Urban legend

From Academic Kids

Urban Legend is also the name of a 1998 movie.

Urban legends are a kind of folklore consisting of stories often thought to be factual by those circulating them. Urban legends are sometimes repeated in news stories and, in recent years, distributed by email. People frequently say such tales happened to a "friend of a friend" - so often, in fact, that FOAF has become a commonly used acronym to describe this sort of story. Urban legends are not necessarily untrue, but they are often false, distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized.

Some urban legends have survived a very long time, evolving only slightly over the years, as in the case of the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo. Others are new and reflect modern circumstances, like the story of people being sedated and waking up minus a kidney surgically removed for transplant. Some urban legends have a basis in true events, such as the case of the young man shooting bullets into a large saguaro cactus and being killed when his gunfire severed the trunk, resulting in the falling plant crushing him. Even when essentially true, however, the stories often become distorted by many retellings.

Despite their name, urban legends do not necessarily take place in an urban setting. The name is designed to differentiate them from traditional folklore created in pre-industrial times.

Urban legends often are born of fears and insecurities, or specifically designed to prey on such concerns.



Jan Harold Brunvand, Professor of English, first promoted the concept of the urban legend in his 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings. Brunvand used his collection of legends to make two points: first, that legends, myths, and folklore do not belong solely to so-called primitive or traditional societies, and second, that one could learn much about urban and modern culture by studying such legends. Brunvand has since published a series of similar books. The field also credits Brunvand as the first to use the term vector (after the concept of a biological vector) to describe a person or entity passing along an urban legend.


Most urban legends are framed as stories, with plots and characters. The compelling nature of the story, and its elements of mystery, horror, fear, or humor are part of what makes the tales so attractive. Many of these legends are presented as warnings or cautionary tales. Other urban legends might better be called "widely dispersed misinformation", such as the erroneous belief that you will automatically pass all of your college courses in a semester if your roommate kills himself. While such "facts" may not have the narrative elements of traditional legend, they are passed from person to person and generally have the elements of horror, humor or caution found in legends.

Propagation and belief

Many urban legends are about horrific crimes, contaminated foods or other situations that might affect a lot of people if they were true. If one hears such a story, and believes it, a person might feel compelled to warn friends and family.

A person might also pass on non-cautionary information simply because it is funny or interesting. Many urban legends are basically extended jokes, told as if they were true events. In some cases they may have originated as pure jokes, that some teller personalized to add point and force to the story.

People apparently take urban legends to be true, instead of recognizing them as tall tales or unsubstantiated rumors, because of the way the story is passed on. For example, if a friend tells you an urban legend, most likely she will say it happened to a friend of somebody she knows, giving it a spurious accountability. Since people, unconsciously or otherwise, often exaggerate, conflate or "clean up" stories when passing them on, urban legends can alter over time.

See meme and memetics for theories on the rules of transmission for this kind of information.

Keeping track of urban legends

Discussing, tracking, and analyzing urban legends has become a popular pursuit. A thriving usenet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, discusses such stories. The newsgroup's "Frequently Asked Questions" page summarises the truth or otherwise of these stories, so far as this can be determined. For a similar list see the Urban Legends Reference Pages at snopes.com.

For online urban legends, see Virus Myths and the Darwin Awards site, which also showcases a few stories each year of dubious veracity (they've promulgated Urban Legends as facts in the past). The United States Department of Energy has set up a service called Hoaxbusters that deals with all sorts of computer-distributed hoaxes and legends. A recent TV series, MythBusters, has the goal of proving or disproving urban legends by actually attempting to reproduce them.

Historical examples

Certain early historians such as Suetonius, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Herodotus functioned as forerunners of urban myth, recycling hearsay and anecdotal accounts as historical facts; these writings, in turn, served as the basis for other accounts, and thus many cycles of inaccurate historical narrative became self-perpetuating vicious circles. Contemporary historians tend to cast a very cold and careful eye over historical evidence emanating from writers such as these. For a list of these and other works considered to be suspect, see Dubious historical resources.

Modern examples

Modern examples of urban legends include being robbed in a parking lot with knock-out perfume, the Sachem Giant, "WTC Survivor" computer virus, spider eggs in chewing gum, and the girl who had cockroach eggs that hatched in her mouth after licking envelopes.

The Papal Tiara

One classic urban legend claims the pope's crown or Papal Tiara contains the words Vicarius Filii Dei which, when numerised, add up to 666, the number of the antichrist mentioned in the Bible. Though the story has no basis in fact (all papal crowns dating from the sixteenth century onwards are on public show and none contain the words), 'belief' in the 'myth' has continued, with constant specific references to an early twentieth-century photograph at a papal funeral (probably that of Pope Leo XIII in 1903) that proves the existence of a papal tiara with the words. Except that in one hundred years, no one has ever been able to produce the supposed photograph or even state definitively where it was supposedly published. Instead it is spoken of in terms of 'knowing someone who knows someone who definitely saw the photograph!', a phenomenon known in the Irish language as the 'Dhirt bean liom gur dhirt bean le' syndrome (a woman told me that a woman told her that...), and as on alt.folklore.urban and other places as FOAF, for friend of a friend.

See also

External links

de:Urban legend es:Leyenda urbana fr:Lgende urbaine he:אגדה אורבנית ja:都市伝説 nl:Broodje-aapverhaal pl:Miejska legenda pt:Lenda urbana fi:Urbaani legenda sv:Klintbergare zh:都會傳奇


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