"I have a friend of a friend who brought home a dog from Mexico, then he shaved it. It turns out someone had stolen its kidney and replaced it with a Polaroid picture of my toothbrush up Richard Gere's ass. Go figure!"
This is a true story. Happened to a friend of a friend of mine...
An Urban Legend is a story told by a person as a true event. It is told as having happened locally, to a "friend of a friend", and is usually altered in the telling. The people at Snopes collect these critters.
They most often show up on television as the Case of the Week on Police Procedurals. Occasionally one can happen to one of the main characters on a drama or sitcom. There are a small but increasing number of shows dedicated to proving/disproving their basis in reality; the most popular of these is MythBusters, followed closely by the cable series Penn & Teller: Bullshit!. They can sometimes even show up in newspapers as filler articles, you can recognize them as stories that sound too weird to be true that do not specify the names of the people involved or in what city they took place (though those details are no guarantee of accuracy; any Snopes article will show the supposed names, dates and locations frequently get changed to protect the non-existent).
Often used to Scare 'Em Straight, for the sake of a little bit of humour (The Cabbage Patch Kids one, for example, was a joke) or just because they make good stories.
See Urban Legend of Zelda for examples concerning video games.
If you were looking for the film by this name, look right here.
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There was a widespread myth that the little kid from the Life Cereal commercials had died from trying out a deadly combination of Pop Rocks and Soda. As it turns out, no, the dude's still alive, and in his mid-40s today. Plus, the MythBusters proved that six 12-ounce cans of cola and six packages of Pop Rocks would only cause considerable pain to the subject, as the reaction did not produce the amount of carbon dioxide necessary for stomach rupture.
Anime & Manga
In the anime Baccano!, the Mafia assassin Vino takes on the persona of the Rail Tracer, an urban legend about a monster that stalks trains.
Even better, Fridge Logic makes one realize that he is the one who started his own urban legend. Awesome.
In the manga Chobits, there is an urban legend that there are special Persocoms (humanoid computers) called "Chobits" that have real emotions and free will instead of just having emotions programmed into them.
Urban legends are a major theme of Dennou Coil, particularly how everyone tends to interpret them differently. Questions such as "Just what are kirabugs/Illegals/Michiko, really?" are asked and answered many, many times over the course of the series, and everyone seems to have a different version.
Paranoia Agent concerns urban legends that are created and become increasingly real.
In Serial Experiments Lain it seems that Internet memes start leaking into reality, resulting in alien sightings, and suchlike. Also things like ghosts and The Men in Black seem to actually exist, though in manner slightly different than the legends would indicate.
Episode 4 of A Certain Scientific Railgun features two Urban Legends. One of them is the undressing woman and the other one is a guy who can nullify anything. You get to see the first one, and the second one is obviously the hero of the whole series itself: Touma.
Gakkou no Kaidan (perhaps better known from the Ghost StoriesGag Dub) is a kid's Novel / Anime series about, you guessed it, traditional Japanese ghost stories set in an elementary school. Some of the legends are specifically about school ghosts (something the Japanese seem to have in abundance, given the important role school plays in their culture) and some are more generic, but all of them are explained in the DVD extras.
The Big Book Of Urban Legends was a graphic novel anthology published in 1994, collecting 200 tales of "folklore for our times".
The Candyman series of movies, whose villain is based on the "Bloody Mary" legend.
The movie Dead Man On Campus has a plot dealing with the urban legend that you get straight A's in your college classes if your roommate commits suicide...
...as did a lesser known film titled The Curve starring Matthew Lillard, Michael Vartan, and Keri Russell.
While many of the stories (especially the Cousin Walter stories) told by characters in Kevin Smith's movies may seem like urban legends, the only one that actually is based on one; Cousin Walter keeps getting cats stuck up his ass, in an attempt to get a gerbil out of there.
Urbania references many of these and is partially told as one.
There are urban legends in the 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. For a long time, people thought that a crowned crane in the scene where Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man resume their journey was a guy hanging himself. You can blame the bad image quality.
And of course, most notably, the Pink FloydThe Dark Side of the Moon soundtrack synching legend. Vigorously denied by the band, who have pointed out that the audio technology, necessary to make the film soundtrack and rock album synch this precisely with each other, didn't exist in 1973.
An urban legend is that one scene in the movie Three Men and a Baby has a ghost of a little boy standing by the window in Ted Danson's apartment. Legend says that the film was shot in an apartment where this boy got killed. It's actually just a cardboard cut-out of Danson (intended for a Deleted Scene), and the apartment was actually a movie studio set.
Kamen Rider Fourze states that the previous stories of all Kamen Riders before it have been passed down as these.
At the very beginning of the first Saw film, one of the first things Adam does after waking up in a bathtub is to ask Dr. Gordon if he's got any surgical scars, convinced that someone has stolen his kidney. Dr. Gordon informs him that it's an Urban Legend; if someone had really taken Adam's kidney, he'd either be in excruciating pain right now, or dead.
There is also a book called The Beheaded Freshman and Other Gruesome Tales. The lead tale (from the title) is about a freshman wanting to get into an elite club but the people blindfold him and kneel him down, saying they are going to behead him. They describe one raising the axe high over his head (the freshman thinks it is a prank) and then drop a cool washcloth on his neck. The freshman screams the moment the cool touches his neck (thinking it is cold steel) and collapses. Scared, the others call an ambulance; Seems the freshman had a heart problem that the others did not know and the fright caused a heart attack. Whoops!
Parodied in the Discworld novel Witches Abroad, which claims that, thanks to the Theory of Narrative Causality, not only do urban myths really happen, but they happen repeatedly. It also applies to fairy tale plots, which Nanny Ogg calls "rural myths" at one point.
In the second of the Never Deal with a Dragon trilogy of Shadowrun novels the protagonis Sam learns that generations of childhood belief in the fact that alligators live in sewers after being flushed has caused them to become an urban magical totem as well as a nature one.
Jan Harold Brunvand has written a series of books detailing urban legends, including The Vanishing Hitchhiker, The Choking Doberman and others.
British writer Jeffery Archer often uses urban legends as the basis of a story (although he seems to believe they are true). His short story collection A Twist Of a Tale contains several, most notably a story based on "the killer in the back seat". (Otto of The Simpsons actually told Bart and Lisa a more convincing version.)
Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories series moshes together urban legends with other bits of folklore for a pretty gruesome mix.
Legend has it that if you ask at SF conventions, you'll hear tale of some SF writer who created a book specifically to be as bad as possible. It turned out to be the exact opposite, since an entire cult of people sprung up around it demanding more, so he said "why the fuck not!" and made a career on it. Depending on who you ask this person was either John Norman (author of the Gor series) or Piers Anthony. If this is true or not is unknown but it's a well-known enough story that at least one book featured it as a foreword, and if you search the internet you'll find discussions of who the alleged writer is. And before someone asks: no, it is not nor has it ever been L. Ron Hubbard, nor Robert E. Howard (Conan's creator), nor is it Robert A. Heinlein. What sparse clues exist in the legend easily rule them out. General consensus does seem to point to Piers Anthony however, and his name comes up associated with it a lot.
Much of Barney's Version, a novel narrated by a man who slowly develops Alzheimer's as the book progresses, builds up the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Barney's best friend Boogie Moscovitch, with whose murder Barney is eventually charged. Throughout the book, Barney's status as a semi-Unreliable Narrator (both intentionally and unintentionally as the disease consumes his memories) keeps the events surrounding the incident shrouded in confusion. The final chapter, narrated by Barney's son Michael, reveals that Barney was, in fact, innocent - turns out poor Boogie fell victim to the classic dead-diver-in-the-forest legend whe he went for that swim!
Swedish writer Bengt af Klintberg wrote a book about common Swedish urban legends called Råttan i pizzan (the rat in the pizza). The book became so popular that Klintbergare is now an accepted synonym for an urban legend in Sweden.
In Neverwhere, there were alligators living in the sewers of New York. But Hunter killed them.
In another episode, a couple of idiots killed a young woman who'd suffered a drug overdose, by transfusing some of their own (incompatible) blood into her. They were imitating an urban legend about drugged-out rock stars' "getting their blood replaced" as a remedy.
Another episode of note is "Tall Tales", where one college campus starts experiencing a number of urban legends coming true at the same time. Turns out the janitor is a Trickster god.
The fifth season episode "I Believe the Children Are Our Future" also features urban legend-based deaths. The culprit in this episode is a little kid named Jesse, who believes these urban legends are true, and somehow makes them true. The Winchesters discover that the reason he can alter reality on a whim is because that he is actually The Antichrist, though he doesn't really want to be.
There was also an episode where a man died when he "ingested" dozens of razorblades "hidden" in the Halloween candy he'd been sneaking at night, but in actuality it was witchcraft and good timing for the themed effect.
An SCTV fake commercial features Eugene Levy as a fast-talking used car dealer showing off the specials on his lot, all subjects of urban legends - "a Cadillac! Great shape...the damn thing's full of cement!...maybe you're handy with a cold chisel? $500 as is - you pay the towing!"...or a Mustang found parked in Lovers Lane with the driver hanging over the roof - "there's scuff marks on the roof - a little rubbing compound, it's all behind ya! $700!" At the commercial's end he does a comical Double Take at a prosthetic hook hanging off a door handle.
The show Truth Or Scare on Discovery Kids existed entirely of promoting this trope. Because we all know that crop circles are real and the Tower of London is haunted, right? RIGHT?
Crop circles are real, they're just made by humans, and not aliens.
An episode of Law & Order ("Sonata for Solo Organ") started out with a man waking up on a park bench, and discovering he's missing a kidney.
Which some urban legend experts claim actually helped popularize the legend itself, which had been fairly obscure until then.
In an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent ("Art"), the killer of the week took advantage of an urban legend by killing her roommate and making it look like a suicide, thus entitling her to passing grades (not straight A's) in her final semester of art school.
The myth of waking up with an internal organ missing apparently survives well into the future, since Janeway and Chakotay discuss it on an episode of Star Trek: Voyager.
In fact, it actually happens in one episode, when Neelix's lungs are stolen by black market organ sellers. This was lampshaded during Janeway and Chakotay's conversation.
The "toothbrushes up their bums" UL was the basis of the joke at the end of one episode of The Vicar of Dibley.
The Spike TV "docu-fiction" series A Thousand Ways To Die features bizarre causes of death, most of them stemming from urban legends. These range from a vaginal embolism caused by a carrot dildo puncturing the vaginal wall and exploding breast implants to death by drinking acid instead of vodka.
Urban Legends tells three of these in each episode, loosely tied together with the episode's theme, as well as two random 'mini-myths' before the commercial breaks. The viewer is asked to guess which legends are real and which aren't. At the end of the episode (and after the commercial breaks for the mini-myths) it is revealed who was telling the truth.
Beyond Belief Fact Or Fiction followed a similar format. The only catch was that some of the supposedly true stories were so unbelievable that one couldn't help but wonder just how thoroughly they had researched them.
Food Network Challenge has done an Urban Legends Cake-making episode for Halloween.
Britta tells the ever-popular "hookman" story in the Community episode "Horror Fiction in Seven Spooky Steps", featuring Jeff as the boyfriend and herself as the girlfriend. The story is played onscreen exactly the way she tells it, so it contains a substantial amount of Buffy Speak:
Radio: In the news tonight, top story, an escaped convict from the asylum has escaped and he's mental and he's on the loose and stuff. Britta as the girlfriend: Oh my god, that sounds dangerous! Jeff as the boyfriend: I'm sure it's no biggie. But I am a horny man, so I'm only half present. Radio: He was last seen in the woods and has a thingy for a hand, a hook-thing where his hand should be, you know what I mean.
The Drew Carey Show had an episode where Drew and Kate got "fake married" as part of an old dare. The night's celebrations get called off early when Kate develops a rash and gets short of breath. Turns out the wedding dress she bought from a secondhand store had formaldehyde in it.
On Justified Raylan comes across an Organ Theft ring and gets mocked for believing in an urban legend when he asks a nurse about. The criminals avoided most of the usual elements of the legend and stole kidneys from the corpses of recently deceased prison inmates. They had the prisoners' medical records so they knew which kidneys were healthy and one of them had professional training in transplant procedures.
The one time they do the 'cut out kidney in a motel room and leave the victim in the bathtub' routine it is a ruse perpetuated so they can blackmail the victim by pretending to hold his kidneys hostage. They just made a couple incisions and sutured them back up
Paul is Dead! Probably the most famous urban legend in pop music, and warranting a full page at Wikipedia, this claims that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and was replaced by a look-and-soundalike. Supposedly, clues to this are sprinkled throughout the group's later work, especially their album covers. The very-much-alive Paul parodied this with the cover and title of his 1993 live album.
Ludo's "Lake Pontchartrain" features a young man telling the story of his two friends getting swallowed up in a very predatory context.
"The Little Girl" by Country Music legend John Michael Montgomery is a song based on an urban legend of a girl whose atheist alcoholic parents kill each other in a murder-suicide before she herself is sent to a home raised by Christian foster parents who teach her to attend church, and one day she sees that the man on the cross (Jesus) is the one who came down to help her during the night of the murder-suicide.
Lemon Demon has a song called "Eighth Wonder," which is based on the urban legend of Gef the Talking Mongoose. In the song are all the things Gef supposedly said, along with claims that he is the eighth wonder of the world.
There is an urban legend surrounding the song "Love Rollercoaster" by The Ohio Players. In the song, a high-pitched scream is heard (between 1:24 and 1:28 on the single version, or between 2:32 and 2:36 on the album version). It really was Billy Beck, but the legend goes that the scream was an individual being murdered live during the recording. The scream's supposed source varies from version to version. A lot of them involve Ester Cordet.
"Gloomy Sunday" is also known as the Hungarian Suicide Song. The precise nature of the urban legend is a little different depending on who you ask, but the basic version is that the song can cause people to commit suicide. While creepy and sad, the song certainly won't make you kill yourself - not to mention that Hungary, where the supposed song-caused deaths occurred, historically has a high suicide rate to begin with.
Backmasking has resulted in a few of these, most famously the claim that "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin has hidden satanic messages.
George Clinton may or may not have told Eddie Hazel to play the first half of the solo that runs throughout the whole of Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" as if he'd just heard his mother had died, then play the second half as if he'd then heard the news of her death had turned out to be false. The truth will likely never be known; a lot of drugs were involved, and Hazel can no longer confirm or deny anything on account of guitarist existence failure.
After Michael Jackson's death in 2009, reports that a guilt-stricken Jordan Chandler — the first person to publicly accuse him of child molestation back in 1993 — issued a statement claiming that he was forced to lie about the abuse by his greedy father began to circulate online. Snopes quickly debunked this one, and Randall Sullivan's biography Invincible traces it back to an email a fan sent to Jackson's mother shortly after his death. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped his brother Jermaine and rabid fans from continuing to spread the legend (in truth, none of his accusers have taken back their claims).
Snopes is one of the best-known websites devoted to these, with true/false assessments.
The Slender Man Mythos is a memetically-spread loosely-defined canon of horror fiction that uses the general trappings of urban folklore (missing children in the woods, mysterious stalkers, and the fact that no two tellings of the same tale are exactly the same) to pretty creepy effect. It worked, too, considering how many people think it's true.
In addition to an Urban Legends sourcebook that provides stats for Bloody Mary, dopplegangers, and sewer alligators, the New World of Darkness has Legends, a subset of slashers. They typically start off as Avengers, but then their hunt either spirals outward from a specific group to everyone resembling said group, or the rules of their hunt become so complex it turns into a myth. In the process, the Slasher becomes something akin to Freddy Krueger or Candyman. They have the power to gain strength by keeping close to the particulars of their myth, but find it hard to break their own rules.
Persona 2, both parts, are about urban legends that start to mysteriously come true. Innocent Sin has this more as a central theme, although it is not absent from Eternal Punishment.
And Persona4's plot is kicked off because of a urban legend of the Midnight Channel, where you see your soulmate if you look into an empty TV at midnight on a rainy day. Turns out, there's a bit more than that.
Polybius: The progenitor of all those "creepy/haunted vidya games" creepypasta stories found on the internet these days. Newer versions of the tale play it from a more supernatural angle than the Government Conspiracy implied in older tellings.
Pokemon has the urban legend known as Lavender Town Syndrome which is an urban legend about suicides in the nineties in Japan after kids played the original green version and were driven insane by the song that plays in Lavender Town.
Apparently, the green version's music did have tones in it that could cause uneasiness or headaches in children. Some adults will also report an odd feeling when listening to this version of the song, especially if they've avoided loud music and noises where possible in their lives, as good hearing is required to notice the tones (human hearing slowly diminishes over time, with the effect being accelerated by loud noises).
Similar in ways to both Polybius and Lavender Town's music is a rumored Gameboy game called Misfortune (also known as Misfortune.gb). The story goes that it was never released on its own cartridge, and instead was hidden in other more popular games, only accessible by a convoluted sequence of actions or through glitches, and even then whether or not these attempts would succeed was random. Failing at the game would lead to a screen with music that supposedly caused depression and might even lead to the player's suicide. If you won the game, or failed but turned it off before the music in question started, you were safe.
Kevin & Kell's equivalent to the 'missing kidney' urban legend is a rhino waking up in a bathtub to find that his horn (believed to be an aphrodisiac) is missing.
xkcd, on the other hand, inverts the urban legend here.
The page photo is from an episode of Teen Girl Squad. Health classes using stories of questionable veracity like this in an attempt to Scare 'Em Straight regarding drug abuse is, sadly, fairly common in Real Life.
College Humor made a video with an "Urban Legend ER", including patients who got hit by pennies dropped from skyscrapers, had their kidneys stolen, ate pop rocks and diet coke, and urinated in the pool.
In the first episode of The Venture Bros., Doctor Venture wakes up in Tijuana with a missing kidney. He then realizes he's already missing a kidney from a similar incident. "Not again!" He then turns HELPeR into a dialysis machine for the rest of the episode.
Later in the same episode, he is nearly killed by a chupacabra. Brock explains: "Chupacabras. Mexico's full of 'em."
This is also a Brick Joke, as earlier in the episode he taught a class exclaiming through scientific theory that a chupacabra couldn't possibly exist.
Rusty Venture: Now if you take the same math and apply it to the catholic church, something interesting happens...
In an episode of The Simpsons, "Special Edna", Bart nominates Ms. Krabappel for the Teacher of the Year Award, and tells in the video submitted to the judges that she deserves the award for surviving teaching him. The judges believed the mere existence of Bart was an urban legend, so they accept the nomination.
In an earlier episode, Homer is released from an asylum where he had been commited because they believed his stories about Bart were a symptom of paranoid psychosis. When Marge mentions Bart to the treating doctor, he realizes Bart is real and releases Homer immediately.
Bart creates his own legend about a man at the school who one day snapped and made a soup from the children's heads. The story included an Art Shift and was very effectively creepy. At the end, it turns out "Dark Stanly" was real...
The "Pop Rocks and Soda" myth was Enforced in an episode where an angry mob was chasing Homer out of a candy convention. He takes a can of Buzz Cola, pours in a package of "Pop Rox", shakes them together and tosses them at the mob, yelling "See You in Hell, candy boys!" He then turns and does a slow-motion dive as the whole building explodes behind him.
Snopes.com reports a number of urban legends as true (though they're still in a noticeable minority), including some rather unbelievable ones such as this seemingly farcical account, on which they comment: "The above-quoted tale about FBI agents trying to order pizza delivery to a psychiatric hospital is one of those pieces that serves to remind us that no matter how bizarre, far-fetched, or incredible a story may seem at first glance, it should never be entirely discounted without at least some effort being made to verify it."
The cause of the Hindenburg fire is still unknown today. As such, it is positively drenched in Urban Legends, in varying degrees of ridiculousness. One of the most common is that the Hindenburg was painted in "Rocket Fuel" or "Thermite", which is completely false, but a surprisingly pervaisive myth. It may have such wide acceptance because the fabric of the airship was in fact combustible, albeit very weakly. Furthermore, some go as far as to say that the Hindenburg's hydrogen had nothing to do with the fire at all, which is absolutely untrue. They usually cite the fact that pure hydrogen burns a pale blue color, but they neglect to mention that the 250 tons of airship and diesel fuel is what colored the flames orange. A less popular, but still widely believed myth is that the Hindenburg was deliberately sabotaged, and that bits of a gun or a bomb were found in the wreck. The Nazis themselves liked to propagate this myth because they didn't want to admit their safety failure.
You know characters like Bloody Mary and Slenderman? You do?! Avoid thinking on them immediately! If you DO think of fictional beings, they WILL become real eventually! Of course, this means that non-believers are safe to an extent, as they don't have enough "Mind Power" to keep these beings around them. But believers? They are likely to see, hear and feel them.
The popular myth that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen, which was said to have been started by Disney animator Ward Kimball. Of course, that myth became less popular as the other myth of him being racist and anti-Semitic rose in notoriety. That myth was debunked by people who worked with Walt, but that doesn't stop shows like Family Guy from enforcing it.