Strange Tales and Modern Legends

This semester I taught a seminar called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” (You can find links to the syllabus and course materials here.) A major element of this class was our study of how folkloric traditions have influenced literature. My specialty is contemporary fiction, so we spent a good amount of time talking about what urban legends are and how they work.

I believe that urban legends have the following three characteristics:

First, these stories are specific to a time and place, and they’re generally tied to a specific person as well. This person is someone known to the storyteller, and they’re either a reliable source of information or a direct witness to the event or phenomenon in question.

Second, the story is understood to be “real” and therefore nonfiction. In fact, it often isn’t much of a story at all. Unlike creepypasta, which is shortform fiction, the characters in an urban legend don’t have interiority, and they’re often not attributed with motivation. Rather, the story is stated as a simple fact. At the core of these stories is a statement like “you’ll die if you eat [a certain type of candy] mixed with soda” or “a child was once murdered in [a certain department store] bathroom.” The purpose of additional details is to add authenticity.

Third, urban legends almost always have a cautionary element, and the unfortunate events of the story are related to social and cultural anxieties. These fears tend to be politically sensitive and thus can’t be discussed openly, so urban legends function as a sort of pressure release valve. In the United States, for example, a lot of urban legends reflect racial tensions, while there are a lot of urban legends about bullying and social ostracization in Japan.  

This isn’t really a defining characteristic, but I find it interesting that an urban legend need not necessarily be untrue. Rather, the act of making something into a “story” adds an element of speculation. This means that, even though the story is stated as fact, both the teller and listener understand that the veracity of this fact is debatable. In other words, the story could be true, but both parties acknowledge that there’s no way to prove it.

Having provided the students with these criteria and a number of examples to use as potential templates, I asked them to write their own urban legends. I was absolutely blown away by the work they submitted. I promised that I wouldn’t spread their stories outside of class, but I decided to make a class zine so that they could share their work with each other. The image at the top of this post is the cover I created for the zine, which ended up being a 76-page book.

I like to think that Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell would be proud.

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