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How To Recognize a Possible Urban Legend

By Edited Mar 14, 2016 0 2

Sometimes urban legends are passed along in everyday gossip and storytelling. Often, what we pass along as "news" can be later determined to be urban legend. This article will show common components contained in many urban myths or legends so that you'll have a way to analyze some of the things you might hear as "news" or "true stories," on an everyday basis.

Things You Will Need

You'll probably only need a notepad paper or index card to jot a few important notes down if you'd like to carry some point-form notes around for a few days until you can remember common points in urban legends. Otherwise, the best way to learn about telling urban or contemporary legends apart from true stories is to go ahead and listen to a lot of people talk, get involved with people who like storytelling and telling urban legends - and enjoy listening to the tales.

Step 1

Determine whether or not you've heard the story before - or a very similar story.

This might indicate that you've been told an urban legend. Urban legends survive by their "common" elements. Urban legends have "variations" and "versions," sometimes very close in details but with a character name change, location change or minor difference in a story.

For example, the urban legend known as the "Pins In Candy" legend is about people finding straight pins in apples and candy given out to children as Hallowe'en treats. No major cases of this actually happening have ever been reported but stories on this topic roll around every year, just the same. In some versions, razor blades are "supposedly" found in the Hallowe'en apples or candy. In other versions it is minute traces of poison in/on the apples or candy. These are all considered the same "urban legend" story-frame but each version is treated as a different "version."

The point here is: if you heard about the story involving pins in candies already in the past, but were recently told a story about razor blades in candies/apples, you've probably gotten the impression of "I've heard this before." This feeling or recognition is a possible and strong signal that you've encountered an urban legend.

* NOTE - this particular legend has caused damage and hysteria a time or two when news reporters believed this urban legend and wrote about it, getting their "accounts" all mixed up but into newspapers. There have been "official Hallowe'en bans" in whole towns and city subdivisions due to these faulty newspaper articles in the past. Parents were warned to keep their children in and to not let their children go out "Hallowe'ening" while police authorities would try to track down the culprits who were poisoning or tampering with Hallowe'en treats!

Step 2

Listen closely for the identities of the characters in the story.

Are the personas or characters in the story well identified or does the person telling the story say that the events within happened to "a friend of a friend" or someone's brother, cousin, some friend from the past? Has the storyteller admitted that he/she received the details of this story from someone else first? Someone got the story from someone else who wasn't involved with the event/story, either, but knows the person whose cousin, brother, friend, mother, father-in-law, etc., WAS INVOLVED with the event or story?

This is the FOAF=Friend Of A Friend feature that is ever-so-common in urban legends. You can go ahead and be wary of the validity of a story if you feel the FOAF feature is present in your friend's or acquaintances' storytelling. Not every story that begins with "I heard this from a friend of a friend" or "My friends cousin says this happened just this way..." is an urban legend but you should definitely ask for more details to validate a story that starts out this way or has the FOAF features - just in case.

Step 3

Understand the general nature of the storyteller/news teller.

Is the person telling the story someone you trust? Is he/she a "storyteller" or attracted to "gossip"? Is your friend/the storyteller a practical joker? Gullible? It might be possible that if the storyteller is gullible, he/she will actually believe a FOAF version that someone else has presented. In "faith" he/she might pass the story along with enthusiasm and total faith that the story is a "real true story" or about something that really happened. This doesn't mean that you have to believe that what you hear is about a true event, actual people or that the tale is the absolute truth.

If you question the integrity or position of the storyteller or communicator of information, don't "buy" the story until you do some fact-checking - even if it's a really entertaining story, even if the story is about a very serious event, situation or person. Just do your fact-checking, and use common sense, that's all.

Step 4

Has the story you just heard or are listening to been in the news? On TV or in the Newspaper?

Many times, we tend to believe stories that are SHOCKING and INCREDIBLE, but often that's exactly what they are - shock-stories and incredible (not credible) stories. We tend to believe that shocking, incredible stories wouldn't be told if they weren't true. This belief or tendency, however, can be faulty and causes a lot of people to believe truly non-credible stories when, really, people are capable of fact-checking and don't have to believe that urban legends are true event stories.

In particular, violent stories, macabre and strange stories are often thought of, at first, as being true stories. This is because of our belief that in society, extreme violence, strangeness and "the macabre" is not really allowed. We often deduce that stories with these extreme details must be true - otherwise they'd be hidden under our usual societal norms, customs, good manners - our laws and rules in society. It seems to us that something extreme has escaped detection or containment in our society when we hear any kind of "extreme" story, so we tend to get caught up in the emotion of it all and believe in the story details right off.

A simple solution... for a story that involves these extreme details: think to yourself, "Did I recently see a news story, television news broadcast or similar communication on this topic or story?" I mean, if it is THAT EXTREME and incredible, someone should be notifying the bulk of the population about this story/event, right?

Examples: a story about an escaped convict, story about an extreme crime, story about a murder, abuse against a person, story about an event where any incredible damages occur to property (something was blown up, razed to the ground, etc) or to any person, etc.

Many of these, even if the storyteller says "this happened long ago - a friend of a friend told me about it..." should have some documentation - even if the extreme event happened 5 or 10 years ago. If it was a huge deal - like it seems as the story is being told - then media and community somewhere would likely have thought it was a big deal, too - and would have written or reported on the event.

Sometimes it's not possible to determine whether or not a story or "an account" is an urban legend while you're in the setting where/when the story is being told. This might be because you don't have anything available for fact-checking. You could be sitting at a coffee shop or in the park when you hear a story.

When you get a chance, just do some checking online at the Snopes website if you think you may have been told an urban legend. Snopes [dot] com has a very large collection of urban legends, a whole directory - and the people who manage the website are actively involved in a certain amount of investigation on past and current urban legends. The site also has a nice "search" feature, so don't be worried if you can't exactly think of how to word your questions about an urban legend.

Just use the search feature and type in something like, "legends about cats" if you heard an incredible story about a cat or cats. If the story you heard was about an incredible crime, type in search terms related to that. If a character name or description was used, like "Skinned Tom" or "Hook handed man," then use those words for search terms.

You can also use Google and search for urban legends - or, if you do think the story you heard was true, that's okay, too - it might be a true story that is just very hard to believe, so search for news on it through the Google search engine.

Tips & Warnings

Be careful concerning urban legends.

Some urban legends sound too extreme to be true but sometimes real life events are "stranger than fiction," too. On the other hand, some urban legends are designed to have so many "common" and "ordinary" elements - things we understand as "normal," that these elements mask the fact that an urban legend is being told.

Urban legends are very important types of stories and even though they are often not true, they can contain some features that are half-truths or related to truths about real people that are valid. Often, urban legends are "cautionary tales" so they employ fictional details to supply a "lesson."

Basically, when in doubt - double-check on things.

Have fun and enjoy the stories you hear! Watch to see to it that you don't get carried away believing in an urban legend - but if you CAN determine you're listening to an urban legend, enjoy the effects if you can.



Nov 3, 2010 4:41pm
Excellent article! Welcome to this great site.
Dec 15, 2010 7:11pm
Thank you for reading and commenting, footloose! Much appreciated. Take Care.
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