An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend is a genre of folklore comprising stories circulated as true, especially as having happened to a friend or family member, often with horrifying or humorous elements. These legends can be entertainment, but often concern mysterious peril or troubling events, such as disappearances and strange objects. They may also be confirmation of moral standards, or reflect prejudices, or be a way to make sense of societal anxieties.
Urban legends are most often circulated orally, but can be 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. Recent legends tend to reflect modern circumstances: for instance, the common legend of a person being ambushed and anesthetized, only to wake up and realize that they are now missing a kidney that was supposedly surgically removed for transplantation.
The term "urban legend," as used by folklorists, has appeared in print since at least 1968.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. 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.
Urban legends will often try to invoke a feeling of disgust in the reader which tends to make these stories more memorable and potent. Elements of shock value can be found in almost every form of urban legend and are partially what makes these tales so impactful.
Most urban legends will also include an element of something that is supernatural or paranormal. Many of the most well known tales will try to balance out the normal with the paranormal. Stories that stray too far into the paranormal aspect are usually not as regarded as ones that still attempt to keep some sort of basis in reality.
As Jan Brunvand points out, antecedent legends including some of the motifs, themes and symbolism of the urtexts can readily be identified. Cases that may have been at least partially inspired by real events include "The Death Car" (traced by Richard Dorson to Michigan, United States); "the Solid Cement Cadillac" and the possible origin of "The Hook" in the 1946 series of Lovers' Lane murders in Texarkana, Texas, United States. 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.
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 and distances the teller. Many urban legends depict horrific crimes, contaminated foods, or other situations that 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. 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. 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.
Myths are believable only in the sense of how many people keep them alive albeit by forwarding a text message or sharing a post on social media platforms. Posting what people believe is true or if the content is provocative under a hashtag can share the content to millions of people worldwide. Once the story containing a story or visual gets embedded in the minds of the viewers, it is hard to get over the primal fear that kicks in once reading the legends.
Many urban legends are essentially extended jokes, told as if they were true events. 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 (that forms a typical element of many e-mail phishing scams); and the tale is often touted as "something a friend told me", and the friend is identified by the first name only or not identified at all.
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. The legend interrupted the company's business to the point that it stopped using the trademark.
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. 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, folklorists have an interest in debunking those 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. As in the case of myth, the 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".
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. 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 that 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.
The Internet has made it easier both to spread and to debunk urban legends. For instance, the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban and several other websites, most notably snopes.com, focus on discussing, tracking, and analyzing urban legends. The United States Department of Energy had a now-discontinued service called Hoaxbusters that dealt with computer-distributed hoaxes and legends.
On the other hand, the internet has allowed much more urban legends to be shared and even created. The most notable example of urban legends that are made on the internet are known as Creepypastas. These are typically horror stories written by anonymous people on the internet. Although most of these stories are regarded as obviously false, some Creepypastas have gained a following of people that do believe in their existence. The most notable creepypasta that has done this is the infamous Slender Man. Although the internet does help disprove many urban legends, it also the number one thing that is creating more and more of these tales in which many choose to believe in.
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 an episode) revealing any factual basis they may have. The Discovery Channel TV show MythBusters (2003-2016) tried to prove or disprove several 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, featured two-hundred urban legends, displayed as comics.
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; the persistent rumour that the rock singer Courtney Love is the granddaughter of Marlon Brando; and the idea that a famous 1970s poster of Farrah Fawcett contains a subliminal sexual message concealed in the actress' hair.
As with traditional urban legends, many Internet rumors are about crimes either fictional, or based on real events but blown out of proportion. Crime Stories are dangerous because they make claims to be news that are relevant to modern times and do not follow the patterns of a typical Urban Legend.
People believing that eating watermelon seeds will result in growing a watermelon in their stomachs. Old wives' tales like going outside after just having taken a shower will result in catching a cold.
Urban legends are often spread on social media. A myth can also be linked to viral content on the internet. People tend to share articles that makes them feel strongly to whatever the topic of the legend is. People prefer to pass along versions that produced the highest level of disgust. Urban legends can also be referred to as myths or rumors due to their unreliability and lack of credibility.
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. Chain letters are more often demanded to be re-shared by users. Chain letters are easy to spot as they follow a certain outline of hook, threat, and finally request. Chain letters share details of the horrid consequences supposedly suffered by certain individuals who ignored the request to redistribute the letter and continue the chain.
Fake virus alerts, telling people of nonexistent threats to their computer, are commonly distributed by email. Fake virus alerts have become a prevalent part of internet culture pop ups claiming to be giveaways, store coupons and giveaway hoaxes.
These urban legends involve some sort of creature or object that is paranormal. These stories usually revolve around someone seeing or encountering something of a supernatural caliber. These most well known type of these stories are known as cryptid encounters. Cryptids are creatures that have no actual evidence in existing but have been claimed to be seen by a large number of people. The most notable cryptids include creatures such as Bigfoot or Mothman. Many cryptids are portrayed as very mysterious and most have supernatural powers. Many of these legends are simply regarded as tall tales but there are some people who do believe in these stories.
Companies have been accused of hiding "secret messages" behind their logo or packaging that supposedly hides or promotes the use of the occult, therefore making the brand popular. In the case of the old Procter & Gamble symbol, it was speculated that the brand was trendy because they were supposedly worshippers of the occult. It was believed to be true because if the thirteen stars in the symbol were connected a certain way, it would show three sixes in a row. Another company accused of hiding a secret meaning behind their logo would be Monster Energy. After a viral video of a Christian woman "exposing" Monster Energy for using the Hebrew alphabet symbol for the letter ''M" being used to disguise the number 666 went viral on Facebook, people were quick to speculate whether or not it was true.
On the other side of things, some urban legends have occasionally been used intentionally for comic purpose in advertising. The most well known examples include the use of a Sasquatch in Jack Link commercials, known as "Messin with Sasquatch", and also the use of unicorns in Icebreakers ads. Another notable use of an urban legend/cryptid is in hockey: the New Jersey Devils hockey team is named for the state's popular cryptid, the Jersey Devil.
A number of Internet sites are available regarding urban legends and hoaxes, such as [...] the Compute Incident Advisory Committee and Department of Energy's HoaxBusters site at http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org.