the narrative while distancing the teller. Many urban legends depict horrific crimes, contaminated foods, or other situations which would potentially affect many people. Anyone believing such stories might feel compelled to warn loved ones. On occasion, news organizations, school officials and even police departments have issued warnings concerning the latest threat. According to the "Lights Out" rumor, street-gang members would drive without headlights until a compassionate motorist responded with the traditional flashing of headlights, whereupon a prospective new gang-member would have to murder the citizen as a requirement of initiation. A fax received at the Nassau County, Florida fire department was forwarded to police, and from there to all city departments. Even the Minister of Defence for Canada was taken in by the same legend; he forwarded an urgent security warning to all Ontario Members of Parliament.
Myths are only believable in the sense of how many people keep them alive albeit by forwarding a text message or sharing a post on social media platforms. Posting what people believe is true or if the content is provocative under a hashtag can share the content to millions of people worldwide. Once the story containing a story or visual gets embedded in the minds of the viewers, it is hard to get over the primal fear that kick in once reading the legends.
Many urban legends are essentially extended jokes, told as if they were true events. Urban legends typically include 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 forms a typical element of many e-mail phishing scams); and the tale is often touted as "something a friend told me", while the friend is identified by first name only or not identified at all.
Persistent urban legends often maintain a degree of plausibility, such as a serial killer deliberately hiding in the back seat of a car. One such example since the 1970s has been the recurring rumor that the Procter & 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 that 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 of[by whom?] as a key property: their tellers regarded the stories as true accounts, and the device of the FOAF (acronym for "Friend Of A Friend" invented by English writer and folklorist Rodney Dale in 1976) 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 have an interest 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, re-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".
Social scientists have started to draw on urban legends in order to help explain complex socio-psychological beliefs, such as attitudes to crime, childcare, fast food, SUVs and other "family" choices. Here the authors make an explicit connection between urban legends and popular folklore, such as Grimm's Fairy Tales, 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) occurs extremely rarely, if at all.
The Internet has made it easier to both spread and debunk urban legends. For instance, the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban and several other websites, most notably snopes.com, focus on discussing, tracking, and analyzing urban legends. The United States Department of Energy had a now-discontinued service called Hoaxbusters, that dealt with computer-distributed hoaxes and legends.
Television shows such as Urban Legends, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction, and later Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed, feature re-enactments of urban legends, detailing the accounts of the tales and (typically later in the show) revealing any factual basis they may have. The Discovery Channel TV show MythBusters (2003–2016) tried to prove or disprove several urban legends by attempting to reproduce them using the scientific method.
The 1998 film Urban Legend featured students discussing popular urban legends while at the same time falling victim to them.
Between 1992 and 1998, The Guardian newspaper "Weekend" section published the illustrated "Urban Myths" column by Phil Healey and Rick Glanvill, with content taken from a series of four books: Urban Myths, The Return Of Urban Myths, Urban Myths Unplugged, and Now! That's What I Call Urban Myths. The 1994 comics anthology the Big Book of Urban Legends, written by Robert Boyd, Jan Harold Brunvand, and Robert Loren Fleming, featured two hundred urban legends, displayed as comics.
The British writer Tony Barrell has explored urban legends in a long-running column in The Sunday Times. These include the story that Orson Welles began work on a Batman movie in the 1940s, which was to feature James Cagney as the Riddler and Marlene Dietrich as Catwoman; the persistent rumour that the rock singer Courtney Love is the granddaughter of Marlon Brando; and the idea that in a famous 1970s poster of Farrah Fawcett, there is a subliminal sexual message concealed in the actress' hair.
- Crime stories
As with traditional urban legends, many Internet rumors are about crimes either fictional, or based on real events but blown out of proportion. Crime Stories are dangerous because they make claims to be news that are relevant to modern times and do not follow the patterns of a typical Urban Legend.
- Medical Hoaxes
People believing that eating watermelon seeds will result in growing a watermelon in their stomachs. Old wives' tales like going outside after just having taken a shower will result in catching a cold.
Urban legends are mostly spread on social media. A myth can also be linked to viral content on the internet. People tend to share articles that makes them feel strongly to whatever the topic of the legend is. People prefer to pass along versions that produced the highest level of disgust. Urban legends can also be referred to as myths or rumors due to their unreliability and lack of credibility.
- Chain email letters
Chain letters are a variety of urban legends concerning e-mails that tell the reader to make copies of, and redistribute, the e-mail or they will meet a terrible fate. Chain letters are more often demanded to be re-shared by users. Chain Letters always easy to spot as they follow a certain outline "the hook, the threat, and the request” Chain letters tell stories about a certain person who suffered the consequences because they did not re-share the letter.
- Fake virus and malware alerts
Fake virus alerts, telling people of non-existent threats to their computer, are commonly distributed by email. Fake virus have become a prevalent part of internet culture pop ups claiming to be giveaways, store coupons and giveaway hoaxes.
- Hidden meanings in logos
Companies have been accused of hiding "secret messages" behind their logo or packaging that supposedly hides or promotes the use of the occult, therefore making the brand popular. In the case of the old Procter & Gamble symbol, it was speculated that the brand was trendy because they were supposedly worshippers of the occult. It was believed to be true because if the thirteen stars in the symbol were connected a certain way, it would show three sixes in a row. Another company accused of hiding a secret meaning behind their logo would be Monster Energy. After a viral video of a Christian woman "exposing" Monster Energy for using the Hebrew alphabet symbol for the letter ''M" being used to disguise the number 666 went viral on Facebook, people were quick to speculate whether or not it was true.
- List of urban legends
- Old wives' tale
- Woozle effect
- Mikkelson, Barbara (12 March 2008). "snopes.com:Kidney Thief". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 30 June 2010.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed. 1989, entry for "urban legend," citing R. M. Dorson in T. P. Coffin, Our Living Traditions, xiv. 166 (1968). See also William B. Edgerton, The Ghost in Search of Help for a Dying Man, Journal of the Folklore Institute, Vol. 5, No. 1. pp. 31, 38, 41 (1968).
- Elissa Michele Zacher (18 July 2010). "Urban legends: Modern morality tales". The Epoch Times. Archived from the original on 24 July 2010. Retrieved 29 August 2010.
- Mikkelson, Barbara (10 August 2006). "snopes.com: Death Car". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 30 June 2010.
- "snopes.com: Cement in Lover's Car". Urban Legends Reference Pages. 10 August 2006. Retrieved 3 July 2007.
- Mikkelson, Barbara (2 June 2008). "snopes.com: The Hook". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 30 June 2010.
- Ramsland, Katherine. "Texas Chainsaw Massacre is based on a real case the crime library — Other Speculations — Crime Library on truTV.com". Turner Broadcasting System Inc. Archived from the original on 31 August 2009. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
- Mikkelson, Barbara. "The Reich Stuff?". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 9 January 2007.
- Brunvand, p.423
- Gross, Dave. "The "Blue Star" LSD Tattoo Urban Legend Page". the Lycaeum Drug Archives . Archived from the original on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 29 August 2010.
- Mikkelson, Barbara (8 December 2008). "snopes.com: Flashing Headlights Gang Initiation". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 28 August 2010.
- Gelfand, Lynn (2014). They are watching you: The Slender Man and the terrors of 21st century technologies.
- Brunvand, p.223
- "Heard the one about..." BBC News. 27 October 2006. Archived from the original on 4 June 2009. Retrieved 28 March 2010.
- Procter and Gamble v. Amway 242 F.3d 539
- Brunvand, p.333
- Brunvand, p. 459
- Richard Dorson. "American Folklore" University of Chicago Press, 1959, pp. 250-52.
- Adam Brooke Davis. "Davis, Adam Brooke. "Devil's Night and Hallowe'en: The Linked Fates of Two Folk Festivals." Missouri Folklore Society Journal XXIV(2002) 69-82 Archived 2016-03-05 at the Wayback Machine
- John Mosier "WAR MYTHS" Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society: VI: 4, March/April 2005.
- Croft, Robin (2006). "Folklore, Families and Fear: Exploring the Influence of the Oral Tradition on Consumer Decision-making". Journal of Marketing Management. 22 (9 & 10): 1053–1076. doi:10.1362/026725706778935574.
- Best, Joel; Horiuchi, Gerald T. (June 1985). "The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends". Social Problems. 32 (5): 488–497. doi:10.2307/800777. ISSN 0037-7791. JSTOR 800777.
- Donovan, p.129
- Tony Barrell (5 July 2009). "Did You Know: Orson Welles". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 22 February 2014. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
- Tony Barrell (13 September 2009). "Did You Know: Courtney Love". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 22 February 2014. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
- Tony Barrell (4 October 2009). "Did You Know: Farrah Fawcett". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 22 February 2014. Retrieved 13 March 2012.
- Chris Frost, (2000) ..Tales on the Internet: making it up as you go along, Aslib Proceedings, Vol. 52 Iss: 1, pp.5 - 10
- Pamela Donovan, No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet (Psychology Press, 2004)
- Pamela Donovan, Crime legends in a new medium: Fact, fiction and loss of authority, Theoretical Criminology; vol. 6 no. 2; May 2002; Pp. 189-215
- Donovan, Pamela (2004). No Way Of Knowing Crime,Urban Legends, and the Internet. Great Britain: Routledge. pp. 2, 3. ISBN 0203507797.
- "Medical Myths and Hoaxes: Debunked? You Be The Judge".
- "Chain Linked". Snopes.com. Retrieved 21 November 2012.
- Blank, Trevor (2007). "Examining the Transmission of Urban Legends: Making the Case for Folklore Fieldwork on the Internet".
- de Vos, Gail (2019). What Happens Next? Contemporary Urban Legends and Pop Culture. United States of America: Libraries Unlimited. p. 78. ISBN 9781598846331.
- Hieronimus, Robert (2008). The United Symbolism of America : Deciphering Hidden Meanings in America's Most Familiar Art, Architecture, and Logos. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books. p. 267. ISBN 9781601630018.
- The Big Book of Urban Legends. New York: Paradox Press. 1994. p. 172. ISBN 1-56389-165-4.
- Mikkelson, David (10 November 2014). "Does the Monster Energy Drink Logo Include the Number 666?". Snopes.
- Jan Harold Brunvand (2012). Encyclopedia of Urban Legends: Updated and Expanded Edition. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-598847208.
- Pamela Donovan (2004). No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet. New York City: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-50779-7.
- Enders, Jody (2002). Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-20788-9.