Urban legends

Posted by on July 13, 2008 in Blog tagged with

A bit of a personal interest, here, since my first idea for a PhD subject was comparing the narrative structures of literary ghost stories and urban legends of the supernatural. It’s not what I ended up working on, but I still think it’s an interesting subject: how much of a distinction do we make between the narratives we produce as fiction and the ones we tell as having some possible basis in fact?

Here’s a page on what’s probably the best-known of these stories, the phantom hitch-hiker, from the urban legend reference website Snopes.com. This story turns up in a huge number of different locations, all with the same basic structure: a driver (usually alone, and male) picks up a hitch-hiker (usually female) who asks to be delivered to a particular address, but disappears before they arrive; the confused driver later learns, often from the people living in the house the hitch-hiker asked to be taken to, that the ghost matches the description of someone who died on that stretch of road some years earlier.

But I’d suggest that the phantom hitch-hiker story is so well-known now that most audiences won’t believe it happened to a friend of a friend of the person doing the telling, and in that sense it’s perhaps not the best example of a truly contemporary urban legend. Legends like the stories about Black-eyed Kids, on the other hand, belong strictly to the internet age; that link’s to the original story, posted on the net in 1998, and "Black-Eyed Kids" now gets 4,620 hits on Google, many of them stories by people claiming to have seen similar creepy children themselves. (See this, for one example of what sounds like the Black-Eyed Kids story merged with the Phantom Hitch-hiker. (On a possibly incidental note, I’m also fascinated by how many stories like this have to do with cars and roads!)

The division between fictional and avowedly non-fictional supernatural narratives is, of course, a relatively recent one, especially when it comes to ghosts. Supernatural fiction has changed a great deal since the eighteenth century, with the rise and fall (or transformation, arguably!) of the Gothic novel, the huge popularity and sudden decline of the Victorian ghost story, and the invention of film, TV and radio as mediums. Have these kind of pseudo-factual narratives changed in anywhere near as dramatic a way, though? It seems to me that they haven’t; Catherine Crowe’s 1848 collection of such stories, The Night-Side of Nature, has a great deal in common with internet archives like www.ghosts.org

Most interesting to my mind is the sense that these stories told around the bonfire or at sleepovers or, more recently, on newsgroups and discussion forums, have a particular kind of shared experience about them that goes beyond the context in which they’re told and into the structure of the story itself. Whatever the particulars of the individual story, everyone knows that the hitch-hiker’s going to vanish before arriving at the destination, because that’s what phantom hitch-hikers do; everyone knows that the black-eyed kids are going to grow increasingly menacing in their demands to be invited into the car or the building, because that’s how they act. Is the idea of a shared experience intrinsic to the popularity of these stories in some way? And is that why we’re still telling them in much the same way as we’ve done for centuries?

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