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Urban Legend

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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

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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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English: Grainy B&W image of supposed UFO, Pas...

B&W image of supposed UFO, Passaic, New Jersey Edited version of Image:PurportedUFO NewJersey 1952 07 31.gif. By Bach01. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

UFO means “unidentified flying object.” Because UFOs are unidentified objects, this leaves the door open for all kinds of possibilities. UFOs are usually taken as extraterrestrial spacecraft but they could be an energy or spirit field (or possibly being), like the many orbs that have been observed through camera and the naked eye.

Alleged UFO sightings have been reported throughout history. Since the 1950’s UFOs and aliens have been popularized by the news and entertainment media. Some authors like George Adamski and, more recently, Rael and Whitley Streiber claim to have encountered aliens.

Alien sightings and abduction accounts have increased in the media, especially on sci-fi TV networks and radio shows like Coast to Coast AM.

Also making the news was an apparent U.S. military cover-up of a crashed flying disc and its inhabitants at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. The Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) quickly modified an earlier announcement about a crashed flying disc, saying later in the same day that the disc was attached to a weather balloon. The Air Force has responded to charges of “controlling public information” by stating that there was “no evidence” of UFO air traffic over Roswell and the case has been officially closed.

Public figures like Dan Akroyd, however, continue to explore the possibility of a government cover-up.

Not everyone sees UFOs through the lens of conspiracy theories. Raelians believe that mankind was created by wise, loving aliens. And some contemporary writers believe that mankind is gradually being acclimatized to the reality of ETs through the media. Conversely, some Christian fundamentalists believe that aliens, and anything associated with them, are demonic.

Others take a middle path, believing that aliens may be benevolent or malevolent. Just as human history is a complicated mix of good and bad, it seems to reason that interstellar realities would be much the same.

Alien Possession Theory (APT) is the idea that some ET’s, embodied or disembodied, try to manipulate individuals through the use of psi.

Some UFO theories are quite bizarre. Hollow Earth theorists, for instance, believe that UFOs originate from the bowels of the planet, where an advanced civilization apparently resides.¹

Adamski's photograph, which is said to be of a...

Adamski’s photograph, which is said to be of a UFO, taken on December 13, 1952. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The depth psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) said that the disc shaped UFOs of the 1950s and early 60s could be real but he also viewed them as archetypal images of the self. For Jung, UFOs were a modern mandala. Meanwhile the respected author Jacques Vallée likens UFO lore to fairy tales and mysterious trickster beings.²

Since Vatican Council II (1962-65) was inaugurated by Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church has endorsed inquiry into the possibility of ETs and UFOs. This makes the Catholic position on UFOs and ETs quite different from that of many Christian fundamentalists.

¹ See related entries in The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends (London: Headline, 1993) and The Paranormal: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (London: Headline, 1992) by Stuart Gordon.

² Ibid.

Related Posts » George Adamski, Aliens and Extraterrestrials (ETs), “ET’s, UFO’s and the Psychology of Belief,” Foo Fighers, Moses and Monotheism, Possession, Michael Talbot, Neil Young



Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura.

Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nichelle Nichols – American actress and singer who first plays Uhura

Lieutenant Uhura is the communications officer serving on the bridge of the starship Enterprise and Enterprise-A in the original TV Star Trek and the first six Star Trek films.

Uhura is one of the few black women to take a prominent role in 1960’s American television. Previously, black women had been cast as servants or foreign ‘primitives’ in the popular media.

As for the name itself:

“Uhura” comes from the Swahili word uhuru, which means “freedom”. Nichols states in her book Beyond Uhura that the name was inspired by the fact that she had with her a copy of the book Black Uhuru on the day she read for the part.¹

With the inclusion of an international crew, program creator Gene Roddenberry hoped to eradicate racism and many other forms of prejudice. The original series, however, may seem sexist from a contemporary standpoint.

Zoë Saldana as Uhura in Star Trek (2009).

Zoë Saldana as Uhura in Star Trek (2009). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Zoë Saldana – American actress and dancer who plays a younger Uhura

In the 2009 film Star Trek, a younger Uhura is played by actor Zoë Saldana. We learn that she’s a former student of Spock, who is also romantically involved with him. In the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, she and Spock are still romantically involved.²

The young Kirk flirted with Uhura at a earlier point in the story arc, but she rebuffed him. However, on board the Enterprise they have a good rapport, and share their frustrations in dealing with Spock (Kirk as best friend, Uhura as his lover).

Uhura is particularly heroic when using her linguistic skills to face hostile Klingons by herself, getting Kirk and Spock out of a jam³ (Klingons had not joined the Federation of Planets at this time in the overall storyline).


² It might seem this film takes too much artistic license by having the super-emotional Spock play the lover. Would not Spock’s emotional repression be worse at a young age, only flowering, perhaps, in old age? This is one way of looking at it. Another is that Spock had not mastered his emotions at a younger age, and he increases mastery as he grows older. In defense of the film, Spock’s father Sarek was married to a human woman, Amanda, so romance must come into play in a Vulcan’s life. This also means that Spock is only half Vulcan. He’s also half human.

³ For more details see



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Black’s Medical Dictionary (39th edition) defines the unconscious as “a description of mental activities of which an individual is unaware” (p. 567).

In the West, the idea of the unconscious has an interesting history. It’s found in the ancient Greek literature of Sophocles, with related ideas like hubris, and in Shakespeare and more recent luminaries like James Joyce.

Philosophical debates about its character flourished in the 18th century among thinkers like John Locke and David Hume. In the 20th century, Freud, Pierre Janet, Alfred Adler, Carl Jung and many others presented their unique theories about the unconscious.

Arthur Koestler believes the idea of the unconscious was already known before the actual word was coined. Koestler cites several examples where the notion of the unconscious is implied in the arts and philosophy (e.g. Dante, Kepler and Kant). Koestler also says that consciousness and unconsciousness are not discrete states but exist along a continuum.¹

From Koestler it seems reasonable to suggest that the range and character of this experiential continuum varies among individuals. In other words, some people access different types of thoughts and emotions than others.

Arthur Koestler with Mamaine Paget, Robie Maca...

Arthur Koestler with Mamaine Paget, Robie Macauley and Flannery O’Connor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But we should remember that the unconscious is just a concept. All too often it’s reified. Reification means ideas are assumed to represent some real entity or thing–for instance, the sociological idea of “the state.” Reified concepts may even point to detailed legal entities.²

A common misunderstanding among contemporary writers is to say that Freud sees the unconscious as uniquely personal while his former protege Carl Jung sees it as collective.³ In fact, both theorist recognize personal and collective aspects within their respective theories of the unconscious.

¹ Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: Penguin [Arkana], 1989: 147-177.

² Reification is also a concept. So the question remains as to whether the thing written or talked about actually exists as described.

³ See shadow, archetypes

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"Extreme Unction", part of The Seven...

“Extreme Unction”, part of The Seven Sacraments, by Rogier Van der Weyden (1445). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unction is an oil ritually applied to sacred statues and the dead for magical and religious purposes.

The practice was common in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and among the Hittites. The Jews of the Old Testament and the first Christians also used oil for anointing.

Today the Catholic Church uses oil for Baptism, Confirmation, Coronation ceremonies and for conferring spiritual strength.

The Catholic sacrament of Holy Unction or anointing of the sick replaced Extreme Unction in 1972.

The old name: “Extreme Unction” means last anointing. “Extreme” was used to mean “last.” “Unction” means anointing. The sacrament has not changed, but the name “Sacrament of the Sick” or “Anointing of the Sick” better conveys that fact that it is a healing sacrament that is meant for the living as well as for those near death. It has always been meant for both. This is not new. The sacrament has not changed–just the name.

Fr. Vincent Serpa, O.P.¹

Extreme unction. Esperanto: Lasta sankt-oleado.

Extreme unction. Esperanto: Lasta sankt-oleado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sacrament also appears within the Eastern Orthodox Church. For Catholics, to participate in the sacrament one must

(a) be of the age or reason

(b) have recently received the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, formerly called Confession

In actual practice, however, there is no real way for a priest to definitively determine if a parishioner has recently received the sacrament of Reconciliation or not. And I suggest elsewhere, Catholic teaching compared to what parishioners actually believe and practice might not always be in accord. ²

¹ “What ever happened to Extreme Unction?” »


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2CD version cover

2CD version cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The undead are a class of zombie-like beings found in forms of vampirism.

It’s hard to know what this urban legend has to do with contemporary society. Possibly some people enjoy this kind of imagery because it’s a safe outlet for things they discern, consciously or unconsciously about themselves, their families, and society. In other words, a safe representation of dark, shadow aspects.

Along these lines, toward the end of his career Sigmund Freud outlined two main forces acting in the psyche – Eros and Thanatos.¹ The one is about creation, the other destruction. This theme of creation and destruction also runs throughout world religions, literature, music and the arts.

¹ See “Death Drive”


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Evelyn Underhill

English: Evelyn Underhill. Author given as Wil...

Evelyn Underhill (1855–1908) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Evelyn Underhill (1850-1941) was a British author on the subject of mysticism. Underhill is often described as an Anglo-Catholic. Although she was interested in the Catholic faith, her husband apparently resisted her conversion. Thus she technically remained a Protestant.

Her book, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (1911) is widely regarded as a Christian classic. Here Underhill revives the memory of many Christian saints in the minds of her mostly protestant readers.

She dismissed William James‘ Four Marks of Religious Experience, preferring to treat the topic in a fresh new way, loosely based on her own religious experiences as compared to those found written in Christian history. James, himself, openly admitted that he was not a mystic but, rather, an interested researcher and writer on the topic. So, by way of analogy, Underhill’s revision of James was something like an actual race car driver telling an interested onlooker that he didn’t really know what he was talking about when writing about race car driving.¹

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Sincere mystics, she writes, are aware of the need for intense rational discernment and self-analysis.

Ecstasies, no less than visions and voices, must, they declare, be subjected to unsparing criticism before they are recognized as divine: whilst some are undoubtably “of God,” others are no less clearly “of the devil.”²

In Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (1914), published at the outbreak of WW-I, Underhill makes a distinction between meditation and contemplation. While these two terms often overlap, Underhill suggests that, for the most part, meditation may lead to more elevated forms of contemplative understanding. As Underhill puts it:

Now meditation is a half-way house between thinking and contemplating: and as a discipline, it derives its chief value from this transitional character.³

Evelyn Underhill and Michael Ramsey by mberry

Evelyn Underhill and Michael Ramsey by mberry via Flickr

The strength of this definition is that it’s not black and white, as so many fundamentalists and conservatives depict the world. Rather, it represents a developmental approach. One meditates to put things together, process information, and make sense of their world. But that’s not enough. One also has to reach for the highest high, which actually reaches down to us. For Christians, this is the experience of the Holy Spirit, which perhaps not all forms of meditation emphasize.

Another strength of Underhill’s approach is that she tries to normalize and remove the stigma from a discussion about mystical experience. This is ahead of its time. Today, we hear lots of talk about removing the stigma of so-called “mental illness.” But we still don’t hear much about removing the stigma around talking about mysticism. If anything, we’ve collectively gone backwards toward a kind of techno-materialism. The term “mental illness” implies a predominantly medical issue instead of one involving the entire person—physical, psychological, social and spiritual.

Related Post » Alice in Wonderland, Sri Aurobindo, Clairaudience, Kabbala

¹ Not that Underhill was the final authority. Her letters to the respected religious layman Friedrich von Hugel reveal her own struggles and uncertainties. See She simply makes some good points.

(Baron) Friedrich von Hügel (1852 – 1925) was an influential Austrian Roman Catholic layman, religious writer, Modernist theologian and Christian apologist (Wikipedia)

² Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness (New York: The New American Library, 1955 [1911]), p. 361. As the administrator of Earthpages, a site largely about religion and religious experience, I have come across so many people utterly convinced that they’re “special” or some kind of prophet just because they’ve had an unconventional experience or two. In some cases, it seems these folks are misguided. Over the years I’ve discovered that it’s easy to make mistakes with mysticism. Not so easy to admit it. Why? Because admitting we’ve made a mistake means we have to FEEL the underlying emotions we’ve been covering up, and which contributed to the mistake in the first place. It’s far easier for some people to go on being misguided. They don’t have to feel what hurts. And as long as they keep their erroneous ideas to themselves, they can sometimes function well enough in society to effectively mask their borderline psychological condition.

³ ___, Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (London: Dent, 1914), p. 46.