I. What is an Urban Legend?
An urban legend is a fictional story rooted in modern popular culture. You can think of urban legends as today’s folklore—just like traditional folktales, they are based on real parts of culture and often real people; however, in most cases the details have been exaggerated, ultimately making the stories false. They can take the form of an elaborate joke or hoax, a rumor gone too far, unsolved mysteries and crimes, popular misconceptions or beliefs, and so on. Some urban legends may be completely plausible, while others may have supernatural elements that make them less believable or clearly not true. Either way, their truthfulness is always questionable, but perhaps also difficult to disprove.
In the past, legends were historically relevant and usually related to real human events (in one way or another), but hadn’t been proven or documented as having actually happened. So, throughout history, people had no way to prove whether a legend was true or false! What’s more, they were passed on verbally, slowly spreading and evolving for years, decades, and even centuries. But today, with the help of the internet and many other resources, urban legends are passed on quickly and easily, but it is also usually pretty easy to at least prove whether or not it has any real basis in fact. In this way, urban legends today are often easily “debunked” (proven false). Regardless of their truthfulness, some urban legends are silly and lighthearted, while others may actually be quite scary or disturbing.
The term “urban” doesn’t have anything to do with a story starting in the city. We use the word to help distinguish between older, classic stories, and those developed in modern society.
II. Examples of Urban Legends
Urban legends actually have a huge presence in today’s world, whether you recognize them or not! Some are elaborate stories with real details, while others simply revolve around superstitions or rumors. Here are some common urban legends that you’ve likely heard (all of which are false!):
- The Great Wall of China is visible from space
- You can dissolve a tooth in a glass of Coca-Cola
- The Daddy Long Legs is the world’s most poisonous spider, but its fangs are too small to penetrate human skin
- If you swallow your chewing gum, it will take 7 years to digest
- You can summon the spirit “Bloody Mary” by turning off the lights, looking in the mirror, and saying her name 3 times
- Walt Disney’s body was cryogenically frozen in case doctors find a way to bring him back to life
- If enough people fill in “Jedi” as their religion on census forms, the government will have recognize it as a real faith
III. Types of Urban Legends
As mentioned, the internet has led to an overabundance of urban legends that spread in many ways and take all kinds of strange forms. Here are some ways that they often present themselves today:
Popularized in the late 90s, chain emails still get spread around today. They usually suggest that some kind of benefit or consequence will come about if you do or don’t share the email with others. For example, “Forward this to 10 people and your crush will fall in love with you!” or “If you don’t share this email, you will have bad luck in love for 10 years!”
We’ve all received an email warning us about a string of crimes or dangerous circumstances to look out for. While some of these may have some truth to them, most of the time these emails arise from rumors that quickly become exaggerated. When that happens, people feel the need to share the information whether or not there is any evidence to support it.
Since terrorism has become a serious concern worldwide, there have been many circulating stories about future attacks or public dangers. The most common variation of this story involves a person helping a random someone in public (for instance, returning a dropped wallet or wad of cash), and the person being helped tells the Good Samaritan to avoid a certain place on a certain day, because something bad may happen. Sometimes these stories arise after an unfortunate event, which causes them to spread even more quickly after-the-fact as a “did you know…” tale.
Death and Crime Stories
It is pretty common today for rumors to spread about the occurrence of over-the-top crimes or mysterious deaths. For instance, we hear stories of celebrities dying a few times a year, but they’re not true. Likewise, we often hear rumors about incredible prison escapes that are actually just stretched versions of the truth.
Computer Viruses and Malware
How many times have you seen a pop-up on your computer screen that says something like “Click here or your hard drive will be deleted!” or “Your computer has a virus, download this file to remove it”? These annoyances are just urban legends in digital form. People who are inexperienced with computers and internet scams may believe these pop-ups, and be tricked into clicking.
Conspiracy theories are ideas about how certain events in history or things in today’s society were/are actually elaborate cover-ups by the government or other powerful organizations. For example, one popular theory is that the landing on the moon was actually filmed in a movie studio, and never actually happened. Another is that Area 51, a government airfare base in Nevada, is actually a location that secretly studies alien activity and covers up extraterrestrial visits.
When there isn’t a clear explanation for something, people develop unlikely scenarios or explanations. As the rumors and stories are passed on, people make up details to fill in the blanks, and thus many unsolved crimes or mysteries turn into urban legends. For instance, some legends start out as stories about missing persons that “haunt” the last place they were said to be seen. Likewise, ships and airplanes disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle have led to a whole series of stories suggesting that supernatural involvement is the cause of the unrecovered wrecks.
IV. Importance of Urban Legends
As one of the most relevant and resilient forms of modern storytelling, urban legends are important because they are reflections of our society’s perceptions, concerns, and interests. You could say that urban legends are in many ways a phenomenon—why do so many people believe things without any real evidence of them being true? The fact is, we love to believe unlikely, curious, and awe-inspiring things, whether or not they seem reasonable. What’s more, everyone likes to share crazy and interesting stories and rumors—today’s culture loves gossip, and we have convenient ways to share it. Thus, urban legends reflect our culture’s habits and are driven by our everyday practices and curiosities.
V. Examples of Urban Legends in Popular Culture
Here are some well-known and currently circulating urban legends in popular culture that are still widely passed on (and often believed). Some are long-standing tales, while others are new.
Example 1: The Good Samaritan
This urban legend tells the story of a Good Samaritan who stops to help someone fix their flat tire. The person with the flat then asks for the Good Samaritan’s address, so that he can send a thank you. A week later, the Good Samaritan receives $10,000 in the mail with a thank you note. Over the years this urban legend has identified various celebrities who were supposedly the one with the broken down car, who then rewarded the Good Samaritan for helping because they never asked for anything in return from the obviously wealthy celebrity.
Example 2: The Organ Thief
Made even more popular through film and television, a long-running urban legend is that of people having their organs stolen. The story tells that a businessman has a few drinks at the bar with a beautiful woman, and goes back to his room with her. He later wakes up in a bathtub full of ice with a fresh surgical wound. He finds a note and a cellphone next to the tub, telling him to call the hospital because his kidney has been removed. The story actually started with an email in the late 1990s that turned into a nation-wide story, but the U.S. government didn’t have any real cases of it happening.
Example 3: The Vanishing Hitchhiker
The legend of the vanishing hitchhiker is told all over the world, each version with slightly different details. In the story, a driver picks up a young hitchhiking girl, and at some point she suddenly vanishes, usually leaving behind a piece of clothing or other identifying item. Later, the driver finds out that the girl was actually a local teenager who had died years before (perhaps by seeing a picture of her wearing the piece of clothing she left behind)—so, he’s just given a ride to a ghost.
Example 4: The Newlyweds
A newlywed couple comes back from their honeymoon and sorts and puts away all of their gifts, sending out thank you notes to their guests. They have one gift with no one listed as the sender—a pair of tickets to a sold out concert that everyone wants to go to. So, the couple excitedly goes to the concert, all the while wondering who sent this awesome present. However, when they return home that night, their house has been robbed, and all of the new, expensive gifts have been stolen. It was the thief who sent the tickets to guarantee that the couple would be out of the house so they could rob it.
VI. Examples of Urban Legends in Entertainment
In entertainment, urban legends usually present themselves as horror stories. Lots of movies and TV shows may reflect popular tales or make up their own urban legends.
The Blair Witch Project is horror movie about a fake urban legend that people actually believed was based on real events. The movie is supposed to be the “found footage” of 3 filmmakers who went missing in the woods when they were examining the urban legend of the Blair Witch. They were never found, but their alleged footage was. It is particularly convincing because it begins with interviews about the “original” legend:
At first, audiences didn’t realize that the film wasn’t actually based on real events—in fact, it was completely fictitious and created by the director, but people thought that the footage was real. The “found footage” was a movie with actors, filmed by the director in documentary style to make it seem like it could be real recorded content.
The Discovery Channel series Mythbusters tries to debunk popular urban legends by recreating the scenarios behind the stories and using science experiments. In this episode, they test the well-known urban legend that if you drop a penny from a skyscraper, it can kill someone on the ground below:
In this episode, they disprove the urban legend. However, in many episodes their results are inconclusive, leaving the legends to continue circulating!
Many films feature an urban legend that is not believed but actually turns out to be true (in the story). In the horror film The Ring, there’s an urban legend that everyone who watches a certain video tape dies after seeing it. Of course, no one believes it…in this clip, two friends talk about the urban legend:
The legend says that after watching the tape you’ll get a phone call, and within one week you will die. As it turns out, there’s more to the urban legend—if you pass on the legend by making others watch the film, you won’t die. This creates an endless cycle that assures the legend will live on.
VII. Related terms
An urban myth is basically the same as an urban legend, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. However, the word “myth” implies the story includes supernatural or “mythical” details that make it less believable. So, urban myths are usually seen as overtly untrue.
In all, urban legends are interesting and ever-changing parts of popular culture that work as today’s folklore. As communication and the sharing of information become easier, the easier it is to spread stories. Just like storytelling and folklore will always be a part of history and culture, so will urban legends!