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Urban Legends

Urban legends have something of the character of collective memory.  We hear a story that "someone told my uncle" or "happened in another city", and pretty soon this story -- whether about alligators in city sewers rats in soft-drink bottles --  -- spreads across the culture -- these days, of course, promoted by the Internet.  are compelling, believable, and entirely false.  Still, a story that starts out as rumor, gossip, or imagination is passed on by people who believe it to be true, until it becomes a widely shared narrative -- a collective memory of something that never happened. 

Urban legends are a subcategory of the memes described by the biologist Richard Dawkins. 

An article in the Washington Post National Weekly Edition ("Autumn's Myths" by Shankar Vedantam, 01/14-20/02) noted that "urban legends thrive" on "horror and drama", and goes on to argue that "Sept. 11 has generated a new genre of urban legend").  There is the story of the woman who was warned by an Afghan former boyfriend not to fly on September 11, or of the man who surfed the falling World Trade Center to safety as it collapsed.  

Urban legends are not lies, or mere innuendos. They differ from fairy tales and other stories that are told for entertainment, or for purposes of moral instruction.  Like rumors, they are believed to be true by the people who tell them.  But urban legends, like the legends of the ancient world, have a more complex plot structure than the typical rumor.  Because they are not always "urban" in nature, some folklorists refer to them as contemporary legends

How do urban legends proliferate if they are not true?  Dawkins suggested that they legends "succeed" when they are useful -- regardless of whether they are true.  It's perceived truth, or at least plausibility that matters.  In the Washington Post article, Vedantam quotes psychologist Gary Fine, an expert on the psychology of rumor: , as saying that  "It's rare that people know a story is false and spread it anyway.  More often, they think it's true or aren't sure....  People say this could happen and it's plausible and I am therefore justified in talking about it.  the story is just too good to be false."  In a series of scholarly articles and books, Fine has argued that urban legends both comment on social, economic, and cultural issues, and serve as an important basis for social exchange.  See, for example:

Manufacturing Tales: Sex and Money in Contemporary Legends (University of Tennessee Press, 1992);

Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America by G.A. Fine and P.A. Turner (University of California Press, 2001).

Another factor in the proliferation of urban legends is their emotional impact.  In a recent article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, psychologist Chip Heath and his colleagues propose that urban legends, and other memes, are retained "because they evoke an emotional reaction that is shared across people" ("Emotional Selection in Memes: The Case of Urban Legends", by C. Heath, C. Bell, & E. Sternberg, Vol. 81(6), 1028-1041, p. 1029).  Heath and his colleagues found that the version of an urban legend that was the most disgusting was the one most likely to be passed along. 

Urban legends have been collected in a series of books by J.H. Brunvand, all published by W.W. Norton:

The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends (1981);

The Choking Doberman and Other "New" Urban Legends (1984);

The Mexican Pet: More "New" Legends and Some Old Favorites (1986);

The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends (1989);

Curses!  Broiled Again!  The Hottest Urban Legends Going (1989);

Too Good To Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends (1999).

Also of interest:

The Completely and Totally True Book of Urban Legends by Ann Fiery (Running Press, 2002).

For research on the psychology of rumor, see:

The Psychology of Rumor by G.H. Allport & L.J. Postman (Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1947);

Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay by R.L. Rosnow & G.L. Fine (Elsevier, 1976).

Here are some links to websites that analyze and comment on urban legends:

The AFU and Urban Legends Archive

Urban Legends and Modern Folklore

Urban Legends Reference Pages

Urban Myths

Your Mining Company Guide to Urban Legends and Folklore


This page last revised 04/08/10 02:58:52 PM.