Urban Legends vs. Folklore: What Are These Tales?

Scene from fairy tale Hansel and Gretel

Urban legends and folklore are two different sources of stories that tell relevant cautionary tales. The differences are subtle but easily recognized once you understand the nuances of each.

Folklore Origins

Folklore is an oral history that is made up of the culture's beliefs, customs, and stories that can include myths and legends. In the United States, folklore consists strongly of localized tales that recount commonly held history (oral traditions), moral tales (legends), and customs that are indigenous to the area. Folklore, in many cases, also includes superstitions. These stories are cautionary tales used as a control mechanism.

Examples of Folklore Cautionary Tales

In folklore, for example, the tale of Hansel and Gretel is a warning to children about disobeying parents, wandering from a prescribed path and trusting in strangers (even those bearing candy). The folklore associated with Hansel and Gretel is embedded in many of the collected works of the Grimm brothers, who collected the folklore and traditions of many communities. The cautionary tales of folklore have made them popular as fables, children's tales, and even Disney films.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

Examining Legends

Another important part of folklore is legends. A legend is believed to be a factual historical account. However, legends are usually unproven. Legends center around human characters. These stories illustrate the characteristics and actions of being human, which tend to validate them as having actually happened.

The most famous legend is the story of King Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. This legend is believed as a factual retelling of this amazing time in history, but there is no evidence to back up the existence of any of it.

What Are Urban Legends?

Urban legends are a contemporary invention of modern tales. Arguably, urban legends may be considered a subculture of folklore since urban legends detail current events, myths, and even misbeliefs that are perpetuated through word-of-mouth (oral tradition), social relevance (customs), and social media (community).

Urban legends are usually sensational tales. These are often told as secondhand knowledge of the storyteller, who heard about the tale from a friend who was a witness, or knew the person in the story. Urban legends, like legends, are believed to be factual and center around human actions, but they cannot be proven. These tales spread quickly through person-to-person communication, circulation in email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. Somewhere in the telling, there is a miniscule kernel of truth. The rest of the tale is an embellishment created by the telling and retelling, so it eventually develops a life of its own.

Monsters of Folklore and Legends

Folklore and urban legends share the same mythological appeal to the audience at large. In nearly every instance of urban legend or folklore, a nugget of truth is held by the teller of the stories. Sociologists and psychologists alike have studied the implicit warnings and morality tales included in many urban legends, seeking connections to the psychosocial beliefs in everything from crime to childcare and even car purchases. The element of the monster in the urban legend is similar to those found in folklore, only in most urban legends, the "monsters" are people.

Urban Legends Driven by Fear

Likewise, urban legends have seeped into modern culture to the point that the tales are repeated and believed without verifiable facts being associated with them. For example, one urban legend suggests that gang members initiate others into their gang by driving around with their headlights off. The first passing motorist to flash their headlights at them becomes the target of a drive-by shooting. Another urban legend suggests that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials died from an explosive stomach after eating pop rocks and drinking soda. Each of these urban legends contains a morality tale with fear being the binding element.

Driving along country lane in fog

Myths, Fables, and Fairy Tales

There are other forms of stories that are portrayed as truths, but have no proof. These are also considered part of folklore.

Myths

Myths are stories of human historical events and supernatural beings, gods, demigods, demons, and other mythological beings. Myths are told as a way to explain the events. Greek mythology is filled with examples of how the gods were used to explain tragedies that occurred to individuals. Natural disasters, such as floods, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions were explained as the gods being angry.

Fables

A fable is a story that is told with animals being the characters of the tale instead of humans. These stories can feature all types of other creatures, but the moral of the story is used to convey a lesson. The fable about the race between the hare and the turtle demonstrates that slow and steady wins the race. E.B. White's Charlotte's Web is a modern fable with the moral lesson being about friendship and all it encompasses.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are yet another form of storytelling found in folklore as stories told to children. These tales stimulate the imagination and entertain, while providing a moral lesson. The signature of a good fairy tale is its happily ever after ending. Cinderella is a well-known tale that ends with Cinderella and her prince living happily ever after.

Urban Legends Are Modern Folklore

Urban legends are often viewed as modern folklore. These many tales continue to be told with their messages of caution and will no doubt continue to warn future generations.

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Urban Legends vs. Folklore: What Are These Tales?