Urban Legend is a kind of modern folk tale of dubious truth, but it’s usually told as if true.
Urban legends often involve horror themes that attempt to evoke strong emotions. They’re transmitted by word of mouth, through the print media, TV, radio or the internet. Ghost stories, vampires and the idea of creepy things in city sewers would be some examples.
Wikipedia puts it this way:
An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend, is a form of modern folklore consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true, and often possess horror implications that are believable to their audience.
Despite its name, an urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban area. Rather, the term is used to differentiate modern legend from traditional folklore in pre-industrial times. For this reason, sociologists and folklorists prefer the term “contemporary legend”.¹
The academic view may be more correct, technically. But the term “urban legend” has a cool ring to it that’s missing in the phrase “contemporary legend.” Maybe that’s partly why pulp fiction sells better than academic text books. The very term “urban legend” also plays into the mystique. And that’s probably what people seek when consuming this kind of stuff. A bit of excitement. Escape. Or as Carl Jung put it, an experience of the numinous.
Urban legend, especially regarding urban tales, differs from mythology. Traditionally, myths are said to carry some kind of supernatural connotation. Myths also are understood by modern people to be factually untrue. But with urban legend, the listener doesn’t know if the story is true or not. And urban legends do not necessarily have a supernatural element.
Urban legend is also said to differ from myth in that urban legends linger in the imagination as if they may be true, however exaggerated they might become through repeated telling.²
² This distinction seems debatable. Consider Hindus who believe that the story of Krishna is not myth but reality. Also, many Christians take aspects of the Bible literally, no matter how fantastic or limiting some Bible tales may be. And yet many see the Bible as just another myth. Alternately, many see it as a combination of myth, politics, prejudice, distant history and spirituality.
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