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Urban Legends

Urban Legends



An urban legend is a story, passed from person to person, about an event that is said to have really occurred. The story is phrased in believable terms, but the ending is usually horrifying, shocking, or humorous. By definition, urban legends are false—either completely made up or based on actual events but greatly exaggerated or distorted.

The term "urban legend" has been in use only since the 1930s, but the phenomenon has probably existed as long as human society has existed. People tend to believe and to pass on stories that are reasonable, interesting, and make a point. Folklore experts who study urban legends say that the accounts usually come from a credible source (a friend, relative, or coworker), have a narrative form (a story with characters and a plot), and contain elements of humor, caution, or horror.

One of the most common types of urban legends is the cautionary tale, like the account of a man who has a drink in a bar with a strange woman and wakes up in a hotel room, alone, missing one of his kidneys. Similar to this is the contamination story, such as the widely known myth about someone who bites into a piece of fast-food fried chicken, only to find a rat carcass underneath the breading. These kinds of stories are thinly disguised warnings. They tend to reflect the anxieties common in a society—fear of strangers, distrust of fast food (see entry under 1920s—Food and Drink in volume 2), concern about gang violence, and so on.

Development of the Internet (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5) has made the problem of urban legends worse, but it also offers a cure. Internet access allows anyone to pass an urban legend on very quickly to a large number of people, whether through a newsgroup, chat room, bulletin board, Web site, or via e-mail (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5). Thus, a misleading story or a malicious rumor can spread widely and rapidly. However, the Internet also allows the development of Web sites that collect current urban legends and identify them as such. Several such sites exist, allowing anyone to check whether the latest "weird story" is fact or another urban legend.

—Justin Gustainis

For More Information

Brunvald, Jan Harold. Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of UrbanLegends. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Craughwell, Thomas J. The Baby on the Car Roof and 222 More UrbanLegends. New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2000.

Heimbaugh, Jason R. The AFU & Urban Legends Archive.http://www.urbanlegends.com/ (accessed April 4, 2002).

Mikkelson, Barbara, and David P. Mikkelson. Urban Legends ReferencePages.http://www.snopes2.com/ (accessed April 4, 2002).

Toropov, Brandon. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Urban Legends. Indianapolis: Alpha Books, 2001.

Urban Legends Research Centre.http://www.ulrc.com.au/ (accessed April 4, 2002).

Williams, John. The Cost of Deception: The Seduction of Modern Myths and Urban Legends. Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2001.

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