In the snopes.com 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
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
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.
A common mistake is the equation of ‘urban legend’ with ‘false’
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.
If you haven’t already, please do visit the snopes.com Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page for more information about this site.