Urban Legends on the Web

Posted March 2004: Daniel Linder uses Web-based activities to explore urban legends. See Rafael Salaberry's article, "Why the Electronic Class Will Not Replace the Face-to-Face Classroom," Essential Teacher, Spring 2004 (pp. 22-25).

Urban legends are feasible-sounding stories with no basis in fact that are spread from person to person rather than over the mass media. These stories, also known as friend-of-a-friend (FOAF) stories, circulate as curious anecdotes. They are told and retold as if they were true in order to highlight some moral for the times or portray an ironic final twist reeking of poetic justice.

With very few exceptions, the incidents in these stories never happened to anyone. Although they are loaded with specific local names, places, and dates, the stories are founded in legend and myth rather than in fact. Consider, for example, the story of the vanishing hitchhiker, who asks to be taken somewhere and disappears just before arriving. The motorist inquires at the destination and is told that the hitchhiker died years before, typically at the place where the motorist picked the hitchhiker up.

Here are three activities related to urban legends. In them, EFL students (ages 14 and up) use authentic Web sources to

  • develop a clear notion of what urban legends are
  • practice reading and writing.
  • have fun and exercise their creativity

In each of these activities, encourage students to visit three or more Web sites so they will have multiple sources of data. As a wrap-up, you might have students spend 10-15 minutes of class time talking about the texts they have read or written.

Activity 1: Getting the Idea of Urban Legends

Compile a list of 10 statements about urban legends, some true and some false. Have students visit the FAQs on the following Web sites and find out whether the statements are true or false:

Activity 2: Reading Urban Legends

A number of sites contain short urban legends either as narratives or as transcripts of legends retold orally. Encourage students to read several urban legends on the following Web sites. Have them retell one urban legend during the wrap-up.

Large Urban Legend Web Sites
  • Urban Legends and Folklore (Emery, 2003; http://urbanlegends.about.com): Browse by subject until you get to an urban legend in story form (e.g., click on College, then onAren't You Glad You Didn't Turn on the Light?), usually followed by comments.
  • Urban Legends Research Center (Wells, 2003; http://www.ulrc.com.au): Click on Urban Legends, then scroll down to Themes. Choose one and find a related legend (e.g., click on Death, then on Murder in the Dark...).
Archives of Urban Legend Discussion Groups
Urban Legends Retold

I especially recommend leading your students to the same urban legend on various Web sites (e.g., "The Hook" on the three Web sites listed just above). That should encourage students to notice similarities and differences in the details, the storytelling style, and other aspects of the legends. A good follow-up for "The Hook" would be to look at "The Hook . . . ": One of the Classic Examples of Urban Folklore (2000; http://www.uta.fi/FAST/US7/FOLK/thehook.html), an analysis of the various versions.

Activity 3: Debunking Urban Legends

What do you do when someone forwards you an e-mail containing an urban legend? This activity shows how to debunk the legend.

  1. Write several brief e-mails to your students telling them a supposedly true story you have recently heard (e.g., "The other day a friend of a friend of mine told me the most incredible story about...").
  2. Send them to the advice page of Don't Spread That Hoax! (n.d.; http://www.nonprofit.net/hoax/advice/advice.html), then to the Urban Legends References Pages (Mikkelson & Mikkelson, 2004; http://www.snopes.com) or Urban Legends Research Center (Wells, 2003; http://www.ulrc.com.au) to unearth the truth about the story.
  3. Send students to The Urban Legend Combat Kit (Crispen, 2001; http://www.netsquirrel.com/combatkit). Have them scroll down to the "How to Debunk Urban Legends" for canned replies to these e-mails.
  4. Have the students adapt these replies to respond to the e-mail they have received from you.

I hope that this list of activities involving urban legends on the Web adds a little spark to your classroom.

References

Calypso's urban legends. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://www.angelfire.com/az2/urbanlegends

Crispen, P. D. (2001). The urban legend combat kit. Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://www.netsquirrel.com/combatkit

Don't spread that hoax! (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://www.nonprofit.net/hoax/advice/advice.html

Emery, D. (2003). Urban legends and folklore. Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://urbanlegends.about.com

Folklore FAQ. (2004). Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://www.faqs.org/faqs/folklore-faq/

Heimbaugh, J. R. (1998). The AFU and urban legends archive. Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://www.urbanlegends.com/

Mikkelson, B., & Mikkelson, D. P. (2004). Urban legends references pages. Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://www.snopes.com

Radek's urban legend central. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://geocities.com/rayman_7575/urbanlegendcentral

"The Hook . . . ": One of the classic examples of urban folklore. (2000). Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere, Finland. Retrieved January 12, 2004, fromhttp://www.uta.fi/FAST/US7/FOLK/thehook.html

Uncle Ken's urban myth page. (2003). Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://pw1.netcom.com/~uncleken/urbanmyths.html

Urban myths & legends. (1997). Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://www.delta-9.com/net47/myth/

Wells, R. L. (2003). Urban legends research centre. Retrieved January 12, 2004, from http://www.ulrc.com.au/

Daniel Linder (dlinder@usal.es) is coordinator for undergraduate EFL courses at the Central Language Service, University of Salamanca, in Spain.