“”My brother's girlfriend's cousin told her that she knew this guy who strapped a rocket to the top of his car and it took off straight into a cliff at like 7000 mph and when they found the wreckage, like, Dude, there wasn't one piece larger than a
| Gather 'round the campfire|
Urban legends, also known as urban myths, or FOAFlore (i.e. Friend of a Friend (folk)lore), are modern stories that tend to have the feel of something that might be likely, and are told in such a way to particular audiences that they are passed down time and again as "truth". They are distinct from "modern mythology" because they by and large do not posit anything about man's relationship with the universe, morality, or religion, they are legends about everyday life.
Urban legends are often characterized by their relation to current pop culture - consumerism, politics, cars, technology and of course personal moral views.
The folklore of industrial societies
The concept of the urban legend tells you more about the history of the academic study of folklore than it does about folklore itself. Urban legends simply describe the folklore of societies with access to more complex media, so that folktales can be circulated by printed media, telegraph, telephone, fax, the internet, or mobile devices rather than through "traditional" methods of purely oral transmission face to face. These technologies also give the folklore durable footprints in material culture that oral transmission does not. This was for some time considered to be a separate and lesser form of folklore, because the "authentic" types were orally transmitted by pre-industrial societies without access to these media. Genuine folklore, in this view, needed preservation by professional collectors. In fact, "urban legends" represent the continuation of the folk process in media-rich societies. They represent the folk process's activities of preservation, revision, and transmission of traditional lore in ways that motivate people in industrial societies to reproduce and continue it.
The phrase "urban legend" was coined by Jan Harold Brunvand in 1981 in the pages of his compilation of contemporary folktales The Vanishing Hitchhiker, named after a folktale about a ghostly hitchhiker. As Brunvand points out in the book, the tale circulated in industrial societies has antecedents in folktales transmitted by more traditional means. It had simply been updated with references to contemporary life such as the presence of automobiles and hitchhikers as opposed to horses and carriages. The phrase "urban legend" distinguishes folklore more by its milieu in material culture than by its content. A typical urban legend claims to be a true account of some marvelous, eerie, or dangerous phenomenon. Rather than the immemorial tradition from which oral folklore is thought to gain authority, the typical urban legend is ascribed to an anonymous "friend of a friend" (FOAF). Urban legends often serve as cautionary tales, warning passersby of real or imagined dangers.
An urban legend:
- appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in varying forms
- contains elements of humor or horror (the horror often "punishes" someone who flouts society's conventions).
- makes good storytelling.
- does NOT have to be false, although most are. ULs often have a basis in fact, but it's their life after-the-fact (particularly in reference to the second and third points) that gives them particular interest.
How do they start?
The origins of ULs are usually fairly murky, and the stories themselves are essentially rumors with long legs.
- Deliberate lies - eg stories about Proctor & Gamble that were circulated by a competitor.
- Jokes - some of the stories are very funny, but somewhere along the line, someone's taken a gag as gospel.
- Speculation - someone asks "what if?" and another hears "if it is".
- Paranoia, essentially an extension of speculation. Also includes stories told to kids to keep them out of mischief and danger.
- Misremembering something. It's easy to confuse details and memory is a fickle thing.
- Literal mindedness - children, and rather literally minded people, taking something at face value.
Last of all, most of us enjoy a good story, even if it's rubbish. Urban legends are generally considered to postdate industrialization, but some are older.
Before the Internet became popular at some point in the 1990s, the urban legend had other means of spreading. Some of these still play a role:
- Oral communication, you know, by talking to people.
- Mass gatherings, conferences etc - great for people from all over to share stories, and take them back home.
- Print media - newspapers and books, eg The Illustrated Police News of London.
- Telephone, an extension of the grapevine with more reach.
- Broadcasting, especially radio (DJs have to have entertaining stuff to say), although ULs often feature in sitcoms.
- Itinerants, including salesmen, touring musicians and travelers.
- Chain letters. (Now superseded by email, thank goat)
- Fax (faxlore) and photocopier (xeroxlore/photocopylore).
The main difference between these dispersion methods and the internet tends to be one of speed (although of course telephone and broadcasting are pretty fast), and international spread.
Coming alive on the Internet
Some time after the Great Renaming of Usenet groups, an online community, alt.folklore.urban,  took an interest in urban legends, cataloging them and generally debunking them. But few people other than geeks and nerds were into usenet - and grandma hadn't started getting involved.
With the advent of e-mail and "one touch forwarding of this important story to all my dear, dear friends," urban legends found a home like they'd never known before. Based on the idea that "if dear aunt Jane/Grandpa Joe said this, it must be true," combined with a very misplaced sense of "but it was in writing", chain emails began to flourish with stories of microwaved Tupperware and plastic killing people, Mormons owning Coke, and the US Government breaking any and every rule that could be known. Facebook's 400 word limit might not be enough to explain the whole story, but it's an urban legend, details are not helpful.
In cyberspace, urban legends may repeat, sometimes with slightly changed details, every few years. Verification (or more likely, debunking) of urban legends is now a visible media niche.
Right Wing, e-mail friendly, Facebook happy "Must Reads"
Perhaps the best "use", if that's a fair word, of urban legends is in the political spectrum, as the "Mom told me that..." and "This didn't come from any party, it's what real people say" views are far more compelling for the average voter than a 20 minute long detailed speech by a candidate explaining exactly what he or she really does think and know and intend to do.
Some of the more popular are:
- Did you know Einstein believed in God? Oh yes sir! And this great mind proved God exists.
- Republican presidents have a lower IQ than Democrat presidents. It's been proven. By Science. Ohhh, ahhhh....
Some of the most famous urban legends to propagate across the internet deal with frivolous lawsuits; the Stella Awards are presented to the most idiotic claimants. According to the True Stella Awards and Snopes.com, stories about frivolous lawsuits that circulate through chain e-mails are almost entirely fabricated. The genuine lawsuits are even more hilarious.
While the majority of urban legends are demonstrably bogus, a few actually are real. A scout around Snopes.com, or avid viewing of MythBusters, shows that a handful are genuine. (Neither of these are infallible, by the way.) Unfortunately, most have accrued some BS by the time they get to you and me.
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. And one of the Monkees' moms really did invent Tipex.
Some obligatory snark
And because of our very human nature to believe what we want to be true, is true - may Snopes.com ever be our friend. Even the least gullible among us.
- Cautionary tale
- Darwin Awards
- Conspiracy theories, which often involve urban folklore.
- Brunvand, Jan Harold The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981, Norton)
- Brunvand, The Choking Doberman (1984, Norton)
- Brunvand, The Mexican Pet (1986, Norton)
- Brunvand, Curses! Broiled Again! (1989, Norton)
- Brunvand, The Baby Train (1993), Norton)
- See the Wikipedia article on Faxlore.
- Traditional Humor from the Fax Machine: "All of a Kind", Michael J. Preston, Western Folklore, Vol. 53, No. 2 (Apr., 1994), pp. 147-169
- Xeroxlore: Folklore in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, bavatuesdays, Nov 29, 2007
- noted for its scathing wit and intolerance of ASCII smileys
- Snopes.com and Mythbusters being the most famous debunkers of urban legends.
- True Stella Awards website