Urban Legends

Urban legends are the stories you’ve probably hear from your neighbors and friends from time to time, read them in the newspapers, on some websites or even get them by e-mail. Brandon Toropov in his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Urban Legends defines a classical urban legend as a compelling story, which origin is enigmatic, the one that is spreading in various forms of humor or terror to deliver the lesson. (p.4). Tom Harris, the author of the article How Urban Legends Work found on the How Stuff Works Website says that urban legend is “…any modern, fictional story, told as truth, that reaches a wide audience by being passed from person to person.”

Linda Degh in her book Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre states that the phenomenon of urban legends have been existing for centuries now, at least the scientists who analyzed the folklore from classical antiquity, Middle Ages to the reign of queen Victoria. The things that changed about the old urban legends it is the setting and some minor details, but the plot and the morale often stay the same. The author stated that urban legends are the current outgrowth of traditional legendry, the modern variation of that “mystic metaphysical nightmare stories” that were told long ago near the campfires and fireplaces all over the world. (p.88)

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The term “urban legend” was established and gained popularity through the Brunvand’s urban legend books; five volumes of stories and tales that were published in a period from 1981 to 1993. The publication of those books inspired the oral and media retelling of those stories and the appearance of the new ones. Year after year more and more books are published about the urban legends, websites and discussion groups appear, and the phenomenon of urban legends is spread further and popularized.

Brandon Toropov marked out the eight standards to asses urban legend status. Those are:

·         the story is presented as having been experienced or seen by a “friend of a friend” (the FOAF attribution). It means that we never hear those stories from the immediate participator.

·         the teller seems a little to eager to insist the story is true

·         the story plays to the common fear or concern

·         the story is demonstrably false

·         the story has appeared in multiple versions

·         the story carries an important lesson or warning

·         the story’s been around for a long time

·         the story is too good not to pass along. It has a clear structure, a beginning, middle and end sections, it uses devices such as a “series of three” rule etc (p.4-9)

If you hear a story that features more than two or three of these elements, it is a good chance that it is an urban legend.

The amount of urban legends is tremendous, they are hundreds of books and websites full of those, people retell them every day, they appear in the newspapers ad magazines, and sometimes the urban legends can also be heard from the TV screen. Some of them are totally unrealistic, it is seen from the first glance that they are fake and designed only for fun, but some of those look much like the true stories. In some cases there happens to be some background for this or that legend, but the information is biased and blurred, and sometimes it turns out that the urban legends base on the real facts. There are legends that live for a couple of month or weeks and are passed only through the oral canal of communication, but the other stories live for decades and even centuries. It also sometimes happens that the urban legends look like valid information, thus people begin to accept them as facts and base their decisions and actions on the information provided in those legends.

Urban Legends, folklore and superstitions specialist from the New Jersey college, professor Steven Anderson states that the phenomenon of urban legends was born when people first began to form big settlements, where there was too much people for them to know each other. He states that urban legends have existed in all the towns and cities in the world throughout all the history of the humankind.

He also adds that urban legends substituted the stories people told each other near the fire in the ancient times. Those stories contained the examples of what was good, and what was bad, about the important moral values. Urban legends “contain an important lesson or warning, and play to the common fear or concern”.

One of the prominent examples of the urban legends is the Legend about Jelly Sex Bracelets. This legend has been transmitted from news market to news market across the nation. Searching the Web we found several dozens of the articles about the hidden meaning of the jelly bracelets published in the magazines, newspapers and even aired in the TV news.

It is said that this story began in 2003, in Marion County, Florida, when the jelly bracelets were banned from the school after few youngsters spilled the meaning of the color of the jelly accessories to the adults It turned out that there was a game called “Snap”. The burden of the game is that girls and some boys, the pupils of the middle and junior high school, and even some children below the grade 3, wear colorful jelly bracelets, and each bracelet color has it’s specific meaning. When the bracelet is broken on the arm it becomes a “coupon” for some sexual act, from kissing to the intercourse. (Sex Bracelets, Snopes Website, 2003)

This legend was spread by different means – through the newspaper articles, TV shows and, mostly, e-mails. Here is the example of one of those messages people got in their mailboxes.

Subject: Colored Bracelets and our Children! A MUST READ!

To all of my Concerned Christian Crew (CCC):

Have you heard about the bracelets that have been banned in the middle school in O’Fallon. I did a show on it last night because 75% of our kids go to Fulton Middle School and their school was featured on Channel 4 Wednesday night for the principal banning them. The young girls have been wearing colored jelly bracelets. Each color indicates the sexual favors they will perform. I had no idea this was going on…so last night…after confirming all of the facts with KMOV Channel 4 television station….I did a show on it. After researching the story….I found out that this began in Florida and is now spreading nationwide. The kids confirmed that they knew about the bracelets and even educated me what each color means.

The Blue is Oral; The red is lap dance; Black is with a condom; Red & Black is a 69 position; Green is upper body only;

Can you believe these are our 11-13 year olds.((Jelly Bracelets: An Invitation to Sex?, Urban Legends About Website, 2003).

Since the appearance of this legend several schools nationwide have banned jelly bracelets from their areas. “It can symbolize some sort of sexual involvement, and so when we learned that we decided to ban them from our school” – said Katherine Ashton, the Vice Principal of the North Layton Junior High School (Jelly “Sex” Bracelets Banned At North Layton Jr. High, KSL Website, 2003).

Another version of this story, found in the article from the Chicago Sun-Times is that it’s no need to break a bracelet on the girl’s arm, it’s enough just to steal it for to get the “coupon”. The author of the article also adds that various Web sites exist, so kids can educate themselves about the bracelets. The sites provide color codes, games and bulletin boards where they can post their bracelet “sexploits.” (2004)

Mueller Park Junior High in Bountiful also banned the jelly bracelets. Chris Williams, spokesman for Davis School District, said the ban on the bracelets is not proof that this sort of game was actually going on in the school. However, Mueller Park’s principal Doug Beer said there were a few “incidents”. The school officials say that they want to prevent even the possibility of some “inappropriate” things going on between the pupils. The article also notes that the researchers couldn’t find a single child in their area who would play that game, and that only some of the kids new about the hidden meaning of the jelly accessories. (Teen bracelet just a bracelet, or is it? Deseret News, 2003)

The curios and amusing fact is that, as  Martha Irvine who wrote the article in Chicago Sun-Times about the bracelets, most of the teenagers get to know about the hidden meaning of the color of their bracelets from the news reports and not from each other. She also notes that in some parts of the country the teens don’t even know that the jelly bracelets had any other purpose than just a fashionable accessory. (Chicago Sun-Times, Teens say ‘sex bracelet’ legend a mystery to them, 2003). So that it’s obvious that the adults themselves let to the outspread of this myth throughout the country by publishing numerous articles and airing news reports about the bracelets.

But let’s see deeper into the roots of this problem. If we analyze the actions of the educators and principals of our schools, and even the actions of the parents, we can say that the adults in our country are afraid of sexuality, and even more of the sexuality of their kids. Everything that is somehow connected with sex is strictly banned and forbidden, notes the article on the Canadian Parents Website. ( Jelly bracelets: urban legend attracts attention, but little critical thought, Canadian Parents Website ) The kids get a feeling they were engaged in something terribly wrong and shameful, and it often leads to the perverted perception of their own sexuality and sexuality of those who surround them, which, in its turn, will make them ban any sign of sexuality in their children when they will notice it. While such a policy exists in our country its no wonder that hundreds of thousands of people have to request help from the specialists every year, as they can’t cope with their sexual disorders and problems in the personal life. It’s very harmful for the kid’s psychic to let him/her in an informational vacuum considering sex and to strongly disapprove of his/her attempts to get the needed info somewhere else than parents or educators.

Besides this policy is ineffective, as it is a proven fact that forbidding something to a group of children is a best way to make them do it. The ban of jelly accessories from schools just rises the interest towards the connotations associated with this item. (The home office of Claire’s a First Coast store that has been selling them for a long time, says sales have skyrocketed in the two weeks after the bracelets were banned in several schools in that area.) (. ’80s Fashion Bracelets Raising Concern. Fox30 Online Website)

There are different versions concerning the origins of this urban legend and the reasons why it became so widespread, but the most valid, in our opinion it is the fact that it the story plays to the common fear or concern. The adults in our society are afraid to talk about sex among themselves, not even mentioning discussing this topic with their children. Sex is still considered to be something shameful and inappropriate by the considerable part of adults, thus even the smallest possibility that their kids can get more info about it than the parents are ready to give them arises great concern among the parents, educators, and social activists.

Our society is afraid of the manifestations of the child and teenage sexuality. The fact that the teenagers who reached pubescence experience sexual emotions and desires seems very scaring and reproachful to most of the adults. Sex is seen as the privilege of the adults, and every teenager has to live through the battle for his/her own sexual life, the battle with his parents, relatives, and the society itself. The thing is that the parents are usually very afraid of their child growing up, of the fact that he/she would be able to survive without their help, that they will become useless to their descendant. For most of us the fact that a person is engaged in sexual activity is a clear sign of the fact that he/she is grown up. People are afraid of the possibility that their children will grow up too quick, too early.

The U.S officials proclaim that there is a campaign for our country to discourage teenagers from sex before marriage, but still the statistics says that 54% of girls from 13 to 19 claim that they lead the sexual life. Considering this facts, maybe it is time to admit that people do have instincts, and that maybe it is better not to forbid kids to talk and think about sex, and have sex, but explain them the risks of premature sexual engagement, and explain them the risks of the unprotected sex?

When Mr. Anderson was asked to comment on this legend he said that the legend of the Jelly Bracelets is the classical example of the urban legend of the modern times, where access to the information is almost immeasurable, but it is very hard to ensure it is validity. In the given case the legend was transmitted not only  word to mouth, but also by the national media. The specialist ensured that it is the prominent example of the fact that nevertheless the conditions of living changed radically through the last century, people stayed the same. They are ready to believe any story that is fascinating and scary enough.

Most of the teenagers who were asked about their thoughts of the situation with the jelly bracelets were resentful at the fact that the adults thought they were so stupid to be engaged in such a game. Those were adults who spread this legend, and who aroused interest from the side of children and teenagers to it, and who are now panicking about it. This legend is a reflection of one of the greatest fears that exist in our society, which is the fear of the children and teenage sexuality.