photo credit: Wonderpolis
Urban Legends: History in the Making
Urban legends take on many forms from misunderstood conspiracy theories to tall tales of pure imagination. And just like a flower in the soil, the urban legend needs just the right amount of each ingredient to maximize its beauty. For an urban legend to bloom it must combine a contemporary story with elements of tragedy or terror, mixed with traces of believably, and a dash of fantasy that blurs the lines between myth and reality.
What is an urban legend? Merriam-Webster defines urban legend as “an often-lurid story or anecdote that is based on hearsay and widely circulated as true,” leaving us a similar definition to a simple rumor. The term legend is often associated with the folklore of olden times or long-term history. The dictionary might denote urban legend as a rumor, but a quick Internet search of the term “urban legend definition” provides an array of interpretations to the meaning. Linking several perceptions and definitions together, urban legends are stories that are usually passed down in generations, involving a friend or a family member who has something intriguing occur.
In the 1980s in every elementary school across the nation, kids were daring each other to drink soda after eating popping candy. Legend says one time this kid (someone knew) ate some pop rocks and then drank a Coke and his stomach exploded. Or maybe the one about the child who brings home an alligator flushes it down the toilet, but it begins thriving in the city sewer and grows to monstrous size.
A few more popular ones might come to mind– the Chupacabra, Loch Ness monster, and Bigfoot, or maybe Bloody Mary or the Candyman, all of which are often spoke of or written about in contemporary horror films. From movies of the ‘90s that popularize familiar urban legends, to modern-day television series that revolve around the same topic, there is no shortage of urban legends to explore.
Maryland has its own urban legends, including the popular stories of Cry-Baby Bridge, located just a few miles from my home. I grew up hearing the stories, and they vary from teller to teller, but the idea is the road is haunted, never pick up a hitchhiker, and a woman is searching for her baby she may or may not have thrown off the rickety old bridge. I consulted a few articles online and they mentioned the same tales that circulate throughout campfire jamborees across the state. I have personally “investigated” this bridge, and I have found no proof of paranormal activities, though I am confident I could easily find people I know personally who think they have. Either way, I still won’t drive that section of the road at night, even if I could, you know, just in case.
Can someone really die from eating popping candy and drinking a carbonated drink? At first thought, maybe, because chances are, it hasn’t been thought about much before. In my grade school, kids were brave and quickly ended the legend of death by pop rocks for us. I cannot argue there were a few Saturday nights where it was lucky for us the legends of The Candyman and Bloody Mary were just tall tales as well, but it doesn’t mean we weren’t scared to try and find out. Don’t even start on the Ouija board. Do we know if that’s an urban legend or not? Someone was moving it, right? This begins the perfect formula for a story to become an urban legend.
To consider the how contemporary a legend is, we have to determine how they started. Urban legend didn’t have a term for its modern-day place in storytelling until about fifty years ago. One researcher found the phrase as early as 1925 appearing in the New York Times, but it wasn’t used in the way we are familiar with today. While it appeared in print again, it wasn’t until 1968 that urban legends took on the definition it has today. When Richard M. Dorson wrote in “Our Living Traditions,” “’Urban legends deal with the ghostly hitchhiker, the stolen grandmother, and the death car’” he gave birth to the familiar idea we have today. One of the earliest detailed accounts and most popularized urban legends is the aforementioned alligator in the sewer system. In 1984 the story received so much attention The Frederick Post mentions it in print, “’The ordinance authorized the mayor to negotiate ‘at arm’s length’ with New York City officials for the alligators, which urban myth says thrive in the city’s sewer system”, substantiating the existence of urban legends. Maybe the irrational fear spawns from the 1980 film Alligator or maybe someone saw an alligator in New York City– that is a whole other research project, but it doesn’t matter, because out there somewhere, someone knows someone that knows someone that knows who this happened to, or so the legend says.
So far, we have only talked about the best-known urban legends, the ones that might have been debunked for us already or where the blurry line is just a little clearer for us. We know these are urban legends. Well, now we do. That wasn’t the case recently when a new story appeared on the scene. A true-life tragedy occurred from an urban legend circling the Internet and his name was Slenderman. The very best thing about this contemporary legend is we can pinpoint exactly how the phenomenon begins. Slenderman began in 2009 with a photo contest where readers were asked to photoshop something paranormal into an existing photo. According to the CBS Interactive, it begins with one man’s idea and over the course of time, other readers contribute to the artist’s work and give him an ultra-creepy appearance. Slenderman took on a physical appearance, a character personality and became quite popular rather quickly among fans creating websites to read all the Slenderman horror stories. In May of 2014 that blurry line between myth and reality was quite skewed for two girls from Wisconsin when they brutally stabbed a classmate to become “proxies” of Slenderman. Slenderman was outed as an urban legend, sharpening the blurry line and ending some of the darkness and elusive shadows he created. Slenderman was brought to light and millions of parents took time to talk to their kids about the dangers of the Internet, but also, of urban legends and their ability to skew our perceptions.
The internet and social media have become an outlet for creating urban legends, but several outlets have become notorious for debunking the stories for us. The popular show MythBusters likes to take stories and prove or disprove them. Another popular internet site Snopes.com is also constantly trying to verify and control the number of rumors that make their way to our doors. While it’s nice to know that anyone can pleasantly enjoy a carbonated soda and popping candy at the same time, and Area 52 is probably not a real place, maybe I didn’t want to know that Rose could have saved Jack in The Titanic because now I am just mad she didn’t even try to.
To get to urban legend status, it all starts with a good story. Make sure it’s a little scary because all successful urban legends are. Make your story teeter right on that line between, “no way that’s impossible” and “or is it?”. Make sure it happened to someone you know, all good urban legends happened to a friend of a friend whose grandmother said something about her late husband’s father’s uncle, or something like that. It’s not going to make it to urban legend stature if it just happened to a random stranger, you have to know them somehow. After all, you aren’t telling an urban legend, you are just sharing the true adventures of the craziest things that can’t possibly be true, but somehow you want to believe it anyway.
In conclusion, urban legends are a combination of just the right ingredients that grow together in story-telling harmony. They question what we think we know with the unknown. They bring elements of mystery or fantasy with components of darkness. They don’t start out as legends but more as questionable experiences. An urban legend does not aspire to become a legend, it is merely a story. Only when it has all the mentioned components can the story reach urban legend stature. As kids, we might think about princesses’ or knights or live in a pretend fantasy world of rainbow, sparkles, and unicorns. As we get older we hold on to our fairy tales, because, honestly, urban legends are entertaining. They let us imagine and think about things just inside the realm of possibility but just crazy enough to keep them telling it. Just as one urban legend is debunked another one has already begun forming somewhere else in the universe. It’s not a legend just yet, just a seed, because some kid hasn’t gotten the courage to peek out in the woods at midnight on the first night of the harvest moon yet. And the longer he waits, the bigger his story grows. Just as easily as we may once have believed a life with unicorns, somewhere out there someone is telling a friend of the story about the guy her mom knew once, who really did find a razor blade and drugs in kids Halloween Candy one year. So, we better check every piece of candy for the next 20 years, just in case. After all, it is possible it could happen to us, right?
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends. Norton, 1981.
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