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Varieties of Netlore: Urban Legends

Urban legends in cyberspace

HUMAN BEINGS LOVE to tell stories. We love to gossip, to spread rumors, to frighten and titillate one another with dire warnings, salacious gossip, and preposterous allegations. These are all forms of folklore that have existed since the dawn of verbal communication.

Although they sometimes pop up in the mass media or popular literature, proper folktales don't originate in these venues. By definition, folklore comprises the traditions, stories, and beliefs of ordinary people. They arise spontaneously outside of institutional channels of communication and are spread from individual to individual - traditionally by word of mouth, but more recently via new technologies such as fax and email.

It was inevitable that the Internet, by enabling regular folks to communicate instantly and inexpensively with friends, relatives, and total strangers all over the world, would become a primary vehicle for the spread of contemporary folklore. Countless urban legends have been transcribed into email texts and new ones have been invented. They have come to be known as Netlore.

Urban Legends

Many people have heard the tale - usually presented as something that happened to a friend of a friend - of an unsuspecting traveler who is drugged by a flirtatious stranger while drinking in a bar, then wakes up in a bathtub full of ice in some unfamiliar hotel room with one or both kidneys missing. Come to find out, the organs have been surgically "harvested" for sale on the black market.

The legend of the Kidney Snatchers has been around for at least 10 years and is widely believed, even though no one has ever been able to authenticate it. It was first spread by word of mouth, but soon began circulating as a faxed "Warning to Travelers" and became a very popular email forward in the mid-'90s.

Legends transcribed in this way lose some of their narrative qualities, tending to become literal warnings rather than folksy cautionary tales. They also tend to exhibit fewer variations than word-of-mouth versions, for the obvious reason that email texts can be forwarded intact.

In spite of these deviations from the oral tradition, email versions of these tales are still properly regarded as folklore. The latest forwarded warnings about black market kidney harvesting are legitimate descendants of the oral versions collected by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in his 1993 book, "The Baby Train."

Many other urban legends have undergone a similar transition from traditional to "digitally-enhanced" form:

Part Two: Email Chain Letters


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