Urban Legends

Sometimes, everything you know is wrong. No, you’re not stupid, you are the victim of urban legends – modern folklore tales that have the ring of truth but are almost always false. The use of the word “urban” is not meant to suggest these myths are relegated solely to cities, but rather that these are modern tales that spread by word of mouth or the equivalent in our age, the Internet. Like the game of telephone, the original story can get distorted with the repeated retelling. That’s how a kernel of truth turns into a whopper. But then again there are plenty of contemporary legends that never had any basis in fact, even though attested to by a “friend of a friend”.

“When an urban legend goes viral, it is shared on the Internet and through email by thousands or millions of individuals who believe in the veracity of the legend – or say they do”, said Fred Hurst. “Because these legends often have elements of horror or humor, they are fun to talk about and spread.” There is also a certain paranoid strain within any population that is willing to believe those stories that feed their paranoia. What passes for political discourse in the 21st century if often filled with urban legends, like health care wants to kill grandma or the moon landing was faked, or even that it’s impossible to find life insurance that isn’t tied to the mafia. Some urban legends are repeated again and again on television shows, such as the Kidney Heist legend: being knocked out and waking up with a kidney missing. Law and Order had a field day with that one. MythBusters is a cable TV show dedicated to debunking urban legends and tales.

In a sense, urban legends are meta-informative – they say a lot about the current culture and what people are willing to believe. Children can be excused for being naturally gullible and buying cheap WOW gold, but adults who “should know better” often suspend disbelief when they adopt an urban legend. Is this an innocent lack of critical thinking, or perhaps a subversive swipe at authority by people who resent authority? What can explain a myth that gets out of control? Prom Dresses do not spontaneously catch on fire. Neither do people. Whatever the source of its power, an urban legend can be accepted as truth by the majority of a population, and may take years to be exposed. Before a legend can be debunked, people must overcome the claims of friends who swear the legend is true. These oaths tend to authenticate and personalize the myth, and after all, one hates to disbelieve a friend.

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