Urban legends, sometimes also called urban myths or urban belief tales, are unverifiable but allegedly true stories about funny, frightening, or supernatural events that have achieved wide popularity.
The term "urban legends" was first used sometime in the 1930s to designate a certain type of folklore. Among the first studies dedicated to the problem are Alexander Woollcott's monograph While Rome Burns (1934) and Marie Bonaparte's study of The Corpse in the Car legend (1941)
Urban legends share several common features. According to Jan Harold Brunvand, the author of several books on the subject, a key aspect of all such tales is the "friend of a friend" (FOAF) factor. That is, the narrator insists that the event has actually happened to a close fellow, in order to boost its credibility. Another common feature of the urban legends is their well-developed plot, with an actual beginning, middle and end, along with an unexpected twist. The lack of sustainable evidence is another key aspect of this type of folklore. Another feature of an urban legend is that it has several versions with different details, such as the names of the characters in it and the place where the event has allegedly happened.
There are different classes of urban legends and different reasons for their emergence. Some of these stories are simple cautionary tales, aiming to warn individuals against certain dangers. Such an urban legend is the story of a man who went to a bar, had a couple of drinks with a strange woman and then woke up in a hotel room missing one of his kidneys. Another such tale is a story about snakes in the toilet, with the plot usually involving a reptile somehow getting into the plumbing system of an apartment house and coming up from a toilet when a person is just about to use it. Both stories strike a cautionary note, to be careful with strangers and when choosing ways to obey the call of nature, respectively.
Another class of urban legends is the one involving moral messages. Such are the stories about the LSD in Blue Star Tattoos, about the HIV-infected needles in movie theater seat cushions and of heads rolling on the Lover's Lane. All such myths allow the narrator either to distance from certain immoral types of behavior or to tell a morality lecture to the audience.
Other classes of urban legends are aimed at expressing some form of reaction to an economic or social event. For example, stories of deadly reptiles hidden in imported merchandise in department stores and biting innocent customers first became hugely popular in the early 1970s. Some believe that the myth was first circulated to dissuade shoppers from patronizing the big discount department stores offering merchandise shipped from overseas markets.
Another class of urban legends is the "wrong place at the wrong time" class. The story of the scuba diver who got sucked into the water tanks of firefighters seeking to extinguish blazes in the nearby forest is such a story. According to University of Toronto sociologist Walter Podilchak, such bizarre stories are a product of people's efforts to speak about death.
Urban legends are not merely told to cause alarm or fear. Some arise from people's desire to retell an interesting story adding their own, new imprint to it. That might explain the wide-scale variety of appearances of a single original urban story, as well as the long lives of such tales. The emergence of urban legends can also be attributed to the memory gaps of the narrator who has read or heard a piece of news from a credible source but has retold it by missing some features and adding some new ones to plug the holes. Numerous retelling of a story also guarantees its exaggeration or misinterpretation.
Urban legends have also invaded the Internet, with junk mail often telling online users to stop buying products of a certain firm, based on claims taken from an urban legend. Online messages often provide misleading and potentially harmful health advices, like the one that taking aspirin prevents women from getting pregnant. Apart from being the source and means of urban legends circulation, the Internet also offers a place where urban legends are discussed and demystified. The Urban Legends Resource Centre offers a wide range of information on this topic. Urban legends have also been widely used in film-making, with one example being the eponymous movie Urban Legend (1998).