In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Contemporary Legends

  • Introduction
  • Encyclopedia and Handbooks
  • Journals and Websites
  • Textbooks, Casebooks, and Overviews of Legend Research
  • In Film and on the Internet
  • Dangerous Internet Challenges

Childhood Studies Contemporary Legends
Elizabeth Tucker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0086


Contemporary legends (sometimes called urban legends or simply legends) are stories that spread primarily through informal channels. Traditionally, legends spread by word of mouth, but contemporary legends can travel by other means of individual communication, such as telephone, photocopy, email, or social-media postings. These stories may receive some coverage in the mass media, but traditional, oral channels are central to the legend’s spread. Typically, both the person telling the tale and the person hearing it understand the legend to be true, and the story may include elements intended to authenticate it, such as being set in a familiar location such as a local mall, or being told as something that happened to a friend of a friend (abbreviated FOAF) of the teller. Legends differ from rumors; rumors are brief speculative statements and are usually confined to a specific location, whereas legends tend to be longer narratives and may be localized or spread more widely. Legends are most often studied by folklorists but have also been studied by sociologists, psychologists, and scholars in other fields. Legends have important connections to childhood: children both tell legends and are key elements in many stories. For more information on children’s folklore, please see the Oxford Bibliographies in Childhood Studies article “Folklore.”

Encyclopedia and Handbooks

While there is no reference work devoted to children’s legends, there are volumes on contemporary legends generally and on children’s folklore. Folklore professor Jan Harold Brunvand brought wide recognition to the subject of urban legends, through a series of popular books that listed stories according to their themes and aimed to debunk them. His success has inspired many imitators, both in the United States and in other countries. Brunvand 2012 presents a large collection of legends in the context of current study in this field. Children’s folklore handbooks survey the field, offer examples of effective analysis, and provide guidelines for future research. Two handbooks available to researchers on children’s folklore are Sutton-Smith, et al. 1995 and Tucker 2008.

  • Brunvand, Jan Harold. Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. Updated and exp. ed. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012.

    Entries contain summaries of hundreds of legends, as well as discussions of various concepts and themes used by folklorists in analyzing these narratives. Each entry also includes citations to more-detailed analyses, both in Brunvand’s other works and in the broader literature on contemporary legend. Includes subjects of current interest to legend scholars, among which are threats from terrorism and hurricanes.

  • Sutton-Smith, Brian, Jay Mechling, Thomas W. Johnson, and Felicia R. McMahon, eds. Children’s Folklore: A Source Book. Garland Reference Library of Social Science 647. New York: Garland, 1995.

    A collection of essays by leading scholars in the field of children’s folklore, including a long chapter on tales and legends. Chapters go into considerable depth, with emphasis on methods as well as on the complexity and artistry of children’s folklore.

  • Tucker, Elizabeth. Children’s Folklore: A Handbook. Greenwood Folklore Handbooks. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008.

    Analyzes children’s legend-telling patterns and offers examples of legends commonly told by American preadolescents about killer dolls, vanishing hitchhikers, homicidal maniacs, and other frightening figures. Also emphasizes the close relationship between young children’s narratives and traditional folktales.

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