You know that creepy urban legend you heard about that thing in your town? Yeah, someone is probably telling that very same story in another part of the country right now. Here’s why everybody seems to know the same spooky stories, no matter where they are.
Photo by Charles Dyer.
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As folklorist Dr. Andrea Kitta tells Thrillist, popular urban legends have two things going for them: they’re believable, and they can be easily propagated (i.e. told orally like a campfire story or in short quips online). In terms of believability, urban legends walk a fine line between fantasy and the notion that “truth is stranger than fiction”.
These stories tend to feature people just like you and me, in settings anyone would find familiar, and are often localised to the area where the story’s being told. So, a story about a witch who lives in the woods doesn’t take place in any old forest — it takes place in the forest just down the road.
According to Kitta, believable urban legends also come from sources a few steps removed from the person actually telling the story (a “friend of a friend”). For example, my dorm roommate in college told me a story about his cousin’s friend who found a dead body when they went swimming in an off-limits area of a nearby lake. This is a good start to an urban legend because the storyteller gave the tale some veracity by knowing the source, the events aren’t so bizarre I couldn’t believe they happened, and I also can’t really follow up on it to see if it’s true.
But how do these stories spread so far and wide? Dr. Joseph M. Stubbersfield, a research fellow in the propagation of narratives and cognitive bias at Durham University, tells Thrillist popular urban legends “go viral” when they carry some social information and have emotional resonance.
My dead body in the lake story, for example, has a lesson built into it: don’t go where you’re not supposed to go. The emotional response is disgust and fear. You could tell this same story to just about anyone and it would be believable and spreadable. And if I wanted to tell that story in a new area and really captivate my audience, all I’d have to do is put a new spin on it — like changing the lake, or making it a river instead, or a forest, or a construction site — and voilà! I’ve breathed new life into what’s already a pretty old story.
Basically, urban legends are one insanely long game of telephone. They start as real-life events, hoaxes, or even written fiction, then get transformed over time as people share them. When you think about it, they’re no different than an internet meme — starting as something simple then evolving into something with mass appeal as it passes from one person to the next. If you want to read more about how one popular urban legend in particular spread far and wide, check out the link below.