You have all seen the movies, heard the stories (and probably told them too!) But what are urban legends really? Stories to scare or to warn or to laugh about? Perdeby decided to find out exactly what these legends are and where they come from.

Urban legends are a type of folklore that arise spontaneously and are believed to be true. Many of the legends are false, but are based on or contain some form of truth. Giverny Ives, BSc Landscape Architecture student, doesn’t believe in these legends at all and says they are just stories made up by people with a vivid imagination to see what kind of effect it will have on others. They are most commonly spread via interpersonal communication (from person to person) and usually evolve over time. There are many different categories for these legends: tales of shock, caution and horror. A common  psychological theory states that horrific urban legends are a release valve of sorts which society uses to vent common fears and anxieties, for example to warn against premarital sex.

Urban legends first appeared in print in 1968 when Jan Harold Brunvand, an English professor at the University of Utah, used them in a series of popular books – The Vanishing Hitchhiker and American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. This wasn’t their origin though, as urban legends have been around for several centuries, passed down from generation to generation.  

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of these legends but only a few that are very well-known. One of the most talked about and documented urban legends is that of Bloody Mary. Although there are many different versions of this particular gory tale, some particulars remain constant: she always appears in the mirror and is always summoned by saying her name between three and 12 times. It has been the theme for various movies, most obviously Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, but also in films like Candyman. She has also featured in episodes of X-Files and Supernatural. Other popular legends include The Killer in the Backseat, The Licked Hand (also knownas Not Only Dogs can Lick) and The Hook.

The Killer in the Backseat is about a young woman driving alone late at night when suddenly a car approaches from behind, continuously flashing its lights at random intervals. The girl, freaking out, drives to the nearest police station with the car still following her. Arriving at the station, she jumps out of the car at the same time that her pursuer pulls up, screaming that there is someone in the backseat. The man had apparently been driving behind her when he saw a man with a knife in the backseat of her car and flashed his lights every time the killer tried something.

South Africa has its share of urban legends. The tokoloshe is a Zulu myth about a dwarf-like water zombie, an evil spirit which can become invisible by swallowing a pebble. It is still believed by some Zulu people that this hairy creature, created by shamans to harm their enemies, will come and rape sleeping women or bite off a person’s toes. These are only some of the forms the tokoloshe, sometimes called tikoloshe, take and may vary, depending on the region you are in. Many people place their beds on paint tins or bricks to lift them higher to keep the tokoloshe from carrying them away.

The university has a couple of its own legends, usually found in the many different residences on campus. Nerina, an old nunnery, plays host to one of the most popular legends: the story of the forbidden love between a nun and a priest. Madelief has the “Skagman” (showing that being a “Peeping Tom” can literally kill you, according to Christien Steyn, BSc student). The “Skagman” is the tale about a man who snuck into the res to spy on the girls taking showers. He got stuck and died there. Even Lilium has a ghost haunting the elevator. Groenkloof also has the legend of a woman who jumped from the Telkom tower, committing suicide after finding out about her husband’s affair. She apparently still haunts the whole campus to this day.

Superstitions have often been mistaken for urban legends. Urban legends are also sometimes classed as superstitions, especially if the moral of the legend justifies fears about socially alien people or conditions. What are superstitions?  According to the writer, Raymond Lamont Brown, “Superstition is a belief, or system of beliefs, by which almost religious veneration is attached to things mostly secular; a parody of religious faith in which there is belief in an occult or magic connection.”

Urban Legends will forever remain a part of our lives: we just get to choose how big that part is. These stories and legends have influenced many people and the way they live and act. From the scariest to the funniest legend, each has its own inherent worth. True or false, urban legends will not fade anytime soon, even if they are only told around the campfire every once in a while.

Website | view posts