Urban Myths

views updated

Urban Myths

An urban myth, also known as an urban legend, is a fictional tale that circulates widely, is told and retold with differing details, and is supposedly true. Urban myths are present in all media, including oral, print, and electronic. There is no single source from which these stories are derived or one method by which they are generated. For instance, some are deliberately manufactured hoaxes created to cause alarm and concern, while others are created by people who have encountered a humorous or remarkable story and wish to retell it in a personalized way. Urban myths can be created for entertainment and illustration of a point or are created by people who do not remember the exact details of a story that they have heard or read.

History of Urban Myths

It is not known who coined the phrase "urban myth," but the phenomenon has been studied as a serious form of folklore since the 1930s. Seminal studies of urban myths include Alexander Woollcott's monograph While Rome Burns (1934) and Marie Bonaparte's study of "The Corpse in the Car" legend that appeared in the psychiatric journal American Imago (1941).

American folklorists began to collect "urban belief tales" as they were then called in the 1940s and 1950s. Notable works from this period include Richard K. Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey's studies on "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" (1942-43); Ernest Baughman's article on "The Fatal Initiation" (1945); J. Russell Reaver's article on "The Poison Dress" (1952); B. A. Botkin's book Sidewalks of America (1954); and Richard M. Dorson's textbook American Folklore (1959).

In 1968 a groundbreaking urban myth publication appeared: the journal Indiana Folklore, produced by Indiana University's Folklore Institute, which is now part of the university's Department of Folklore and Ethno-musicology. For a number of years thereafter, folklorists turned their focus to analyzing the history, variety, persistence, and widespread acceptance as literal truth of urban myths.

To this day, studies of urban myths continue to flourish. There are international conferences on modern legends such as those held at the Centre for English Cultural Tradition and Language at the University of Sheffield. The International Society for Folk Narrative Research holds annual meetings and publishes a newsletter, FOAFtale (Friend of a Friend Tale) News, and an annual journal, Contemporary Legend. An indication of the popularity of urban myth studies is that 1,116 items were listed in Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith's compilation Contemporary Legend: A Folklore Bibliography (1993).

Computer-Related Urban Myths

The following are just a few examples of urban myths that have a computer connection.

  • Early attempts at computer translation of text from one human language to another produced hilarious results. For instance, John Steinbeck's novel Grapes of Wrath became Angry Raisins. The adage "Out of sight, out of mind" became "Blind and insane" and "The spirit was willing, but the flesh is weak" became "The vodka was good, but the meat was rotten."
  • A photo e-mail claiming to be the last picture taken from the top of the World Trade Center in New York City just seconds before a hijacked airplane (seen in the background) slammed into the building on September 11, 2001.
  • Internet Service Providers will donate 1 cent toward "Brian's" (or any child who is currently hospitalized) operation for every person who forwards this e-mail.
  • NASA scientists discovered a "missing day" in time that corresponds to Biblical accounts of the Sun's standstill in the sky (i.e., Joshua 10:12-13, and 2 Kings 20:8-11).

None of these myths are true, but all of them have been shared among friends and strangers, often via the Internet, as if they were fact.

Urban myths have been around since the beginning of humankind's history, for they almost certainly developed out of every culture's oral traditions. The Internet is merely another medium by which these myths are transmitted to people who have not yet been exposed to such tales. At best, Urban Myths disseminated via the Internet can be considered as junk e-mail. At worst, they can be libelous (e.g., Marlboro/Snapple/Troop clothing is owned by the Ku Klux Klan) and a danger to people's lives (e.g., taking 20 aspirins after unprotected sex will halt pregnancies). Unfortunately, there is no technical solution to this problem. Like gossip and rumors, urban myths are a part of life and have to be tolerated. To combat urban legends, various web sites have been established to help people determine fact from fiction. These include: <http://www.snopes2.com> and <http://www.truthorfiction.com/>.

see also Hacker; Hacking.

Joyce H-S Li


Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Dundes, Alan. Sometimes the Dragon Wins: Yet More Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Genge, Ngaire. Urban Legends: The As-Complete-As-One-Could-Be Guide to Modern Myths. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.

Roeper, Richard. Urban Legends: The Truth Behind All Those Deliciously Entertaining Myths That Are Absolutely, Positively, 100 Percent Not True. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press, 1999.

Internet Resources

Mikkelson, Barbara, and David P. Mikkelson. Urban Legends Reference Pages. <http://www.snopes2.com>