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Urban Legends And Folklore

Updated on August 26, 2015

Urban Legends

An urban legend is a style of folklore usually involving stories typically believed to be true. However, evidence or proof of these tales is usually lacking. Over time these stories are embellished, exaggerated and expanded upon, making it more of a tall tale than anything else. These stories persist and never seem to die out…everybody loves a good story, true or not.

Regardless of being called “urban” does not necessarily mean it originated in an urban location. The term is used to more or less differentiate modern legend from traditional folklore.

In recent years, urban legends have been distributed by e-mail. Originators of these unsolicited stories frequently claim that such yarns happened to a friend or friend of a friend.

Some urban legends have continued through the years without hardly any variations. For example, the woman supposedly killed by spiders nesting in her hairdo. Modern legends tend to reflect current situations, like the story of a person who was ambushed, anesthetized, and waking up short one kidney. Presumably it had been surgically removed for use as a transplant.

The term “urban legend,” started appearing in print around 1968. There are two points to remember about the urban legend. They don’t always originate in primitive or traditional societies and they often reflect the culture they came from.

Common Thread

The allure of an urban legend lies in their uniqueness, mystery, fear, humor or other elements. The one common thread they all seem to share, however, is the rare possibility of tracing any story to a specific source.

In a few rare cases a possible link to an actual incident may be found. For instance, the common "Hook" campfire story eerily parallels a 1946 series of Lovers' Lane murders that happened in Texarkana, TX. Claiming an incident happened to a friend, serves to authenticate the story.

More often than not, urban legends tell of horrific crimes, or situations which would affect many people.

News media, local officials and even police departments are quick to jump on these accounts and issue public warnings. Their reasoning is probably “Better safe than sorry.”

Urban legends typically have a few common elements. One being the story is seldom told by an original witness or participant. Ominous warnings of serious consequences are given for anyone failing to heed advice or dire messages contained within the narrative. And the source is often identified by first name only or not at all. A trademark of a false urban legend is a lack of specifics such as names, dates, locations etc.

Some scholars prefer the term contemporary legend to highlight those tales with relatively recent or modern origins. The Internet has made it easier to spread urban legends. By the same token it’s also easier to debunk them.

The contaminated food story is a common tale with many different spins, but usually deals with human body fluids being discovered in restaurant food. A long standing version of this legend is about rats, mice, insects or even body parts being found in prepackaged food or beverages.

However, not all urban legends concern such morbid issues. Many have no warning or moral element at all. They may be amusing stories or jokes told as truth. One common story tells of a person who took out an insurance policy on an expensive box of cigars, smoked all of them and then filed a claim, saying they were destroyed in a fire.

Another tale tells of a drunk driver stopped by police. The officer asks the man to take a sobriety test. As the test is being administered, a car swerves into a ditch close by. The officer hastens to assist the other driver. The drunk takes the opportunity to escape. When he gets home, he passes out on his sofa. In the morning, he’s awakened by someone pounding on his door. He opens it to find the police officer from the night before. The man swears he was home all night. When the officer asks to have a look in his garage, they find the officer's police cruiser parked inside.

Popular culture and urban legends are often closely related, so how can you tell if a story is true or not.

Many people believe an urban legend must be true because it is reported by a newspaper, or other authority such as the inevitable annual Halloween stories of razors in apples or needles in candy. Although there has never been any documented cases of Halloween candy contamination, media and police issue warnings every year. Urban legends are easily taken as truth because few people investigate information included in the story.

There is no proof positive way known yet to determine whether an urban legend is true or not. But, here are a few tips that can give an indication.

A sign a story is likely untrue is it happened to a friend of a friend, not the storyteller.The general topic is one that is often in the news or what people have been talking about the most like death, sex, crime, or a celebrity horror story. It contains a warning or moral lesson or just too odd or bizarre to be true.


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    • daydreamer13 profile image

      daydreamer13 7 years ago

      Well done! Voted up!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Just wait until you get the one stamped "postage due"

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      Lucky Cats 7 years ago

      Another very interesting, informative and well written article that keeps the reader tuned in to the conclusion. I really look forward to my emails that say "JY3502 has written a new hub."