Modern Folklore: Cybermythology in Western Culture

© Darrell A. Joyce

October 25, 2003

Posted 17 Apr 2005


Throughout the years, humans have used the oral tradition of folklore and legend to share stories, entertain, and to teach moral social lessons. The purpose of this paper is to briefly look at the evolution of urban legends from their “beginnings” in the turn of the 20 th century to present day, with specific attention to contemporary urban legends, and the application of internet/e-mail communications as a medium to further spread this modern form of folklore. Also, this paper attempts to answer the question of whether or not folklore continues to exist and be propagated in today’s society.

In order to understand the role of folklore and urban legends in today’s society, it is necessary to define these terms as well as to look at the history of folklore. The modern online dictionary, Wikipedia (Wikipedia n.d.), defines folklore as: “the ethnographic concept of the tales, legends, or superstitions long current among a particular ethnic population…”. The same website defines urban legend as: “a type of folklore, endlessly circulated by word of mouth, repeated in news stories and distributed by email. It is frequently recounted as having happened to ‘a friend of a friend’”.

Folklore has probably existed for as long as we have had language. Humans enjoy gossiping and sharing stories which thrill, entertain, scare or shock others. Most people at one time or another have embellished a story to make it more interesting, or passed on a story that they have heard secondhand, as if it was their own experience. When people pass these urban legends on to the next person, they feel the need to defend the story, sometimes by adding details to make it sound more credible or by strongly defending the source of the story, often exclaiming: “I swear it’s true, I read it in the newspaper”, or “It happened to a girl my cousin’s boyfriend works with”, etc. Why are we so fascinated with urban legends? What makes us propagate these stories without looking into the veracity of them? Why are they started in the first place?

Urban legends (ULs) are a part of our informal oral culture, which evolved from previous folklore tales into modern stories, purported to be true (Wells n.d.). The study of ULs has become very scientific in the past 25 years. The stories are treated like living organisms, and folklorists study their evolution (the changes they go through), propagation (how they are transmitted), and replication (how often they are transmitted) (Chattoe 1998). ULs are also referred to as “memes” by sociologists and other social scientists (Chattoe 1998). Memes are social replicators, which can “get themselves” transmitted from person to person, as defined by sociologist Richard Dawkins. An example of a modern meme would be the pop-culture hand sign for “loser”: extending the thumb and index finger straight out at a 90-degree angle, and placing the hand against the forehead.

In the virtual environment, urban legends are introduced in textual form via email, usenet groups, or internet chat rooms and are passed on from person to person, with slight changes or variations made along the way. Often, the transmitter changes places and dates, either on purpose or subconsciously, and the story takes on a life of its own. These are usually “stories of the mostly educated, white middle class” (quoted in Folklore n.d.). ULs are usually anecdotal stories with embedded warnings, jokes--which are often taken seriously since the context is often lost with transcription and after being forwarded for several generations, and hoaxes. This paper will only investigate the “truest” form of ULs: the story--therefore, hoaxes and jokes will not be discussed.

When analyzing an urban legend, it is important to know the terminology and physiology of the story. ULs are often referred to as replicators, in that they propagate themselves. As Edmund Chattoe observed, replicators have three essential components: content (the story), an attempt to warrant the content, and a separate motivation to transmit or multiply the message (urgency) (Chattoe 1998). The means by which a UL is propagated is called a vector. Examples of UL vectors are: friends, internet/email, television, newspapers, etc. Often the mode of communication, or vector, shapes the story itself. Usually the story is implausible, incoherent or vague, and yet people still replicate them. Why do people choose to pass along stories that are obviously suspect? According to Jan Brunvand, leading urban legend researcher, the stories “are not that incredible. They are about familiar places, […] familiar things, […] things we are worried about […] It seems as though they could have happened.” (Brunvand n.d.).

When urban legends had begun at the turn of the twentieth century, their main purpose in oral culture was to provide warnings and moral messages, as mentioned above. Some questions that come to mind when studying contemporary urban legends are: Do they still suit the same purpose as when they first began? Do they still serve to warn us about the dangers of life, and do they still contain the moral messages they used to? The best way to answer these questions, as well as to study the evolution of urban legends, is to analyze a particular urban legend. For this purpose, I will be using the example of the “Killer in the Backseat” motif. In an email I received recently, there is a variation of this motif. The email I have just mentioned was sent to me by my cousin in Montreal, Quebec on the 27 th of October, 2003. The email warns women not to leave their cars unattended at gas stations while pumping gas, as men can sneak into their cars or underneath them and assault them or kidnap them. Supposedly, this is part of a new wave of gang initiation rites in Canada (Anonymous 2003).

At one point, this email had been received and forwarded by an official at the RCMP’s Interpol office in Ottawa, and therefore has the addition of the officer’s electronic signature…his name, official title, address, phone/fax numbers and email address. Because this signature adds credibility to the story, it has been allowed to remain attached to the story by people who have forwarded it on since. Eventually, somebody changed the title of the email forward to “IMPORTANT: msg from a colleague at RCMP”.

This email has several interesting qualifiers, which make it an urban legend. First of all, the story is accredited to a vague source…simply, “a friend”. The story itself is actually a combination of several separate urban legends, which circulated in the late 1990’s. One about men sneaking into women’s cars to kidnap or murder them, one about gang initiation rites involving automobiles, and one about men sneaking under women’s cars and slashing their ankles so that they can steal their Christmas gifts, or mutilate them as part of a gang initiation. The story has also been updated in the past few years, as originally the woman in the story had to go into the gas station to pay for the gas, and now she is paying at the pump when the attendant speaks to her over an intercom. This makes the story more modern, and therefore more credible. The story finishes with a statement of authenticity, “This is real!!”, and lists several common-sense or legitimate safety tips such as: “Always be aware of your surroundings and of other individuals in your general vicinity, particularly at night” (Anonymous 2003). Finally, there is a plea to pass the email on to friends and any women the reader cares about.

Often these urban legends have sexist or racist undertones. In the above example, the victim of the story is always a helpless female, and the hero, the gas station attendant, is always a male. In some variations, the gas station attendant is a black male, and the female victim is afraid of him when he approaches her and forces her to come into the gas station office, with the intent of telling her that there is a man in the back seat. In one variation, the woman is so afraid of the gas station attendant, that she runs back to her car, drives away in a panic, and turns up in a ditch after being murdered by the man hiding in the backseat. According to an article on the Urban Legends Reference Pages, “This legend first appeared in 1967 and quickly caught on, becoming the favorite scary legends [sic] of that period. In addition to circulating orally, it showed up in Ann Landers’ column in 1982, presented [as a] harrowing experience that had befallen the letter writer’s friend” (Mikkelsen n.d.).

After reading this paper, there should be no doubt that urban legends continue to exist today. Urban legends apparently have the same function today as they did a hundred years ago; they serve to warn us and teach us about society’s moral expectations. Because they are transmitted in electronic form over the internet, ULs can reach many more people in a much faster, more efficient manner. Because of the cut-and-paste technology of email, these stories have gained more credibility, even though there is still great room for error and manipulation in their transcription. Since the internet is gaining greater popularity, and more people have access to the World Wide Web and email, I believe that urban legends will continue to be passed along, at a much faster rate than ever before…especially with today’s uncertainty about the economy, foreign affairs, etc. Urban legends and other forms of folklore should remain part of our culture. They are part of what defines North American culture and therefore are part of our heritage. According to a paper by Jan Fernback on computer mediated communications and folklore, one source (J.T. Llewellyn) “claims that they [urban legends] could happen, and in some cases should happen” (Fernback 2003:32). Another source from the same paper (D. Wyckhoff) “argues that urban legends travel through communities as reflections of a collective response to some form of crisis, ‘even as they symbolically encode the social ambiguities that underlie that concern’” (Fernback 2003:32). However, it is my hope that after reading this paper, less people will be willing to believe unqualified stories that are credited to “a friend of a friend”, but will understand that these stories are an important part of our culture.


Works Cited

Anonymous. 2003. “Important: Msg from a colleague at RCMP”. Personal e-mail to Darrell Joyce. 27 October 2003.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. Internet Chat Transcript. http:// jan.harold.brunvand.html . Date accessed: 25 October 2003.

Chattoe, Edmund. 1998. “Virtual Urban Legends: Investigating the Ecology of the World Wide Web”. IRISS ’98. Date accessed: 25 October 2003..

Fernback, Jan. “Legends on the Net: an examination of computer-mediated communication as a locus of oral culture”. New Media & Society. March 2003. 29-47.

“Folklore on the Internet”. MiamiUniversity. Date accessed 10 October 2003.

Mikkelsen, Barbara. “The Killer in the Backseat”. Urban Legends Reference Pages. Date accessed 27 October 2003.

Wells, Murray “Redman Lucas”. “Frequently Asked Questions”. Urban Legends Research Centre. Date accessed 25 October 2003.

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.


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