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Introduction to How Urban Legends Work

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 in town for a sales convention. At the bar in his hotel, the man happened to strike up a conversation with an attractive young woman. According to the man, the two hit it off, sharing several drinks over the course of a couple hours. At some point, the man blacked out, and when he came to, he found himself lying in a hotel bathtub, covered in ice. There was a phone resting on the floor beside the tub, with an attached note that said, "Call 911 or you will die." He called an ambulance and was 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.

There's a good chance that you've heard this story, or some variation of it. News of the Vegas "organ harvesters" has been passed on by thousands and thousands of people over the course of 10 years. It has been relayed by word of mouth, e-mail and even printed fliers. But there is absolutely no evidence 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.

In this article, we'll look at urban legends to see what they are, where they come from and why they spread so quickly. We'll also explore some ideas regarding the social significance of urban legends, as well as take a look at how the stories have changed over the years.

Generally speaking, an urban legend is any modern, fictional story, told as truth, that reaches a wide audience by being passed from person to person. Urban legends are often false, but not always. A few turn out to be largely true, and a lot of them were inspired by an actual event but evolved into something different in their passage from person to person. More often than not, it isn't possible to trace an urban legend back to its original source -- they seem to come from nowhere. We'll look at some examples in the next section.

Dead Giveaways

Signs that a story you're hearing is likely an (untrue) urban legend:

  • It happened to a friend of a friend, not to the storyteller.
  • There are many variations.
  • The general topic is one that is often on the news or what people gossip most about: death, sex, crime, contamination, technology, ethnic stereotypes, celebrities, horror or beating the system.
  • It contains a warning or moral lesson of some kind.
  • It's just too weird or too good to be true.
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Types of Urban Legends

Thematically, urban legends are all over the map, but several persistent elements do show up again and again. Typically, urban legends are characterized by some combination of humor, horror, warning, embarrassment, morality or appeal to empathy. They often have some unexpected twist that is outlandish but just plausible enough to be taken as truth.

In the story of the organ harvesters, you can see how some of these elements come together. The most outstanding feature of the story is its sense of horror: The image of a man waking up lying in a bathtub full of ice, with one less kidney, is a lurid one indeed. But the real hook is the cautionary element. Most people travel to unfamiliar cities from time to time, and Las Vegas is one of the most popular tourist spots in the world. The story also includes a moral lesson, in that the businessman ended up in the unpleasant predicament only after going to drink at a bar and then flirting with a mysterious woman.

This is what's called a cautionary tale. A variation of the cautionary tale is the contamination story, which has played out recently in the spate of reports about human body fluids being found in restaurant food. One of the most widespread 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 with the unintentional injection of drugs. One particularly pervasive legend reports that drug dealers have been coating temporary tattoos with LSD. The dealers give these tattoos to children, who put them on and absorb the LSD through their skin. Supposedly, this is a scheme to get the kids addicted to LSD so they become regular customers (a particularly doubtful notion, since LSD does not seem to be physically addictive). Despite repeated public announcements that this story is not 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 Hunting," relayed by one of the characters as if it had happened to one of his friends. In the next section, we'll look at how urban legends like this one spread, and explore why so many people believe them.

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Friend of a Friend

In the last section, we saw that urban legends are unusual, funny or shocking stories, relayed from person to person as absolute truth. The most remarkable thing about urban legends is that so many people believe them and pass them on. What is it about these stories that makes people want to spread the word?

A lot of it has to do with the particular elements of the story. As we saw in the last section, many urban legends are about particularly heinous crimes, contaminated foods or any number of occurrences that could affect a lot of people if they were true. If you hear such a story, and you believe it, you feel compelled to warn your friends and family.

A person might pass on non-cautionary information simply because it is funny or interesting. When you first hear the story, you are completely amazed that such a thing has occurred. When told correctly, a good urban legend will have you on the 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 hear how the story turns out. Even if you hear it as a made-up joke, you might be tempted to personalize the tale by claiming it happened to a friend. Basically, people love to tell a good story.

But why does an audience take this at face value, instead of recognizing it is a tall tale or unsubstantiated rumor? In most cases, it has to do with how the story is told. If a friend (let's call her Jane) tells you an urban legend, chances are she will say it happened to a friend of somebody she knows. You trust Jane to tell you the truth, and you know she trusts the person who told her the story. It seems pretty close to secondhand information, so you treat it as such. Why would Jane lie?

Of course, Jane isn't really lying, and her friend wasn't lying to her -- both of them believe the story. They are, however, probably abbreviating the story somewhat, and you will probably abbreviate it yourself when you pass it on. In this situation, the story happened to a friend of one of your friend's friends, but to simplify things, you'll probably just say it happened to a friend of Jane's, or even to Jane herself. In this way, every person who relays the story gives the impression that he or she is only two people away from one of the characters in the story, when in reality, there are probably hundreds of people between them.

Now, we'll take a look at where urban legends come from.

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Sources of Urban Legends

The original source of an urban legend can be any number of things. In the case of the LSD-coated temporary tattoos, the story most likely came from a misinterpretation of an actual occurrence. While there is little evidence of LSD stickers being distributed to kids, it is common practice for drug-dealers to sell acid on small pieces of blotter paper, which dealers often stamp with a trademark cartoon character. It's a good bet that somebody read about these "acid tabs," or saw a picture of one, and thought they were temporary tattoos aimed at kids.

It's not clear who originally started the Las Vegas organ thief story. Most likely, it was just somebody pulling one over on a friend. But we do know something about how the legend really took off. A writer for the show "Law and Order" heard the story somewhere and worked it into an early episode. The show is well known for its "ripped from the headlines" stories, so many viewers may have gotten the impression that the episode depicted a real event.

Popular culture and urban legends are often closely related. Old legends end up as plot points in movies, and fictional elements from movies are circulated as real-life tales. In the latter case, somebody might start the legend because it's more exciting to say that an event really happened than that it happened in a movie. Or maybe the person simply forgot where he or she actually heard the story.

Many people believe an urban legend must be true because it is reported by a newspaper, or other "authoritative source." The persistence of Halloween stories (razors in apples, needles in candy) is an example of this. There are no documented cases of contamination of Halloween candy, but the media and police issue warnings year after year. Journalists, police officers and other authorities do get things wrong from time to time, and most of them openly admit this. There is no infallible source of information.

Just about anybody can be duped into believing an urban legend because very few people distrust everything and 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 of comfort. And if you trust somebody, you'll believe almost anything that person tells you.

In many cases, this trust runs so deep that a person will insist that an urban legend actually occurred, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary. Urban-legend Web sites like Snopes.com get a lot of e-mail from readers who are outraged because the site is calling their friend a liar.

Another reason such stories get passed on is because the details make them seem real. You may have heard stories of children being kidnapped from a specific location of a local department store, or you may have heard about various gang initiations (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 real place -- the story sounds real. This level of specificity also plays into your own fears and anxieties about what could happen to you in the places you visit regularly.

Urban legends are spread in cultures all over the world. In these diverse regions, the familiar elements of horror, humor and caution show up again and again, though the specific themes vary. In the next section, we'll explore the significance of urban legends to find out what these persistent themes might say about the societies we live in.

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What Do Legends Mean?

On the Internet and in universities all over the world, you'll find a lot of people interested in the role of urban legends in modern society. Many folklorists argue that the more gruesome legends embody basic human fears, providing a cautionary note or moral lesson telling us how to protect ourselves from danger.

The most famous cautionary urban legend is the "hook-hand killer" tale. In this story, a young couple on a date drive off to a remote spot to "park." Over the radio, they hear that a psychopath with a hooked hand has escaped from a local mental institution. The girl wants to leave, but her boyfriend insists there's nothing to worry about. After a while, the girl 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.

As gang violence increased in the 1990s, cautionary tales began to focus more on criminal groups, rather than lone lunatics. In many cities around the United States, concerned citizens have been spreading a report of a gang initiation rite in which gang members drive at night with their headlights turned off. When another driver flashes his or her headlights to signal that their car's lights are out, the gang pursues and kills them. Even people who don't believe this wholeheartedly may err on the side of caution. After all, with so much gang violence going on, why take a chance by flashing your lights?

The rash of stories circulating about food contamination is a 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 putting a lot of trust in people we know nothing about, and this fear is played out in our urban legends. As a general rule, if an urban legend touches on something many people are afraid of, it'll spread like wildfire. Urban legends also express something about the individual who believes them. You are much more likely to believe and pass on legends that have some resonance with your personal fears or experience.

In this way, urban legends provide valuable insight into the 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 thieves and gang members, these tales relayed the dangers of the forest. In old Europe, the deep woods was a mysterious place to people, and there were indeed creatures that might attack you there. We do have a lot of fears in common with our ancestors, of course. As is clear in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," the fear of food contamination has been around for quite a while.

Next, we'll take a look at how technology has changed the way urban legends spread.

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Urban Legends and the Internet

The methods of passing urban legends have evolved over time. In the past 10 years, there has been a huge surge of urban legends on the Internet. The most common venue is forwarded e-mail. This storytelling method is unique because usually the story is not reinterpreted by each person who passes it on. A person simply clicks the "Forward" icon in their e-mail and types in all his friends' e-mail addresses. Having the original story gives e-mail legends a feeling of legitimacy. You don't know the original author, but they are speaking directly to you.

Forwarded e-mail legends are often the work of one or more pranksters, not the product of many different storytellers. For these authors, the thrill is seeing how far a legend will spread. As with word-of-mouth legends, there are all sorts of e-mail hoaxes. Cautionary legends are very common in e-mail forwards, often focusing on made-up computer viruses or Internet scams. Even a skeptical person might forward this sort of message, just in case it's true. A similar sort of e-mail legend is the charity or petition appeal, which outlines a good cause or a horrible miscarriage of justice and then instructs you to add your name to a petition and send it on to everybody you know. There are real e-mail petitions, of course, and these do help out good causes. It can be tricky to spot a hoax, but one indicator is that the e-mail includes no address to send the list to when it is completed. Additionally, if a message begins with "This is not a hoax or urban legend," it probably is.

One of the most famous e-mail legends, the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe, combines a great story with an appeal to fight injustice. The e-mail is a personal account of a mother and her daughter eating at a Neiman Marcus store. After their meal, they order a couple of Neiman Marcus chocolate cookies, which they enjoy immensely. The mother asks the waitress for the recipe, and is told that she can buy it for "two-fifty." Later, when she sees the Neiman Marcus charge on her credit card, she realizes that she has been charged $250, rather than $2.50. The customer-service representative refuses to refund her money, because the company's recipe is so valuable that it cannot be distributed cheaply. In order to exact revenge on the company, the mother claims in the e-mail, she has decided to distribute the recipe freely over the Internet, and she encourages you to send it to everyone you know.

The recipe in the message does make delicious cookies, but they are not the sort sold at Neiman Marcus, and there is no $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.