Q: What exactly are urban legends?
A: Urban legends are popular stories alleged to be true and passed from individual to individual via oral or written (e.g. forwarded email) communication. Typically, said stories concern outlandish, humiliating, humorous, terrifying, or supernatural events — events which, in the telling, always seem to happen to someone other than the teller.
In lieu of evidence, the conveyor of an urban legend relies on narrative flourishes and/or reference to putatively trustworthy sources (e.g., "I heard this from a friend of a friend," or "This really happened to my sister's co-worker's hairdresser") to buttress its credibility. Sometimes, but not always, there's an implied moral message, e.g., "Be careful, or the same horrible (or embarrassing, or enraging, or inexplicable, etc.) thing might happen to you!"
Urban legends are a type of folklore — defined as the beliefs, stories and traditions of ordinary people ("the folk") — so one way of differentiating between urban legends and other kinds of narrative (popular fiction, for example) is by examining where they come from and how they're disseminated. Legends arise spontaneously and are rarely traceable to a single point of origin. And again, they're spread primarily through interpersonal communication and only in atypical cases via mass media or other institutional means.
Because they end up being repeated by many different people in many different places, the stories tend to change over time. Hence, no two versions of an urban legend are ever exactly alike; there can be as many variants as there are tellers of the tale.
Q: Okay, I think I understand the "legend" part, but what does any of this have to do with "urban"? Do all these stories take place in big cities?
A: Well, we needn't take the phrase so literally. While it's true that the phenomena we commonly refer to as urban legends are more accurately characterized as contemporary legends (because the stories don't, in fact, always take place in big cities), the more familiar term picturesquely differentiates between these latter-day folktales and their traditional, mainly rural predecessors. It makes a better catchphrase, too. You're welcome to call them contemporary legends if you like. Many folklorists do.
Q: Is it okay to call them "urban myths"?
A: Sure. In common parlance, "urban myth" and "urban legend" are synonymous. Academic folklorists tend to eschew the term "urban myth," however, because a myth, strictly defined, is a sacred story pertaining to gods, goddesses and the origins of things.
Q: What are some examples of urban legends?
A: Here are a few classics:
• The Hook
• Alligators in the Sewers
• The $250 Cookie Recipe
• The Choking Doberman
• The Exploding Toilet
• The Microwaved Pet
Q: Do urban legends ever turn out to be true?
A: Yes, every now and then they do. See "The Body in the Bed" for one example. Often, legends that are demonstrably false in their particulars turn out to be based on a kernel of fact, however slight.
Q: Does being true disqualify a story from being an urban legend?
A: Not at all. Remember, urban legends aren't defined as false stories; they're defined as stories alleged to be true in the absence of actual knowledge or evidence. True or not, as long as a story continues to be passed off as factual by folks who don't really know the facts, it's an urban legend.
Q: Why are people so gullible?
A: Why is the universe so big? How should I know?
Q: Whoa, you were doing pretty well up till then! What's the problem?
A: You're only asking me to explain human nature, that's all. Do you have 50 years or so?
Q: Come on, give it a try.
A: Okay, okay. Surely there are a lot of factors, but, to suggest one possibility, I often find myself wondering if we, as human beings, aren't simply storytellers (and story believers) by nature. Maybe our brains are "hard-wired" in some way to be susceptible to well-told stories.
It does seem to be the case that we have a built-in tendency to interpret life in narrative terms, in spite of how rarely events in the real world unfold in a story-like fashion. Maybe it's a psychological survival tactic. Consider the sometimes horrifying, sometimes absurd, often incomprehensible realities we must reckon with during our short sojourns as mortal human beings on earth. Perhaps one of the ways we cope is by turning the things that scare us, embarrass us, fill us with longing and make us laugh into tall tales. We're charmed by them for the same reasons we're charmed by Hollywood movies: good guys win, bad guys get their comeuppance, everything is larger than life and never a loose end is left dangling.
We wish real life would proceed in such a comprehensible way, of course, which makes us suckers for well-told stories that render that illusion. It's wish-fulfillment, if you will.
I now turn the dais over to Freud.