Nicholas DiFonzo

Nicholas DiFonzo

Around the Watercooler

Urban Legends: Strange, Funny, & Horrible, with a Moral

Why we love them

Posted Oct 14, 2011

Urban legends are narratives about strange, funny, or horrible events that could have happened, the details of which change to fit particular locales and time periods, and which frequently contain a moral lesson. Urban legends arise in any context where stories are told: around a campfire, in Internet chat rooms, in casual conversation. They help people amuse themselves, transmit cultural norms and values, and express commonly held fears. The term urban legend is actually a misnomer because these stories often have nothing to do with cities. They are more appropriately labeled modern or contemporary legends because they contain themes related to modern life, such as automobiles, broadcasting, cell phones, contamination, corporations, intercontinental travel, mass production, shopping malls, technology, and teenage dating.

But in addition, urban legends help us manage our fears or provide a cautionary warning. Urban legends often give voice to a variety of modern fears. The Haitian (or Mexican) rat is thought to express fear of illegal immigrants. The account of the killer in the back seat articulates a fear of the dark places in automobiles and of vulnerable females being stalked. The bosom-serpent stories convey unspoken anxieties about contamination—ingesting harmful substances, insects, or slimy animals. Giving voice to these fears—-making them palpable via story—is a way of gaining a sense of control over them and a way of warning people about them.

A similar warning-filled story has become quite popular: A guy met a very attractive woman at a club one night. He flirted with her, one thing led to another, and soon they were back at his apartment. He thought to himself "What a lucky night!" But the next morning he woke up alone and went to the bathroom. Scribbled in red lipstick on the mirror in large letters was "WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF AIDS." This story is known as "AIDS Mary" and has an "AIDS Harry" version. It delivers a warning about promiscuous sex.