To Believe or Not To Believe
Modern Urban Legends
Many people have heard the tale of the dotty grandmother who tried to dry off her damp poodle by placing it in the microwave oven. The dog exploded, sad to say the least , and Grandma has never been quite the same since. The story is not true; it is an urban legend, circulating by word of mouth since the 1970s (Brunvand, 108). Urban legends are popular stories alleged to be true and transmitted from person to person by oral or written communication. Legends tend to arise spontaneously and are rarely traceable to a single point of origin. They spread primarily from individual to individual through various communication, and only in atypical cases through mass media or other institutional means. Every culture has its folktales, including modern America. However, instead of involving gods and goddesses or princes and princesses, modern society's legends involve "some guy my sister's best friend knows" or "someone who woke up in a motel room." They happened, supposedly, to real people, usually recently, in a particular place. They touch the most sensitive nerves of human minds with ironic twists, gross-out shocks, and moral lessons learned the hard way. However, the most remarkable thing about these stories is that so many people believe them and pass them on. Why does an audience take the storyteller's word at face value, instead of recognizing it as an urban legend? The most obvious reasons as to why this happens are how the story is told to an individual, the relationship between the teller and the listener, and in the case of horror legends, the fear invoked through the moral of the story.
There are many particular elements of an urban legend that play an enormous role in how it is interpreted by the public. They are usually characterized by a combination of humor, horror or a warning. The two types of urban legends are cautionary, usually having a moral to the story or a warning to stay "safe", and non-cautionary, which have no cautionary or moral element at all (Harris, 1). The details or 'beef' of these legends are the primary factors that make them so believable. A good example is the "Alligators in the Sewer" legend. The setting of this legend is usually a large city, in which a reptile-loving fanatic decides to buy a baby alligator to keep in their cramped apartment as a pet. They soon realize they cannot keep the alligator because it is growing rapidly and in turn, resort to flushing it down the commode. The baby alligator gets sucked through the piping of the building and eventually ends up in the sewer where it survives on eating rats and other garbage (Brown, 127). A person is more likely to believe the tale if the storyteller gives them juicy details of a child they know getting chased by one while playing in the disgusting muck, rather than saying they heard it in a coffee shop down...