Urban Legend

Definition of Urban Legend

Although truly an urban legend means a tale or a story that has spread without any written proof, yet several legends are not urban or for that matter not in áscripts. In a way, it is a humorous or some other such type of story circulated just through the word of mouth among the people without having any specific or evidential origin.

In literature, this term appeared first in 1968 when Richard Dorson used it for certain types of folklores, while a professor from the University of Utah, Harold Brunvand popularized it. Both of them contend that urban legends do not occur only in primitive societies and that they comprise much of the knowledge of the culture. They argue that they are part of human nature and could emerge at any time in any part of the world and in any culture.

Elements of Urban Legend

As a literary device, an urban legend has various elements. An urban legend must have some or all of these elements to make it culturally relevant.

  1. Supernatural
  2. Horror, terror, fear
  3. Love, rumor, gossip
  4. Relevant, recent, ambiguous

Examples of Urban Legend in Literature

Example #1

Too Good to be True by John Harold Brunvand – The Tube on the Tube

Harold Brunwand has presented a simple and harmless urban legend type of a tale in three different variations. He states that it is just a simple story of a Manhattan man who works in a skyscraper and finds that their lone fluorescent tube is off due to a fault and that he replaces it himself instead of asking the crew. The different variations have different claims not only about the person but also about the takes he performs. This shows how urban legends, though, simple could become complicated and full of meanings with the passage of time.

Example #2

Too Good to be True by John Harold Brunvand

John Harold Brunvand tells another tale “The Nude Bachelor” that is about the friend of a friend that a nude person happens to open his door to get the paper and finds himself stranded outside. It was a popular legend in Europe during the decade of 60 and later Harold Brunvand has documented it in his book, Too Good to be True.

Example #3

A Stolen Kidney from Haunting Urban Legends by Megan Cooley Peterson

A traveling salesman was driving alone late one night. He was hungry and tired and decided to stop at the next hotel. After he checked in, he went to the hotel restaurant. He ordered a cheeseburger and a diet soda. The man got his cheeseburger, but the waitress apologized and said they were out of diet soda. Another man sat a few tables away from the salesman. He offered his soda cup to the man. “Would you like mine?” he asked. “The waitress just brought it. It haven’t taken a drink from it yet.” The salesman thanked the stranger and took the soda. As he sipped, he grew very sleepy and closed his eyes for a moment. He awoke in a bathtub filled with ice. Sitting on a table next to the tub was a phone. A note taped to the phone said, “Call 911.” The salesman called the police and explained where he was. The operator asked the salesman if he had a large incision along the side of his body.

This passage occurs in the legend, A Stolen Kidney, Megan Cooley Peterson has documented in her book, Haunting Urban Legends. This legend was quite popular during the decade of 60 and 70 that the people were involved in stealing kidneys of at restaurants. This story spread so fast that it almost destroyed the restaurant business at that time.

Example #4

Freaky Foods

It is another legend that has recently spread very fast. It is about the popular fast-food brand, KFC. People have spread images on social media that KFC is using genetically modified chickens in its food items. This urban myth has played havoc with the KFC business so much so that the outlet has to issue various clarifications. Such other urban legends about food items of different brands are also popular on social media.

Example #5

Baby Train

This urban legend also spread quickly in the decade of 60 that the towns near railway lines have a higher birth rate. It was estimated that as the trains pass early in the morning, making residents get up and had sex. This resulted in a baby boom also called the train that used to go through New York as the Baby Train.

Functions of Urban Legend

Although most of the urban legends are based on rumors, they become popular when they are spread through the word of mouth. They become food for thoughts for different people as well as a source of gossip for others. While for some they work as a pastime hobby, for others they work as a motivation. Although it was envisaged that social media would destroy urban legends, it has turned out entirely different. Social media has rather fueled more such legends that spread quickly and play havoc with businesses as well as reputations of the people.