August 10, 2011

The rise and fall of the urban legend culture: Data from movies

Awhile ago I noticed that the telling of urban legends has been in decline since the early or mid-1990s, and that by now it is all but dead. Here I mean in the sense of a modern ghost story or bizarre cautionary tale of what happened to a friend of a friend, not in the vaguer sense of any old off-beat rumor.

Data on the prevalence of urban legends are hard to come by, as oral storytelling generally doesn't leave fossils. Fortunately they are sometimes depicted in movies, and Bennett and Smith's book Urban Legends has an appendix listing every known movie that mentions some specific legend.

I'm not so interested in how prevalent a particular legend was, but rather the telling of any legend at all. There are 142 movies in their list, which begins at 1913 and ends at 2006, the year before the book's release. Here is how they are distributed over time (smoothed using a 5-year moving average):

There's no discernible pattern until about 1960. I think before then, movies were focused more on established ghost stories like vampires, Frankenstein, werewolves, etc. After that, though, their prevalence reflects the crime rate -- up through the early '90s, then falling through today.

This is part of the broader pattern of people believing more in the supernatural, occult, or bizarre when the violence level is rising, and less when it's falling.

In my informal polling, the girl who had heard every single legend I inquired about was born in the mid-'70s (1975 I think). She wasn't biased either, as if I'd asked a class of folklore studies majors. If the peak of urban legend-telling was the early 1990s, she would have been in her later high school years.

Not having asked hundreds of random people, I don't want to stick to the mid-'70s as the prime cohort, though. I do know that the earlier Boomers had heard of very few or none, likewise with the Millennials, while Generation X and the mini-generation just after it (1979-1984) knew the most. I didn't get to ask many later Boomers (1958-1964). So perhaps we are most drawn to cautionary tales about threats to our physical security when we are in our post-pubescent young adult years, and to a lesser but still high degree when we're of elementary school age.

The loss (for now) of the urban legend culture is unfortunate not only because they're fun to tell and listen to. They provide valuable reminders of when you should be on alert. "Yeah, but I'll never get into one of those situations" -- you can run but you can't hide from life's dangers, so you'd better develop a basic sense of what to look out for in the meantime.

Plus this kind of storytelling strengthens trust between friends. By accepting their improbable tale without much resistance, you signal your trust in their regard for your welfare. If someone you don't trust tells you the tale, you may still believe it just in case, but you'll be more likely to dismiss it than if a friend told you. Your reluctance signals your lack of trust in them.

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