A modern myth or morality tale, urban legends are the 20th century take on mythological stories and legends and by themselves are evidence that these ideas are not restricted to so-called primitive or traditional societies. The term was spread by Jan Harold Brunvand, professor of English at the University of Utah, in his book The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends & Their Meanings (1981). The tale of a hitchhiker or other encounter with a strange traveller is found in stories much older than Brunvand. The tale usually consists of a hitchhiker who helps the traveller in some way, only to disappear mysteriously and turn out to be a ghost in a final twist when the traveller tells someone of his encounter. Brunevand detailed several different versions from different cultures around the world.
The common theme with urban legends is the twist invoking fear, humour or horror. Stories such as a man waking in a bath after a drunken night spent with hospitable strangers only to find he's covered in blood and there's a scar where his kidney had been removed, or of the luxury sports car that seems unbelievably cheap because of a strange odour. The twist is that previous owners had died in the car. Often the tale is told from a friend-of-a-friend to give it authenticity, sometimes real police departments are named to add realism. One such tale is of a car travelling without lights. Police warn motorists not to flash a reminder to the driver as this is the selection process for gang initiation murders. This last one actually fooled a Canadian Defence minister who shared it with members of the Canadian Parliament.
Many of these legends were local and spread verbally within communities. With the advent of mass-communication they were able to spread much more vociferously. Initially by email chains and newsgroups, they soon became a staple of early social media. Snopes.com. (see 25th April) was founded to help counter the spread of this sort of misinformation. Although we like to think that modern, urban, civilised and educated people don't fall for tales like these, there is no doubt that the fears and concerns raised in these stories strike at something pretty basic in the humans psyche: the fear of strangers, of crime, of others and of death. No matter how often and how easy it is to debunk the facts, they play on our fears and that is much harder to counter.