While urban legends and folklore may be considered similar, they are actually two different sources for tales that tell culturally relevant cautionary tales.
Differences Between Urban Legends and Folklore
In order to understand the difference between urban legends and folklore it's important to know what they actually are.
Legends, oral history, music, customs and traditions of a culture are what make up folklore. 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. In Western Europe for example, the negative impact of a black cat crossing a traveler's path became part of the folklore and mythology of the Western European mindset. Folklore traveled with European immigrants to the United States where it meshed not only with the new cultures formed by immigrant communities, but also with Native American traditions and beliefs.
What Are Urban Legends?
Urban legends, by contrast, are a contemporary invention that involve more 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).
What sets urban legends and folklore distinctly apart is the amount of truth credited to one versus the other. For example, urban legends are generally considered falsehoods that become popular through circulation in email, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networks. The tales are repeated often enough to develop a life of their own. In contrast, folklore is regarded with more respect as metaphorical of the times from which the tales descend.
Monsters and Myths
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.
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 themselves collected the folklore and traditions of many communities in their work. The cautionary tales of folklore have made them popular as fables, children's tales and even Disney films.
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.
Urban legends may very well be considered twenty-first century folklore in future history books. The persuasiveness of urban legends remains so firm in the modern mindset (perhaps a tribute to the faith in folklore and other morality tales) that in 2004, the Discovery Channel launched a television series titled Myth Busters dedicated to just debunking or proving urban legends.