An Urban Legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true. As with all folklore and mythology, the designation suggests nothing about the story’s veracity, but merely that it is in circulation, exhibits variation over time, and carries some significance that motivates the community in preserving and propagating it.
Despite its name, an urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban area. Rather, the term is used to differentiate modern legend from traditional folklore in pre-industrial times. For this reason, sociologists and folklorists prefer the term ”contemporary legend”.
Urban legends are sometimes repeated in news stories and, in recent years, distributed by e-mail or on the internet in general. People frequently allege that such tales happened to a “friend of a friend”; so often, in fact, that “friend of a friend”, has become a commonly used term when recounting this type of story.
Some urban legends have passed through the years with only minor changes to suit regional variations. One example 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 (a story which folklorists refer to as “The Kidney Heist”).
Paranormal urban legends include the vanishing hitchhiker, the devil baby, and the hook & the boyfriend’s death.
Origins And Structure
The term urban legend, as used by folklorists, has appeared in print since at least 1968. 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. Many urban legends are framed as complete stories with plot and fictional characters. The compelling appeal of a typical urban legend is its elements of mystery, horror, fear, or humor. Often they serve as a cautionary tale of sorts.