Urban legends are often thrilling stories, which contain many folkloric elements; and so they often spread quickly through a community or society. The tales are told dramatically, as though they were true stories that related to to real people—although they may in fact be one hundred percent fabricated.
Despite its name, an urban legend does not necessarily originate in an urban area. Rather, the term is used to differentiate modern legend from traditional folklore of pre-industrial times. For this reason, sociologists and folklorists prefer the term "contemporary legend". Because people frequently allege that such tales happened to a "friend of a friend" (FOAF), the phrase has become a commonly used term when recounting this type of story.
Sometimes urban legends are repeated in news stories, or distributed by e-mail or social media. Examples include the news story of an alleged mass panic in America in 1938, after a radio drama describing a Martian invasion, or a repeated claim dating from 1972 that a large percentage of people have a biological father who is not their assumed father and are therefore illegitimate.
Some urban legends have passed through the years with only minor changes to suit regional variations.