Urban legends, referred to by folklorists as contemporary legends, are fictional stories claimed to be true. Myths and legends from throughout history often contain an underlying warning about a potential danger to avoid.
The person telling these unique stories about everyday life claim it really happened to friend-of-a-friend, or the story came from a “reliable,” but unnamed print source. Historically, these myths and legends were spread by word-of-mouth as oral stories. With the advancement of the printing press, they often deceived a wider audience.
Today, urban legends, conspiracy theories, and fake news circulate even more freely, often gaining credibility with the phrase, “I saw it on the internet.” Teaching students to understand bias and question the reliability of a source is an important media literacy skill. Analyzing urban legends and myths from throughout history can help students build these essential skills.
Urban Legends of the Ancient and Medieval World
While many ancient and medieval urban legends are lost because they were never recorded in writing, some tales survive. Aesop’s Fables, a collection of short and fictitious tales, was recorded in Greek between the 7th and 6th century B.C. Even though talking animals and plants were the main characters of most of the stories, the short stories transmitted moral messages and warnings applicable to everyday life. The highly-circulated legends from Greek Mythology also remain some of the most famous and culturally impactful ancient tales.
An ancient Roman urban legend claiming a flexible and unbreakable glass had been invented during the reign of Tiberius (14 – 37 AD) was repeated by several ancient writers. According to the story, when the inventor presented this wonderful product to Tiberius, the emperor destroyed it and had the maker executed. The moral of the story: beware of inventions that may threaten the economy. Pliny the Elder (24-79 AD) expressed his doubts about this myth when he noted, “this story, however, was, for a long time, more widely spread than well authenticated.”
Fabliaux were medieval stories, similar to modern urban legends, circulated by traveling entertainers in the Middle Ages. Most were comic or satiric stories that warned the listener about foolish peasants, greedy clergy, deceitful wives, quacks, and other tricksters. An especially popular medieval legend with ancient origins was the Land of Cockaigne, a peasant’s utopia where the weather was always good, food and clothing were plentiful, and everyone was free from work and following the rules. Many of the surviving recorded stories about this land of plenty actually warn against laziness and other sinful behaviors.
Urban Legends and the Printing Press
While urban legends continued to circulate by word of mouth, the printing press spread these “true” tales to wider audiences over longer periods of time. In Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (1836), one of the characters, Sam Weller, warns the reader about the ingredients in meat pies, popular “fast foods” of the era. Weller claimed his story was true because he lived in the house of a pie maker who made his meat pies from cats, seasoned to taste like beef or mutton. This old story, warning about the ingredients of restaurant food, is very similar to modern urban legends about rats, cats, dogs, or other pets being served up as beef, chicken, or pork at a local restaurant.
In the 1970s, rumors of people placing razor blades, needles, and poison Halloween treats were widely believed but untrue. By the 1980s, reports of these rumors in newspapers caused communities to offer x-rays of Halloween treats. Documenting the stories in print often made them more credible. Yet research of reported incidents over 27 years demonstrated that these Halloween sadist reports were unverifiable or hoaxes (Best & Horiuchi, 1985).
Urban Legends and the Internet
Urban legends and myths and fake news have gained a new life through email, the internet, and social media. Like the historical examples, the stories may be weird, entertaining, or frightening but they still carry warnings about dangers (real and perceived) in a confusing world. The stories reinforce existing beliefs about apparent threats. For example, stories about restaurants serving food containing dogs, rats, or cats are often about establishments selling “foreign” foods or that employ immigrants. These rumors appeal to those who fear immigration or changes to their culture.
Fake news, urban legends, and conspiracy theories are growing quickly on the internet with the spread of COVID-19. Very real fears cause us to fall for incredible stories, especially if those stories align with current suspicions or beliefs. Despite what you might read, the flu vaccine does not cause you to catch COVID-19 and Americans are not being tested against their will and locked up in quarantine sites. But widely circulating stories claim these rumors are true.
Source: istock.com/Tatiana Dyuvbanova
Urban Legends and Media Literacy in the Classroom
Explore urban myths in collections such as the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends by Jan Harold Brunvand and ask your students to identify the underlying danger or threat of these recycled stories. Analyze the likelihood of whether these perceived threats could really occur. Scrutinize if the teller of the myth seeks to influence views toward a particular action or group of people. Ask students to research examples of the circulation of urban myths on the internet or on social media and introduce websites such as snopes.com and factcheck.org to help students distinguish between stories that are just “too good to be true” and more reliable information.
NOTE: For remote learning activities that connect the history of urban legends, we recommend utilizing this blog content in conjunction with online curriculum resources and lessons from Active Classroom, Nystrom World, or the Library of Congress. This blog can be sent to students to provide context for compare-and-contrast assignments or long-term projects analyzing myths and legends.
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Best, Joel, and Gerald T. Horiuchi. “The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends.” Social Problems 32, no. 5 (1985): 488-99.
Cynthia W. Resor is a social studies education professor and former middle and high school social studies teacher. Her dream job? Time-travel tour guide. But until she discovers the secret of time travel, she writes about the past in her blog, Primary Source Bazaar. Her three books on teaching social history themes feature essential questions and primary sources: Discovering Quacks, Utopias, and Cemeteries: Modern Lessons from Historical Themes; Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies and Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies.