The Urban Legend

Jim Vandergriff (SMSU) and Virginia Scott (SMSU)

Though scholars argue about its specific characteristics, its interpretation, and its import, none deny that the folk narrative type called the urban belief tale or the urban legend exists or that it is an important manifestation of culture. In general terms, these narratives are relatively formulaic stories which validate or teach cultural patterns and/or beliefs. The content varies so that, again generally -speaking, urban belief tales reflect the concerns of the moment. For instance, the "vanishing hitchhiker" tales enjoyed their greatest viability in the 1950s, when the U. S. was becoming a mobile society. In the 1960s, the "deadly hairdo" tales taught the ostensible dangers of beehive hairdos. In the 1970s and 1980s, the drug culture spawned its own tales. The explosion of fast-food restaurants engendered the MacWorm stories and the "Kentucky fried rat" stories, and the growing xenophobia brought the "K-mart cobra" tales. Similar stories, such as the "roommate's death," the "hookman" and the "babysitter" tales reflect anxieties that accompany the various maturational stages (Dundes, Psychology ; Crane). Thus, it comes as no real surprise that the vaunted AIDS crisis has generated its own folk narratives.

Since we first began collecting these stories in October of 1987, we have collected more than 50 citations, most of them from our own classes at SMSU. However, we have also gathered a few through our colleagues and by other fortuitous means. Our informants, who are primarily college students, report having heard the stories all over Missouri and in several other states. Our own experience, as well as Gary Fine's, a folklorist at the University of Minnesota, strongly suggests that the legend is current all over the United States (193, n. 5).

Our primary collection tool was a modification of Philip Brandt George's urban legend collection form (16-17). We did not, however, slavishly adhere to the form. Where it was possible to do so, we had the narrators fill out the form, but we did not insist on their responding to all the categories, nor did we refuse chance hearings. For instance, our 51st attestation was strictly oral, with no form even at hand. Consequently, some of our statistical tabulations are based on less than 100% of the stories.

This particular tale has been noted in print only once. Gary Fine published a short paper on it in July of 1987. His earliest text citations date back only about three years. It is worth noting, though, that his citations, like ours, show rather clearly that the story has, in the very few years it has been around, spread all across the United States.

The legend has many forms, but the primary current form is as follows:

A young man goes to a bar, where he meets a beautiful blond woman. She makes it very clear that she is interested in him. Later they go to his apartment and spend the night making love. The love-making is intense and wonderful, the best he's ever experienced. When the young man wakes up the next morning, the woman is gone. He searches the apartment for her to no avail. Finally, he goes into the bathroom, where, to his horror, he finds written on the mirror in red lipstick the words "Welcome to the Wonderful World of AIDS."

Though both invariant and variant elements are important to understanding a legend, the latter tell us more about the immediate concerns of the group. As Beverly Crane says, legends provide a means of organizing "a complex set of environmental factors, which [are] contributing anxiety and tension to the lives of the individuals concerned" (147). When one considers the effort involved in remembering and reproducing the fixed elements, as well as that involved in creating and intertwining the variant elements in such a way that they have the requisite degrees of credibility and literariness, it becomes obvious that the narrators must feel something powerful in the stories. That powerful something, which we can elicit by analysis of the variant elements, is a means of dealing with the anxiety brought on by the AIDS scare.

Another function of legends, according to William Bascom, is that they are "means of applying social pressure and exercising social control" (294). Alan Dundes says that they arise in response to social change (Psychology 25) and Crane argues that they are "involved with the process of coming into consciousness" (137). In other words, urban legends arise out of anxiety caused by something new entering the culture and teach how to deal with that anxiety by teaching new mores. We can conclude, then, that the AIDS legend is teaching new sexual mores to the group that is telling and hearing it. This seems to be the primary function when adults tell the stories to younger people, as, for instance, when Billy Graham told it on March 19 as part of his recent television special, or when mothers tell it to their children.

A third, if less common, function of the tale is initiation: it sometimes serves as an ice-breaker in establishing new relationships. For instance, one telling of the tale occurred on an airplane. One businessman type, who was seated behind and to the left of another, told the tale to the second and in the course of the telling physically moved nearer him. This telling was framed within a general structure about how one does or does not abuse expense money; it was part of a "feeling out" ritual at the beginning stages of a social relationship. Such function is not unusual for legends in general (Barnes 312), but this was the only clear example of such use of the AIDS legend we have found. The majority of our attestations were told either in established friendship groups or in other established social structures, as in the case of Billy Graham. It seems clear, though, that these tales are serving all three purposes.

It is likely that purpose varies with the group telling the tale. Our research was focused primarily on college students, so we cannot define with any empirical accuracy what age group or groups do or don't tell the tale; however, it seems to be current with virtually all ages and statuses. Our collection contains attestations from high school age, college age, mid-30's, mid-40's and mid-60s. It is reported to us as having been told by Billy Graham and Joan Collins and on the evening news, by a disk jockey on a Kansas City radio station, by mothers to their sons, by husbands to their wives, and by customers to their beauticians. In other words, the story seems to be known throughout the population. The primary traffickers may simply be all those who are concerned with AIDS, rather than any particular age group. However, it seems likely the high school and college age groups are the main carriers, because, as Linda Degh says, they are the primary transmitters of folklore today (63-4). Ward :and others point out that popular narratives "reflect the dominating concerns of the subjects involved" (350-53). Toelken (270-71) argues, as Crane does (137), that it is those who are about to have to deal with the situation who are most likely to tell urban legends. If he is right, the primary tellers are not those who are currently engaging in casual sex, but those who are about to enter the group which does--the threat group, the at-risk group. For such individuals the stories serve as warnings (Brunvand 48). Perhaps additional research will permit a clearer description of the primary group.

Whoever the primary passers of the tale, it seems obvious that the legends are about fear of sex. Internal concern with appropriate sexual behavior, which is a major concern with high school and college age people, and a deviation from the norm in the external world (i.e., the AIDS crisis) cause people to fill in the blanks to arrive at an interpretation of the deviation (Ward 350-53). In other words, external events are interpreted in accordance with internal concerns. Thus, despite the fact that it is very unlikely--in fact, there is a better chance of being struck by lightning (Frink 2-5)--that AIDS will be transmitted as described in the stories, and given the assumption that the tellers know that, there is a contradiction inherent in the stories which needs to be explained. The obvious explanation is that narrators and audiences are concerned, not with AIDS itself, but with appropriate sexual behavior in the face of the AIDS crisis--inconvenient "facts" about the disease notwith-standing.

As Carl Lindahl points out, a legend is "a debate about belief [sic], . . . the meeting place of two warring voices, expressing opposed opinions" (1). An important question, then, is, "Do narrator and/or audience deal with question of belief?" If they do, either positively or negatively, then the legend is doing its job of teaching how to believe. A Chi-square test done on our samples shows that belief in the stories is significant beyond the .01 level. Further statistical tests show that belief is not a function of either age or gender. Thus, despite the myriad of institutional and governmental reports, most people who hear the stories probably believe them, or find them believable enough to question their veracity. What this tells us is that the so-called AIDS "epidemic" is causing Americans to reassess their sexual behavior.

Why people would believe something so verifiably unlikely is also worth looking into. The AIDS virus is transmitted, as most people know, only through certain identified vectors. In order to acquire AIDS, one must have connection with one of these vectors; normal heterosexual sex is not one of those vectors. Furthermore, even infected women cannot infect men unless men have genital lesions and even then the likelihood of infection is slight ("AIDS"). The stories occasionally involve a male who transmits the disease, but 96% of the time, in the data we have, the transmitter is female. Brunvand's and Fine's collections show a similar pattern (Fine 194-195). Once again, Chi-square tests show that the presence of a female transmitter is significant beyond the .01 level, that it is not a phenomenon due to chance or sampling error, but a standard part of the tale. Furthermore, only 1/3 of all American folk-tales have female villains (Stone 44). Since the idea of the disease being transmitted from female to male contravenes statistical likelihood, it is of interest to determine why the stories would so commonly include that structure. The question becomes, then, what is the significance of this unusual element in these AIDS tales? One explanation seems to be gynephobia, a condition whose widespread existence Wolfgang Lederer argues convincingly in his book, The Fear of Women . Interestingly, it was stated authoritatively in a recent television special that "[t]he only Away AIDS can get out of the group it is in is through the bodies of women," a notion so patently absurd that one wonders at its inclusion. However, it does serve to support the gynephobia hypothesis. As Fine says, ". . . the story plays on [men's] collective paranoia toward women" (197).

When one notes the occasional occurrence in the stories of the "temptress" figure, this interpretation becomes even more credible. When the female transmitter is described (and she usually is not), she is always either beautiful and/or a prostitute. If beautiful, she is usually described as blond. In two instances she is described as a "goddess." In short, she is irresistible--a modern succubus (Fine 197). The prostitute, of course, is a similar figure, the quintessential forbidden fruit, the sexual temptress. The obvious conclusion the audience is expected to reach is that what is desirable is deadly. Therefore, that the transmitter is identified as female in 96% of the stories indicates that the cause is fear of women.

Gary Fine seems to think, though, that the legend's main purpose is what he calls a "subtle revenge" (196). He says it shows women taking sexual revenge on men, a sort of reverse rape. Five of our informants specifically interpreted the stories that way, too, and several others made comments about the story that suggest they might agree with such a characterization of the female transmitter's motives. The most recent attestation, collected on April 15, 1988, not only specifically states that the female carrier was motivated by desire to punish men, but has her infecting five men in one day--a sort of mass murder. She picks up and has sex with five men, one after another, and spends the night with the last one, who awakes to find the standard tag-line on the mirror. Thus, it is obvious that the legend does, at least sometimes, function as a revenge mechanism.

Of course, such stories may serve different purposes for different tellers, or even multiple purposes for a single teller. Consequently, both interpretations are possible. The story is far more frequently told in mixed groups than in single sex groups, the opposite of what we would expect if its purpose were exclusively either of the above.

Another significant variant is the place where the pick-up occurs. First of all, a majority of the respondents identify the location as a bar--in some instances even as a sleazy bar. The rest who identify the place locate it at a party. In other words, the meeting occurs at a "bad place." One version from Texas has the sexual congress taking place in a pickup truck outside a bar, further degrading the act. It is useful to note, too, that most of the infectees are identified as students, yet they are in bars or at parties drinking alcohol. They are, in short, engaging in illicit activities to begin with, so part of the lesson is "Don't go to places like that." When we put this together with the gender of the transmitter, the lesson becomes a full-blown lesson in sexual behavior aimed primarily at males: "Don't go to bars and pick up women for casual sex." In other words, stay in control and don't have casual sex with strangers. It seems important to note that the proscription is not against pre- or extra-marital sex per se , but against casual sex. It's a lesson in monogamy.

Thus, the legends seem to be teaching a new set of sexual mores. And, given the facts (1) that they are told more often by males than females, (2) that the victim is almost always male, even when the teller is female, (3) that they are sometimes told by mothers to sons, and (4) that some hearers and narrators interpret them as warnings against casual sex, it seems evident that the primary purpose is to teach sexually-active males that they need not/should not be so. In other words, the message is that it is okay to be scared celibate, that one need not prove his masculinity by random sexual conquest. It is establishing new moral boundaries for males, the kind of lesson that Lindahl, Brunvand and numerous other folklorists contend is the main purpose of such urban legends.

One important invariant in these tales is that the man and woman are strangers to each other. Lindahl maintains that "the stranger is . . . the archetypal legend symbol of our age" (15), that the stranger, who is a sociopath or maniac in many modern legends, is the modern counterpart of the supernatural punisher of classic legends (2-5). The stranger is a fitting archetype because he/she symbolizes the ambiguity of good and evil in contemporary society, the difficulty of distinguishing between the two. In these AIDS legends, the villain is generally identified as attractive--either a beautiful woman or at least a sexually-available one--and the place of contact is familiar--a bar or party. The pair often goes to a familiar place--his house or apartment--and the sexual activity is characterized as exceptionally pleasurable. In short, everything is positive and/or familiar on the surface, which makes the deadly outcome all the more shocking. The only extra-normal element is the stranger. The importance here seems to be that, as noted earlier, sex with strangers--casual sex, promiscuous sex--is being singled out for proscription, not sex per se . Equally importantly, though, this characteristic of the tales puts them in the mainstream of American folklore. Many of today's local legends viewed collectively have the central theme of concealed or unknown danger. ". . . [T]he concealed or unknown danger expresses man's fear and hostility. Partially the local legend serves . . . as a warning against danger lurking everywhere in the modern !environment" (Carpenter 44).

The unusual tag-lines on the stories support this idea further. Gary Fine suggests that they merely make some cynical comment about community (196). That may be true to a point. That is, both the idea of community and the idea of its inescapability once one is in it certainly seem to be a part of it. Yet, the versions collected in Springfield have a significantly different tag-line than those reported by Fine, one so odd that it require discussion. Fine reports the usual tag as being "Welcome to the World of AIDS," with variants such as "Welcome to the AIDS Community," Welcome to the Wacky World of AIDS," and "Now you got AIDS, Sucker." We collected instances of most of these, as well as some others. However, he does not cite the tag-line, which occurs in about 60% of our stories: "Welcome to the Wonderful World of AIDS." Where this tag-line differs most from all the others is that it parodies the Disney line: "Welcome to the Wonderful World of Disney," which is eminently familiar to the generation telling the stories, as well as to virtually anyone else who has been alive in America in the last 40 years. This tag does, of course, support Fine's notion of community and suggest that the legend is still evolving, but, more importantly, it turns the quintessentially innocent, that is, Disney, into something equally horrible. The association increases the horror and, therefore, the shock value. Once again, as Lindahl points out, the ambiguity, the "psychic doubling," as he calls it, underscores the danger (15). Furthermore, the alliteration, with its nursery rhyme cadence, is also important. Not only does it serve as a mnemonic device, it calls up those innocent playground associations with poetry, once again juxtaposing the innocent and the terrible, underscoring one's defenselessness against AIDS.

Much more could be said about this legend, but time constrains us. In summary, then, our researches have established that the stories are an example of a new, viable urban legend expressing the fears and anxieties of contemporary Americans about the AIDS crisis and, most importantly, teaching Americans a new set of sexual mores. We see here, in these stories, the beginning of a new sexual revolution.

Works Cited


"AIDS: Can You Get It?" Light Videotelevision Productions, April 4, 1988.

Barnes, Daniel R. "Some Functional Horror Stories on The Kansas University Campus," Southern Folklore Quarterly 30 (1966): 305-312.

Bascom, William R. "Four Functions of Folklore," The Study of Folklore. Ed. Alan Dundes. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1965: 279-298.

Brunvand, Jan H. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends And Their Meanings. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1981.

Carpenter, Ann. "Cobras at K-Mart: Legends of Hidden Danger," What's Going On? (In Modern Texas Folklore). Ed. Francis E. Abernethy. Austin, TX: The Encino Press, 1976: 37-45.

Crane, Beverly. "The Structure of Value in 'The Roommate's Death': A Methodology for Interpretive Analysis of Folk Legends," Journal of the Folklore Institute, 14 (1977): 133-149.

Degh, Linda. "The Belief Legend' in Modern Society." American Folk Legend: A Symposium . Ed. Wayland Hand. Berkeley: Univ. of CA Press, 1971: 55-68.;

Dundes, Alan. "The Psychology of Legend." American Folk Legend: A Symposium. Ed. Wayland Hand. Berkeley: Univ. of CA Press, 1971: 21-36.

Fine, Gary Alan. "Welcome to the World of AIDS: Fantasies of Female Revenge." Western Folklore 46 (July 1987): 192-197.

Frink, Laurie Glenn. "Treat AIDS Like Long-term Illness, Expert Urges." Springfield News-Leader, 4 February 1988: 6B.

George, Philip Brandt. "The Folk Legend." Introduction to Folklore: Preliminary Edition. Ed. Robert G. Adams. Columbus, OH: Collegiate Publishing Co., 1973: 11-18.

Lederer, Wolfgang. The Fear of Women. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Lindahl, Carl. "Psychic Ambiguity at the Legend Core." Journal of Folklore Research. 23.1 (1986): 1-21.

Stone, Kay. "Things Walt Disney Never Told Us." Journal of American Folklore. 88 (1975): 42-50.

Toelken, Barre. The Dynamics of Folklore. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1979.

Ward, Donald. "American and European Narratives as SocioPsychological Indicators." Folk Narrative Research: Some Papers Presented at the VI Congress of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research. Ed. Juha Pentikainen. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 1976: 348-353.