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What are Urban Legends?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Urban legends are fictional stories that are passed from person-to-person, sometimes even helped along by media, until they become so pervasive they are accepted as fact. The origins of urban legends are often untraceable and the manner in which they are shared is usually sincere, with people believing the story to be true.

Many urban legends begin with, "Do you know what happened to a friend of mine?" Stories are passed along in this fashion because that's often how they're received, usually from someone known and trusted. Ergo, when the new teller passes along the tale, rather than say, do you know what happened to a friend of a friend? it's easier and seems harmless enough to shorten the introduction. A by-product of this natural tendency to abbreviate, is that immediacy and credibility remain attached to the tale, because each person who hears it believes the original source is just 2 degrees away. This explains why urban legends are so widely believed, sometimes even circling the globe.

Urban legends are usually about something that would be hard to disprove, and contain just the right balance of believability and shock to be appealing. They engender an emotional response that motivates people to pass the story along, making them self-perpetuating. Urban legends usually fall into one of a few basic categories, or combination thereof: a tale of shock, a cautionary tale, a tale of horror and humor, or a tale of contamination of some sort, usually of food. In other words, they resonate with our fears.

Undoubtedly one of the most well known urban legends of the 1960s, was the myth that Paul McCartney was dead. As the story went, the Beatles were placing clues in their songs and on their album covers for fans to discover 'the real truth'. This tale took on a life of its own, with fans worldwide scrutinizing LP jackets with magnifying glasses, looking for evidence where none existed, and creating it thorough misinterpretation and coincidence. One of the more famous clues was the alleged "I buried Paul" line sung by John Lennon at the end of Strawberry Fields Forever. John publicly stated that "cranberry sauce" were his actual words, while all of the Beatles -- including Paul -- repeatedly denied the rumors to no avail.

Other famous urban legends include the demise of John Gilchrist, better known as Mikey from the Life cereal commercials. He was said to have died from swallowing a bag of Pop Rocks candy, followed with a soda, causing his stomach to explode. Variations on the story attributed the death-by-Pop-Rocks urban legend to random kids far and wide. Pop Rocks, made by General Foods at the time, contained carbonation so that when placed on the tongue they produced a sizzling effect. Unfortunately, General Foods was no match for the powerful urban legend that had housewives, and even schools in an uproar over safety, even though the company sent a representative on the road to explain the candy was safe. General Foods eventually took Pop Rocks off the market for no other reason than the myths that had fueled public discontent about nonexistent dangers. (The candy was later made available by another company under a new name, and is now available again as Pop Rocks by Chupa Chups, however, unfounded concerns persist in the public to this day.)

Urban legends of horror eventually become ghost stories told around campfires. Nearly everyone has heard the cautionary tale about the young couple that drove to a park to neck. They heard on the radio that a one-handed lunatic was on the loose nearby. Frightened, the young woman wanted to leave, but her boyfriend insisted they needn't worry. The couple began kissing when the girl heard a tapping noise by her door. Alarmed, she made her boyfriend drive her home. When he arrived at her house, he went to open her car door for her, and discovered a bloody hook attached to the door handle.

Some psychologists believe horrific urban legends are a release valve of sorts for society to vent common fears and anxieties, while the tale above, which started in the 1950s, was probably intended to warn teenagers away from premarital sex.

Whatever their purpose, story telling has been a passion of humankind throughout history, and urban legends are nothing new. They are, in a sense, social theater, and are here to stay, good and bad alike. It may be wise to pay a little more attention, however, the next time someone starts a story with, "You know what happened to a friend of mine?"

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Discussion Comments
By anon298956 — On Oct 22, 2012

Urban legends are something of a fascination of mine, although with the many variations of each tale that is around, it is hard to know what the original story was intended to be.

By OceanSwimmer — On Oct 23, 2010

@SnowyWinter: Allow me to give you the short story of this version of “The Killer in the Backseat”. This story begins with a woman who went out for drinks with her girlfriends. When she left the bar, she pulled out onto the deserted highway. All of a sudden, she began to see a lone pair of headlights behind her, approaching at a pace quicker than she would like for them to. The car pulled up behind her and flashed their lights. She thought they wanted to pass her. The car behind her swerved and got dangerously close, and then flashed its lights.

She was beginning to get nervous and suddenly the lights behind her dimmed and then became bright again. She was scared as she pulled into her driveway and called 911. She then learned that there was a man in her backseat with a butcher knife, trying to stab her. The car flashing the lights behind her was trying to warn her of the man in the backseat.

By SnowyWinter — On Oct 23, 2010

What are some scary urban legends?

By PurpleSpark — On Oct 23, 2010

@anon19947: There are many website available on urban legends, you might could try those.

By anon19947 — On Oct 22, 2008

Can you tell me more about the purpose of these bizarre legends? I would like to understand. Also, where can i go to find out more about the effect of these stories?

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