Urban Legends FAQ

What is an urban legend?

Urban legends are tales told and retold as if they are true, and which often contain a moral or some other message. They can be broken into three categories:

  • Folk tales: these are stories passed down through the generations from father to son, mother to daughter, mother to son, father to daughter, etc. They are also told around campfires, during sleepovers, and in Congress. An example would be the story of the teenage babysitter on drugs who laughs so hard she drops the baby and it breaks the hidden killer's arm.
  • Urban myths: these are urban legends, usually of more recent vintage, which are demonstrably false. For example, the story about the Mrs. Fields cookie recipe really being the Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe.
  • Outright lies: "She didn't mean anything to me," "size doesn't matter," and "I'll call you."

How do urban legends spread?

Honest but ignorant people tell them to each other, and over time they are mutated by social bias, mismemory, and innocent error into something entirely different. In this way, a "ghostly hitchhiker" story told by folks on a wagon train in the 1800s becomes a Weekly World News headline about Bigfoot pregnancy in 2005. They are also perpetuated by the likes of Readers Digest, Ann Landers, and Dear Abby. Particularly Dear Abby -- man, that woman will believe anything.

What makes a good urban legend?

To a classically trained sociologist, a good urban legend has three qualities:

  1. A lack of verifiable facts. Stories that contain names, dates, and places are news articles, not urban legends. A good urban legend is timeless, with only the names of celebrities and the species of their inserted animals changing over the years.
  2. Tragedy. In the best urban legends, something always goes horribly wrong in a really funny or informative way. For example, maybe a creepy guy gets his hook caught in a car door while he's watching teenagers make out and it's ripped off when they drive away. Then, when the ambulance gets there to help him, they laugh so hard at his problem that they drop the stretcher.
  3. A moral. It's not a good urban legend unless it teaches the listener a lesson, such as "large companies are out to make big profits at your expense," or "large companies pay big money to people who use e-mail," or "unbelievably horrible things happen to teenagers who have premarital sex."

Who starts urban legends?

Urban legends are started by four different kinds of people:

  • Average people misremembering and retelling a story,
  • Average people misunderstanding a story or thinking a joke or supposition is a true story,
  • Wacky college students, and
  • Jan Harold Brunvand.

What is a tell-tale sign that a story might be an urban legend?

If someone relates an anicdote that's interesting and worth repeating, it's probably an urban legend. If the story is told by a man and relates to his fishing or sexual prowess, it is likely a category #3 urban legend (see the first question on the page).

What is the oldest urban legend?

The oldest urban legend, found in The Tale of Gilgamesh, involves a warrior who believes he is being given the alchemical formula for turning lead into gold by an ancient dragon, but later finds out that the dragon charged his credit card $100, so now he's giving the formula to everyone.

Where can I find out more about urban legends

If you want to make a serious study of urban legends, you would do well to pick up a number of books on the subject. Our favorites include, The Choking Hitchhiker, Curses! Broiled Doberman!, The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Vanishing Mexican Pet, and (by the same author) the encyclopedic Encyclopedia of Stuff People Really Believe. Other valuable sources of urban legends are The Weekly World News, corporate press releases, and high school history textbooks.

What do I do if I have an urban legend I'd like to see on your site?

E-mail it to us.

What if I have an e-mail that tells me to e-mail it to my friends.

Do as you are told (and remember: we're not your friends, just friendly strangers).

All information on this site is, to the best of our knowledge, false.
If any significant true information has slipped through, we apologize.
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