A mysterious man, wearing a coat of many colors, appeared in Hamelin, Germany, in 1284. He claimed to be a ratcatcher who could rid the city of rats. The ratcatcher took a small fife from his pocket and began to blow on it. Rats came from every house and gathered around him. When he thought that he had them all, he led them to the River Weser where he pulled up his clothes and walked into the water. The animals all followed him, fell in, and drowned. Rat infestations were a problem around the thirteenth century and ratcatcher was a common profession.
Whatever happened to the children, it seems to have been traumatizing enough for the people of Hamelin to produce this tale. Even if scholars never uncover the truth, perhaps we’d do well to simply heed the lessons in this cautionary tale. These stories are far from the bright and happily-ever-after ones your parents read to you as a child or that you saw in classic Disney movies. They can be exceptionally dark, and as grim as their namesakes.
An urban legend is any modern, fictional story, told as truth that reaches a wide audience by being passed from person to person. These legends are often false, but not always. A few turn out to be largely true, and a lot of them were inspired by an actual event but evolved into something different as they passed from person to person. More often than not, it isn’t possible to trace an urban legend back to its original source—they seem to come from nowhere.
Folklorists have come up with a number of definitions for urban legend. To many, a legend must be a story with characters and some sort of plot. Others lump widely dispersed misinformation into the urban-legend category. An example of an urban legend might be that I would top the New York Times Best Sellers list if I gave up my craving for potato chips. Yeah, sure.
Today’s kids might follow a pied piper, under the guise of peer pressure, but most are tuned in to video games, cell phones, the Internet, and any other electronic gadget that comes along.