Saturday, April 28, 2012

Urban Legends in the Internet Age

By now, thanks in part to the 1998 movie, everyone knows what an urban legend is. A fictional story, presented as fact, told and retold. Sometimes they're cautionary tales - the psychopath hiding in the backseat, the creepy calls coming from inside the house, the man with the hook for a hand who preys on the parking teenagers. Always told as, "No, that really happened to a friend of my cousin / a girl in my hometown." The beautiful, organ harvesting woman and the man who wakes up in a bathtub full of ice. The alligators in the NYC sewer tunnels. The hippies who poisoned Halloween candy. Despite the lack of evidence to the contrary, these stories were passed on, and on, causing fear, even panic. 
Full disclosure: I love the movie Urban Legend. I don't care what anyone says, it is an awesome movie. This may or may not be because I am in <3 with Jared Leto, and have been since 1994.

But, as Google and Snopes have become a part of our everyday lives, it has become more difficult to perpetuate an urban legend. If someone tells me about how their uncle was the victim of the high-beams gang initiation, I can whip out my smart phone and confidently tell my friend, within five minutes, that their story is complete BS.

On the other hand, the Internet has actually increased the popularity of some urban legends. Everyone has that one friend (or family member - I'm lookin' at you, Aunt Sherry!) who forwards every warning message about a new virus, scam, conspiracy, mass murderer, etc. E-mail is a quick and pretty much effortless way to spread a rumor - and while plenty of us are skeptics who want proof before we'll believe anything we read, there are plenty of people who will believe the story and pass it on. And then there are the "news" sites that are taken as gospel truth, when they might in fact be a comedy site, a propaganda mill, or just plain lazy about fact-checking. Wikipedia may be a great way to get a quick summary of available data, but if you don't look carefully at the "sources" cited for a given "fact", it's easy to leave the site with false or incomplete information.
"It will always be human nature to tell bizarre stories, and there will always be an audience waiting to believe them. The urban legend is part of our makeup." --How Urban Legends Work
Have you ever heard a "true story" only to later discover that it was a well-known urban legend? When I was a child, it was a popularly-held belief (among ten-year-olds) that a girl "two years older than us" had died from fright one Halloween in the nearby cemetery when her nightgown was pinned to a grave. And then I saw an episode of "The Twilight Zone" where pretty much that exact thing happened. Which is when I realized that it's not a good idea to believe everything you hear or read. On the other hand, just because it wasn't true didn't mean it wasn't a great story.


  1. Urban Legend was one of the best movies of the 90's! Rebecca Gayheart gives one of THE great over-the-top performances in the history of horror movies.

  2. She is a pretty spectacular villain.