Urban legends are unverifiable stories about outlandish, humorous, frightening, or supernatural events that have achieved wide circulation. In some instances, the stories are based on actual occurrences that have in their telling and retelling been exaggerated or distorted. Other urban legends have their origins in people misinterpreting or misunderstanding stories that they have heard or read in the media or heard from actual witnesses of an event. The one commonality that all urban legends share is the claim that the story always happened to someone else, most often "a friend of a friend."
On March 30, 2002, the Pennsylvania State Police issued a warning to citizens of that state, advising them to question unsubstantiated allegations and accounts of various criminal acts, because a large number of hoaxes had achieved wide circulation due to e-mail, various websites, and faxes. The police illustrated their point by showing how the urban legend of the "Knock-Out Perfume," which originally told of several women who had been rendered unconscious and robbed as a result of criminals giving them phony perfume samples, became transformed after September 11, 2001, into terrorists having killed women by sending poison perfume samples through the mail. The poisonous perfume story eventually became accounts of anthrax that was supposedly being sent by terrorists to Pennsylvania residents on a mass scale.
Folklorists and other experts who collect urban legends point out that such accounts of allegedly true occurrences differ from actual news stories or historical events in that they have a completely developed storyline—an actual beginning, middle, and end. Urban beliefs are most often accusations, claims, or frightening assertions that are directed at individuals, religious groups, corporations, or political organizations.
To illustrate the difference between an urban legend and an urban belief, take the example of the terrorists and the poisonous perfume. An urban legend would begin by affirming that the story is true and that it happened to a woman who was known by a friend. It would go on to give her name and describe how she innocently opened a package sent to her through the mail and how she sampled the perfume that she found inside. The story would conclude with a recounting of the tragic demise of the victim. An urban belief, rather than providing an illustrative anecdote, would simply state that all women must be suspicious of any package sent to them by a perfume company, because it is known to be true that terrorists are targeting American women with poisoned perfume.
The Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation issued certain guidelines to aid people in detecting an urban legend:
While most urban legends and Internet myths are basically a nuisance to law enforcement officers who are often called to investigate the truth of such accounts, such false stories and hoaxes do consume time, energy, and finances. Although spokespersons for the Federal Bureau of Investigation have stated that no statistics are maintained on how many hoaxes are investigated, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, nearly every story concerning poisons, anthrax, or other noxious substances sent through the mail was taken seriously and checked.
Many urban legends are recycled stories and continually updated. A story that was in wide circulation in the 1950s will achieve a new birth in the twenty-first century and fool people all over again. Barbara Mikkelson, who maintains the Urban Legends Research Centre, theorizes that such revisions of old stories are done by people who heard them years ago and were frightened or amused by them and thereby wish to retell the old legends in a way that puts their own imprint upon the stories. In other instances, she comments, many legends were originated by people who wished "to appear more knowledgeable or more informed on a subject than might truly be the case."
Mentioned here are the more familiar urban legends and beliefs, all of which have been told and retold as true occurrences that happened to real people.
Bronner, Simon J. Piled Higher and Deeper. Little Rock, Ark.: August House, 1990.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. Curses! Broiled Again! New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.
——. Too Good to Be True. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
Craughwell, Thomas J. Alligators in the Sewer and 222 Other Urban Legends: Absolutely True Stories That Happened to a Friend of a Friend. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 1999.
——. Baby on the Car Roof & 222 Other Urban Legends: Absolutely True Stories That Happened to a Friend of a Friend. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2000.
Dickson, Paul, and Joseph Gouldon. Myth-Informed. New York: Perigee Books, 1993.
Genge, N. E. The As-Complete-As-One-Could-Be Guide to Modern Myths. New York: Random House, 2000.
Glantz, George. "Cops Out to Quell Urban Legends." Times Herald, March 30, 2002. [Online] http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=3705584&BRD=1672&PAG=461&dept-id=.
Holt, David, and Bill Mooney. Spiders in the Hairdo— Modern Urban Legends. Little Rock, Ark.: August House Publishers, 1999.
Urban Legends Research Centre. [Online] http://www.ulrc.com.au/html.