How Urban Legends Work

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.