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Characteristics of an Urban Legend

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Characteristics of an Urban Legend

An urban legend is an apocryphal, secondhand story, told as true and just plausible enough to be believed, about some horrific, embarrassing, ironic or exasperating series of events that supposedly happened to a real person. As in the example above, it's likely to be framed as a cautionary tale.
Whether factual or not, an urban legend is meant to be believed. In lieu of evidence, the teller of an urban legend is apt to rely on skillful storytelling and reference to a putatively trustworthy source — e.g., "it really happened to my hairdresser's brother's best friend" — to convince hearers (or readers) of its veracity.
Not always false
Albeit synonymous in common parlance with "false belief," the term "urban legend" is meant to denote a more subtle and complex social phenomenon, namely the emergence and transmission of contemporary folk narratives — narratives which are indeed usually false, but which also, on occasion, turn out to be 99.99% true. The critical factor is that it's told as true despite the absence of confirming evidence.
As many versions as tellers of the tale
The phrase "urban legend" entered the popular lexicon in the early 1980s with the publication of folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand's first book on the subject, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981).
Urban legends are a type of folklore, defined as the handed-down beliefs, stories, songs and customs of ordinary people ("the folk"). One way to differentiate them from other narrative forms (e.g., popular fiction, TV dramas, or news stories) is to compare where they come from and how they're propagated. Unlike fiction or drama, which are usually produced by individual authors, urban legends emerge spontaneously and are rarely traceable to a single point of origin. And again unlike fiction or drama, urban legends are primarily transmitted from individual to individual, and only in atypical cases via mass media or other institutional means. Lastly, by definition urban legends change over time due to embellishment and repetition from memory, hence no two versions are ever exactly alike; there can be as many variants as there are tellers of the tale.
List of common characteristics
Accordingly, a typical urban legend will exhibit most or all of the following characteristics: * It's a narrative (a story). * It's alleged to be true. * It's just plausible (sometimes just barely plausible) enough to be believed. * Its veracity is unproven. * It's of spontaneous (or indeterminate) origin. * It's likely to take the form of a cautionary tale. * It varies in the telling. * It circulates by being passed from individual to individual, either orally or in written form (e.g., via fax, photocopy or email). * It's attributed to putatively trustworthy secondhand sources (e.g., "a friend of a friend," "my sister's accountant," etc.).

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