Homework Help

All About Urban Legends

We received the below e-mail requesting detailed information on urban legends. Our response is posted below for the benefit of the rest of you who might be doing research of this sort.


I am a high school senior and am currently doing a project with my sociology class about urban legends. I was wondering if there was a certain person I could talk to or email about some of my questions: (Any help would be most appreciated)

  1. Generally, how are urban legends spread?
  2. What are some of the quickest ways that urban legends spread?
  3. What makes a good urban legend?
  4. Who starts them, and why?
  5. Do you think they have certain reasons as to behind why?
  6. How do you think the internet impacts or has an affect on urban legends?
  7. Do you think that there's a certain "type" of people that are more apt to believe a certain urban legend?
  8. What are some of the oldest rumors/urban legends?
  9. Are more parts of the country willing to believe certain urban legends?

If you have any other comments or something you might feel necessary to add, feel free. Any information as I said would be most appreciated.

Wow – that's a pretty comprehensive list of questions. You're fortunate that we at DisneyLies.com have no fear of doing large amounts of research for our beloved reader(s).

Before we get to your questions, though, we need to talk about what exactly an "urban legend" is.

Urban legends are tales told and retold as if they are true, and which often contain a moral or some other message. They can be broken into three categories:

  • Folk tales: these are stories passed down through the generations from father to son, mother to daughter, mother to son, father to daughter, child to parent, among siblings and spouses, and, in the case of families in which there are one or more deaths or adoptions, in other combinations of relatives, possibly by marriage. They are also told around campfires, during sleepovers, and in Congress. An example would be the story of the teenage babysitter who is horrified to find that her cell phone only gets a good signal upstairs, and that's where the killer is hiding.
  • Urban myths: these are urban legends, usually of more recent vintage, which are demonstrably false. For example, the story about the Mrs. Fields cookie recipe really being the Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe, or any given State of the Union address.
  • Outright lies: "She didn't mean anything to me," "size doesn't matter," and "I'll call you."

Now, let's tackle your questions in order:

Generally, how are urban legends spread?

In 1950, sociologist (or "socialist," as they were then called) J. R. McCarthy began an intensive, and very public, study of this very subject. His conclusion was that urban legends are spread for the most part by communists.

What are some of the quickest ways that urban legends spread?

There's an old joke that the three quickest ways to transmit a message are, "telephone, telegraph, and tell a woman." These days, to that list you can add, "and tell my lawyer that someone is telling sexist jokes in the workplace."

For modern urban legends, the number of ways to move information quickly is enormous and much less easy to state as a funny-sounding list. Cell phones let people relate stories about funny auto insurance claims while they are driving. Faxes can be used to keep people informed of the date of this year's Internet spring cleaning. And viruses can be attached to e-mails about viruses. We hear that there are even Web sites out there completely devoted to spreading misinformation about one subject or another. Can you imagine?

The spread of urban legends among text messaging aficionados has led to a number of common legend-related text-messaging abbreviations, including:

  • DCB (drug-crazy babysitter)
  • HFAH (hook for a hand)
  • KIT (killer's in the... as in "KIT back seat!")
  • GOOTH (get out of the house)
  • FTE (forward to everyone)

What makes a good urban legend?

To a classically trained sociologist, a good urban legend has three qualities:

  1. A lack of verifiable facts. Stories that contain names, dates, and places are news articles, not urban legends. A good urban legend is timeless, with only the names of celebrities and the species of their inserted animals changing over the years.
  2. Tragedy. In the best urban legends, something always goes horribly wrong in a really funny way. For example, maybe a creepy guy gets his hook caught in a car door while he's watching teenagers make out and it's ripped off when they drive away. Then, when the ambulance gets there to help him, they laugh so hard at his problem that they drop the stretcher.
  3. A moral. It's not a good urban legend unless it teaches the listener a lesson, such as "large companies are out to make big profits at your expense," or "large companies pay big money to people who use e-mail," or "unbelievably horrible things happen to teenagers who have premarital sex."

Who starts them, and why?

Urban legends are all started by ignorant people who are unable to tell a simple story without embellishing it to the point of unrecognizability, college students, and Jan Harold Brunvand. They generally don't intend to start a legend, are trying to start an urban legend as part of a sociology class, or start them because it's their job (in that order).

Do you think they have certain reasons as to behind why?

I not only don't not think there's a reason behind why, I also won't what about why, right up front.

How do you think the internet impacts or has an affect on urban legends?

The Internet is to urban legends what heroin is to a guy who just has too much money.

E-mail in particular has unbelievably accelerated the pace with which urban legends spread. In the old days, one might go weeks without hearing about which child currently needs to be sent billions of uncanceled postage stamps so he can get into the book of world records before his lungs collapse. And before that, it might take months before news of the latest methods for abducting children in bathrooms made it across the country by covered wagon. Today, with the push of a button people across the planet are reading hot, steamy letters that we thought were just going to our girlfriend.

Do you think that there's a certain "type" of people that are more apt to believe a certain urban legend?

It's easy to think that only dumb people believe urban legends are true, so you might want to do that. But the fact of the matter is that urban legends are told, retold, and believed by people in all parts of society – from the Harvard-educated businessman who drives at night without his headlights on because he heard that lights attract street gangs, to the simple individual who enjoys a good story about Masonic symbols on the back of quarters just because it's about something shiny.

What are some of the oldest rumors/urban legends?

Wow – there's a big question! Some urban legends can be traced back hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Some examples:

  • The story that someone died of fright when Disneyland's Haunted Mansion was first opened (forcing the ride to be reworked) can be traced back to a tradition about Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus having to be rewritten after multiple Globe audience members were shocked to death by the pie scene.
  • The legend that Walt Disney was frozen and may one day return from the dead is reminiscent of "he's not really dead" stories told about Elvis, James Dean, Paul McCartney, and Al Gore.
  • The rumors of a private club in New Orleans Square at Disneyland are very similar to ancient legends of the world-controlling Illuminati (of which Michael Eisner is a member).

Are more parts of the country willing to believe certain urban legends?

Yes, every day.

Finally, you asked if we had any other comments that might help you. Yes indeed!

If you want to make a serious study of urban legends, you would do well to pick up a number of books on the subject. Our favorites include, The Choking Hitchhiker, Curses! Broiled Doberman!, The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Vanishing Mexican Pet, and (by the same author) the encyclopedic Encyclopedia of Crap People Believe. Other valuable sources of urban legends are The Weekly World News, corporate press releases, and high school history textbooks.

This site is not endorsed, approved, or secretly funded by the Walt Disney Corporation (or any corporation with a legal department). All information on this site is, to the best of our knowledge, false. If any significant true information slips through, we apologize for that. Since we don't check any of what passes for facts around here, mistakes are bound to happen. Contents © 2003–2014 so don't go stealing anything, okay?

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