- Urban Legend is also the name of a 1998 movie.
Urban legends perpetrate a type of folklore, in the form of supposedly-true stories circulated primarily by word of mouth. Urban legends are sometimes repeated in news stories and, in recent years, distributed by email. People frequently say such tales happened to a "friend of a friend" - so often, in fact, that FOAF has become a commonly used acronym to describe how such reports are rarely first-hand.
Some urban legends have survived a very long time, evolving only slightly over the years, as in the case of the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo. Others are new and reflect modern circumstances, like the story of the man on a business trip being seduced by a woman and waking up the next morning minus a kidney surgically removed for transplant. Some urban legends have a basis in true events, such as the case of the young man shooting bullets into a large saguaro cactus and being killed when his gunfire severed the trunk, resulting in the falling plant crushing him. Even when essentially true, however, the stories often become distorted by many retellings.
Despite their name, urban legends do not necessarily take place in an urban setting. The name is designed to differentiate them from traditional folklore created in pre-industrial times.
Urban legends often are born of fears and insecurities, or specifically designed to prey on such concerns.
Jan Harold Brunvand, Professor of English, first promoted the concept of the urban legend in his 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings. Brunvand used his collection of legends to make two points: first, that legends, myths, and folklore do not belong solely to so-called primitive or traditional societies, and second, that one could learn much about urban and modern culture by studying such legends. Brunvand has since published a series of similar books. The field also credits Brunvand as the first to use the term vector (after the concept of a biological vector) to describe a person or entity passing along an urban legend.
Most urban legends are framed as stories, with plots and characters. The compelling nature of the story, and its elements of mystery, horror, fear, or humor are part of what makes the tales so attractive. Many of these legends are presented as warnings or cautionary tales. Other urban legends might better be called "widely dispersed misinformation", such as the erroneous belief that you will automatically pass all of your college courses in a semester if your roommate kills himself. While such "facts" may not have the narrative elements of traditional legend, they are passed from person to person and generally have the elements of horror, humor or caution found in legends.
Propagation and belief
Why do urban legends spread so easily, and why are they so often accepted as true?
Many urban legends are about particularly horrific crimes, contaminated foods or other situations that might affect a lot of people if they were true. If one hears such a story, and believes it, a person might feel compelled to warn friends and family. A person might also pass on non-cautionary information simply because it is funny or interesting. Many urban legends are basically extended jokes, told as if they were true events. In some cases they may have originated as pure jokes, that some teller personalized to add point and force to the story.
But why do listeners or readers take urban legends to be true, instead of recognizing them as tall tales or unsubstantiated rumors? Often, it is a consequence of the way in which the story is passed on . If a friend tells you an urban legend, most likely she will say it happened to a friend of somebody she knows. You trust your friend to tell you the truth, and you know she trusts the person who told her in turn. It seems pretty close to second-hand information, so you treat it as such. Why would your friend lie?
Of course, she isn't actually lying, and her friend wasn't lying to her -- both of them believe what they said. They are, however, quite likely shortening the story somewhat, or misremembering it, and you will probably do the same yourself when you tell it. If you were being a stickler for accuracy, you would say that the story happened to a friend of one of your friend's friends, but to simplify things, you'll probably just say it happened to a friend of your friend’s, or even to your friend herself. In this way, every person who relays the story gives the impression that he or she is only two people away from one of the characters in the story, when actually the story has passed through myriads of re-tellings. Besides, when people recall a story from memory, they tend to "clean it up", and often recall it in a more pointed, forceful, and simple way than the way in which they heard it.
Another reason such stories are accepted is because the details make them seem real. You may have heard stories of children being kidnapped from a specific location, or you may have heard about various gang initiations that occurred in a specific part of your town. Since you are familiar with the kind of event, or perhaps the place named -- you know it's similar to real events -- the story sounds real. In short, urban legends are filled with "convincing detail, to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."
Keeping track of urban legends
Discussing, tracking, and analyzing urban legends has become a popular pursuit. A thriving usenet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, discusses such stories. The newsgroup's "Frequently Asked Questions" page summarises the truth or otherwise of these stories, so far as this can be determined. For a similar list see the Urban Legends Reference Pages at snopes.com. For online urban legends, see Virus Myths and the Darwin Awards site, which also showcases a few stories each year of dubious veracity (they've promulgated Urban Legends as facts in the past). The US Department of Energy has set up a service called Hoaxbusters that deals with all sorts of computer-distributed hoaxes and legends. A recent TV series, MythBusters, has the goal of proving or disproving urban legends by actually attempting to reproduce them.
Certain early historians such as Tacitus, Geoffrey of Monmouth and Herodotus functioned as forerunners of urban myth, recycling hearsay and anecdotal accounts as historical facts; these writings, in turn, served as the basis for other accounts, and thus many cycles of inaccurate historical narrative became self-perpetuating vicious circles. Contemporary historians tend to cast a very cold and careful eye over historical evidence emanating from writers such as these. For a list of these and other works considered to be suspect, see Dubious historical resources.
The Papal Tiara
One classic urban legend claims the pope's crown or Papal Tiara contains the words Vicarius Filii Dei which, when numerised, add up to 666, the number of the antichrist mentioned in the Bible. Though the story has no basis in fact (all papal crowns dating from the sixteenth century onwards are on public show and none contain the words), 'belief' in the 'myth' has continued, with constant specific references to an early twentieth-century photograph at a papal funeral (probably that of Pope Leo XIII in 1903) that proves the existence of a papal tiara with the words. Except that in one hundred years, no one has ever been able to produce the supposed photograph or even state definitively where it was supposedly published. Instead it is spoken of in terms of 'knowing someone who knows someone who definitely saw the photograph!', a phenomenon known in the Irish language as the 'Dhúirt bean liom gur dhúirt bean leí' syndrome (a woman told me that a woman told her that...), and as on alt.folklore.urban and other places as FOAF, for friend of a friend.