Eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda at the same time causes your stomach to explode. A woman was warned of a home invader by her chocking Doberman Pincher. Microsoft will give you $245 for every third person to whom you forward a certain e-mail.
You’ve heard stories like these before, either through word of mouth or forwarded e-mail. They are urban legends, a kind of American folklore that, like tales of old, is kept alive through word of mouth and occasionally media reports. The rise of the internet and e-mail has helped to spread these tales globally at the blink of an eye. Urban legends typically contain elements that are strange and fantastic, but are so realistic and plausible that you would believe them to be true. But the reality is that these tales are at best exaggerations of actual events, and at worst, hoaxes.
Jan Harold Brunvand, a former professor who taught courses on folklore and studied urban legends as a hobby, calls urban legends an integral part of American culture, just like traditional folklore. Urban legends, however, appear to be validated by witnesses or other reliable sources, so “the most sophisticated ‘folk’ of modern society” believe they are true. (from The Vanishing Hitchhiker) Being a folklorist, Brunvand does not look to debunk these stories. His series of books simply explore the origins and evolution of urban legends. Similarly, The 500 Best Urban Legends Ever! divides the tales into different categories and presents them without additional commentary: Just plain, fun reading!
Proving or disproving urban legends is the job of two highly visible and notable sources. On the Discovery Channel series Mythbusters, special effects experts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage take urban legends, myths, rumors and historic oddities and test them scientifically. Faithful crash test dummy Buster is often on hand when Hyneman and company recreate the myths, some involving elaborate machines, props and explosions! After observation and examination of applicable data, the myth is declared confirmed, plausible or busted!
Barbara and David P. Mikkelson do the same job as the Mythbusters, only without the splash! Their website Urban Legends Reference Pages at snopes.com verifies or disproves urban legends, “common fallacies, misinformation, old wives’ tales, strange news stories, rumors, celebrity gossip, and similar items” (from snopes.com FAQ) by going the source of the legend – personal accounts, media or historical reports and/or physical evidence – to determine its validity. The findings are presented in short essays where the legends are rated as true, false or undetermined. The sources of the research are often included.
Snopes.com divides the legends into forty-four categories, including a search option. The Computers category is especially useful for finding the truth behind those pesky mass e-mails that friends and family forward to you. You know the ones: They warn you about computer viruses, pending threats and disasters, and show pictures of fantastic phenomena like pink dolphins. The next time you get one of those mailings, check Snopes to see if it is worth forwarding to everyone in your address book!
Other books on urban legends are available at CCLS and through PINES. Many more sites can be found on the web by searching the term “urban legends” or “urban tales.”