January 12, 2023

#08-275: Urban Legends

Gelert by Charles Burton Barber (c.1894) (Wikipedia)

Note: We are all suckers for a good story--true or not. Here's a whole category of them!

Get Ready: Have you ever heard one of those exciting but unlikely stories that always seems to happen to "a friend of a friend"?

Maybe you've heard one: a man--let's call him John--is out of town on business. He meets an attractive woman in a bar, and one thing leads to another, and John, very drunk, takes her up to his room.

He wakes up in the morning in a bathtub full of ice, with a note pinned to the wall: "Call 911 [the emergency number] if you want to live." His cell phone is on the edge of the bathtub; when he calls, the 911 operator tells him to check his back. Sure enough, there's a long sewn-up incision.

The woman had stolen his kidney.

The names change, the organs may be different, it may even be set in another country, but one thing about this story is always the same: IT NEVER HAPPENED. No such story has ever been confirmed by police or medical authorities.

This is a perfect example of an urban legend, a story often repeated and usually kind of thrilling, in a creepy sort of way.

"But wait!" you say. "A friend of mine said this happened to his cousin." Yes, one facet of the urban legends is that it often happens at second- or third-hand, but never actually to someone the speaker knows--or the speaker himself. This is known among folklorists (like Jan Harold Brunvand) as a "Friend of a Friend" or FOAF.

Urban legends (or urban myths) are passed along in person, in emails, and on social media. And they often have a moral lesson: in John's case, be careful how you behave in a strange place.

Many urban legends involve pets. One tells of a dog guarding a baby. The dog is found with blood on his mouth, and the baby is missing. It's assumed the dog killed the baby, so they destroy the dog. Only later do they find the baby safe nearby, and a dead predator (a wolf, maybe, or a lion) that has been killed by the dog.

One of my favorite urban legends is called "The Vanishing Hitchhiker." A man driving across country picks someone up, and drops him or her along the way. The hitchhiker leaves something in the driver's car.

At his next stop, perhaps at a café, the driver takes the item in and says he'll leave it in case the person shows up. A hush falls on the room: The people there recognize the item as belonging to so-and-so, who died on the highway X years ago that very night! Goosebumps!


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. creepy
  2. facet
  3. folklorists
  4. hitchhiker
  5. hush
  6. incision
  7. one thing leads to another
  8. predator
  9. thrilling
  10. vanishing

  1. disappearing
  2. an undescribed series of things happens
  3. people who study myths and legends
  4. weird; disturbing
  5. quiet; silence
  6. exciting
  7. a cut, as in surgery
  8. an aspect; characteristic
  9. a person who takes a ride with a stranger
  10. an animal who kills other animals

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 12, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. d; 2. h; 3. c; 4. i; 5. e; 6. g; 7. b; 8. j; 9. f; 10. a