From the 1940s onwards, folklorists became aware of a ‘new’ type of folktale—frightening, macabre, and/or amusing anecdotes going round orally, and sometimes in newspapers. These fitted the legend genre because the tellers presented them as really true (and often genuinely believed they were) and the hearers accepted this. But whereas legends as previously defined had mostly been collected from country-dwellers, and were always set in the past, these were common in cities and were about things alleged to have happened very recently, within a few weeks of the telling. Their plots often turned upon some typically modern behaviour or invention—baby-sitting, hitchhiking, takeaway food, microwave ovens, kidney transplants, etc.—and reflected the fears and moral judgements of today's society. Collectors therefore labelled them ‘contemporary’, ‘urban’, or ‘modern’ legends; a more flippant term is ‘foaftale’, an acronym based on the way narrators claim the adventure happened to ‘a friend of a friend’ of theirs. The label ‘urban’ is much used by journalists and the public, but slightly misleading, for they circulate throughout a whole country; ‘contemporary’ is now widely preferred.
With the exception of some ghost stories (notably the Vanishing Hitchhiker), their content is not supernatural but bizarre, violent, and gruesome—a grandmother's corpse is stolen from a car roof-rack; a madman decapitates a motorist who has left his car, and bangs the head on the car roof; a serial killer, disguised as an old woman, hitches a lift, but is detected by his hairy hands; someone with Aids deliberately infects others, and leaves a message saying so; a takeaway chicken portion is really a rat. Others, more light-hearted, involve sexual and social humiliations (nudity, open flies, farting, etc.) in complicated and barely credible circumstances; these are basically narrative jokes, sometimes presented as such, while other tellers believe them utterly; ‘This is very funny, but this is absolutely true. It was my aunty's neighbour who we knew very well…’ (Bennett, 1988: 13–14).
Initially the sinister stories seem persuasive because of their mundane setting, and because they grow out of a more diffuse body of beliefs, prejudices, and experiences current in the community. The tellers generally give convincing details of time and place, saying they heard of the occurrence from someone who knew the people it happened to; the hearers do not know that the event has allegedly also happened in many other places, thus casting doubt on which account (if any) is factual. However sincere an individual teller is, and however fully he/she trusts his/her informant, somebody back along the line of transmission consciously created an effective tale, which others transferred to new locations, adapting the details to suit. The process by which contemporary legends appear, spread, are updated, and develop new variations by recombining older elements, can thus be regarded as a speeded-up version of the dissemination of migratory legends.
Such a widespread genre can be studied from several angles. Scholars concerned with folk narrative produce accurate transcripts of actual tellings, and study the rhetorical strategies of the narrators. Others trace the history of particular plots and themes, and identify legends which were told as contemporary in previous centuries. Others use sociological and psychological approaches to show their significance and relevance in the community.