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Urban legends are, in a basic sense, anecdotes that people share with one another, akin to jokes or tall tales. But although many urban legends are humorous in nature, they typically serve a purpose other than mere entertainment -- urban legends offer a framework for imparting warnings, reinforcing moral standards, expressing prejudices, and sharing social anxieties.
Hallmarks of urban legends is that they are generally apocryphal in nature, are repeated as true stories, have a local connection to the teller (e.g., "My sister told me this happened to her girlfriend's mother's petsitter"), and took place at some recent (if indefinite) time in the past.
Although urban legends historically originated as oral tales, they may now start and/or spread through a variety of means, including printed material, email, and social media.
Whether urban legends are dark or funny in nature, their underlying messages are customarily serious ones, offering vivid and easily assimilable examples of issues such as the dangers of new technologies, the perils of violating moral standards, the alleged threat to safety posed by "others" (i.e., racial minorities and foreigners), and the predatory practices of faceless corporations.