Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Urban Legends

Modern oral Folklore – also spread via newspapers, photocopier graffiti and, increasingly, the Internet. The UL is typically a Tall Tale with a frisson of comeuppance or Horror, related as having actually happened to a "friend of a friend" – usefully abbreviated to "foaf" by Rodney Dale in his The Tumour in the Whale: A Collection of Modern Myths (1978), whose title commemorates the World War II UL of whale meat (offered as a substitute for beef) which proves to contain a live, pulsing tumour. ULs can feed into fantasy, and vice versa. Randall Garrett builds on the belief that the image of a murderer can be photographed from the dead man's retina in "The Eyes Have It" (1964), a notion already used by Rudyard Kipling; Harlan Ellison makes creative use of the UL alligators infesting New York sewers, in his "Croatoan" (1975), as does Thomas Pynchon in his Fabulation V (1963); Terry Pratchett's Feet of Clay (1996) spoofs ULs told against ethnic restaurants, when outraged Dwarf customers discover the speciality dish, rat, to be disguised chicken.

Conversely, the title UL of The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (1981) by Jan Harold Brunvand (1933-    ), whose eponymous female Ghost disappears from a moving car, is so wearily reminiscent of innumerable Ghost Stories that it cannot be told as fiction – only the spice of "foaf" pseudo-factuality gives it life. There are ULs of ghostly truckers driving immaterial vehicles along US Interstates, updating the Flying Dutchman; Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971 tvm) owes something to this UL. The Greek Myth of the poisoned shirt of Nessus resurfaced as a 1930s-40s UL involving a fatal dress, allegedly tainted with embalming fluid from a corpse and unscrupulously resold to a woman who died from wearing it. A classic case of a story published as fiction but retold as UL (often with indignant insistence on its truth) is Arthur Machen's "The Bowmen" (1914), which gave rise to the Angels of Mons myth. [DRL]

further reading: The Natural History of Nonsense (1947) by Bergen Evans; The Book of Nasty Legends (1983) by Paul Smith; The Choking Doberman and Other "New" Urban Legends (1984) and several further compilations by Jan Harold Brunvand.

see also: Spring-Heeled Jack.


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.