Researching Urban Legends

What is an Urban Legend?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes it as….

an often lurid story or anecdote that is based on hearsay and widely circulated as true

But, can an Urban Legend sometimes be based on some truth? The answer is Yes.

Although many Urban Legends cannot be traced to their origins, they, like any other story passed down, often have some basis in truth. Something had to be the original catalyst for the beginning of the tale. But eventually time erases the facts from memory, or new people move in to an area and are never aware of things that happened before they arrived, which places them on the peripheral and distanced from the actual events. Any mention of a horrible incident from the past gets changed and twisted with each new telling until the facts are long buried.

You will always get that one person who will say.. “Well, my grandma or pappy never heard of it so it can’t be true!” Just because someone hasn’t heard of the original event that started an Urban Legend, or of the legend itself,  doesn’t mean it never happened. It just means some people are not as well informed as others may be. Here’s the thing… your grandma or pappy just might not be historical experts of the area. Or, maybe they were newcomers to the area years after the original event and nobody felt it was really necessary to tell them of every lurid or horrible event that happened in the town’s history. It’s possible people didn’t talk about it because it was too close to the bone or just a memory they wanted to forget, or they felt it wasn’t your grandma or pappy’s business to know. Or, let this one sink in… your grandma and pappy didn’t really care what went on before they arrived. But kids hear things, and they remember… sort of. Stories of a dead body or gruesome death are always good fodder for kids to make up tales about when they have only heard bits of pieces instead of the entire truth. When these kids move away, either while still kids or as adults, they take the tale with them, re-tell it to others as a form of group titillation or to amuse and scare their own children. The story has spread geographically, with even less of the real facts surviving the propagation.

And there you have it, the Genesis of an Urban Legend!


Researching the Origins of a Legend

There are ways to find out if an Urban Legend has basis in fact at some point in history. After all, this IS what skilled researchers do. For some who do not understand how research works or the type of information that is considered standard primary and secondary resource data for finding factual or compelling evidence, this is a concept hard to grasp. In their narrower view of things something is (or can only be) true if someone they know personally has knowledge of an event, or can claim to be an eye-witness. All the actual evidence in the world will not shake them out of their arrogant, uneducated or ignorant views. In their case it only happened if “grandma and pappy” said it did.

However, in the real world of research one thing we do know… eye witness accounts can be valuable starting places as a primary resource, but they are not sufficient without other primary sources to add validity. Ten people placed in one small room will come back with ten different eye-witness accounts of what went on in that room. So, generally speaking, what “grandma and pappy” say isn’t always worth very much without hard copy proof to back it up. Anyone unwilling to accept this is an idiot. Sorry, but in our world of technology, where primary source documents are available with a few key strokes, there is no room or excuse for this sort of ignorance, other than a desire to remain ignorant.

When researching an Urban Legend a good researcher uses the same tools as would be used for any other research. You start with where the legend originated, analyze what pertinent clues exist in the story, and throw out the rest. You most likely have now formed a hypothesis. Next step… hit the newspaper morgue and start searching for old articles of incidents or events that have a reasonable resemblance to the Urban Legend. Just a heads up… when researchers use old newspapers to locate pertinent information this isn’t called “just finding and throwing stuff together,” it is called one of three things, Deductive Reasoning, Inductive Reasoning or Abductive Reasoning, terms anyone with at least a college level education should be familiar with.

Once you have gathered together enough data from newspapers to give some reasonable possibility of truth to the Urban Legend your next step is to find vital and biographical data on the people mentioned in news articles, and follow their trail through history. Also search court records, deeds, arrest records, anything of an official nature that recorded the events at the time they occurred. Once you have gathered together everything you can find and analyzed the data you need to ask yourself if your hypothesis has enough information to become a workable theory.  If the answer is “yes” you continue on to the most exciting phase of the research… fitting together the puzzle pieces and being able to logically explain your validated phenomenon, or, in this case, the origins of your Urban Legend.

For those who are interested in learning how to research, or simply don’t understand research methodology, these are a good starting point. Sorry, but none of them have sections entitled “The Truth According to Grandma and Pappy” or “Its Only True if Mammy and Pappy Told Me About It.” 😉

Basic Research Strategy

How to Research Your Topic

For those less inclined to read the above offered links, here are examples, courtesy of Santiago Canyon College, of what are considered Primary Sources, used by any good researcher…

  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Diaries, personal letters, and correspondence
  • Interviews, surveys, and fieldwork
  • Internet communications on email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups
  • Photographs, drawings, and posters
  • Works of art and literature
  • Books, magazine and newspaper articles and ads published at the time
  • Public opinion polls
  • Speeches and oral histories
  • Original documents (birth certificates, property deeds, trial transcripts)
  • Research data, such as census statistics
  • Official and unofficial records of organizations and government agencies
  • Artifacts of all kinds, such as tools, coins, clothing, furniture, etc.
  • Audio recordings, DVDs, and video recordings
  • Government documents (reports, bills, proclamations, hearings, etc.)
  • Patents
  • Technical reports
  • Scientific journal articles reporting experimental research results

And these are examples of Secondary Sources…

  • Bibliographies
  • Biographical works
  • Reference books, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases
  • Articles from magazines, journals, and newspapers after the event
  • Literature reviews and review articles (e.g., movie reviews, book reviews)
  • History books and other popular or scholarly books
  • Works of criticism and interpretation
  • Commentaries and treatises
  • Textbooks
  • Indexes and abstracts


Urban Legends Based on True Events

Check out these interesting pages on Urban Legends that were found to be based on true events…

10 Strange Urban Legends That Turned Out to Be True

23 Urban Legends That Are Totally True

9 Unbelievable Urban Legends (That Happen To Be True)

Some of the Urban Legends in the above link make the Trona “Murder House” legend look mild in comparison. After all, one story only involves a house, or at least the property where a house now sits in place of an older house. Imagine poor No-Face Charlie, an actual human being who had a horrific Urban Legend created around his misfortune. Kind of puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

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