Chainmail is a fairly well-known form of folklore, and has been around for a long time. Chain mail letters can be anything from handwritten letters to emails to texts and are typically sent to a group with some sort of either beneficial or warning message attached, as incentive for the person on the receiving end to pass the message along to more people.
An example of such a message is one my roommate shared with me that had passed around our sorority. The message read:
“You have been visited by the ghost of Helen M. Dodge! Pass this on to ten sisters in the next five minutes and she will give you good luck for the rest of the week!”
Chain mails seem to fit into the category of contagious magic and involve belief a great deal. They are contagious in that in order for the receiver to either alleviate any harm that may come, or to ensure any benefit, from having read the letter, he or she must pass it along to X amount of people. The magic of the letter passes along with it and integrates into the daily lives of those who receive it, or it at least claims to do so.
Chain mail letters are really interesting in their relation to belief because I would bet that if you asked a large group of people if they believe in the power of chain mail letters to affect their lives in either positive or negative ways, the majority would say no. However, these letters are constantly passed around. They can be fit into the category of superstitious as well as contagious magic—perhaps it is the fear that chain mail letters may in fact have some power, some magic, that drives people to continue passing them along.
This particular chain mail letter doesn’t run the risk of being harmful to the person receiving it in any way, but perhaps the receiving individual may feel that they are to be at a loss if they don’t pass it along.
Or, perhaps chain mail letters get passed around as a way of continuing community. They are a means of reaching out to 5, 10, 15 friends who you haven’t talked to in a while. Or the particular chain mail letter you have received is funny so you want to share it with three of your friends you think would find it hilarious. Chain mail gets a pretty bad rap, yet its continued existence makes me think there is some part of its communicative, outreaching nature that people like.
For another example of chain mail letters, see Dan Squier. The Truth About Chain Letters, 1990, Premier Publishers.