Urban Legend Definition

A definition of the term 'urban legend.'

Published Mar 10, 2011

In the glossary we provide a far shorter and quite serviceable definition of the term 'urban legend.' However, we felt those whose interest into the subject went deeper would appreciate having access to the long form of it, too.

Urban legends are best described as cautionary or moralistic tales passed along by those who believe (or claim) the incidents befell either folks they know personally or acquaintances of friends or family members.

Whereas the setting of more traditional legends places them in the realm of long ago, urban legends are set against the backdrop of contemporary times — the stories take place in shopping malls and coed dormitories and feature such up-to-date bogeymen as terrorists, AIDS, and inner-city gangs. Though some of these tales go back a century or more, their details are continually being updated to keep them current with the times; the horse and buggy of bygone days becomes the BMW of today.

The legends we tell reflect current societal concerns and fears as well as confirm the rightness of our views. It is through such stories that we attempt to make sense of our world, which at times can appear to be capricious and dangerous. As cautionary tales, urban legends warn us against engaging in risky behaviors by pointing out what has supposedly happened to others who did what we might be tempted try. Other legends confirm our belief that it's a big, bad world out there, one awash with crazed killers, drug addicts, unscrupulous companies out to make a buck at any cost, and a government that doesn't give a damn.

Legends of the genre are passed along in both oral and written form. You'll hear them over coffee and find them forwarded to you in e-mail or pinned to the bulletin board in your church. New details are often added and old ones dropped or modified as each new teller regales his circle of acquaintance with the yarn. Consequently, the same story can exist simultaneously in a number of forms, with details shifting depending on who tells it. A number of these tales tend to localize, with the provision of additional details that place the event in a nearby town. (These details, of course, change with every telling.) Complicating matters further, many humorous urban legends also exist as jokes or funny stories — the same story told as a snippet of gossip about the town's mechanic in one village will be presented as a boldfaced joke not about anyone in particular in another.

By definition, legends are stories and, as such, feature casts of characters, plotlines, and denouements. Because they lack these elements, other forms of contemporary lore (e.g. e-mailed warnings, odd facts, folk beliefs) cannot properly be termed urban legends even though they do fall into the general subset of contemporary lore, which itself is a sub-category of folklore.

A common mistake is the equation of 'urban legend' with 'false' (i.e., "Oh, that's an urban legend!"). Though the vast majority of such tales are pure invention, a tiny handful do turn out to be based on real incidents. What moves true tales of this type out of the world of news and into the genre of contemporary lore is the blurring of details and multiplicity of claims that the reported incidents happened locally, alterations which take place as the stories are passed through countless hands. Though there might indeed have been an original actual event, it clearly did not happen to as many people or in as many places as the various recountings of it would have one believe.

Despite our being heartily mistrustful of anything found in the newspaper, the vast majority of us tend to unquestioningly believe urban legends. Why? Because invariably it's either a dear friend or someone we look up to doing the telling. Furthermore, that person swears a friend of hers knows the actual person it happened to. As such, this isn't just news, it's practically first-hand news. Because it rides in on the back of someone we trust, it skirts past our usual skepticism.

Reliance on these personal ties plays a great part in why we believe the stories we do. Urban legends are passed along by people we trust implicitly, so it never occurs to us to doubt them. While it is true just about everyone we cherish feels the same way about us and so would never lie to us, it does not follow that everything they say is always the truth. People can be mistaken or misinformed, a detail the proponents of the "My mom would never lie about a thing like that, so it must be true" theory fail to take into account.

Because urban legends make good telling (and who doesn't like being in the spotlight, looked up to as the one who knows all the really great stories?), it's almost guaranteed these tales will outlive us all.

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David Mikkelson founded the site now known as back in 1994.

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