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.