American folklorists began regularly collecting "urban belief tales" in the
1940's and 1950's. The field blossomed in the 60's, Mr. Brunvand says, as researchers here
and abroad began analyzing why these bizarre modern narratives were accepted as literal
truths. By the 1980's urban legends were a major topic for folklore researchers.
Urban legends can travel by word of mouth or by print, and lately the Internet has
become a prime vehicle for their dissemination. However they are spread, Mr. Brunvand
says, they all share some characteristics. The "insistence on the truth of the story,
the attribution to specific friends of friends, the age of the story and (most of all) the
variations in details among the different versions are all hallmarks of the modern urban
legend," he writes.
Consider the classic "Red Velvet Cake," which dates from the 1960's.
A woman was served a bright red cake with white frosting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
in New York City. She requested the recipe, and only after receiving it was she given an
enormous bill for the chef's secret.
As it turned out the secret was simply red food coloring. For revenge, the woman
duplicated the recipe and gave it away to everyone she encountered.
This story eventually developed other variations until ultimately it became a legend
about a chocolate chip cookie recipe sold for a steep price. In this version, Mrs. Fields
Cookies or a Neiman Marcus department store restaurant are the culprits. (The
Waldorf-Astoria, Mrs. Fields and Neiman Marcus have all denied any role in the
Mr. Brunvand attributes the popularity of the original story to the cake's unusual and
whimsical color and to its being baked from an ordinary recipe with the banal secret of
Or take the legend of Bozo the Clown. Two versions circulated in the 60's and 70's. The
first is about a child contestant on a local Bozo the Clown television program who misses
a shot in a game and utters a curse. When Bozo tries to comfort him, the child responds
with an angry, offensive outburst.
In the second version, Bozo utters the offensive words himself, causing the show to be
Both stories circulated for years but were never confirmed. The second version may have
originated with a much earlier children's radio show on which a former vaudeville musician
who called himself Uncle Don was the host, Mr. Brunvand says. Although this incident was
repeatedly debunked, it became a radio classic for years and haunted poor Uncle Don.
"These are traditional versions of broadcasting history as people think it should
be, not as it really was," Mr. Brunvand says.
He says urban legends have a persistent hold on the imagination because they have an
element of suspense or humor, they are plausible and they have a moral.
"A combination of oral tradition, electronic communication and mass media exposure
have sustained a wide range of modern urban legends over broad areas of space and long
stretches of time," he says. "Funny, ironic, scary and bizarre stories that are
alleged to be true and told by our friends, family members and neighbors are simply too
beguiling to fade away."