On the eve of Halloween it seems timely to consider the link between urban legends, social norms and social control. The excellent urban legend, folklore and myth internet reference site Snopes contains a number of stories which would seem to serve the function of enforcing social norms in society. In the eponymous urban legend for example a student stops by her shared dorm room to collect an item late at night, but hears noises coming from her roommate’s side of the room and, assuming that her roommate is in bed with her boyfriend, leaves quickly without switching on the room lights. She later returns to the dorm room to discover the grisly remains of her murdered roommate with the words ‘Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?’ written in blood on the wall. Generations of students have told and re-told this story, usually with the earnest assertion that the incident has happened recently somewhere nearby. Indeed, during my own first week at university in the late 1990s I was told this story multiple times, with the claim that it had happened in one of the student residences the previous year.
This example and many other urban legends share a common underlying theme; namely that deviating from a social norm (either an actual norm or a desired one) will result in a terrible consequence. As with the example above these social norms often seem to relate to sex and relationships, particularly in regards to young people. Other examples include the ‘Hook on the Handle’ story, in which a young couple narrowly escape being murdered by an escaped criminal after parking in a secluded spot. By serving as cautionary tales these urban legends act as a form of social control that aims to reinforce societal norms – at least for the sections of society who wish the maintain the status quo. They are maintained by societies as they act as a form of heuristic that helps us understand our social world, and how we ‘should’ behave.
Stubbersfield argues that urban legends may serve two particular purposes. Firstly, there is survival information, which relates to information that is important for people to survive. This is reflected in urban legends that revolve around people getting into danger when they go somewhere alone, or are overly trusting of a stranger, or fail to check a new environment for potential risks. Secondly there serve a social information function, through which they warn against the dangers of not behaving in a socially inappropriate way. There may naturally often be overlap between survival information urban legends and social information urban legends, since other people can act as one of the biggest threats to our survival.
Aside from the entertainment and movie story lines that urban legends provide they can also help us understand social norms, particularly those which are implicit within society. People do not like to be told how to behave or what to think – urban legends may be one way for societies to maintain social order through social norms in a way that is not evident to the targets of this attempted social control.
Dr John McAlaney, Bournemouth University
- Stubbersfield, J.M., J.J. Tehrani, and E.G. Flynn, Serial killers, spiders and cybersex: Social and survival information bias in the transmission of urban legends. British Journal of Psychology, 2015. 106(2): p. 288-307.
- Mar, R.A. and K. Oatley, The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2008. 3(3): p. 173-192.