Urban Legends and the Internet
People didn't begin talking about "urban legends" until the 1930s and 1940s, but they have existed in some form for thousands of years. Urban legends are simply the modern version of traditional folklore. In most cultures of the world, folklore has always existed alongside, or in place of, recorded history. Where history is obsessed with accurately writing down the details of events, traditional folklore is characterized by the "oral tradition," the passing of stories by word of mouth.

In this tradition, the storyteller will usually add new twists and turns to a story related by another storyteller. Unlike mythology, these stories are about real people in believable situations. Just as with modern legends, old folk tales often focus on the things a society found frightening. Many of the "fairy tales" we read today began life as believable stories, passed from person to person. Instead of warning against organ thieves and gang members, these tales relayed the dangers of the forest. In old Europe, the deep woods was a mysterious place to people, and there were indeed creatures that might attack you there. We do have a lot of fears in common with our ancestors, of course. As is clear in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," the fear of food contamination has been around for quite a while.

10 Common E-mail or Internet Urban Legends
  • Various virus warnings, including the Klingerman virus
  • Anything free (free $50 gift certificate for Victoria's Secret, free trip to Disney World)
  • A federal tax on e-mail or the Internet
  • An FCC surcharge on the use of modems on phone lines
  • If you forward this e-mail:
    • a charity will benefit (Dalai Lama, PBS, hunger organization)
    • Bill Gates will give you money or help sick children
  • The Neiman Marcus cookie recipe
  • Nostradamus predictions of current events.
  • Kurt Vonnegut's graduation speech (or the variation, Larry Ellison at Yale)
  • HIV-infected needles on movie seats, at pay phones, on gas pumps, at ATMs or in ball pits at fast-food restaurants
The methods of passing urban legends have also evolved over time. In the past 10 years, there has been a huge surge of urban legends on the Internet. The most common venue is forwarded e-mail. This storytelling method is unique because usually the story is not re-interpreted by each person who passes it on. A person simply clicks the "Forward" icon in their e-mail, and types in all his friend's e-mail addresses. Having the original story gives e-mail legends a feeling of legitimacy. You don't know the original author, but they are speaking directly to you.

Forwarded e-mail legends are often the work of one or more pranksters, not the product of many different storytellers. For these authors, the thrill is seeing how far a legend will spread. As with word-of-mouth legends, there are all sorts of e-mail hoaxes. Cautionary legends are very common in e-mail forwards, often focusing on made-up computer viruses or Internet scams. Even a skeptical person might forward this sort of message, just in case it's true. A similar sort of e-mail legend is the charity or petition appeal, which outlines a good cause or a horrible miscarriage of justice and then instructs you to add your name to a petition and send it on to everybody you know. There are real e-mail petitions, of course, and these do help out good causes. It can be tricky to spot a hoax, but one indicator is that the e-mail includes no address to send the list to when it is completed. Additionally, if a message begins with "This is not a hoax or urban legend," it probably is.

One of the most famous e-mail legends, the Neiman Marcus cookie recipe, combines a great story with an appeal to fight injustice. The e-mail is a personal account of a mother and her daughter eating at a Neiman Marcus store. After their meal, they order a couple of Neiman Marcus chocolate cookies, which they enjoy immensely. The mother asks the waitress for the recipe, and is told that she can buy it for "two-fifty." Later, when she sees the Neiman Marcus charge on her credit card, she realizes that she has been charged $250, rather than $2.50. The customer-service representative refuses to refund her money, because the company's recipe is so valuable that it cannot be distributed cheaply. In order to exact revenge on the company, the mother claims in the e-mail, she has decided to distribute the recipe freely over the Internet, and she encourages you to send it to everyone you know.

The recipe in the message does make delicious cookies, but they are not the sort sold at Neiman Marcus, and there is no $250 Neiman Marcus cookie recipe. In fact, when the message was first circulated, Neiman Marcus didn't even make such a chocolate chip cookie. Amazingly, this story has been around in various forms since the 1940s. In the 1980s, the overcharging company was Mrs. Fields. Years before that, it was the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, and the recipe was for a "Red Velvet Cake."

These sorts of e-mail stories demonstrate just how deep-rooted urban legends are. No matter how much "information technology" we develop, human beings will always be drawn in by the unsubstantiated rumor. In fact, information technology actually accelerates the spread of tall tales. By definition, urban legends seem to have a life of their own, creeping through a society one person at a time. And like a real life form, they adapt to changing conditions. It will always be human nature to tell bizarre stories, and there will always be an audience waiting to believe them. The urban legend is part of our make-up.