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Urban Legends: A Modern Fairy Tale

Joel A. Herr

November 12, 2000

Urban Legend: A Modern Fairy Tale

In today’s society almost everyone has come into contact with an urban legend,

myth, or general folklore. In fact, urban legends have become somewhat pop-culture

icons in their substance. Urban legends, for all they are worth, exist in many forms and

cover many categories: anywhere from tame legends concerning Disney theme parks to

frightful tales of innocents being victimized by men with hooks or any other instrument

of choice. This paper will mainly focus on the “darker” urban legends and their origins

as well as their effect on society.

The origins of urban legends are quite hazy and difficult to follow. However,

when the actual term “urban legend” was linked with these outlandish stories has not

been ascertained yet. Scholars researching this folklore have roughly estimated that the

urban legends became prevalent in society sometime around the turn of the 20 th century.

In fact, research has been given to urban legends for at least forty years, if not more.

The reason for the introduction of urban legends is also very indistinct. Some

researchers into this subject believe that urban legends are started by people just to make

themselves look more intelligent or to make their lives seem more full and rich. This is

probably the way most urban legends begin. However, the more frightening legends

could be attributed to people “who take malicious enjoyment” in creating false stories to

scare people. (Urban Legends Research Centre: Frequently Asked Questions) These

“hoaxes,” as well as the other legends, generally have some sort of truth in them.

Nevertheless, like a game of “telephone” gone wrong, the story becomes muddled and

forgotten. Extra scenarios are added and elements of the truth may be left out, creating a

veritable urban legend.

The popularity of urban legends, though, is fairly easy to identify. In fact, the

urban legend has invaded so much into pop-culture and society that classes are being

taught on the subject, research centers (such as the one I am gaining my information), and

movies and television shows based on the most popular legends have and are being made.

The movie Urban Legends and its sequel, Urban Legends: Final Cut, both received less

than flattering reviews, but show the amount of which urban legends are included into

society. According to the Urban Legends Research Centre “Urban Legends developed at

a time when the increasingly rational world had come to reject stories of what we now

consider to be truly fanciful things – dragons, witches, demons and the like – as a part of

everyday knowledge.” (Urban Legends Research Centre: Frequently Asked Questions)

So, in fact, urban legends have indeed become the modern day fairy tales recounting

amazing and disturbing events.

Like the fairy tales, urban legends have a believability that allows them to become

so ubiquitous in society. I think that this believability stems from the original truth from

which the legend originated. However, even the “fake” legends have their own way of

seeming true. This most likely comes from the teller of the story and his or her addition

of personal idiosyncrasies. I, for one, had the fortune of hearing some of the most

frightening legends in existence all in one night driving back from a choir competition.

The majority of these stories began with “I read this somewhere,” “I heard this on the

television/radio,” or “Someone else told me that…” This inclusion of “I” by the

storyteller personalizes and brings the story, no matter how fantastic, to a believable

level.

Urban legends are also believable for other reasons. Sometimes listeners will

“find particular Urban Legends believable because they echo, or help to substantiate,

their personal worldview.” (Urban Legend Research Centre: Frequently Asked

Questions) Other times the legend is told by a very trustworthy person, so the listener

will believe immediately. Similarly, if the story is enthusiastically told or completely

believed by the storyteller, then the story will come across as being true and believable.

Finally, a legend may be believed because the listener may not know much about the

subject and, therefore, accept it as true. This goes back to how trustworthy and

enthusiastic the storyteller is, showing that believability is usually caused by a mixture of

the different elements I have mentioned.

Urban legends exist to serve many purposes. The most obvious is an urban

legend’s existence purely as entertainment. These legends are generally lighthearted and

humorous, unless the storyteller is of the “malicious” type; then the story is dark and

scary. Earlier in this paper, I have referred to urban legends as stories, which is their

purest form. In fact, they have been labeled as “good / captivating / titillating /

engrossing / incredible / worrying” which may explain why the majority of people are so

interested in them. (Urban Legend Research Centre: Frequently Asked Questions)

But urban legends have a use far deeper than just being interesting stories, they

can be used as warnings, survival guides (or guides in general, for that matter), or

parables and morality tales. For example, the urban legend telling of needles containing

the AIDS virus (or some other disease of choice) being placed in movie theater seats

warns a listener of looking where he or she is going before sitting down, or (more

usefully) “look before you leap.”

The urban legend as a guide is almost the same as the warnings, but a little more

extensive in the storytelling. These “guides” have more background given in order to

allow the listener to see what happens if he or she does something mentioned in the story

and to show the correct pathway to choose when faced with this scenario. An example of

this is the urban legend of a person driving a car and being followed by a car that keeps

flashing its headlights at it. Although the probability of having a man with a hook in a

car and being followed by another car trying to warn the driver of said “hook man” is

pretty slim, this story provides a guide of what to do and not to do when faced with a

following car and a man with a hook.

The urban legend as a morality tale or parable is harder to pick out, though.

Usually a parable is associated with a story having a good ending needing to be taught to

others because it demonstrates ethics and morals. However, urban legends in this type

are not ethically sound and have controversial subjects with graphic repercussions as the

resolution. For example, the urban legend of the man having a kidney stolen after

meeting a strange woman comes to mind. This tells of what happens when a person

invites a stranger from a strange town back to his or her room. The moral of this legend

is not to invite strangers in or something bad may happen. These types of urban legends

use an element of horror in them that “often ‘punishes’ someone who flouts society's

conventions.” (AFU & Urban Legends Archive)

As a whole, however, the model of the urban legend takes from at least two of the

aforementioned types. The warning has some guidance in it; the parable has some

warning in it. Similar to the believability, the model is also a mixture, but this mixture

has a touch of horror and humor added for good measure and to make the overall

effectiveness more shocking and useful. The point of the horror being introduced into the

urban legend has the specific effect of “this could happen to you if you are not careful.”

Some of the direct effects of these horror-filled urban legends on society are right

on the surface, others are deep and hard to find. The easiest examples for me to pick out

are, like many fairy tales, the standard “don’t talk to strangers” and “be careful when

entering a strange place.” In fact, as I mentioned earlier, the parable model of urban

legends is similar to a new type of fairy tale, so it is no surprise that the end results be the

same.

As discussed in class, fairy tales, when viewed by scholars, are almost satirical

examples of everyday life; fables teaching morals and ethics to the uneducated. With the

rise of technology and other “wonders,” the fantastic fairy tale world has all but

disappeared. The general public has never experienced typical fairy tale settings, such as

woods/forests or in a small cabin; instead, dark streets, suburban neighborhoods, strange

clubs, etc., have replaced them. In this void, however, the urban legend comes and

fulfills the needs of the common populace to have morals demonstrated to them. They

teach caution, not to trust everyone, and to watch everything that happens. These

“lessons” sound much like the old-fashioned fairy tales, but just revamped and dressed up

in a modern way. However, the majority of urban legends do not teach anything by way

of morals; the ones that do must be studied very closely and deeply in order to find the

true meaning. So, instead of being viewed as just an outlandish story, the urban legend

can be utilized as an important moralizing tool.

Works Cited and Consulted

“Frequently Asked Questions.” Urban Legends Research Centre. (2000, November 18). [Online] Available: http://www.ulrc.com.au/

“The AFU & Urban Legends Archive.” (2000, November 19). [Online] Available: http://www.urbanlegends.com/

Urban Legends. Dir. Jaimie Banks and Jaimie Blanks. Perf. Alicia Witt, Jared Leto, Rebecca Gayheart, Joshua Jackson, Loretta Devine. Tristar Pictures, 1998.

Urban Legends: Final Cut. Dir. John Ottman and Brian Pearson. Perf. Jennifer Morrison, Matt Davis, Loretta Devine, Jessica Cauffiel, Hart Bochner. Columbia Tristar, 2000.