In this post, we look at urban legends (and their use in fiction).
Have you heard the one about the medical student, who was pranked with a human arm in their bed? The story says that they were found the next morning, laughing hysterically, chewing on the arm.
How about the legend about the video game, the one that drove its programmers to madness? You must have heard about it.
Legends like these are viral. We all know one or two. These are called urban legends.
Here’s what urban legends are (and how to use them).
Urban Legends For Writers
1. What Are Urban Legends?
According to Britannica, an urban legend is ‘a story about an unusual or humorous event that many people believe to be true but that is not true.’
Urban legends are stories that are told from one person to another, and they’re usually untrue. Classic urban legends can be scary, disgusting, horrific, funny, or rooted in conspiracy theories.
While they aren’t true, these legends spark emotion (and the urge to repeat them).
The internet has made old tales popular again, but also created new ones.
Slenderman and ‘creepypasta’ stories are examples. ‘Cursed video tape’ stories like Koji Suzuki’s The Ring are another.
2. How Urban Legends Spread
Why do urban legends go viral?
Emotion is what ties these stories together. They work because they can trigger thoughts and feelings, whether or not they are true.
These stories also evolve as they are told again (and again).
An urban legend has a core element (the storyline), and might have many versions. The ‘medical student’ tale is told at many medical universities, from Canada to Southern Africa.
The acronym ‘FOAF’ or ‘friend-of-a-friend’ identifies likely legends. Stories, with research, will never bring you first-hand accounts – but always vague, faraway retellings.
It always happened ‘to someone else’ or ‘this guy’.
Urban legends are fun to tell, but scary to believe.
They make news, but that does not make them more true. It just means that a writer decided to write it down – and either failed in their research, or reported about what someone had heard for the paper’s interest.
A legend can also become true with time. Originally, the story of ‘needles in Halloween candy’ was a myth. When copycats did real-life harm, this legend turned into truth – and yes, this happens too often.
3. A Legend’s Classic Elements
There’s always a hook or thrill to legends, which feel sensational from the start.
When you feel that jolt that stories are too strange, too weird, too crazy, investigate that feeling (and it could be a legend).
A legend can also have a lesson, like a cautionary story. Don’t go out to the woods, don’t feed sharks at midnight, there are hundreds (but they all feel the same). Stories like these have elements that unsettle, like Slappy the Doll from the Goosebumps universe. Creepy dolls? We’ve heard about one somewhere.
Legends can be funny too. For a while, there was a story about chicken restaurants and tube-fed, lab-grown mutant chickens. It was absolute hogwash. That didn’t stop its spread.
If you have read hundreds, you will learn to see one. The Rabbit In The Thorn Tree by Arthur Goldstuck is a favourite collection.
4. How To Use It (& Not Steal It)
Fiction can borrow this ‘core’ story from urban legends, and rewrite the finer points. However, fiction cannot steal anything. There’s a difference between ‘inspiration’ and ‘you stole my story’.
Clive Barker’s ‘The Forbidden‘ is a great example. It takes from the story of Bloody Mary, the name you don’t repeat in a mirror, but changes most of the legend’s elements. Still, without doubt, the legend is there in the story.
Can you see what he did there? Adapt the elements, but keep the core.
Vampire stories also do the same: while some things are kept, each story that says ‘vampire’ is more different than the last.
5. Using Twists & Turns
Urban legends are great as pop culture references, but can be like writing prompts. The key is that the core can be recognized, but the rest of the story is not (and never!) taken from someone else’s.
Urban legends in fiction only work when they’re a writer’s own.
Twists, turns, and these fun legend-based ‘elements’ are your playground. Remember that other writing rules, including the need for proper characters will still apply.
The Last Word
In this post, we looked at urban legends and their use in fiction. We hope that you’ve learned more about their use.
By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.
If you enjoyed this, read other posts by Alex:
- 8 Common Phrases We Actually Got From Shakespeare
- Here Be Dragons – In Fiction
- Bad Business: 9 Words & Phrases To Avoid
- Dissecting Zombies in Fiction Writing
- Dirty Journalism: How Journalists Can Keep Research Legal
- How Writers Can Research Settings Remotely
- The Use Of Real People As Characters In Fiction
- 8 Proofreading Tricks (That Save Valuable Time)
- 7 Techniques Of The Faustian Story
- Famous Rejection Letters & Their Lessons For Other Writers