How Urban Legends Work

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.

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