Urban legends are those fanciful tales that grip listeners and are spread widely across continents and oceans while repeated by individuals often claiming the facts reported in the tale happened to a “friend of a friend,” or are based on “facts” reported in news reports that the teller of the tale had allegedly read in the past. A classic example of an enduring urban legend is the enduring tale of the blind, white alligators that inhabit the sewers of New York. In the legends, sun-seeking tourist return from Florida with pet alligators, small babies that quickly became unmanageable and their owners, unwilling to kill them, simply flush them down the toilet. In this environment rich in food (rats), but lacking in sunlight, the alligators became blind albinos, witnessed by the occasional unwary New Yorker of urban legend.
Although urban legends are seen as modern manifestations, in terms of structure and role, they are not necessarily urban nor are they legends in the strict sense of the term. What they are is popular folklore that seeks to transmit popular lore—the knowledge or wisdom of the people—that are spread from individual to individual usually through narrative retelling of the tales. Academic interest in urban legends began in the first half of the 20th century as folklorists shifted their interests from the rural folk to cities where the majority of Americans and Canadians lived after World War I. Two scholars can be credited for coining and propagating the term urban legend. The first is Richard Mercer Dorson, who is credited with having coined the term, and who was already, in his 1959 book, American Folklore, writing about the legends in the big city and the legends of college students (active propagators and audience for urban legends). The other is one of Dorson’s students, Jan Harold Brunvand, who popularized contemporary research on urban legends with a series of publications examining American urban legends, beginning in 1981 with The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and their Meanings.
Unlike traditional legends, urban legends are reported as contemporary events: the narrative power is derived from the narrative performance of the urban legend in which the audience—a friend, a group of colleagues on break, or fellow students in a dorm—are recounted a story that “actually” happened. Although urban legends spread thousands of kilometers, even over the ocean from England to North America or from North America to Australia, urban legends are invariably localized and contemporized: though the underlying story remains unchanged, the facts are changed to make it fit into the locality and the time period.
Although an urban legend may have a grain of truth, the origins of the legend—if it can be found— is often far removed from the tale that the listener will hear and has often been changed considerably as local details will be added to localize the legend. A case in point is “The Philanderer’s Porsche” an urban legend that was recounted as “fact” in an Ann Landers’ syndicated column that was published worldwide in 1979. In the letter Landers published, a man in California is said to have seen an ad in the paper for an “almost new” Porsche for the measly price of $50. Although skeptical, he nevertheless visits the woman selling the Porsche, and when he discovers that it is a legitimate car and sale, he buys the Porsche. However, curious, he returns to the woman who explains that her husband had run off with his secretary and instructed her (the wife), to sell the Porsche and send him the money. The author of the letter claimed to have read the ad in his local newspaper (the Chicago Tribune); in turn, Ann Landers’ managing editor thought that he had read the story. Upon subsequent fact checking, the story was shown to never have existed, though both the person who sent the letter and the newspaper’s editor sincerely believed they had read the account in the news.
The managing editor of the Chicago Tribune did not need to feel too guilty, as newspapers are often published as “fact” in newspapers around the world. This particular legend, of a philandering husband and his wife selling his car, was in circulation in Great Britain since at least 1948, and published as “fact” on several occasions. Likewise, newspapers across North America will publish accounts of razor blades allegedly inserted in apples given out to children who are out trick-or-treating on Halloween night even though there exist no verified cases of sabotaged apples.
The examples of urban legends cited above fall into the popular motifs of the urban legend. Many of the tales can be described as cautionary tales, articulating some of the fears and anxieties of society. One such tale is the “old woman” and her new microwave. Gifted a new microwave by her children, the woman decides to use it to dry off her dog. Returning a few minutes later, she discovers that her dog had been cooked from the inside out. The legend highlights the danger of technology: new technology, though useful, may conceal hidden dangers.
One characteristic of a successful urban legend is the unexpected twist at the end of the narrative: it is outlandish, but seemingly plausible, and thus is taken as truth. It often mixes humor and horror, appealing to an individual’s sense of morality or hidden anxieties to touch a chord of empathy. In the case of the Porsche, the listener will empathize with the wife and feel a certain sense of satisfaction that the unfaithful husband got what was coming to him.
Although urban legends are primarily oral narratives, they can be transmitted using a variety of means. As noted, urban legends often appear in newspapers reported as “true” events. They are also integrated into popular culture in television and movies. In 1998 the movie Urban Legend appeared poking fun at the genre, and was followed in 2000 with the sequel Urban Legends: Final Cut. Nonetheless, urban legends live on, and e-mail and the Internet has given urban legends new life. Although urban legends have always demonstrated the remarkable ability to travel far and wide, with instantaneous communication of e-mail, new forms of urban legend are emerging.
One example of a recent urban legend that was circulated widely was the report that authorities were planning on imposing a surcharge on e-mail. This urban legend seems to have originated in Canada, but quickly spread to the United States where it was modified to suit local tastes: in 1999 instead of requesting recipients of the e-mail message to write their Member of Parliament (Canada), American recipients were directed to write their representatives and say no to Bill 602P. This e-mail in circulation was thought to be true, even though it had no basis in fact, as neither Canada nor the United States ever had any pending legislation to impose a surcharge on e-mail messages. By the year 2001, the e-mail was in circulation in Australia and the citizens of this state were being warned that their federal government was planning on imposing a 5-cent surcharge on all e-mail messages.
New urban legends continually emerge, and the Internet is serving as a medium to record this new folklore. However as mediums of communication change along with North American society, folklore will invariably live on, enthralling new generations.
- Brunvand, J. H. (1981). The vanishing hitchhiker: American urban legends and their meanings.
- New York: W. W. Norton. Brunvand, J. H. (1999). Too good to be true: The colossal book of urban legends.NewYork:
- W. Norton. Coffin, T. P. (1968). Our living traditions: An introduction to American Folklore. New York: Basic Books.
- Dorson, R. M. (1959). American folklore. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Mikkelson, B., & Mikkelson, D. P. (2005). Urban legends reference page.