An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or, more accurately, a contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore consisting of apocryphal stories that those who tell them believe to be true. Like all folklore, contemporary legends are not necessarily false, but they are often distorted, exaggerated, or sensationalized over time.
Despite its name, a typical urban legend does not usually originate in an urban area. Rather, the term is 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," ("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 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 (a story which folklorists refer to as "The Kidney Heist".)
The term “urban legend,” as used by folklorists, has appeared in print since at least 1968. Jan Harold Brunvand, professor of English at the University of Utah, introduced the term to the general public in a series of popular books published beginning in 1981. Brunvand used his collection of legends, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings (1981) to make two points: first, that legends 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 biological vectors) to describe a person or entity passing on an urban legend.
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 her or his 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 folktales of old, there are urban legends dealing with unexplained phenomena such as phantom apparitions.
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 Germany during World War II.
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.
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. One of the classic hallmarks of false urban legends is a lack of specific information regarding the incident, such as names, dates, locations, or similar information.
Persistent urban legends, however unlikely, often maintain at least a degree of plausibility - for instance a serial killer deliberately hiding in the back seat of a car.
One such example since the seventies has been the recurring rumor that the Procter and Gamble Company was associated with Satan worshipers because of details within its nineteenth-century trademark. The legend interrupted the company's business to the point it stopped using its nineteenth-century trademark.
The earliest term by which these narratives were known, “urban belief tales,” highlights what was then thought to be a key property: they were held, by their tellers, to be true accounts, and the device of the FOAF was a spurious but significant effort at authentication. The coinage leads in turn to the terms "FOAFlore" and "FOAFtale". While at least one classic legend, the “Death Car”, has been shown to have some basis in fact, folklorists as such are interested in debunking these narratives only to the degree that establishing non-factuality warrants the assumption that there must be some other reason why the tales are told and believed. As in the case of myth, these narratives are believed because they construct and reinforce the worldview of the group within which they are told, or “because they provide us with coherent and convincing explanations of complex events”. Recently social scientists have started to draw on urban legends in order to help explain complex socio-psychological beliefs, such as attitudes to crime, childcare, fast food, SUVs and other 'family' choices. Here the authors make an explicit connection between urban legends and popular folklore, such as Grimm's Fairy Tales where similar themes and motifs arise. For this reason, it is characteristic of groups within which a given narrative circulates to react very negatively to claims or demonstrations of non-factuality; an example would be the expressions of outrage by police officers who are told that adulteration of Halloween treats by strangers (the subject of periodic moral panics) is extremely rare, if it has occurred at all.
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 other symbols that are usually capable of multiple meanings (cf. the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ernst Cassirer, Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and Northrop Frye for various interpretations). However, the usage may simply reflect the idiom.
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 légendes urbaines; the terms légendes contemporaines are still preferable because "légendes urbaines" 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, not to mention more colloquial and expressive words, describe this phenomenon of "viral spread tall story" properly enough. The term hoax (in "Frenglish"), sometimes pronounced o-a-ks, is known in the Web community.
Some scholars prefer the term contemporary legend to highlight those tales with relatively recent or modern origins. Of course, an eighteenth-century pamphlet alleging that a woman was tricked into eating the ashes of her lover's heart could be described as a contemporary legend with respect to the eighteenth century.
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.
Fortean Times, the British magazine investigating and reporting strange phenomena, regularly features Urban Legend updates and has even produced books dedicated to single legends, such as the vanishing hitchhiker.
The United States Department of Energy had a service called Hoaxbusters that dealt with all sorts of computer-distributed hoaxes and legends. This service has since been discontinued.
Television shows such as Urban Legends, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction, and later Mostly True Stories: Urban Legends Revealed feature re-enactments of urban legends detailing the accounts of the tales and (typically) later in the show, these programs reveal any factual basis they may have.