Urban legends are popular stories alleged to be true and transmitted from person to person by oral or written communication. People didn’t begin talking about «urban legends» until the 1930s and 1940s, but they have existed in some form for thousands of years. Urban legends are simply the modern version of traditional folklore, legends and myths. In most cultures of the world, they have always existed alongside, or in place of, recorded history. Where history is obsessed with accurately writing down the details of events, traditional folklore and legends are characterized by the «oral tradition,» the passing of stories by word of mouth.
In old Europe, the deep forests was a mysterious place to people, and there were indeed creatures that might attack you there (the crone Baba Yaga in the ancient slavic folklor, for instance). We do have a lot of fears in common with our ancestors, of course. As is clear in «Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,» the fear of food contamination has been around for quite a while.
Typically, urban legends are characterized by some combination of humor, horror, warning, embarrassment, morality or appeal to empathy. We hear stories and rumours about killers and madmen on the loose, unsafe manufactured products, shocking or funny personal experiences and many other unexplained mysteries of daily life. Sometimes we encounter different oral versions of such stories, and on occasion we may read about similar events in newspapers or magazines; but seldom do we find, or even seek after, reliable documentation. Remember, urban legends aren’t defined as false stories, they’re defined as stories alleged to be true in the absence of real evidence or proof. The lack of verification in no way diminished the appeal urban legends have for us. We enjoy them merely as stories, and we tend at least to half-believe them as possibly accurate reports.
It might seem unlikely that legends — urban legends at that — would continue to be created in an age of widespread literacy, rapid mass communications and information technology. In fact, information technology actually accelerates the spread of tall tales. In the past 10 years, there has been a huge surge of urban legends on the Internet. The most common venue is forwarded e-mail. This storytelling method is unique because usually the story is not re-interpreted by each person who passes it on. A person simply clicks the «Forward» icon in their e-mail, and types in all his friend’s e-mail addresses. Having the original story gives e-mail legends a feeling of legitimacy. You don’t know the original author, but they are speaking directly to you.
The most remarkable thing about urban legends is that so many people believe them and pass them on. On the Internet and in universities all over the world, you’ll find a lot of people interested in the role of urban legends in modern society. Many folklorists argue that more the more gruesome legends embody basic human fears, providing a cautionary note or moral lesson telling us how to protect ourselves from danger. It does seem to be the case that we have a built-in tendency to interpret life in narrative terms, in spite of how rarely events in the real world unfold in a story-like fashion. Maybe it’s a psychological survival tactic. Consider some of the horrifying, absurd, incomprehensible realities we must reckon with during our short sojourns as mortal human beings. Perhaps one of the ways we cope is by turning the things that scare us, embarrass us, fill us with longing and make us laugh into tall tales. We’re charmed by them for the same reasons we’re charmed by Hollywood movies: good guys win, bad guys get their comeuppance, everything is larger than life and never a loose end is left dangling.
By definition, urban legends seem to have a life of their own, creeping through a society one person at a time. And like a real life form, they adapt to changing conditions. It will always be human nature to tell bizarre stories, and there will always be an audience waiting to believe them. The urban legend is part of our make-up.