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How Urban Legends Work a phone resting on the floor beside the tub, with an attached note that

by Tom Harris said, "Call 911 or you will die." He called an ambulance and was
Browse the article How Urban Legends Work rushed to the hospital, where the doctors informed him that he had
undergone massive surgery. One of his kidneys had been removed,
apparently by a gang selling human organs on the black market.
Following this occurrence, many similar crimes were reported, leading
Las Vegas police to issue warnings to travelers visiting the city.

Legend or Misinformation?
Folklorists have come up with a number of definitions for urban legend. To
many, a legend must be a story, with characters and some sort of plot.
Others lump widely dispersed misinformation into the urban-legend
category. For example, the erroneous belief that you will automatically
pass all of your college courses in a semester if your roommate kills
himself is generally considered to be an urban legend.

While these "facts" don't always have the narrative elements of traditional
legend, they are passed from person to person and frequently have the
elements of caution, horror or humor found in legends. Particular urban
Friend of a Friend legends may be spread either as fact or as a story. For example, someone
Introduction to How Urban Legends Work could tell you that there are giant alligators in New York's sewers, or he
could tell you a riveting story about a group of kids who stumbled upon
such an animal.
In 1994, the Las Vegas police reported a disturbing series of crimes
along the Vegas strip. The first victim in this wave was an Ohio man inThere's a good chance that you've heard this story, or some
town for a sales convention. At the bar in his hotel, the man happened variation of it. News of the Vegas "organ harvesters" has been
to strike up a conversation with an attractive young woman. According passed on by thousands and thousands of people over the
to the man, the two hit it off, sharing several drinks over the course of course of 10 years. It has been relayed by word of mouth, e-
a couple hours. At some point, the man blacked out, and when he camemail and even printed fliers. But there is absolutely no evidence
to, he found himself lying in a hotel bathtub, covered in ice. There was that any such thing ever occurred, in Las Vegas or anywhere
else. This fictional story is a quintessential urban legend, an
incredible tale passed from one person to another as truth. • It happened to a friend of a friend, not to the storyteller.
• There are many variations.
In this article, we'll look at urban legends to see what they are, • The general topic is one that is often on the news or what
people gossip most about: death, sex, crime, contamination,
where they come from and why they spread so quickly. We'll
technology, ethnic stereotypes, celebrities, horror or beating
also explore some ideas regarding the social significance of the system.
urban legends, as well as take a look at how the stories have • It contains a warning or moral lesson of some kind.
changed over the years.
• It's just too weird or too good to be true.
Generally speaking, an urban legend is any modern, fictional
story, told as truth, that reaches a wide audience by being In the story of the organ harvesters, you can see how some of
passed from person to person. Urban legends are often false, these elements come together. The most outstanding feature of
but not always. A few turn out to be largely true, and a lot of the story is its sense of horror: The image of a man waking up
them were inspired by an actual event but evolved into lying in a bathtub full of ice, with one less kidney, is a lurid
something different in their passage from person to person. one indeed. But the real hook is the cautionary element. Most
More often than not, it isn't possible to trace an urban legend people travel to unfamiliar cities from time to time, and Las
back to its original source -- they seem to come from nowhere. Vegas is one of the most popular tourist spots in the world. The
We'll look at some examples in the next section. Types of story also includes a moral lesson, in that the businessman
Urban Legends ended up in the unpleasant predicament only after going to
drink at a bar and then flirting with a mysterious woman.
Thematically, urban legends are all over the map, but several
persistent elements do show up again and again. Typically, This is what's called a cautionary tale. A variation of the
urban legends are characterized by some combination of cautionary tale is the contamination story, which has played
humor, horror, warning, embarrassment, morality or appeal to out recently in the spate of reports about human body fluids
empathy. They often have some unexpected twist that is being found in restaurant food. One of the most widespread
outlandish but just plausible enough to be taken as truth. contamination stories is the long-standing rumor of rats and
mice showing up in soda bottles or other prepackaged food.

There are also a lot of contamination stories that have to do


Dead Giveaways with the unintentional injection of drugs. One particularly
Signs that a story you're hearing is likely an (untrue) urban legend: pervasive legend reports that drug dealers have been coating
temporary tattoos with LSD. The dealers give these tattoos to Hunting," relayed by one of the characters as if it had happened
children, who put them on and absorb the LSD through their to one of his friends. In the next section, we'll look at how
skin. Supposedly, this is a scheme to get the kids addicted to urban legends like this one spread, and explore why so many
LSD so they become regular customers (a particularly doubtful people believe them.
notion, since LSD does not seem to be physically addictive).
Despite repeated public announcements that this story is not Friend of a Friend
true, concerned people continue to spread the word about these
drug-laced tattoos, posting warnings in police stations, schools
and other public places.

Not all urban legends deal with such morbid, weighty issues.
Many of them have no cautionary or moral element at all: They
are simply amusing stories or ordinary jokes told as if they
really occurred. One common "news story" reports that a man
took out an insurance policy on an expensive box of cigars,
smoked them all and then tried to collect a claim, saying that
they had been damaged in a fire. Another tale tells of a drunk
driver who is pulled over by the police. The officer asks the
man to step out of the car for a sobriety test, but just as the test
is about to begin, a car veers into a ditch up the road. The
officer runs to help the other driver, and the drunk man takes
the opportunity to flee the scene. When he gets home, he falls
fast asleep on the couch. In the morning, he hears a loud
knocking on his door and opens it to find the police officer
from the night before. The man swears up and down he was
home all night, until the officer asks to have a look in his
garage. When he opens the door, he's shocked to see the
officer's police cruiser parked there instead of his own car.

This story about the police car, in various forms, has spread all
over the world. It even made it into the movie "Good Will
In the last section, we saw that urban legends are unusual, who told her the story. It seems pretty close to secondhand
funny or shocking stories, relayed from person to person as information, so you treat it as such. Why would Jane lie?
absolute truth. The most remarkable thing about urban legends
is that so many people believe them and pass them on. What is Of course, Jane isn't really lying, and her friend wasn't lying to
it about these stories that makes people want to spread the her -- both of them believe the story. They are, however,
word? probably abbreviating the story somewhat, and you will
probably abbreviate it yourself when you pass it on. In this
A lot of it has to do with the particular elements of the story. situation, the story happened to a friend of one of your friend's
As we saw in the last section, many urban legends are about friends, but to simplify things, you'll probably just say it
particularly heinous crimes, contaminated foods or any number happened to a friend of Jane's, or even to Jane herself. In this
of occurrences that could affect a lot of people if they were way, every person who relays the story gives the impression
true. If you hear such a story, and you believe it, you feel that he or she is only two people away from one of the
compelled to warn your friends and family. characters in the story, when in reality, there are probably
hundreds of people between them.
A person might pass on non-cautionary information simply
because it is funny or interesting. When you first hear the story, Now, we'll take a look at where urban legends come from.
you are completely amazed that such a thing has occurred.
When told correctly, a good urban legend will have you on the Sources of Urban Legends
edge of your seat. It's human nature to want to spread this
feeling to others, and be the one who's got everyone waiting to The original source of an urban legend can be any number of
hear how the story turns out. Even if you hear it as a made-up things. In the case of the LSD-coated temporary tattoos, the
joke, you might be tempted to personalize the tale by claiming story most likely came from a misinterpretation of an actual
it happened to a friend. Basically, people love to tell a good occurrence. While there is little evidence of LSD stickers being
story. distributed to kids, it is common practice for drug-dealers to
sell acid on small pieces of blotter paper, which dealers often
But why does an audience take this at face value, instead of stamp with a trademark cartoon character. It's a good bet that
recognizing it is a tall tale or unsubstantiated rumor? In most somebody read about these "acid tabs," or saw a picture of one,
cases, it has to do with how the story is told. If a friend (let's and thought they were temporary tattoos aimed at kids.
call her Jane) tells you an urban legend, chances are she will
say it happened to a friend of somebody she knows. You trust It's not clear who originally started the Las Vegas organ thief
Jane to tell you the truth, and you know she trusts the person story. Most likely, it was just somebody pulling one over on a
friend. But we do know something about how the legend really of comfort. And if you trust somebody, you'll believe almost
took off. A writer for the show "Law and Order" heard the anything that person tells you.
story somewhere and worked it into an early episode. The show
is well known for its "ripped from the headlines" stories, so In many cases, this trust runs so deep that a person will insist
many viewers may have gotten the impression that the episode that an urban legend actually occurred, even when confronted
depicted a real event. with evidence to the contrary. Urban-legend Web sites like
Snopes.com get a lot of e-mail from readers who are outraged
Popular culture and urban legends are often closely related. Old because the site is calling their friend a liar.
legends end up as plot points in movies, and fictional elements
from movies are circulated as real-life tales. In the latter case, Another reason such stories get passed on is because the details
somebody might start the legend because it's more exciting to make them seem real. You may have heard stories of children
say that an event really happened than that it happened in a being kidnapped from a specific location of a local department
movie. Or maybe the person simply forgot where he or she store, or you may have heard about various gang initiations
actually heard the story. (more on this later) that occurred in a specific part of your
town. Since you are familiar with the setting -- you know it's a
Many people believe an urban legend must be true because it is real place -- the story sounds real. This level of specificity also
reported by a newspaper, or other "authoritative source." The plays into your own fears and anxieties about what could
persistence of Halloween stories (razors in apples, needles in happen to you in the places you visit regularly.
candy) is an example of this. There are no documented cases of
contamination of Halloween candy, but the media and police Urban legends are spread in cultures all over the world. In
issue warnings year after year. Journalists, police officers and these diverse regions, the familiar elements of horror, humor
other authorities do get things wrong from time to time, and and caution show up again and again, though the specific
most of them openly admit this. There is no infallible source of themes vary. In the next section, we'll explore the significance
information. of urban legends to find out what these persistent themes might
say about the societies we live in.
Just about anybody can be duped into believing an urban
legend because very few people distrust everything and What Do Legends Mean?
everybody. Most of us don't investigate every single piece of
information we hear -- for efficiency's sake, we accept a lot of
information as truth without looking into it ourselves.
Psychologically, we need to trust people, just for our own sense
thinks she hears a scratching or tapping sound outside the car.
The boyfriend assures her it's nothing, but at her insistence,
they eventually drive off. When they get to the girl's house, the
boyfriend goes around to the passenger side to open her door.
To his horror, there is a bloody hook hanging from the door
handle.

The warning and moral lesson of this story are clear: Don't go
off by yourself, and don't engage in premarital intimacy! If you
do, something horrific could happen. When the story first
circulated in the 1950s, parking was a relatively new
phenomenon, and parents were terrified of what might happen
to their kids. Most people who tell the story today don't take it
very seriously. Like the tale of the vanishing hitchhiker, it has
graduated from urban legend to "campfire ghost story," a tale
passed on to others for amusement, not told as gospel truth.

On the Internet and in universities all over the world, you'll As gang violence increased in the 1990s, cautionary tales
find a lot of people interested in the role of urban legends in began to focus more on criminal groups, rather than lone
modern society. Many folklorists argue that the more gruesome lunatics. In many cities around the United States, concerned
legends embody basic human fears, providing a cautionary note citizens have been spreading a report of a gang initiation rite in
or moral lesson telling us how to protect ourselves from which gang members drive at night with their headlights turned
danger. off. When another driver flashes his or her headlights to signal
that their car's lights are out, the gang pursues and kills them.
The most famous cautionary urban legend is the "hook-hand Even people who don't believe this wholeheartedly may err on
killer" tale. In this story, a young couple on a date drive off to a the side of caution. After all, with so much gang violence going
remote spot to "park." Over the radio, they hear that a on, why take a chance by flashing your lights?
psychopath with a hooked hand has escaped from a local
mental institution. The girl wants to leave, but her boyfriend The rash of stories circulating about food contamination is a
insists there's nothing to worry about. After a while, the girl logical extension of the way Americans eat these days. More
often than not, we are fed by faceless corporations and
nameless restaurant employees. We're aware that we are place to people, and there were indeed creatures that might
putting a lot of trust in people we know nothing about, and this attack you there. We do have a lot of fears in common with our
fear is played out in our urban legends. As a general rule, if an ancestors, of course. As is clear in "Snow White and the Seven
urban legend touches on something many people are afraid of, Dwarves," the fear of food contamination has been around for
it'll spread like wildfire. Urban legends also express something quite a while.
about the individual who believes them. You are much more
likely to believe and pass on legends that have some resonance Next, we'll take a look at how technology has changed the way
with your personal fears or experience. urban legends spread.

In this way, urban legends provide valuable insight into the Urban Legends and the Internet
cultures that create them. Legends evolve as cultures evolve, so
new themes and variations pop up all the time.

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. In most cultures of the world,
folklore has always existed alongside, or in place of, recorded
history. Where history is obsessed with accurately writing
down the details of events, traditional folklore is characterized
by the "oral tradition," the passing of stories by word of mouth.

In this tradition, the storyteller will usually add new twists and
turns to a story related by another storyteller. Unlike
mythology, these stories are about real people in believable
situations. Just as with modern legends, old folk tales often
focus on the things a society found frightening. Many of the
"fairy tales" we read today began life as believable stories,
passed from person to person. Instead of warning against organ The methods of passing urban legends have evolved over time.
thieves and gang members, these tales relayed the dangers of In the past 10 years, there has been a huge surge of urban
the forest. In old Europe, the deep woods was a mysterious
legends on the Internet. The most common venue is forwarded • An FCC surcharge on the use of modems on phone lines
e-mail. This storytelling method is unique because usually the • If you forward this e-mail:
story is not reinterpreted by each person who passes it on. A  a charity will benefit (Dalai Lama, PBS, hunger
organization)
person simply clicks the "Forward" icon in their e-mail and
 Bill Gates will give you money or help sick children
types in all his friends' e-mail addresses. Having the original • The Neiman Marcus cookie recipe
story gives e-mail legends a feeling of legitimacy. You don't • Nostradamus predictions of current events.
know the original author, but they are speaking directly to you. • Kurt Vonnegut's graduation speech (or the variation, Larry
Ellison at Yale)
Forwarded e-mail legends are often the work of one or more
pranksters, not the product of many different storytellers. For • HIV-infected needles on movie seats, at pay phones, on gas
these authors, the thrill is seeing how far a legend will spread. pumps, at ATMs or in ball pits at fast-food restaurants
As with word-of-mouth legends, there are all sorts of e-mail
hoaxes. Cautionary legends are very common in e-mail One of the most famous e-mail legends, the Neiman Marcus
forwards, often focusing on made-up computer viruses or cookie recipe, combines a great story with an appeal to fight
Internet scams. Even a skeptical person might forward this sort injustice. The e-mail is a personal account of a mother and her
of message, just in case it's true. A similar sort of e-mail legend daughter eating at a Neiman Marcus store. After their meal,
is the charity or petition appeal, which outlines a good cause or they order a couple of Neiman Marcus chocolate cookies,
a horrible miscarriage of justice and then instructs you to add which they enjoy immensely. The mother asks the waitress for
your name to a petition and send it on to everybody you know. the recipe, and is told that she can buy it for "two-fifty." Later,
There are real e-mail petitions, of course, and these do help out when she sees the Neiman Marcus charge on her credit card,
good causes. It can be tricky to spot a hoax, but one indicator is she realizes that she has been charged $250, rather than $2.50.
that the e-mail includes no address to send the list to when it is The customer-service representative refuses to refund her
completed. Additionally, if a message begins with "This is not money, because the company's recipe is so valuable that it
a hoax or urban legend," it probably is. cannot be distributed cheaply. In order to exact revenge on the
company, the mother claims in the e-mail, she has decided to
10 Common E-mail or Internet Urban Legends distribute the recipe freely over the Internet, and she
encourages you to send it to everyone you know.
• Various virus warnings, including the Klingerman virus
• Anything free (free $50 gift certificate for Victoria's Secret, The recipe in the message does make delicious cookies, but
free trip to Disney World) they are not the sort sold at Neiman Marcus, and there is no
• A federal tax on e-mail or the Internet $250 Neiman Marcus cookie recipe. In fact, when the message
was first circulated, Neiman Marcus didn't even make such a
chocolate chip cookie. Amazingly, this story has been around
in various forms since the 1940s. In the 1980s, the
overcharging company was Mrs. Fields. Years before that, it
was the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, and the recipe was
for a "Red Velvet Cake."

These sorts of e-mail stories demonstrate just how deep-rooted


urban legends are. No matter how much "information
technology" we develop, human beings will always be drawn
in by the unsubstantiated rumor. In fact, information
technology actually accelerates the spread of tall tales. 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 makeup.