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Urban legend

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An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend is a form of modern folklore. It usually consists of fictional stories, often presented as true, with macabre or humorous elements, rooted in local popular culture. These legends can be used for entertainment purposes, as well as semi-serious explanations for random events such as disappearances and strange objects.

Urban legends are 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, like the story of people ambushed and anesthetized, who awaken minus one kidney, which was supposedly surgically removed for transplantation.[1]


Origins and structureEdit

The term "urban legend," as used by folklorists, has appeared in print since at least 1968.[2] 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.[3] 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.[3]

Propagation and beliefEdit

As Jan Brunvand points out,[4] 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);[4] "the Solid Cement Cadillac"[5] and the possible origin of "The Hook" in the 1946 series of Lovers' Lane murders in Texarkana, Texas, United States.[6][7] 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.[8]

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[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[11]

Many urban legends are essentially extended jokes, told as if they were true events.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14] The legend interrupted the company's business to the point that it stopped using the trademark.[15]

Belief and relation to mythologyEdit

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.[16] 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,[17] 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.[18] 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".[19]

Recently,[when?] 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.[20] 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.[18][21]


The Internet makes it easier to both spread urban legends and debunk them.[22] Discussing, tracking, and analyzing urban legends is the topic of the Usenet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban and several web sites, most notably The United States Department of Energy had a service, now discontinued, 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, these programs reveal any factual basis they may have. The Discovery Channel TV show MythBusters (2003–2016) tried to prove or disprove 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, collected two hundred urban legends told in comics form.

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;[23] the persistent rumour that the rock singer Courtney Love is the granddaughter of Marlon Brando;[24] and the idea that in a famous 1970s poster of Farrah Fawcett, there is a subliminal sexual message concealed in the actress' hair.[25]


Internet urban legends are folklore stories that are spread through the internet. They may be spread through Usenet or email,[26] or more recently by social media.


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.[27][28]
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.[29]
Fake virus and malware alerts
Fake virus alerts, telling people of non-existent threats to their computer, are commonly distributed by email.[26]

Use in marketingEdit

The capacity of the internet to spread rumors has been used in marketing, for instance with the low-budget film The Blair Witch Project, which was advertised as if it were about a genuine urban legend, rather than a work of original fiction.[30]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Mikkelson, Barbara (2008-03-12). " Thief". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2010-06-30.
  2. ^ 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).
  3. ^ a b 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.
  4. ^ a b Mikkelson, Barbara (2006-08-10). " Death Car". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2010-06-30.
  5. ^ " Cement in Lover's Car". Urban Legends Reference Pages. 2006-08-10. Retrieved 2007-07-03.
  6. ^ Mikkelson, Barbara (2008-06-02). " The Hook". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2010-06-30.
  7. ^ Ramsland, Katherine. "Texas Chainsaw Massacre is based on a real case the crime library — Other Speculations — Crime Library on". Turner Broadcasting System Inc. Archived from the original on 2009-08-31. Retrieved 2010-08-28.
  8. ^ Mikkelson, Barbara. "The Reich Stuff?". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2007-01-09.
  9. ^ Brunvand, p.423
  10. ^ Gross, Dave. "The "Blue Star" LSD Tattoo Urban Legend Page". the Lycaeum Drug Archives . Archived from the original on 2011-07-18. Retrieved 2010-08-29.
  11. ^ a b Mikkelson, Barbara (2008-12-08). " Flashing Headlights Gang Initiation". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Retrieved 2010-08-28.
  12. ^ Brunvand, p.223
  13. ^ "Heard the one about..." BBC News. 2006-10-27. Archived from the original on 2009-06-04. Retrieved 2010-03-28.
  14. ^ Procter and Gamble v. Amway 242 F.3d 539
  15. ^ Brunvand, p.333
  16. ^ Brunvand, p. 459
  17. ^ Richard Dorson. "American Folklore" University of Chicago Press, 1959, pp. 250-52.
  18. ^ a b 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.
  19. ^ John Mosier "WAR MYTHS" Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society: VI: 4, March/April 2005.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ Donovan, p.129
  23. ^ Tony Barrell (2009-07-05). "Did You Know: Orson Welles". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 2014-02-22. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
  24. ^ Tony Barrell (2009-09-13). "Did You Know: Courtney Love". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 2014-02-22. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
  25. ^ Tony Barrell (2009-10-04). "Did You Know: Farrah Fawcett". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 2014-02-22. Retrieved 2012-03-13.
  26. ^ a b Chris Frost, (2000) ..Tales on the Internet: making it up as you go along, Aslib Proceedings, Vol. 52 Iss: 1, pp.5 - 10
  27. ^ Pamela Donovan, No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet (Psychology Press, 2004)
  28. ^ 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
  29. ^ "Chain Linked". Retrieved 21 November 2012.
  30. ^ J. P. Telotte, "The Blair Witch Project Project: Film and the Internet", Film Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3; (Spring 2001), pp. 32-39

Further readingEdit

  • Enders, Jody (2002). Death by Drama and Other Medieval Urban Legends. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-20788-9.


  • Jan Harold Brunvand (2002). Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-32358-7.
  • Pamela Donovan (2004). No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet. New York City: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-50779-7.

External linksEdit