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Urban Legends, Myths, and Folklore:
A Review of Books and Web sites

To arrange to have products considered for review, send an email to craigsbookclub@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared in somewhat different form as an issue of the column "The Book of Tales" on The Green Man Review

Urban legends. Modern myths. Current folklore. You know of what I speak, I presume? In fact, when you next check your email, you'll likely find you've got a dozen or so waiting for you in your inbox. The foremost expert on them, Jan Harold Brunvand, defines them thus:

Those bizarre but believable stories about batter-fried rats, spiders in hairdos, Cabbage Patch dolls that get funerals, and the like that pass by word of mouth as being the gospel truth.
Virus hoaxes, ultrasentimental requests for get-well cards, department store cookie recipes, beliefs that Microsoft or AOL can actually track forwarded email and will send you lots of money, tales of extreme coincidence about people you don't quite know; all those (often morally inclined) stories that happened to a friend of a friend (or "FOAF," as Brunvand calls them), so they must be true. Often a legend will have its basis in a real event, but by the time it is circulated, it has changed significantly from its original form.

Given the "current" nature of many of these tales (always told as if they just recently occurred), I was surprised to find that several of them have been around since the 1800's--or before--and that many of the more famous ones like "The Hook"--which I had first read in Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories series--were being passed off as real when I knew them purely as horror stories.

But the whole appeal of an urban legend is its plausibility. For a legend to be passed on, it has to be believed, and therefore must be believable. Of course, you'd be amazed at what some people will believe. Often, the more gruesome or outrageous it is, the more likely it is to be passed on. Also, it continues that the more it fits in with our own individual beliefs, the more likely we are to accept it. But that's not really a landmark discovery. The sales of supermarket tabloids--and the popularity of so-called "reality TV"--prove to illustrate how much people love sensationalism.

One of the things I found while doing the research for this essay was that urban legends are quite good reading. There's excitement, death, romance, revenge, quite a lot of sex, and often some sort of a twist ending or blatant moral prejudice. Another discovery I made is that they are almost totally American. I'm not sure what that says about America, but I suppose we've been without our own real folklore for so long that there was a gap just waiting to be filled. It was time to create some.

A major subject of many commonly spouted legends is our own entertainment personalities. In his book, Hollywood Urban Legends, columnist and film critic Richard Roeper (Roger Ebert's "thumbs up" partner) has catalogued many of the more prevalent ones from TV, movies, and music. Roeper debunks such myths as Ronald Reagan being the first choice for the lead in Casablanca; the curse of Poltergeist; the reported sexual orientations of certain muppets; what Jane Fonda did (or didn't) do while in Vietnam in 1972; as well as discussing the true meanings behind James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" as performed by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Roeper's book is a fun, quick read and I finished it in a day.

Jan Harold Brunvand is, however, the name that most often surfaces when the subject of urban folklore arises. Of the many books he has written on the subject, I read but two: Curses! Broiled Again! and Too Good to be True: the Colossal Book of Urban Legends.

Curses! Broiled Again! is a collection of several syndicated newspaper columns Brunvand published over a period in the late 1980s that did not appear in books up to that point (The Vanishing Hitchhiker, The Choking Doberman, and The Mexican Pet). The titular legend refers to a popular misconception that tanning beds are similar to microwaves--that they can cook your insides. This presumably happened to a young woman who visited several different tanning salons in the same day over a period of a week or so. Her husband noticed that she "smelled funny" and sent her to a doctor, who delivered the news that she had fried her insides.

Brunvand also includes the truth behind the popular fear of tainted Halloween candy (that there has never been a reported case of a razor blade found in Halloween loot that was not placed there by the parents themselves) and other animal, academic, and automobile legends.

A later book in the Brunvand oeuvre, Too Good to be True is a sort of "Greatest Hits" of urban legends. Brunvand collects legends from his previous books and adds enlightening commentary regarding their origins, letters from readers dating some legends even further back than previously thought, and illustrations of the prevalence of urban legends from comic strips and cartoons. But my favorite section is the epilogue describing urban legend parodies like the "Badtimes Virus" (a riff on the Goodtimes Virus hoax that proliferated in the late 1990s). Evidently it "will recalibrate your refrigerator's coolness setting so all your ice cream melts and your milk curdles," "screw up the tracking on your VCR," "give your ex-wife your new phone number," and "drink all your beer and leave its dirty socks on the coffee table when there's company coming over," in addition to other malevolent acts like giving you Dutch Elm disease.

The most comprehensive book (containing over 400 instances of modern folklore) is Urban Legends: The As-Complete-As-One-Could-Be Guide to Modern Myths by N.E. Genge. Her aptly subtitled book is divided into chapters. Unlike the other books, Genge does not consign each legend to its own section, preferring a more narrative flow. While this makes for easier reading, it hinders the ability to go back later and find a particular tale.

The main surprise Genge lays on us is that she debunks the "new wives' tale" that people need to drink eight glasses of water a day. She quotes a text from the Food and Nutrition Board dated 1945:

A suitable allowance of water for adults in 2.5 liters (83 ounces) daily in most instances. An ordinary standard for diverse people is 1 milliliter for each calorie of food. Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods [my italics].
She explains that when this statement was reprinted in over twenty different health guides, the final sentence was omitted, thus "millions of Americans have been nearly quadrupling their recommended water intake." She then concludes the book by stating that cataloguing urban legends is quite an undertaking:
Another five hundred tales are already crowding my desktop. Dozens more arise each month...Even if we could publish at the speed of light, we'd never catch up with the rapidly changing face of modern mythology.
For combining currency with thoroughness, Urban Legends is the book to beat, but print media on this topic become obsolete as soon as the ink dries. If you really want to stay fresh on the most current myths, the Internet is the place to go. There are three major Web sites that focus on urban legends:
The About.com family of Web sites generally constitute a very useful resource. Each category is "hosted" by an individual who takes care of the whole shebang. Unfortunately, the arrangement of subjects (and all the annoying ads) makes its Urban Legends and Folklore section unnecessarily difficult to navigate. The first two links per page are easily reached, but then you must page down past myriad advertisements to get to the rest. Very annoying.

Conversely, The AFU and Urban Legends Archive (the "AFU" stands for the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup) is quite easy to navigate, and its mainly-text interface is useful for those seeking information, but it is composed mostly of copied and pasted email and archived newsgroup text, which makes for difficult reading. I find it difficult to stay for more than a few minutes at a time (although I made it up to several minutes for this review).

By far, my favorite is The Urban Legends Reference Pages. The folks behind this site have taken the idea and run with it. The categories run from Cokelore (legends involving Coca-Cola) to the Glurge Gallery (stories of the sentimental sort) to Critter Country, of course including more basic sections on Food, Music, Religion, Science, Sex, etc.

Just click on What's New? to find out if that warning you were emailed this morning is really something to be concerned about, or is simply a twenty-year-old urban legend revamped for the twenty-first century. Unlike other sites the Urban Legends Reference Pages also include which stories are true, not focusing solely on "legends." My favorite, however, is the clever Randomizer, which, allows you to browse a random page on the Web site--a highly entertaining way to spend a few free minutes on the Internet. (This feature works best from the home page.)

Interestingly enough, these sites do not appear to be in competition with one another as they often link back and forth under the heading of "further reading." It's nice to see different pages working together to educate (and entertain) the public.

So, beware, dear readers because there is a new "Gullibility Virus" sweeping the Internet. Symptoms include "the willingness to believe improbable stories without thinking, the urge to forward multiple copies of such stories to other, and a lack of desire to take three minutes to check to see if a story is true."

Are you infected? Luckily, there is a cure, and it's called "information." Educate yourself by using any or all of these resources and you will greatly decrease your chances of being taken in by the next sensational story to come your way. Knowledge is something we can all work to acquire in abundance, and there's no such thing as having too much of it. I'm a firm believer that there's no such thing as "useless" knowledge, simply knowledge that hasn't found its proper use.

By the way, have you heard the latest story about...?

© 2003 by Craig Clarke and The Green Man Review