Understanding the Definition of an Urban Legend

Another Earth above the city
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Urban legends are present-day fictional stories, presented as if they were true. They are called "urban" not because they come from cities but to distinguish them from older stories from similar traditions. In fact, urban myths are simply a contemporary version of myths, fairy tales, folktales, and tall tales. The biggest difference, today, is that urban legends are often created specifically to confuse and trick, rather than to amuse or inform. In addition, urban legends -- while often spread through traditional oral storytelling -- are also spread via the Internet.

"The lack of verification in no way diminishes 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." -- Jan Harold Brunvand


Back thousands of years ago, people developed myths to explain natural phenomena. A god drove a chariot across the sky, carrying the sun from east to west each day. A goddess is kept underground for six months each year while her mother mourns and then returns to the surface world -- and this explains winter and summer. Similar myths from China, Persia, Egypt, and other parts of the ancient world included made up stories to explain natural phenomena from the movement of the planets to thunderstorms.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are fictional stories that include magical creatures such as fairies, dragons, leprechauns, unicorns, and goblins. There are fairy tales from many cultures; the stories of Baba Yaga from Russia, Grimm's Fairy Tales from Germany, and so forth. Fairy tales can be modern as well: many contemporary children's writers use traditional fairy creatures to tell more up-to-date stories.

Folktales and Tall Tales

Greek and Roman mythology went out of fashion thousands of years ago -- but folktales from every part of the world are still told. Folktales are stories passed down through generations, usually through word of mouth. They may be completely unrealistic stories about tricky spiders (Anansi) or more realistic but fictional tales such as the stories of Robin Hood or King Arthur. Folktales are usually based in a particular culture and include such archetypal characters as the Hero, the Trickster, and the Fool.

Like folktales, tall tales are passed down through oral tradition. Unlike folktales, however, tall tales are always exaggerated stories about human beings. In some cases, the people in the stories have a basis in reality; in other cases, they are completely fictitious. Tall tales are told as if they were true, though they are clearly nonsense. Examples of American tall tales include the story of the giant Paul Bunyan and his enormous blue bull, and the story of John Henry, the railroad worker who could work faster and harder than a mechanical steel driver.

Examples of Urban Legends

There may be hundreds of urban legends making the rounds at summer camps, on the Internet, and as bedtime stories.

"The Choking Doberman," a creepy campfire story about a burglar whose hidden presence in a family home is revealed when the homeowner's dog coughs up a chewed-off finger, is always related as if it were a true event but in fact is regarded by folklorists as a classic urban legend.

Common Urban Legends