How Urban Legends Work

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 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.