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Steve Brooks
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WHAT IS AN URBAN LEGEND?

An urban legend or an urban myth is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories thought to be factual by those circulating them. The term is often used to mean something akin to an "apocryphal story". Like all folklore, urban legends are not necessarily false, but they are often distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized over time.

Despite its name, a typical urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban setting. The term is simply used to differentiate modern legend from traditional folklore in preindustrial times. For this reason, sociologists and folklorists prefer the term "contemporary legend".

Urban legends are sometimes repeated in news stories and, in recent years, distributed by e-mail. People frequently allege that such tales happened to a "friend of a friend"—so often, in fact, that " friend of a friend", or "FOAF", has become a commonly used term when recounting this type of story.

Some urban legends have passed through the years, with only minor changes to suit regional variations. One example as such is the story of a woman killed by spiders nesting in her elaborate hairdo. More recent legends tend to reflect modern circumstances, like the story of people ambushed, anesthetized, and waking up minus one kidney, which was surgically removed for transplantation.

ORIGINS

The first study of the concept now described as an "urban legend" seems to be Edgar Morin's La Rumeur d'Orléans (in French) in 1969 . Jan Harold Brunvand, professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah in the United States, used the term "urban legend" in print as early as 1979 in a book review appearing in the Journal of American Folklore 92:362. Even at that time, researchers had been writing about the phenomenon for a long time, but with varying terminology.

Brunvand used his collection of legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings, to make two points: first, that legends , myths, and folklore do not occur exclusively in so-called primitive or traditional societies, and second, that one could learn much about urban and modern culture by studying such tales. Brunvand has since published a series of similar books, and is credited as the first to use the term vector (inspired by the concept of a biological vectors) to describe a person or entity passing on an urban legend.

STRUCTURE

Many urban legends are framed as complete stories , with plot and characters. Urban legends often resemble a proper joke, especially in the manner of transmission, but are much darker in tone and theme.

The compelling appeal of a typical urban legend is its elements of mystery, horror, fear or humor. Many urban legends are presented as warnings or cautionary tales , while others might be more aptly called "widely dispersed misinformation", such as the erroneous belief that a college student will automatically pass all courses in a semester if one's roommate commits suicide. While such "facts" may not have the narrative elements of traditional urban legend, they are nevertheless conveyed from person to person with the typical elements of horror, humor or caution.

Much like some folk tales of old, there are urban legends dealing with unexplained phenomena such as phantom apparitions.

Few urban legends can be traced to their actual origins. Exceptions include the The Submarine, the Steam tunnel incident and the Hungarian suicide song "Gloomy Sunday".

PROPAGATION AND BELIEF

People sometimes take urban legends to be true, instead of recognizing them as tall tales or unsubstantiated rumors, because of the way they are told. The teller of an urban legend may claim it happened to a friend, which serves to personalize and enhance the power of the narrative. Since people, unconsciously or otherwise, often exaggerate, conflate or edit stories when telling them, urban legends can evolve over time.

Many urban legends depict horrific crimes, contaminated foods or other situations, which would affect many people. Anyone believing such stories might feel compelled to warn loved ones.

Many urban legends are essentially extended jokes, told as if they were true events. Others, like tall tales in general, contain a grain of truth. The urban legend that Coca-Cola developed the drink Fanta to sell in Nazi Germany without public backlash originated as the actual tale of German Max Keith, who invented the drink and ran Coca-Cola's operations in Nazi Germany during World War II.

Other urban legends are rooted in racism and/or anti-semitism. For example, a common urban legend in the Middle East and other parts of the world, is the blood libel which says Jews drink the blood of Christian children. Variations of the myth depict the baking of babies' blood into holiday pastries. This myth is also perpetuated about wiccans and is very similar to other more ancient legends about Jews sacrificing and eating Greeks. However, through a misconception about the nature of the Eucharist a legend arose that Christians drink the blood of Roman children, and in the Mandaean scripture, the Ginza Rba, a purportedly Christian group called the "Minunei" are accused of the same act against Jewish children:

"They kill a Jewish child, they take his blood, they cook it in bread and they offer it to them as food."

Some urban legends are morality tales that depict someone, usually a child, acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up in trouble, hurt, or dead.

With the advent of the internet, a new kind of urban legend is beginning to emerge where a passage from a book, television show, film or play is taken wholesale and attributed to some well-known social or political figure, largely through chain e-mails.

Regardless of origins, urban legends typically include one or more common elements: the legend is retold on behalf of the original witness or participant; dire warnings are often given for those who might not heed the advice or lesson contained therein (this is a typical element of many e-mail phishing scams); and it is often touted as "something a friend told me", while the friend is identified by first name only or not identified at all. A hallmark of false urban legends (although not the only sign of a false urban legend) is a lack of specific information about the incident (names, dates, locations, when or where it was published, or similar information).

Additionally, urban legends will often contain a grain of truth (in that even if an urban legend is not probable or plausible, most are at least possible). Often, this will come in the form of the dire warning mentioned above (such as a serial killer hiding in the back seat of a car—while possible, the chances are extremely remote and the circumstances highly unlikely).

OTHER TERMINOLOGY

The term urban myth is also used. Brunvand feels that urban legend is less stigmatizing because myth is commonly used to describe things that are widely accepted as untrue. The more academic definitions of myth usually refer to a supernatural tale involving gods, spirits , the origin of the world, and so forth. However, the usage may simply reflect the idiom (e.g., in Australia urban myth is used).

The term urban myth is preferred in some languages such as Mexican Spanish, where conventional coinage is "mito urbano" rather than "leyenda urbana." In French, urban legends are usually called rumeurs d'Orléans ("Orleans' rumours") after Edgar Morin's work. "Légende contemporaine" is an acceptable translation of the English idiom, instead of "légende urbaine", which is an improper and meaningless verbatim translation, though used by some French sociologists or journalists. But neither expression is commonly used: for ordinary French people, the more genuine terms rumeur or canular (hoax), not to mention more colloquial and expressive words, describe this phenomenon of "viral spread tall story" properly enough.

Some scholars prefer the term contemporary legend to highlight those tales that originated relatively recently. This is, of course, true for all periods in history; for instance, an eighteenth-century pamphlet alleging that a woman was tricked into eating the ashes of her lover's heart would be a contemporary legend with respect to the eighteenth century.

The main scholarly !@#ociation on the subject is called The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research; its journal is titled Contemporary Legend.

DOCUMENTING URBAN LEGENDS

The advent of the Internet has facilitated the proliferation of urban legends. At the same time, however, it has allowed more efficient investigation of this social phenomenon.

Discussing, tracking and analyzing urban legends has become a popular pursuit. It is the topic of the Usenet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, and several web sites, most notably snopes.com.

The United States Department of Energy has a service called Hoaxbusters that deals with all sorts of computer-distributed hoaxes and legends.

Since 2003 the Discovery Channel TV show MythBusters has tried to prove or disprove urban legends by attempting to reproduce them.
"Always be you because nobody else can" - Steve Brooks
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