Folk tales are stories that people made up a long time ago to teach the young and warn them of dangers or just to entertain the listeners. And, so the thinking seems to go, the stories worked because the intended audience was somehow less sophisticated and more prone to believing the tales than modern folk.
Yet, according to those who study urban legends, people believe them because they seem to teach us how to avoid dangers or because they are just too entertaining not to believe.
We all like to think of ourselves as sophisticated, modern people. We've advanced since the creation of Little Red Riding Hood, warning little girls to be careful of strangers – especially once they matured physically enough for their own monthly red hood – haven't we?
But, isn't the same general purpose being met when we forward the e-mail to all our friends telling about the woman – usually a friend of a friend – who had a flat tire at the mall? You know the one: she accepted help from a well-dressed man who turned out to have a kidnap kit in his briefcase. It was only with the help of a fortuitously nearby rescuer (surprisingly, not a woodcutter) that she escaped this disguised "wolf" and survived.
So, before you start feeling too superior with all the modern technology at your fingertips, remember some wisdom that was first written a very long time ago: There is nothing new under the sun. Calling modern folk tales "urban legends" might make us feel better about ourselves, but that doesn't mean we've advanced - just that we know how to rename things.