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In researching urban legends folklorists scrutinize the history, the variations, the distributions, and the structures of individual legends. Studies also focus on the motifs and themes common to several legends and legend-cycles, as well as on the styles and settings in which urban legends are communicated, whether by word of mouth or in written, printed, broadcast, or electronic media. Another avenue of research is evaluating the use of traditional urban-legend plots in literature as well as in films, television, cartoons, songs, advertising, and other pop-culture sources. Basic to all such studies is the fundamental question of definition: What is a legend, as opposed to, say, a rumor, proto-legend, joke, anecdote, or hoax? Also, what distinguishes an urban (or contemporary or modern)
legend from the older traditional legends? The basic requirements for good studies of urban legends are the same as for most other folklore research. Texts must be recorded accurately, and full documentation must be secured as to who has told the stories and to what audience, for what purpose, and with what response. Texts from published sources must be identified as to publication and date;
when possible, it is useful to query the author of the work as to his or her sources for the legends.
Historical and comparative analysis of urban legends is facilitated by a classification of individual legends, such as the system included in The Baby Train (1993) and expanded for inclusion in this encyclopedia. Further published examples of urban legends and legend studies are referenced in collections such as The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981) and in the bibliography Contemporary Legend (1993) compiled by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. Stith Thompson’s The Motif-Index of Folk Literature (1955–1958) is an essential reference for tracing themes common in wider folk tradition, both internationally and in the past.
Although many people wonder about the origins of specific legends, few definitive answers are possible. Two legends (out of hundreds!) that were actually traced to their likely sources both enjoyed a considerable boost from the mass media and were followed back to their starting points largely via comparing these media sources. (See the entries “The Heel in the Grate” and “The Unsolvable Math Problem.”) Several other legends, including “The Choking Doberman” and “The Robber Who Was Hurt,” clearly derive from older traditional legends. But for the vast majority of urban legends, the question of origin can best be explained by “communal re-creation”—the process by which each teller of a story re-creates the plot from a partly remembered set of details. The teller then either unwittingly or deliberately varies the story by adding, dropping, or changing certain details. Thus each storyteller helps to keep the dynamic story alive, whatever the ultimate origin of the plot may have been.
The meanings or messages of urban legends are often clear, concrete, and obvious; sometimes these meanings are even stated directly, as when a teller of “The Attempted Abduction” warns you never to let your child out of sight in a shopping mall or department store. Other urban legends advise more subtly, for example, that one should check the backseat of his or her car, distrust large corporations, and be suspicious of an anonymous gift (see, e.g., “The Killer in the Backseat,” “The Procter & Gamble Trademark,” and “The Double Theft”). It is safe to assume that every urban legend bears some kind of stated or implied message, whether or not it is directly intended by the individual teller.
While some people claim that most urban legends are told merely for entertainment—with the exception of stories with a clear stated moral—folklorists may point to elements of the stories that have powerful symbolic suggestions. “The Hook,” for example, is a scary story sometimes told without any strong belief in the truth of the plot by adolescents at slumber parties or around campfires. On another level, however, it seems obvious that the story serves to warn teenagers against the dangers of “parking” in dark, secluded spots. Possibly the warning on the car radio of the escaped hookman represents the parents’ typical warning, “Now be careful, and don’t stay out too late!” Folklorist Alan Dundes suggested that the hook itself may represent a phallic object that is symbolically torn off by the car’s rapid departure, reflecting the fact that the boyfriend in the car hoped to “get his hooks into the girl” before his efforts were interrupted by the warning.