What Are Urban Legends
By Dr. Mark Farley
I would typically post a washing picture for this, but I thought this deserved a little bit more of a response than a witty backhanded apology. A few days ago, I made a Facebook post about an urban legend in Holland, Michigan. The post was similar to the urban legend about the "Bubble Heads" on Carrico Road in North County, and the rudeness of some of the comments affected me (Greenbaum).
I think the reason is that some of my first endeavors into the paranormal were exploring and researching urban legends. I wasn't a popular kid in high school, but I did have a good job and my own car, so I would go seek out haunted places after work on the weekends. Little did I know that being ostracized in high school would lead to my career in the paranormal, and in hindsight, it was definitely a fair trade-off.
To this day, I always get excited when I hear of an urban legend or haunted place that I have never heard of before, especially stories about the obscure and nearly forgotten stories that have been twisted into foundations of our local history. I would drive any distance and to any location to find these places.
This is the reason why some of the comments really stuck with me. Not because they hurt me emotionally, but because they were made out of pure ignorance. People claimed that the urban legend in Holland, Michigan was stupid and implausible, but what they didn't understand, that's the purpose of an urban legend.
See, in my experience, an urban legend is a little bit of truth wrapped up in a whole lot of tall tales. The original story or the event that started the legend is true, but as in all urban legends, as it is passed down from one generation to the next, a little bit of sensationalism is always added.
Anthropologists define an urban legend as a "friend to friend story, told to describe strange, but supposedly true events, when in fact they are fictional through word of mouth invention or distortion. There is usually a true element, but the story becomes fictional as it is passed from one person to the next." (Kovacevic). So yes, I admit that the story Holland, Michigan is most definitely fictionalized. Still, the post was clearly stated as an urban legend and not intended to be published as pure fact. If some of these rude Facebook followers understood what an urban legend is, they would have definitely rethought the wording of their comments.
For me, the fun is researching the origin of an urban legend; I love it when I can find the initiating event that started the whole story. Take the local legend of the Seven Gates of Hell. The initiating event was the lynching of a supposed Un-American, union sympathizer who was branded as Communist. Over the years and with the propagation of the automobile into our culture, the legend grew. With the "Satanic Panic" caused by 70s and 80s horror films, elements of the occult were added. The legend grew further with the advent of the internet. Fueled by nightly thrill-seekers driving down the now suburbanized back roads of Collinsville, Illinois, the Seven Gates of Hell legend morphed into an actual haunting. As long as thrill-seekers are interested in the ever-evolving narrative, the legend and the haunting will continue, grow, and evolve.
So are the events of the urban legend of Holland, Michigan, entirely true? Probably not. Are there elements of the story that are true? Yes, but with each passing generation, the amount of truth will diminish. But remember, no matter how much the legend becomes sensationalized, there will always be part of the story that remains true. As the interest of savvy internet thrill-seeks continues to grows, every urban legend has the potential to morph into an actual haunting.
Greenbaum, Leah. Riverfront Times. 12 October 2012. Website. 6 June 2021.
Kovacevic, Ivan. Issues in Ethnolgy and Antropogy: Contemporary Urban Legends, Volume 2 No. 2. Russia: eap-iea, 2007. book.