New Legends for Old


We are not aware of our own folklore any more than we are of the grammatical rules of our language. When we follow the ancient practice of informally transmitting ‘lore’ – wisdom, knowledge, or accepted modes of behavior – by word of mouth and customary example from person to person, we do not concentrate on the form or content of our folklore; instead, we simply listen to information that others tell us and then pass it on – more or less accurately – to other listeners. In this stream of unselfconscious oral tradition the information that acquires a clear story line is called narrative folklore, and those stories alleged to be true are legends. This, in broad summary, is the typical process of legend formation and transmission as it has existed from time immemorial and continues to operate today. It works about the same way whether the legendary plot concerns a dragon in a cave or a mouse in a Coke bottle.

It might seem unlikely that legends – urban legends at that – would continue to be created in an age of widespread literacy, rapid mass communications, and restless travel. While our pioneer ancestors may have had to rely heavily on oral traditions to pass the news along about changing events and frontier dangers, surely we no longer need mere ‘folk’ reports of what’s happening, with all their tendencies to distory the [-p.2] facts. A moment’s reflection, however, reminds us of the many wierd, fascinating, but unverified rumors and tales that so frequently come to our ears – killers and madmen on the loose, shocking or funny personal experiences, unsafe manufactured products, and many other unexplained mysteries of daily life. Sometimes we encounter different oral versions of such stories, and on occasion we may read about similar events in newspapers or magazines; but seldom do we find, or even seek after, reliable documentation. The lack of verification in no way diminishes the appeal urban legends have for us. We enjoy them merely as stories, and we tend to at least to half-believe them as possibly accurate reports. And the legends we tell, as with any folklore, reflect many of the hopes, fears, and anxieties of our time. In short, legends are definitely part of our modern folklore – legends which are as traditional, variable, and functional as those of the past.” (pp.1-2)

“Folklore study consists of collecting, classifying, and interpreting in their full cultural context the many products of everyday human interaction that have acquired a somewhat stable underlying form and that are passed traditionally from person to person, group to group, and generation to generation. Legend study is a most revealing area of such research because the stories that people believe to be true hold an important place in their worldview. ‘If it’s true, it’s important’ is an axiom to be trusted, whether or not the lore really is true or not. Simply becomeing aware of this modern folklore which we all possess to some degree is a revelation in itself, but going beyond this to compare the tales, isolate their consistent themes, and relate them to the rest of the culture can yield rich insights into the state of our current civilization. Such is the premise of this book, and from it derives the method which it follows.” (p.2)

Urban Legends as folklore

Brunvand continues, explaining that: “Folklore subsists on oral tradition, but not all oral communication is folklore. The vast amounts of human interchange, [-p.3] from casual daily conversations to formal discussions in business or industry, law, or teaching, rarely constitute straight oral folklore. However, all such ‘communicative events’ (as scholars dub them) are punctuated routinely by various units of traditional material that are memorable, repeatable, and that fit recurring social situations well enough to serve in place of original remarks. ‘Tradition’ is the key idea that links together such utterances as nicknames, proverbs, greeting and leavetaking formulas, wisecracks, anecdotes, and jokes as ‘folklore’: indeed, these are a few of the best known ‘conversational genres’ of American folklofe. Longer and more complex forms – fairy tales, epics, myths, legends, or ballads, for example – may thrive only in certain special situations of oral transmission. All true folklore ultimately depends upon continued oral dissemination, usually within fairly homogeneous ‘folk groups’, and upon the retention through time of internal patterns and motifs that become traditional in the oral exchanges. The corollary of this rule of stability in oral tradition is that all items of folklore, while retaining a fixed central core, are constantly changing as they are transmitted, so as to create countless ‘variants’ differing in length, detail, style, and performance technique. Folklore, in short, consists of oral tradition in variants.

Urban legends belong to the subclass of folk narratives, legends, that – unlike fairy tales – are believed, or at least believable, and that – unlike myths – are set in the recent past and involve normal human beings rather than ancient gods or demigods. Legends are folk history, or rather quasi-history. As with any folk legends, urban legends gain credibility from specific details of time and place or from references to source authorities. For instance, a popular western pioneer legend often begins something like, ‘My great-grandmother had this strange experience when she was a young girl….”” (pp.2-3)

In the world of modern urban legends there is usually no geographical or generational gap between teller and event. The story is true; it really occurred, and recently, and always to someone else who is quite close to the narrator, or at least ‘a friend of a friend’. Urban legends are told both in the course of casual conversations and in such special situations as campfires, slumber parties, and college dormitory bull sessions. The legends’ physical settings are often close by, real, and sometimes even locally renowned for other such happenings. Though the characters in the storeis are usually nameless, they are true-to-life examples of the kind of people the narrators and their audience know firsthand.

One of the great mysteries of folklore research is where oral traditions originate and who invents them. One might expect that at least in modern folklore we could come up with answers to such questions, but this is seldom, if ever, the case.” (p.4)

The performance of legends

Whatever the origins of urban legends, their dissemination is no mystery. The tales have traveled far and wide, and have been told and retold from person to person in the same manner that myths, fairy tales, or ballads spread in earlier cultures [p.5] with the important difference that today’s legends are also disseminated by the mass media.” (pp.4-5)

Tellers of these legends, of course, are seldom aware of their roles as ‘performers of folklore’. The conscious purpose of this kind of storytelling is to convey a true event, and only incidentally to entertain an audience. Nevertheless, the speaker’s demeanor is carefully orchestrated, and his or her delivery is low-key and soft-sell. With subtle gestures, eye movements, and vocal inflections the stories are made dramatic, pointed, and suspenseful. But, just as with jokes, some can tell them and some can’t. Passive tellers of urban legends may just report them as odd rumors, but the more active legend tellers re-create them as dramatic stories of suspense and, perhaps, humor.” (p.5)

Brunvand goes on to discuss, among other legends, the story of ‘the boyfriend’s death’ (remember the scratch, scratch, scratch on the roof of the car…???)

“The style in which oral narratives are told deserves attention, for the live telling that is dramatic, fluid, and often quite gripping in actual folk performance before a sympathetic audience may seem stiff, repetitious, and awkward on the printed page.” (p.9)

However, “Even the bare printed texts retain some earmarks of effective oral tradition. Witness in the Kansas text the artful use of repetition (typical of folk narrative style): ‘Well, he didn’t come back and he didn’t come back…. but he didn’t come back.’ The repeated use of ‘well’ and the building of lengthy sentences with ‘and’ are other hallmarks of oral style which give the narrator complete control over his performance, tending to squeeze out interruptions or prevent lapses in attention among the listeners.” (p.10)

Urban legends as cultural symbols

Legends can survive in our culture as living narrative folklore,” Brunvand writes, “if they contain three essential elements: a strong basic story-appeal, a foundation in actual belief, and a meaningful message or ‘moral’. That is, popular stories like ‘The Boyfriend’s [-p.11] Death’ are not only engrossing tales, but also ‘true’, or at least so people think, and they teach valuable lessons.” (pp.10-11)

“People tell jokes primarily for amusement, and they seldom sense their underlying themes. In legends the primary messages are quite clear and straightforward; often they take the form of explicit warnings or good examples of ‘poetic justice’.” (p.11)

In order to be retained in a culture, any form of folklore must fill some genuine need, whether this be the need for an entertaining escape from reality, or a desire to validate by anecdotal examples some of the culture’s ideals and institutions. For legends in general, a major function has always been the attempt to explain unusual and supernatural happenings in the natural world.” (p.12)

“…urban legends gratify our desire to know about and to try to understand bizarre, frightening, and potentially dangerous or embarrassing events that may have happened.” (p12)

Ref: Jan Brunvand The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban legends and their Meanings, New York/London: WW Norton, 1981.    Note also: Jan Brunvand, ‘A Type-Index of Urban Legends, pp325-347 in The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban legends: New York/ London: WW Norton, 1994


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