What is an Urban Legend?

Questionnaire on Florida’s Urban Legends

​E-interview with Greg Jenkins, Ph.D.

You study urban legends.  How did you get started in this field?

I have always had an interest in urban legends and the study of folklore. Folkways are apparent and quite visible in all cultures and sub-groups. Music for instance is a prime example of cultural folkways that are singular to that culture or sub-group. For example, the music of the “Cotton Club” era, which may be attributed to, but certainly not limited to: Fats Waller, Lionel Hampton, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, are solely that of an African-American influence, meaning this music and its credits belong only to this sub-group in American history. It doesn’t matter who will copy it, or add on to it, it will always be theirs and theirs alone. Similarly, the urban legend can make the same claim regardless of a common understanding. The hitchhiking girl that walks the Skyway Bridge in Tampa/St. Pete is a common legend heard from one country to the next, with similar stories being told in Europe, the UK and abroad the dark continent. Were it not for expert eyewitness accounts, such as from a Federal Agent and an off-duty sheriff’s deputy, both who I have interviewed, I might be prone in believing that this is simply a common tale whereby the ghost of a long-dead girl, or boy is just trying to get home…and, when this “person” disappears, leaving only an address to where she lives, the parent at that address tells the hapless driver that the “person” in question has been dead for 20 years, and so forth and etc. We all know the legends, and we all loved them…Don’t we?
I am always searching for new legends, especially those connected to ghosts and alike supernatural beings. I do so not only because it is directly affiliated to my profession as a psychologist and expression arts therapist, but also because it tunes in directly to the human condition, which after all is what we’re all about. Ghosts and life after death, is simply an extension of who we are now, and “who” we will be remembered as after we die. For some, I might be remembered as a crank know-it-all egg head that wrote a few books only to see his name in print…To others however, I might be remembered as a caring mental health counselor who went beyond the text books to bring light to even the darkest places…In the end, this last ideal also constitutes the reasoning behind the urban legend and the cultural folktale in its purpose, where each creates a very personal and unique meaning. With that said, the importance of our heritage and the many individual aspects of our individual heritages become clear.  

Are there any urban legends that you find are strictly “native” to Florida?  If so, what is the most interesting one, in your opinion?  How do you think it reflects the native environment?

This is a very good question, and one, which I could dominate for some time. But, to keep the pages short I would have to say that the most prevalent urban legend is that of the “Skunk Ape.” Here’s a legend that has endured since at least the 1920s within the white-European settlements here, and for at least one thousand years with Native Americans. Indeed, here’s a creature that has been reported by every tribe from the Timucuan to the Seminole as “a creature who lives amongst and within the land and brings no harm to man.” It is a creature that is as steadfast in history as it is in Floridian folklore. It has deviated very little over the course of the years, mustering a good reputation from expert eyewitnesses in the process. Indeed, from foresters and sheriff’s deputies to state road workers and policeman, the Skunk Ape has been seen and smelt, as well as reported over the years, so with such accountability, it stands to reason that something may indeed be out there in what’s left of our native woodlands and thickets.

 Do you think that urban legends are valuable tools in a ghost hunter’s research?  Why?

Absolutely! Before we, as “ghost hunters” go out on an investigation, we should firstly learn all there is about that location, person or object before any assumption is made. The first thing to do beyond mere interest is to run a complete scientific objective first before anything else. In a group such as yours, you might want to do the following as a pre-op before the actual, on-sight investigation is conducted. (Understanding that you may already be doing this) Firstly, understand the nature of the urban legend in question. If researching “ghost lights” a.k.a. foolish fire, ignis fatuus or jack’ o wisp, and etc., you should understand the location first and foremost. Is this location near a swamp or otherwise free-standing body of water? If so, is the reported event usually observed in the summer months? If you answer yes to both these questions, the ghost lights in question may very well be swamp gas naturally expelling itself, or “burning-off,” an event that takes place around this time of the year in Florida and most southern states.    
Secondly, we must look at the history of that location, as this may override the attached urban legend at hand. If we observe the legend known as “The Oviedo Lights,” a legend that dates back to the 1800s here in central Florida, we will find that there are two separate events that point to the creation of this legend. The first is that a carriage overturned in the celery fields near here, killing a family and several children, where ever since this accident, laughter of children is sometimes heard, as well as there being strange lights sometimes being seen in this area. At the site were the ghost lights are seen directly, which is were an old bridge once was, (Old Snow Hill Road Bridge) we will find actual evidence that a man did indeed hang himself from the bridge around 1945, after returning home from the war only to find his girlfriend had married another man. Moreover, this site is also located (built over in fact) on Indian burial mounds…both historically leading to a possible haunting/paranormal event.
Finally, we must look at the witnesses. Since at least the 1800s, people have been observing these strange lights, which have been reported as bobbing up and down, and on occasion, even following or chasing cars and people.  Spirits of the dead, or unsettled and angry ghosts of ancient Indians…These are the questions that formulate such an urban legend, and one we can see in many similar legends nation-wide. 
In short, once we do the aforementioned research, which may consist of an in-depth historical study, along with our investigations, we will clearly see the importance of such a marriage of philosophies to the outcome of our efforts.   

How do these two fields cross over?

Because many urban legends are based one way or another in a truthful event, such an origin may in turn produce reasoning as to why the legend grew in the first place. As “ghost hunters,” we might first discover a creepy story, which is full of tantalizing things. Such a story might consist of a full-bodied history, such as a murder, or suicide, and then a listing of odd occurrences that follow that event. Perhaps people had noticed a variety of paranormal things, or perhaps the essence of that original murder/suicide created a haunting all its own. Either way, the very nature of that “haunting” is based largely, if not entirely on that legend/folktale. What comes later is for you, the “ghost hunter” to decipher which is which; legend or truth. Indeed, it is as someone famous once said, “The Truth Is Out There.”    

Greg Jenkins, M. Sc., Ph.D. CEAT

Greg Jenkins has over 18 years working in the mental health and medical fields, and is currently a mental health counselor and case manager with a psychiatric facility in Central Florida. Greg is a folklorist and collector of urban legends, and is an associate member with England’s Society for Psychical Research. 

After a personal experience with the unknown in 1987, Greg began his journey into the realm of ghosts and haunted places, which he happily continues to do today. Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore is a partial listing of some of Florida’s very own frightening ghost stories and mysterious places. With this collection of unique urban legends and ghostly folklore, this book will challenge the unbeliever to investigate the unknown at first hand, having fun in the process.

Taken from Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore

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