An urban legend is a story too good to be true. Urban legends are motifs in folklore, often found universally. Some haunting stories are urban legends or contain elements of urban legends. An urban legend describes a strange but supposedly real event that happened to a friend of a friend, and so the story builds.
Usually there is at least some element of truth to the story, but it becomes fictionalized with retelling. Core themes remain the same, but details differ from locale to locale. Examples of well-known urban legends are alligators in the sewer, spiders in the hairdo, the choking Doberman and various medical horror stories. Many urban legends have to do with embarrassing situations, such as the unzipped fly, and many contain slapstick or sick humor, such as the exploding toilet.
Of the hundreds of urban legend motifs cataloged by folklorists, a small number pertain to the supernatural. These are evident in such popular ghost stories as the vanishing hitchhiker (see PELE and RESURRECTION MARY); weeping women (see LA LLORONA); devil babies (see HULL HOUSE); “the hook” and the boyfriend’s death (see BACHELOR’S GROVE CEMETERY); people who turn out to be faceless (see FACELESS WOMAN); death cars and other cursed vehicles (see LITTLE BASTARD, CURSE OF); ghosts looking for help; wells to hell (see WELLS and WOODLAWN PLANTATION); appearances of the Devil in disguise; cheap real estate that turns out to be haunted or cursed; missing time; and lost wrecks (see PHANTOM SHIPS and FLYING DUTCHMAN).
In years past, urban legends were primarily spread through oral retelling. They have made their ways into books, newspaper and magazine articles, columns, and radio and television reports. The Internet has opened a new medium for the spread of urban legends.
FURTHER READING: Brunvald, Jan Harold. Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999.