When I first heard "The Licked Hand" at a slumber party in the early 2000s in North Texas, it was told as the true tale of a girl who had lived in the neighboring subdivision years earlier. There was no way this could have actually happened. The closest prison to my hometown is more than 20 miles away, and the subdivision itself had been built in the 1980s. If this had happened, someone would remember it firsthand, and someone would have told us about it, right? Then again, adults are always hiding things, always keeping the good stories from children, so why not believe it? It certainly seemed true.
It's easy to become wrapped up in these stories as a pre-teen whispering around a campfire or a huddled circle of sleeping bags. As Trevor Blank, a professor at SUNY Potsdam who studies modern folklore, told New York magazine, children and adolescents love legends because they "get to experience the story; they hear the motifs, but often create their own iterations, which also helps them to kind of flex their own creative muscles and imagine a darker side of the world -- the side of the world that you are running away from as a child but are constantly being pulled into as you enter adulthood, facing these dark realities of the world and leaving innocence behind."
The "dark realities" Blank refers to are compelling. Researchers who analyzed more than 220 contemporary legends found that the stories referenced hazards of life far more often than the securities. Which makes sense: It's far safer to become engrossed in a risk that doesn't exist than to ignore a real one. On top of that, if a story scares you, research has found that you're more likely to pass it on.
This has been true for probably all of modern human history. We have evidence of people mailing each other urban legends in letters, faxing them in the '80s, and sending them in email chains in the '90s and early 2000s. "The spread of stories is certainly more widespread and not always by word of mouth anymore," Kitta says. With the rise of the internet and social media, a story that is much more legend than fact can disseminate quickly and widely.
"A big potential effect is the fact that digital communication means that you can pass on a story without having to remember it, you can just retweet or copy-and-paste content," Stubbersfield says. "This could have a big impact on the nature of urban legends compared to being spread by word-of-mouth with selection of what is read becoming more important than the pressures of having to recall something, and potentially changing it when you retell it."