One of the obstacles for anyone doing "serious" research is trying to untangle the truth from layers of obfuscation, confabulations, mixed up memories, and plain and simple tall tale. So how do you identify an urban legend?
Here are some tips:
1. Consider its structure. Does it have all the normal "story" components of a beginning, a middle, or an end? Does it have a "punch line"....or a tag line....."no matter how much they tried they could never get the stain out...." Chances are it is an urban legend.
2. Watch out for lines just as : 'This is a true story...' or 'This really happened to a friend of a friend' .
3. "Only names and places have been changed"....you have heard the same story before with different little (or updated) details?
4. Is there a peculiar lack of details as to names, places, dates, or exact details of the event?
5. Can the "facts" be verified in newspapers, books, interviews, etc.
Things to remember:
Often hauntings do not have any context; there is no romantic tale of why a ghost is there or what caused the ghost to stay.Satanism, witchcraft, and cults - are not as prevalent as some would have you believe (check with studies by national police organizations and the FBI). There have been more lynchings in this country than the burning of witches at the stake and more accidents than murders.Hauntings or episodes quite often have a "I walked into the middle of something" feel to them when they are real. They do not have a "beginning" or an "end" - they dangle out there in mid event with no why or how and leave the observer scratching their head.
What to Do if You Find It Is An Urban Legend?
Record it - it is a legend in the making and should be preserved. Note its sources, their background, where they heard it, etc. Contact local libraries, history centers, and universities to see if they have any oral history projects collections. If not, offer to start one!
Enjoy it - urban stories are fun, they connect people with some common sense lessons and values, and reaffirm we are all human (thus the wry quality often found in urban legends).
Sometimes - it is okay to just enjoy a good story!