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An urban legend or urban myth is similar to a modern folklore consisting of stories thought to be factual by those circulating them. The term is often used to mean something akin to an "apocryphal story". Urban legends are not necessarily untrue, but they are often distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized over time. Despite the name, a typical urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban setting.
The term is used to differentiate modern legend from traditional folklore in preindustrial times.
Urban legends are sometimes repeated in news stories and, in recent years, distributed by e-mail. People frequently allege that such tales happened to a "friend of a friend"—so often, in fact, that "friend of a friend", or "FOAF", has become a commonly used term when recounting this type of story.
The urban legend phenomenon is well-known in other languages. In the Netherlands, for example, a tale about monkey meat gave rise to the term "broodje aap verhalen" (i.e., monkey sandwich stories).
Some urban legends have passed through the years, with only minor changes to suit regional variations. One example as such is the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo. More recent legends tend to reflect modern circumstances, like the story of people ambushed, anesthetized, and waking up minus one kidney, which was surgically removed for transplantation.
The first study of the concept now described as an "urban legend" seems to be Edgar Morin's La Rume d'Orléans (in French) in 1969. Jan Harold Brunvand, professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah in the United States, used the term "urban legend" in print as early as 1979 in a book review appearing in the Journal of American Folklore 92:362. Even at that time, researchers had been writing about the phenomenon for a long time, but with varying terminology.
Brunvand used his collection of legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings, to make two points: first, that legends, myths, and folklore do not occur exclusively to so-called primitive or traditional societies, and second, that one could learn much about urban and modern culture by studying such tales. Brunvand has since published a series of similar books, and is credited as the first to use the term vector (inspired by the concept of a biological vectors) to describe a person or entity passing on an urban legend.
Many urban legends are framed as complete stories, with plot and characters. Urban legends often resemble a proper joke, especially in the manner of transmission, but are much darker in tone and theme.
The compelling appeal of a typical urban legend are its elements of mystery, horror, fear or humor. Many urban legends are presented as warnings or cautionary tales, while others might be more aptly called "widely dispersed misinformation", such as the erroneous belief that a college student will automatically pass all courses in a semester if one's roommate commits suicide. While such "facts" may not have the narrative elements of traditional urban legend, they are nevertheless conveyed from person to person with the typical elements of horror, humor or caution.
Much like some folk tales of old, there are urban legends dealing with unexplained phenomena such as phantom apparitions.
Propagation and belief
Many urban legends depict horrific crimes, contaminated foods or other situations which, if true, might affect a lot of people. Anyone believing such stories might feel compelled to warn loved ones.
A person might also pass on non cautionary information simply because it is funny or interesting. Many urban legends are essentially extended jokes, told as if they were true events. In some cases they may have originated as pure jokes, personalized by a subsequent teller to add point and force.
Many urban legends, like tall tales in general, contain a grain of truth. 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. He invented the drink and ran Coca-Cola's operations in Nazi Germany during World War II.
Other urban legends are rooted in racism and/or antisemitism. For example, a common urban legend in the Middle East is the blood libel which says Jews drink the blood of Christian children. Variations of the myth depict the baking of babies' blood into holiday pastries.
Some urban legends have been devised by parents who wish to scare their children into obedience. Such stories often depict someone, usually a child, acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up hurt, dead, or in trouble.
People sometimes take urban legends to be true instead of recognizing them as tall tales or unsubstantiated rumors because of the way they are told. The teller of an urban legend may claim it happened to a friend, which serves to personalize and enhance the power of the narrative. Since people, unconsciously or otherwise, often exaggerate, conflate or edit stories when telling them, urban legends can evolve over time.
Some people use the term "urban myth" instead of "urban legend". Brunvand feels that "urban legend" is less stigmatizing because "myth" is commonly used to describe things that are widely accepted as untrue. The more academic definitions of myth usually refer to a supernatural tale involving gods, spirits, the origin of the world, and so forth. However, the usage may simply reflect the idiom (eg, in Australia the term "urban myth" is used).
The term "urban myth" is preferred in some languages such as Mexican Spanish, where conventional coinage is "mito urbano" rather than "leyenda urbana." In French, urban legends are usually called "rumeurs d'Orléans" ("Orleans' rumours") after Edgar Morin's work. The expression "légende urbaine" is also very common.
Some scholars prefer the term "contemporary legend" to highlight those tales that originated relatively recently. This is true for all periods in history; for instance, an eighteenth-century pamphlet alleging that a woman was tricked into eating the ashes of her lover's heart would be a contemporary legend with respect to the eighteenth century.
The main scholarly association on the subject is called The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, and its journal titled Contemporary Legend.
Documenting urban legends
The advent of the Internet has facilitated the proliferation of urban legends. At the same time, however, it has allowed more efficient investigation of this social phenomenon.
Discussing, tracking and analyzing urban legends has become a popular pursuit. It is the topic of the Usenet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, and several web pages, most notably snopes.com.
The United States Department of Energy has a service called Hoaxbusters that deals with all sorts of computer-distributed hoaxes and legends.
Urban legends in popular culture
- A renewed interest in urban legends was sparked with the hit 1998 film Urban Legend, where a group of college students fascinated with urban legends begin falling victim to them. The characters discussed or fell victim to at least 16 of the most common urban legends. It was followed by the sequels Urban Legends: Final Cut and Urban Legends: Bloody Mary.
- Since 2003 the Discovery Channel TV show MythBusters has tried to prove or disprove urban legends by attempting to reproduce them.
- The Simpsons have used a long list of urban legends in episodes over the years, as documented by The Simpsons website SNPP .
- Several TV shows and films have used the urban legend about someone who wakes up in an ice-filled bathub missing a kidney. It was used in a 2006 episode of Las Vegas , a 2001 episode of Law & Order and in the film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.
- One well-known modern urban legend depicts a person, typically an outrageously old woman who seemingly doesn't know better, attempting to dry a wet poodle or cat in a microwave oven. After having killed the animal in the microwave, the woman files and wins a lawsuit because there was no warning sign attached to the device, ultimately causing companies to be obliged to put tags on their machines warning about that danger.
- Another legend depicts what is known as The Vanishing hitchhiker, while another poses that alligators dwell in New York City's sewers, where they grow to enormous size after being flushed down the toilet by dissatisfied pet owners.
- Few urban legends can be traced to their actual origins, exceptions to which include the The Submarine, the Steam tunnel incident and the Hungarian suicide song "Gloomy Sunday".
- Many urban legends revolve around consumer products and their perceived danger. One such urban legend depicts deaths caused by ingesting Pop Rocks candy mixed with soda, as they cause the stomach to explode. Possibly the most famous victims of this is John Gilchrist, better known as Little Mikey from the Life cereal commercials. Gilchrist is in fact still alive. In reality, there is nothing dangerous about the products either separate or together, as the fizzing in Pop Rocks and soda are both caused by carbon dioxide gas. In fact, the soda tends to diminish the 'pop' of the Pop Rocks.
Topics of urban legends
- Li Qing Yuen - A long lived Chinese sage often cited by sellers of herbal medicine, for whom no documented record exists.
- Great Wall of China (Re: Visibility from the moon)
- Coriolis effect (Re: Toilets/bathtubs flowing in opposite direction below the equator)
- Chase Vault - Legendary alleged unexplained moving of coffins (See article section: Origins of Story)
- John Wesley Hardin - Legendary killer (See article section: Hardin and unconfirmed claims)
- Oak Island - Alleged buried treasure (See article sections: Early History; Documented History & History or Legend)
- Beale Ciphers - Alleged clues to lost treasure (See section: Did Thomas Jefferson Beale exist?).
- Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine - Legendary lost mine (See article sections: Stories About the Mine & The Historical Jacob Waltz)
- Lost Adams Diggings - Legendary lost mine.
- Bermuda Triangle - Legends of vanishing ships and planes.
- Melon heads - deformed individuals who prowl in the woods of Lake County, Ohio.
(In alphabetical order)
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- Bloody Mary (folklore)
- Books on haunted locations
- Conspiracy theory
- Conventional wisdom
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- Haunted house
- Internet phenomenon
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- Snopes - Urban Legends Reference Pages
- The AFU And Urban Legends Archive
- Christian Urban Legends
- About.com: Urban Legends and Folklore
- Myth Busters TV show
- The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research
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