Thursday, June 6, 2019

Why Are Urban Legends Believable?

This question fascinates me. So as a folklore buff, I did some digging.

A classic urban legend--Bloody Mary.
Trevor J. Blank, an assistant professor of Communications at a New York State University, who studies folklore and legends gives a concise description of what an urban legend is and how it works.

He explains—

They are “Fictional stories that have some kind of believable component.”

These stories seem credible because they supposedly happened to “a friend of a friend” that the listener knows or has heard about.

But this source is always just far enough away—they cannot be reached to verify or confirm the “truth” of the claims.

This element is what makes urban legends different than rumors—which tend to be about people the teller knows.

Blank points out that an urban legend often has elements of truth, but they distort it to create more “intrigue.”

Ghost stories use this same ploy.

Jan Harold Brunvand, in his book, Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid states urban legends are believed because they are combined with the “details of real life.”

Brunvand points out that they are packed with “local details.” As well as dates and names, etc. are given to make them seem real.

The following ghost story is a classic example of an urban legend that has been shared for generations as an actual event.

The Ghost in Search of . . .

In 1949, Dr. Phillip Cook, while attending a medical meeting, heard Dr. S. Weir Mitchell from New York relate a story that happened to him in 1912.

I was sitting in my office late one night when I heard a knock on my door. I discovered a little girl on my doorstep. She pleaded with me to come to her home to attend someone who was ill.

I told her I was almost retired and no longer did house calls. But she was in such distress I agreed to go. I wrote down the name and the address.

I got my bag and coat, but when I returned to the door, she was gone. But since I had the address, I went to this home.

When I got there, a woman came to the door in tears. I asked for the patient in need of medical attention.

She told me I was too late for her little daughter had just died. She then invited me in. I saw the patient lying dead in her bed. It was the little girl who had called at my house.

Many versions of this story were told orally before it was first published in the 1950s-- people swore it was true.

The Crushing

In 1979, a coworker shared this story.

In a Kansas rail yard, a night switchman was caught in the couplers and crushed between two cars. These couplers went straight through his mid-section.

But this terrible accident didn’t kill this man immediately. The other workers at the scene knew they would have to extract him from the two cars by uncoupling them—he then would bleed to death.

Since he had not lost consciousness, they called his wife and children to come. The family said their tearful goodbyes, and when the cars were separated, he died.

The teller of this story insisted it was true, a trusted friend knew a family member—he knew their names.

But this scenario, regardless of how it happens is medically impossible.

This urban legend has been around for half a century even though today it is presented as recent.  It has spread like wildfire over the years, taking on details that reflect the region it is told in.

It is often referred to as “The Last Kiss.”

Various versions of this legend use subway cars, machinery, car accidents, etc.

A Mel Gibson film, Signs even uses this classic urban legend to explain how his character lost his wife.

I share another classic urban legend, Drip, Drip, Drip here.

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