Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Mark Fishman

Committee Members

Rolf Meyersohn

Dean Savage

Paul Attewell

Lynn Chancer

Subject Categories



Crime legends, Internet, Media, Urban Folklore


This project explores the contemporary meanings and persistence of the "crime legend." A case study approach was used: three crime legends with a considerable history of public debunking were chosen. These cases were: the market in snuff films, the theft of vital organs for black-market transplant, and the abduction of children from theme park restrooms. Current versions circulating in Internet newsgroups and via electronic mail lists were collected. Discussions in Internet newsgroups were examined and twenty regular newsgroup participants were interviewed. The public newsgroup communication environment is such that salience is established by the interlocutors themselves, rather than by the researcher, as had been the case with previous approaches of both qualitative and quantitative approaches. News reports about these legends, and fictional film and television depictions of the crimes in these legends were also sought out for content analysis. Multiple sources of data were sought in order to address the hard-to-document nature of rumors and urban legends.

The news media do not appear to be a significant intentional vector of crime legends. This finding suggests that the crime legend remains a largely word-of-mouth, and now e-mail based form which travels mainly through informal, personal networks of dissemination. Styles of belief and disbelief were found to be varied and mutually dependent: the resonance of each tale involves the consideration and rejection of skepticism. Most "believers" engaged in conditional or instrumental forms of belief, finding them useful as truths regardless of their basis in conventional evidence. This situation suggests that rumors and legends can be sustained in the absence of fervent or strictly literal believers.

This inquiry also revealed that specific legends are deployed to adapt to generalized fear, or that fear which results from a sense of "ontological insecurity" (Giddens, 1990). Following Giddens' formulation, this insecurity is intertwined with distrust stemming from an uncertain relationship between the individual and the social protection expected in the past from both formal state activities and informal routines which were seen to provide "safety in numbers." Crime legends, understood as social practices as well as texts, concentrate, individualize, and normalize public, safety threats.


Digital reproduction from the UMI microform.

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