What Exactly Are Urban Legends?

Infrequently answered questions

Alligator going into a NYC Sewer Drain
Donald Bowers / Getty Images

Urban legends are popular stories alleged to be true and passed from individual to individual via oral or written (e.g. forwarded email) communication. Typically, said stories concern outlandish, humiliating, humorous, terrifying, or supernatural events — events which, in the telling, always seem to happen to someone other than the teller.

In lieu of evidence, the conveyor of an urban legend relies on narrative flourishes and/or reference to putatively trustworthy sources (e.g., "I heard this from a friend of a friend," or "This really happened to my sister's co-worker's hairdresser") to buttress its credibility. Sometimes, but not always, there's an implied moral message, like in "The Hook Man", e.g., "Be careful, or the same horrible (or embarrassing, or enraging, or inexplicable, etc.) thing might happen to you!"

Urban legends are a type of folklore — defined as the beliefs, stories and traditions of ordinary people ("the folk") — so one way of differentiating between urban legends and other kinds of narrative (popular fiction, for example) is by examining where they come from and how they're disseminated. Legends arise spontaneously and are rarely traceable to a single point of origin. And again, they're spread primarily through interpersonal communication and only in atypical cases via mass media or other institutional means.

Because they end up being repeated by many different people in many different places, the stories tend to change over time. Hence, no two versions of an urban legend are ever exactly alike; there can be as many variants as there are tellers of the tale. "The Exploding Cactus" is one good example of this.

Are Urban Legends Set in Cities?

Well, we needn't take the phrase so literally. While it's true that the phenomena we commonly refer to as urban legends are more accurately characterized as contemporary legends (because the stories don't, in fact, always take place in big cities like the NYC sewer alligator story), the more familiar term picturesquely differentiates between these latter-day folktales and their traditional, mainly rural predecessors. It makes a better catchphrase, too. You're welcome to call them contemporary legends if you like. Many folklorists do.

Are Any Urban Legends True?

Yes, every now and then they do turn out to be true. "The Body in the Bed" is one example. Often, legends that are demonstrably false in their particulars turn out to be based on a kernel of fact, however slight. An urban legends truth doesn't make it ineligible for being an urban legend. Remember, urban legends aren't defined as false stories; they're defined as stories alleged to be true in the absence of actual knowledge or evidence, such as "The Microwaved Pet". True or not, as long as a story continues to be passed off as factual by folks who don't really know the facts, it's an urban legend.

Why Are People so Willing to Believe in Urban Legends?

Surely there are a lot of factors, but, to suggest one possibility, we wonder if we, as human beings, aren't simply storytellers (and story believers) by nature. Maybe our brains are "hard-wired" in some way to be susceptible to well-told stories.

It does seem to be the case that we have a built-in tendency to interpret life in narrative terms, in spite of how rarely events in the real world unfold in a story-like fashion. Maybe it's a psychological survival tactic. Consider the sometimes horrifying, sometimes absurd, often incomprehensible realities we must reckon with during our short sojourns as mortal human beings on earth. Perhaps one of the ways we cope is by turning the things that scare us, embarrass us, fill us with longing and make us laugh into tall tales. We're charmed by them for the same reasons we're charmed by Hollywood movies: good guys win, bad guys get their comeuppance, everything is larger than life and never a loose end is left dangling.

We wish real life would proceed in such a comprehensible way, of course, which makes us suckers for well-told stories that render that illusion. It's wish-fulfillment if you will.