This really happened: a friend of my friend Amy went out to a party on Saturday night and really tied one on – he was so drunk that he passed out. When he woke up the next morning, he was lying in a bathtub full of ice and there was a note written on the bathroom mirror in lipstick. It said, “Call 911 or you will die!” It turned out that both of his kidneys had been stolen! He’s now in the hospital on dialysis and life support, waiting for a kidney transplant (Snopes).
The above story is an example of a classic urban legend. It is, in fact, one of the more popular urban legends that has circulated for years. While there are many versions of the story, the victim always has his or her kidneys stolen, is left on ice, and warned in a message to call for help. According to John Todd Llewellyn in Public Relations Quarterly, urban legends
are instances of folklore in the oral tradition which are memorable, repeatable and appropriate in some recurring social situations. The story in an urban legend is believable, involves the actions of regular people, and is set in the recent past. Usually the teller and the hearer are of the same locale and generation. The action being described happened “around here” but to an unnamed, near-acquaintance known as a FOAF (friend of a friend). (Llewellyn)
This definition can be applied to the example. An individual having his kidney stolen is memorable and inspires the retelling – why keep a good story to oneself? In addition, the victim was a regular person, the friend of a friend. This is what makes the story believable when it truly is outrageous – that it really happened to a friend once or twice removed. The story is always told as if it happened recently, and the story is retold so that it happened locally. Within the story, there are no concrete details, such as the name of the victim, the specific location, the exact date, the hospital in which he now resides, and there is never a newspaper or television news story to back up the claim.
The most important factor of an urban legend, of course, is that it is believable. It is the belief that inspires individuals to spread the story. Llewellyn’s approach to the urban legend is from the perspective of public relations. After all, many legends are aimed at business and industry. Some are used as cautionary tales, like those that insist that rats, cockroaches and other unappetizing creatures are substituted for chicken at KFC. Other tales have little or no purpose, other than to discredit a business – such as the story that Neiman-Marcus charged $250 for a cookie recipe, so the unwitting buyer made the recipe public in order to get her money’s worth. The important aspect of these legends is that they are false – they have never been proven to be true. In fact, the Neiman-Marcus legend is more than 50 years old and has been told about a variety of businesses (Llewellyn). Llewellyn offers firms advice for keeping their companies out of urban legends, the most important of which is to be aware of what spawns a business legend – the public’s lack of faith in the company itself. The public relations department should then find ways to instill confidence in the public so that new legends don’t appear.
A different way to view urban legends is that they are not meant to be taken literally. A good example is the myriad of legends aimed at teenagers. They often contain a similar theme – teenagers who seek to be alone to make out or have sex will be punished. One example is the teenage boy who purchases condoms before a date – it turns out that the pharmacist or cashier was his date’s father. While it is unclear if this ever really happened, it is clear that the story represents a warning to teenagers about having sex. Such warnings are frequent in the incessant retelling of urban legends, though they are not created with the express purpose of serving as a warning. According to Bill Ellis in Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live, “legends compel their hearers to construct meanings” The urban legends that appear on the Internet do so because they are intentionally fabricated as warnings – warnings to be careful when leaving a mall, to sign a petition that will prevent the government from charging extra fees for e-mail, and to avoid a variety of dangerous situations that “really happened” (Ellis, 75).
These urban legends, those that deal specifically in warnings, are often referred to as crime legends. The most popular in this genre are:
v the legend that a snuff film (one which shows a person actually being killed) exists, viewed by a friend of a friend.
v the aforementioned stolen body parts
v abductions from shopping malls and theme parks
Pamela Donavan, in No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet, theorizes that these legends continue to spread not because they are believed, but because they are debunked regularly. The debate over whether these incidents could have possibly happened keep the story going (Donavan, 136). Donavan also describes the concept of “expansive definition”, which implies that the telling of urban legends often inspires the listeners to recount events that have actually happened. In the case of snuff films, retellers might consider the presence of significantly violent porn films. The telling of abduction stories leads one to think about abductions that have actually happened (and can be backed up by newspaper stories). Donavan also gives the theory of inferential belief, where an individual who believes the story “relies on a grey area of events for which no evidence exists” (Donavan, 137). One could also refer to this as stretching the truth. After all, since there are many healthy people in the world and many people who need organs, who is to say that organs haven’t been stolen?
The most unusual take on urban legends comes from Thomas Lovoy in his article, “Rediscovering the Kernels of Truth in the Urban Legends of the Freshman Composition Classroom”. Lovoy equates urban legends to the reasons that freshman have trouble in their English composition classes. Students tend to memorize the rules of writing without truly understanding the reasons and meanings behind the rules. As a result, they tend to incorrectly apply the rules to their papers. One example is that of a thesis paragraph. Students have been told that they need to include the supporting ideas in this paragraph. They take this to mean that they only need to include the thesis and the supporting ideas, when the truth is that a thesis paragraph is also an introduction and needs to hook the reader – basic information simply will not accomplish that goal. Another urban legend is that plagiarism is merely copying statements without giving credit to the author. This idea has two negative effects. The first is that it tends to discourage students from quoting research in their papers. They assume that stating an idea is plagiarism. The second problem is that many students don’t realize that not writing their own paper is also plagiarism – in this case, they are turning in an entire paper as their own work without giving credit to the true author.
In conclusion, urban legends used to be referred to as mythology, and there are many similarities between them: they cannot be proven, many stories present the listener with a message, and they are just outrageous enough to be interesting. Many legends are transmitted through e-mail, sent as warnings to friends and relatives. These legends evolve over time, one must wonder what the stolen organ story will sound like in one hundred years, or even in a thousand.
Donovan, Pamela. No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2004.
Ellis, Bill. Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
Llewellyn, John Todd. “Understanding Urban Legends: A Peculiar Public Relations Challenge.” Public Relations Quarterly 41.4 (1996): 17+.
Lovoy, Thomas. “Rediscovering the Kernels of Truth in the Urban Legends of the Freshman Composition Classroom.” College Teaching 52.1 (2004): 11+.
“Urban Legends Reference Pages.” Snopes.com. 2006. Urban Legends Reference Pages. 4 Dec 2006 <http://www.snopes.com/horrors/robbery/kidney2.asp>.