Skip to Main Content

Critical thinking: Conspiracy theories, urban legends, and moral panics

If you’re teaching critical thinking and looking for timely and engaging material, why not try a conspiracy theory?

What's an urban legend?

Wikipedia, citing Snopes, says: "An urban legend or contemporary legend is a genre of folklore comprising stories circulated as true, especially as having happened to a "friend of a friend" or family member, often with horrifying or humorous elements. These legends can be entertainment, but often concern mysterious peril or troubling events, such as disappearances and strange objects. They may also be confirmation of moral standards, or reflect prejudices, or be a way to make sense of societal anxieties"

The previous name, urban folklore, seems to have fallen out of fashion.

Pioneering  urban folklorist, Jan Brunvand, names some classics in his book titles: The Vanishing Hitchhiker, The Choking Doberman, The Mexican Pet and others.

Other favorites include The Call is Coming from Inside the House, The Hook, Bloody Mary, Killer in the Backseat, and so on. When you read them, you'll be amazed at how many you've heard as true stories from a friend or relative.

Lists of urban legends can be found all over the web but Snopes is the best place to start as it not only recounts the story but investigates its history and assesses its veracity.

Urban legends, moral panics, and conspiracy theories can overlap and any or all of them can be fake news. How to distinguish among them and which term applies to any given movement would make excellent paper topics.

Urban Legend podcasts

Almost all of the podcasts listed on the podcast tab occasionally discuss urban legends but a few make urban legends their main focus:

American Hysteria

Internet Urban Legends (only on Spotify)

Mysteries & Urban Legends Podcast

Urban Legends

Books