Urban Legends

Urban legends are mostly bullshit stories that are passed off as the truth. The majority of them are too awesome to be based on fact.

Just The Facts

  1. Urban legends are usually passed on as true.
  2. The internet has made the spreading of urban legends easier.
  3. Website Snopes.com collects and either verifies or debunks urban legends.
  4. Hollywood will often use an urban legend as the basis for a really shitty movie.

History and Overview

The first person to take the study of urban legends seriously was Jan Harold Brunvand, a professor at the University of Utah. Brunvand took the same techniques used to study traditional folklore and applied them to stories that were circulating in the modern world. He did this before the internet was invented, so one has to assume that he collected these stories the old fashioned way: by listening intently to winos, drunks and the criminally insane.
Before Brunvand's study, most urban legends were called "Friend of a Friend" stories. This name comes from the fact that most people telling these stories would cite a witness, such as an uncle, a cousin, or the ever popular "friend of a friend." These witnesses were supposed to make the teller seem less full of shit.
While an urban legend will occasionally turn out to be true, most of them aren't. This doesn't stop newspapers from sometimes publishing them as the truth anyway. These bullshit articles, which are usually just reprinted from another publication without being verified, have enabled countless people to defend their irrational belief in the dangers of Pop Rocks by saying "but it was in the paper."
Chain e-mails have become the primary method of passing on urban legends in the 21st century. There's a good reason for this. When someone passes on a story by e-mail, they don't actually get to hear how stupid it sounds when someone says it out loud. They just hit "forward" without thinking about it, and then half of thier friends do the same. It doesn't matter how outlandish or absurd the content of the e-mail is. This was demonstrated in 2005, when a joke article saying that 42 midgets were mauled while fighting a lion somehow got passed around as true.
Popular website Snopes.com was established as a way for people to check the truthfulness of various urban legends. They do this through careful research and fact-checking. MythBusters, a show that airs on the Discovery Channel, does the same thing, only with explosives and goatees. Every episode of MythBusters begins with a disclaimer warning viewers not to try this at home. The show then provides a set of detailed instructions, so the viewers will be able to try this at home.
The goatees are fire retardant.
The goatees are fire retardant.
Some urban legends are structured as cautionary tales, intended to illustrate the consequences of immoral or dangerous behavior. One example of this type of story is the man who has a one night stand with a strange woman, and wakes up to find a note welcoming him to the world of AIDS. The obvious moral is "don't have unprotected sex with strangers". Another example is the story about the man who was drugged and woke up in a tub of ice to find out that his kidney was stolen. The moral of this story is somewhat less clear.

Some Well Known Urban Legends

Alligators in the Sewer: According to this story, the sewers beneath New York City are teeming with alligators. Supposedly, the gators in question were brought back from Florida as pets when they were still babies, then flushed down the toilet when they got too aggressive. A variation on this story says that the alligators have lived underground for so long that they have mutated into blind albino alligators. Respected biologists have examined this claim, and have called it "awesome" and "totally badass." Curiously, Snopes has yet to report a legend that tells of large scale turf wars taking place between the alligators and the local C.H.U.D. population.
The only known natural enemy of the sewer alligator.
Above: The only natural enemy of the mutant sewer alligator
Subliminal Messages: Another classic urban legend involves the use of a recording technique called backmasking. That's when sound is recorded in reverse, and then played forward to produce a strange, distorted effect. Supposedly, some musicians have used this method to include satanic messages in their songs. One of the most famous examples is found in the Led Zeppelin song, Stairway to Heaven. When played backwards, it supposedly contains the message "Oh here's to my sweet Satan. / The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan. / He will give those with him 666. / There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan." The band claims that this is just a meaningless coincidence. However, an unrelated urban legend claims that the members of Led Zeppelin once forced a groupie to have sex with a shark, so whether they should be taken at their word on this or not is open for debate.
Disney on Ice: This legend says that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen after he died, with the intention of being thawed out when medical science can fix whatever it was that killed him. This might seem like a good idea on the surface. But extensive research, which consisted mostly of watching Demolition Man, has proven that in order for cryo-stasis to work the subject needs to be frozen alive. If the subject is already dead, then he's still going to be dead when he thaws out. So if the legend is true, that means that at some point in the process, the doctors will have to reanimate Walt Disney's dead tissue. More research, which consisted mostly of watching Re-animator, has proven that this is a very bad idea.

Walt Disney, in a photograph taken on October 21st 1992.

Walt Disney, pictured here on Oct 21, 1992.

Pictured: A very bad idea.

Above: a very bad idea.

Localized Urban Legends

Some areas have urban legends that are mostly unknown to outsiders. There are several reasons for this. One is that they have a tendency to rely on a certain landmark or stretch of road that only a local would be familiar with. Another reason is that many of them are just stupid, even by urban legend standards. These are the "I guess you just had to be there" stories of modern folklore.
Bunny Man Bridge: An urban legend from Fairfax County, Virginia, the Bunny Man is said to be the ghost of an axe wielding maniac in a bunny suit. It's not clear whether or not the bunny suit was something that he wore while he was still alive. It's possible, if only for the unlikelihood of other people trying to tell an axe wielding maniac how to dress. Supposedly, his spirit haunts the railway bridge where he died. Local teenagers, who apparently have nothing better to do, dare each other to go to stand under the infamous "Bunny Man Bridge" at midnight on Halloween. According to the legend, anyone doing so will be struck dead by the ghost of the Bunny Man. Despite years of this not actually happening, the legend is still around.
Somehow, not quite as creepy as this.
Somehow, not quite as creepy as this.
The Pigman of Devil's Washbowl: This story first surfaced in 1971 in Northfield, Vermont. In and around an area called the "Devil's Washbowl," locals began to report seeing a strange creature that walked like a man, but had the face of a pig. According to the legend, the creature's father was a backwoods swine herder with a taste for bestiality. Sociologists who have closely examined the Pigman story have determined that Northfield, Vermont officially has the most disgusting monster legend in the country.
The Lake Champlain Monster: Lake Champlain, located on the border of Vermont and upstate New York, supposedly contains some type of unknown creature in its waters. In a stunning display of originality and imagination, the locals call this creature "Champ." Although it's easy to write off this story as America's half-assed answer to the Loch Ness Monster, extensive research on Wikipedia reveals that the creature was the subject of a large media spectacle some 50 years before the now famous bullshit photo of "Nessie." The fact that this story is less well known than the definitely-not-plagiarized Loch Ness legend can be attributed to the fact that "Champ" is a stupid name for a lake monster.

The Lake Champlain Monster. Or a plastic dinosaur.

The Lake Champlain Monster. Or a plastic dionsaur.

Urban Legends and Horror Films

Some of the most enduring urban legends of all time are horror themed. Before the invention of chain e-mails and MySpace bulletins, these stories were told at night around a campfire. The audience was usually made up of children and preteens, while the storyteller was often a dangerously inebriated adult. Classics told in this manner include The Vanishing Hitchiker, The Legend of Hook Hand, and The Killer in the Back Seat.
However, we now live in the digital age, and the great American tradition of telling "true" ghost stories to our impressionable youth has been replaced with chain e-mails like this one:
This proves that preteens today, who are far too sophisticated to believe in the idea of a disappearing hitchhiker, are terrified by still shots from obscure Asian horror films.
Urban legends and horror movies seem to have a direct relationship with one another. Sometimes, a movie will inspire a legend, like in the above e-mail. This isn't an entirely new phenomenon. The rumors that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was based on a true story have been so persistent over the years that Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played Leatherface, has been approached numerous times by people who claim to remember when the "real killings" happened. Others claim to have been prison guards in Huntsville, where the "real" Leatherface was supposedly held. This legend is still going strong, despite both Hansen and writer/director Tobe Hooper calling bullshit on several occasions. While Hooper readily admits that he was inspired by notorious serial killer and necrophiliac Ed Gein, he realized that a movie called The Wisconsin Mommy-Corpse Fucker was unlikely to be a commercial success. This resulted in him writing an entirely fictional story that contained more chainsaw murders and less sex with Leatherface's dead mother.
This, but with more necrophilia and less chainsaw.
It would have been like this, but with more necrophilia and less chainsaw.
Another example is the legend surrounding The Amityville Horror. Despite the fact that one of the people responsible for the hoax has admitted the whole thing was made up, many people still believe that it's a true story. While it is true that in 1974 "Butch" DeFeo shot and killed all six members of his family while they slept, the story of the hauntings was a complete fabrication. It was partially concocted by DeFeo's defense attorney, William Weber, in an attempt to get his client a new trial. While this debunks the ghost story, it also proves that Weber is willing to go to lengths that even Johnny Cochoran could never dream of to get a client acquitted.
On the other side of the coin, several urban legends have inspired horror movies of their own over the years. This almost never turns out well. A good example is the classic urban legend about the babysitter and the phone stalker. The babysitter is all alone, and a strange man keeps calling the house and telling her to check on the children. She instead continues to sit on the couch and watch TV, presumably unaware that "checking on the children" is part of her job description. She finally decides to call the police, who trace the calls to the upstairs phone. She runs out of the house screaming, and the police rush over to arrest the caller. It turns out he'd already killed the children, and was trying to lure the babysitter upstairs to do the same to her. So, either he was a homicidal maniac with a crippling fear of stairs, or he was just really lazy.
This legend was made into the 1979 crapfest When a Stranger Calls. The big twist ending, in which our heroine learns that the calls are coming from inside the house, happens approximately twenty minutes into the film. The rest of the movie is about what happens to the girl seven years later. To put this in perspective, it's like having Rocky Balboa knock out Ivan Drago twenty minutes into Rocky IV, then spending the rest of the movie on his domestic issues.
The Bloody Mary legend has also been the subject of film. According to the legend, looking into a mirror and saying "Bloody Mary" three times will make her spirit appear. She's always pissed off, and she takes her revenge by scratching your eyes out, so it's unclear why in the hell someone would actually want to do this. The story was thinly disguised and incorporated into the movie Candyman in 1992. One of the film's plot devices was the idea that believing in an urban legend is what makes it real. The movie then gave birth to its own urban legend, proving that some people took this plot device a little too seriously. Yes, for some reason, people who were perfectly aware that Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street are works of fiction were afraid to look into a mirror and say Candyman five times. If those same people also believe in the Bloody Mary story, then the connection between Bloody Mary and the Candyman becomes a Mobius strip of gullibility.


If even half of the urban legends in circulation were true, we would live in a world where mutant alligators roamed the sewers beneath major cities, evil spirits lurked in our bathroom mirrors, and rock stars were controlling us with subliminal messages. Gangs of organ thieves would terrorize major cities, escaped maniacs would be slaughtering dozens of people each year in the suburbs, and we would all be waiting for the day when Walt Disney is resurrected from the cold blackness beyond the grave.
Sadly, we do not live in that world. We live in a world filled with lolcatz.