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Does ‘Truth’ Matter in Stories?

I continue to enjoy the conversations that erupt in the Anthopology of Religion. Yesterday, as part of a lecture on mythology, the characteristics of myth, and what anthropologists do with myths, I addressed the topic of urban legends. I have found that questions of urban legends always comes up — and decided this time around to address it head on.

The discussion emphasized the fact that urban legends do many of the things that myths or legends do in general, such as providing rules for behavior or personal cautions. We also considered that some urban legends, particularly those that target corporations, act like some accusations of witchcraft by knocking corporations down a peg. I drew on the writings of Jan Brunvand and Gary Fine for inspiration, ideas, and examples.

The discussion was fun. Everyone has examples of these stories to share. But really surprised me was the intensity with which students wanted to know if the stories were true. They were constantly deconstructing the stories. While careful scrutiny is part of what happens with urban legends, I couldn’t help but wonder if that is the product of talking about them in a classroom. People do, afterall, believe and share these stories. Why should our class be so much smarter than everyone else?

Likewise, I was concerned about the possibility that ‘we’ have legends that can be dismissed through careful scrutiny, but that other people — indigenous people, perhaps — have myths and stories that they can’t distinguish from some objective truth.

All told, I wanted the students to consider what the urban legends mean within the group of people that know them and share them. Who uses them? Who tells them? When are they told? Why are they believed? What do we get out of sharing them? Do they encourage people to act in certain ways? Are they charters for proper behavior in an urban society? I could care less if they are actually true.

(Final note: There was some discussion about the fact that people are increasingly skeptical of internet-based stories. Some in the class suggested, however, that if the urban legend is picked up by television or radio news, it gains significant credibility. As one student put it, why would the news report something that wasn’t true.)

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