Urban legend

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Colchester Overpass, the site of the 1970s urban legend of the "Bunny Man", said to be a man or ghost in a rabbit costume who attacked people in the area Bunnyman bridge night.jpg
Colchester Overpass, the site of the 1970s urban legend of the "Bunny Man", said to be a man or ghost in a rabbit costume who attacked people in the area

Urban legends (sometimes modern legend, urban myth, or simply legend) is a genre of folklore concerning stories about an unusual (usually scary) or humorous event that many people believe to be true but largely are not. [1]


These legends can be entertaining but often concern mysterious peril or troubling events, such as disappearances and strange objects or entities. Urban legends may confirm moral standards, reflect prejudices, or be a way to make sense of societal anxieties. [2]

In the past, urban legends were most often circulated orally, at gatherings and around the campfire for instance. Now, they can be spread by any media, including newspapers, mobile news apps, e-mail, and most often, social media. Some urban legends have passed through the years/decades with only minor changes, in where the time period takes place. Generic urban legends are often altered to suit regional variations, but the lesson or moral generally remains the same.

Origin and structure

The term "urban legend", as used by folklorists, has appeared in print since at least 1968, when it was used by Richard Dorson. [3] 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.[ citation needed ]

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. [4] Some urban legends are morality tales that depict someone acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up in trouble, hurt, or dead. [5]

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. [6] An urban legend may include elements of the supernatural or paranormal.[ citation needed ]

Propagation and belief

As Jan Brunvand points out, [7] 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); [7] "the Solid Cement Cadillac" [8] and the possible origin of "The Hook" in the 1946 series of Lovers' Lane murders in Texarkana, Texas, United States. [9] [10] 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. [11]

An example of a supposed ghost train, the Silver Arrow ("Silverpilen") C5-Silverpilen.jpg
An example of a supposed ghost train, the Silver Arrow ("Silverpilen")

The narrator 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 [12] while distancing the teller from the tall tale. 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. [13] 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. [14] A fax retelling this legend received at the Nassau County, Florida, fire department was forwarded to police, and from there to all city departments. The Minister of Defence for Canada was taken in by it also; he forwarded an urgent security warning to all Ontario Members of Parliament. [14]

Urban legends typically include common elements: the tale 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 (a typical element of many e-mail phishing scams); and the tale is often touted as "something a friend told me", the friend being identified by first name only or not identified at all. [15] Such legends seem to be believable and even provocative, as some readers are led in turn to pass them on, including on social media platforms that instantly reach millions worldwide. [16] Many are essentially extended jokes, told as if they were true events. [17]

Persistent urban legends do often maintain a degree of plausibility, as in the story a serial killer deliberately hiding in the back seat of a car. Another 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 19th-century "57" trademark. [18] The legend interrupted the company's business to the point that it stopped using the trademark. [19]

Relation to mythology

The earliest term by which these narratives were known, "urban belief tales", highlights what was then thought of 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. [20] 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, [21] 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. [22] 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". [23]

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. [24] 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 vehemently reject 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. [22] [25]


The purported "haunted cemetery" of Bachelor's Grove, located in the suburban Chicago area, here photographed in infra-red Bachelors Grove in IR.jpg
The purported "haunted cemetery" of Bachelor's Grove, located in the suburban Chicago area, here photographed in infra-red

The Internet has made it easier both to spread and to debunk urban legends. [26] [27] 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 [28] that dealt with computer-distributed hoaxes and legends. [29] The most notable such hoaxes are known as creepypastas, which are typically horror stories written anonymously. Although most are regarded as obviously false, some, such as the Slender Man, have gained a following of people that do believe in them. [30]

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.[ citation needed ]

The 1998 film Urban Legend featured students discussing popular urban legends while at the same time falling victim to killings re-enacting them. [31]

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, [32] 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 200 urban legends, displayed as comics.[ citation needed ]

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; [33] the persistent rumour that the rock singer Courtney Love is the granddaughter of Marlon Brando; [34] and the idea that a famous 1970s poster of Farrah Fawcett contains a subliminal sexual message concealed in the actress's hair. [35]



As with traditional urban legends, many internet rumors are about crimes or crime waves – either fictional or based on real events that have been largely exaggerated. [36] [37] [38] Such stories can be problematic, both because they purport to be relevant modern news and because they do not follow the typical patterns of urban legends. [39]


Some legends are medical folklore, such as the claim that eating watermelon seeds will result in a watermelon growing in the stomach, or that going outdoors just after showering will result in catching a cold. [40] Many Old wives' tales have grown around the identification of ailments, real and imagined, and the recommended remedies, rituals, and home-grown medical treatments to treat them.[ citation needed ]


Internet urban legends are those spread through the internet, as through Usenet or email [41] or more recently through other social media. They can also be linked to viral online content. Some take the form of chain letters and spread by e-mail, directing the reader to share them or to meet a terrible fate, [42] and following a recognizable outline of hook, threat, and finally request. [43] Others are fake virus-alerts, warning people of nonexistent threats to their computers, often appearing as online pop-ups claiming to be giveaways or store coupons. [44]


Paranormal urban-legend stories usually involve someone encountering something supernatural, such as a cryptid [45] —for instance, Bigfoot or Mothman, [46] legendary creatures for which evidence is lacking but which have legions of believers. [47] Research shows that people experiencing sudden or surprising events (such as a Bigfoot sighting) may significantly overestimate the duration of the event. [48]


Companies have been accused of hiding "secret messages" behind their logos or packaging, [49] as in the case of the old Procter & Gamble symbol, supposedly an occult figure that gave panache to the brand. (If the thirteen stars in the symbol were connected a certain way, it would show three sixes in a row.) [50] Similarly, a video of a Christian woman "exposing" Monster Energy for using the Hebrew alphabet symbol for the letter "M" to disguise the number 666 went viral on Facebook. [51]

Some urban legends have been used intentionally for comic purposes in advertising. The most well-known examples include the use of a Sasquatch in Jack Link commercials, known as "Messin' with Sasquatch," and the use of unicorns in Icebreakers ads. Another is the New Jersey Devils hockey team, named for the state's popular cryptid, the Jersey Devil. [52]

See also

Related Research Articles

A chain letter is a message that attempts to convince the recipient to make a number of copies and pass them on to a certain number of recipients. The "chain" is an exponentially growing pyramid that cannot be sustained indefinitely.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hoax</span> Widespread deliberate fabrication presented as truth

A hoax is a widely publicized falsehood so fashioned as to invite reflexive, unthinking acceptance by the greatest number of people of the most varied social identities and of the highest possible social pretensions to gull its victims into putting up the highest possible social currency in support of the hoax.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Legend</span> Genre of storytelling that involves heroic humans

A legend is a genre of folklore that consists of a narrative featuring human actions, believed or perceived to have taken place in human history. Narratives in this genre may demonstrate human values, and possess certain qualities that give the tale verisimilitude. Legend, for its active and passive participants, may include miracles. Legends may be transformed over time to keep them fresh and vital.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jersey Devil</span> Legendary creature in North American folklore

In South Jersey and Philadelphia folklore in the United States, the Jersey Devil, also known as the Leeds Devil, is a legendary creature said to inhabit the forests of the Pine Barrens in South Jersey. The creature is often described as a flying biped with hooves, but there are many variations. The common description is that of a bipedal kangaroo-like or wyvern-like creature with a horse- or goat-like head, leathery bat-like wings, horns, small arms with clawed hands, legs with cloven hooves, and a forked or pointed tail. It has been reported to move quickly and is often described as emitting a high-pitched "blood-curdling scream".

There are multiple urban legends centering around the fast-food chain McDonald's. These legends include claims about the food and allegations of discrimination by the company.

<i>Snopes</i> Fact-checking website

Snopes, formerly known as the Urban Legends Reference Pages, is a fact-checking website. It has been described as a "well-regarded reference for sorting out myths and rumors" on the Internet. The site has also been seen as a source for both validating and debunking urban legends and similar stories in American popular culture.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Faxlore</span> Urban legends that spread via fax machine

Faxlore is a sort of folklore: humorous texts, folk poetry, folk art, and urban legends that are circulated, not by word of mouth, but by fax machine. Xeroxlore or photocopylore is similar material circulated by photocopying; compare samizdat in Soviet-bloc countries.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Blue star tattoo legend</span> Drug urban legend

The blue star tattoo legend is an urban legend which states that a temporary lick-and-stick tattoo soaked in LSD and made in the form of a blue star, or of popular children's cartoon characters, is being distributed to unknowing children in any given area.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jan Harold Brunvand</span> American folklorist (born 1933)

Jan Harold Brunvand is an American retired folklorist, researcher, writer, public speaker, and professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah.

The "Well to Hell" is an urban legend regarding a putative borehole in Russia which was purportedly drilled so deep that it broke through into Hell. It is first attested in English as a 1989 broadcast by a U.S. domestic religion-based TV broadcaster, Trinity Broadcasting Network.

The Hook, or the Hookman, is an urban legend about a killer with a pirate-like hook for a hand attacking a couple in a parked car. In many versions of the story, the killer is typically portrayed as a faceless, silhouetted old man wearing a raincoat and rain hat that conceals most of his features, especially his face.

The killer in the backseat is an urban legend from the United States and United Kingdom. It was first noted by folklorist Carlos Drake in 1968 in texts collected by Indiana University students.

The Choking Doberman is an urban legend that originated in the United States. The story involves a protective pet found by its owner gagging on human fingers lodged in its throat. As the story unfolds, the dog's owner discovers an intruder whose hand is bleeding from the dog bite.

The Baby Train, or simply Baby Train, is an urban legend told in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. The legend first appeared in Christopher Morley's 1939 novel Kitty Foyle. According to the legend, a certain small town had an unusually high birth rate. This was allegedly caused by a freight train passing through the town and blowing its whistle, waking up all the residents. Since it was too late to go back to sleep and too early to get up, couples would have sex. This resulted in a mini-baby boom.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mothman</span> Modern urban legend

In West Virginian folklore, the Mothman is a humanoid creature reportedly seen in the Point Pleasant area from November 15, 1966, to December 15, 1967. The first newspaper report was published in the Point Pleasant Register, dated November 16, 1966, titled "Couples See Man-Sized Bird ... Creature ... Something". The national press soon picked up the reports and helped spread the story across the United States. The source of the legend is believed to have originated from sightings of out-of-migration sandhill cranes or herons.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gerbilling</span> Unsubstantiated sexual practice

Gerbilling, also known as gerbil stuffing or gerbil shooting, is an urban legend description of a fictitious sexual practice of inserting small live animals into one's rectum to obtain stimulation. Some variations of reports suggest that the rodent be covered in a psychoactive substance such as heroin prior to being inserted. There is no evidence that the practice has ever occurred in real life, and its existence remains highly dubious, as all rodents have long nails and teeth for digging or burrowing and naturally try to burrow out of any small spaces.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Invented tradition</span> Recently invented cultural practices perceived as old

Invented traditions are cultural practices that are presented or perceived as traditional, arising from the people starting in the distant past, but which in fact are relatively recent and often even consciously invented by identifiable historical actors. The concept was highlighted in the 1983 book The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Hobsbawm's introduction argues that many "traditions" which "appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented." This "invention" is distinguished from "starting" or "initiating" a tradition that does not then claim to be old. The phenomenon is particularly clear in the modern development of the nation and of nationalism, creating a national identity promoting national unity, and legitimising certain institutions or cultural practices.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Canadian folklore</span> Traditional folklore of Canada

Canadian folklore is the traditional material that Canadians pass down from generation to generation, either as oral literature or "by custom or practice". It includes songs, legends, jokes, rhymes, proverbs, weather lore, superstitions, and practices such as traditional food-making and craft-making. The largest bodies of folklore in Canada belong to the aboriginal and French-Canadian cultures. English-Canadian folklore and the folklore of recent immigrant groups have added to the country's folk.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Black-eyed children</span> Urban legend

Black-eyed children or black-eyed kids, in American contemporary legend, are paranormal creatures that resemble children between ages 6 and 16, with pale skin and black eyes, who are reportedly seen hitchhiking or begging, or are encountered on doorsteps of residential homes.



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General and cited sources

Further reading