What Do Legends Mean?
On the Internet and in universities all over the world, you'll find a lot of people interested in the role of urban legends in modern society. Many folklorists argue that the more gruesome legends embody basic human fears, providing a cautionary note or moral lesson telling us how to protect ourselves from danger.
The most famous cautionary urban legend is the "Hook-hand killer" tale. In this story, a young couple on a date drive off to a remote spot to "park." Over the radio, they hear that a psychopath with a hooked hand has escaped from a local mental institution. The girl wants to leave, but her boyfriend insists there's nothing to worry about. After a while, the girl thinks she hears a scratching or tapping sound outside the car. The boyfriend assures her it's nothing, but at her insistence, they eventually drive off. When they get to the girl's house, the boyfriend goes around to the passenger side to open her door. To his horror, there is a bloody hook hanging from the door handle.
The warning and moral lesson of this story are clear: Don't go off by yourself, and don't engage in premarital intimacy! If you do, something horrific could happen. When the story first circulated in the 1950s, parking was a relatively new phenomenon, and parents were terrified of what might happen to their kids. Most people who tell the story today don't take it very seriously. Like the tale of the vanishing hitchhiker, it has graduated from urban legend to "campfire ghost story," a tale passed on to others for amusement, not told as gospel truth.
Signs that a story you're hearing is likely an (untrue) urban legend:
- It happened to a friend of a friend, not to the storyteller.
- There are many variations.
- The general topic is one that is often on the news or what people gossip most about: death, sex, crime, contamination, technology, ethnic stereotypes, celebrities, horror or beating the system.
- It contains a warning or moral lesson of some kind.
- It's just too weird or too good to be true.
As gang violence increased in the 1990s, cautionary tales began to focus more on criminal groups, rather than lone lunatics. In many cities around the United States, concerned citizens have been spreading a report of a gang initiation rite in which gang members drive at night with their headlights turned off. When another driver flashes his or her headlights to signal that their car's lights are out, the gang pursues and kills them. Even people who don't believe this wholeheartedly may err on the side of caution. After all, with so much gang violence going on, why take a chance by flashing your lights?
The rash of stories circulating about food contamination are a logical extension of the way Americans eat these days. More often than not, we are fed by faceless corporations and nameless restaurant employees. We're aware that we are putting a lot of trust in people we know nothing about, and this fear is played out in our urban legends. As a general rule, if an urban legend touches on something many people are afraid of, it'll spread like wildfire. Urban legends also express something about the individual who believes them. You are much more likely to believe and pass on legends that have some resonance with your personal fears or experience.
In this way, urban legends provide valuable insight into the cultures that create them. As we'll see in the next section, legends evolve as cultures evolve, so new themes and variations pop up all the time.