What are urban legends?
Urban Legends are contemporary stories, told as true but incorporating ancient and modern elements from folklore. Usually attributed to a “friend of a friend” they are passed on by word-of-mouth but are also found embedded in jokes, adverts, films and ‘true stories’ circulated by the mass media and email.
The stories usually reflect themes of modern life in cities and suburbs and revolve around topics such as crime, technology, sex, professions, conspiracies and celebrities. This type of legend appears to originate in a diffuse body of beliefs, prejudices, fears and experiences current in all modern communities. Their plots often revolve around anxieties surrounding modern behaviour or inventions such as motor cars, terrorists, hitch-hiking, mobile phones and microwave ovens. Their content, whilst sometimes amusing, is often bizarre, frightening or macabre.
Some ‘urban legends’ are clearly not modern, not urban and are not always true – for instance some are told merely for entertainment, or as jokes. But whatever their purpose they are usually told as being “based on a true story”. Narrators claim “it happened to someone they knew”, usually a ‘friend of a friend’, but the source is always anonymous.
‘Urban legend’ has been adopted by folklorists and by the general public to refer to any unverified, odd or ‘true stories’ that circulate both on the grapevine and in the media in the modern world. Stories of this kind are also known as ‘modern legends’, ‘contemporary legends’, FOAF-tales (from the ‘friend of a friend’) and ‘urban myths’ – the latter being used frequently, and inaccurately, by the media to describe a false or unattributed story.
Who studies urban legends?
Despite their worldwide distribution ‘urban legends’ were not identified, collected and studied until relatively recently. The American folklorist Richard M. Dorson first focused attention on the genre in his 1959 book American Folklore. But it was not until the 1980s, when the US folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand published the first in his series of urban legend collections, The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981), that the phrase ‘urban legend’ came into popular usage both in North America and Western Europe. Brunvand produced a series of follow-ups including an Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (2001, all published in the USA by W. Norton & Co.,New York) which have proved immensely popular. However, Brunvand’s urban legends are largely North American in origin and his coverage of the genre outside theUSA is limited.
Since the early 1980s academic collections of urban legends have been published in England, Scandinavia, Germany, The Netherlands, South Africa and elsewhere. The first annual ‘urban legend’ conference was held at the University of Sheffieldin 1982 and six years later the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) was formed, with its own journal, newsletter and annual conferences.
Stories about urban legends continue to appear frequently in the media and in film, TV and the internet, reflecting the public fascination with ‘a good story’.