IN THIS ISSUE
Doyle: Parking lot attacks
Turkish shampoo legend flyer
Disney and Nike
Needles in vending machines
HAVE YOU HEARD?
legend: immigrant family freezes
LEGEND AND LIFE
in the drier
Pradesh cobras have friends, too
kidney thief story
on Innsbruck meetings (July 1998)
Newfoundland conference (May 1999)
FROM THE EDITOR
This issue continues
the unfortunate trend of lengthening periods between issues of
This is a result of the editor's having too many demands on his time. I am
still in hopes that a new editor, whose free time is greater than mine, will
soon appear. In the meantime, sadly,
FoafTale News will
continue to be published as my time permits.
sending news, queries, research notes, clippings, calls for papers, or notes
about local rumour and legend cycles to me for inclusion in
The postal address is FoafTale News, MUN Folklore and Language Archive,
Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Newfoundland A1B 3X8
CANADA. The email address is
* * *
at Tuttle Mall, Columbus, Ohio, USA
Rosemary Hathaway (University
of Northern Colorado) and
Larry Doyle (Ohio
to late April, 1998, a story began circulating around Columbus, Ohio about a
local woman's "near miss" abduction ‑‑ or potentially worse: the would‑be
victim, on leaving the toney new Tuttle Mall on Columbus' northwest side,
discovers her car has a flat tire. A man in the lot offers to help her repair
it, and when the tire is fixed, he asks her for a ride to his own car on the
other side of the mall. The woman balks (having the same kinds of doubts
about the man's intentions as the legend‑teller or listener might), and wisely
bluffs that she has to return to the mall to pick something up. Inside, she
alerts a security guard, who returns to her car with her to discover the sham
Good Samaritan gone, but his briefcase ‑‑ with butcher knife and rope inside
‑‑ stowed in the woman's car trunk.
The first accounts of
this story appear to have been oral, though most people familiar with the
story encountered it via the local news media or the Internet. In late April,
the Columbus NBC television affiliate, WCMH,
aired a late‑night news
story about the Mall's attempt to quash the legend. The legend was given a
cursory treatment as the news report focussed only on rumour control,
mentioning the safety of the shopping area and management's commitment to
finding the perpetrators of the legend and to bring them to justice. Complete
with shots of the parking lot, the reporter said mall officials felt "the only
way to kill the rumour is to kill it."
Notably, the television
media did not report the story as an actual event, but instead attempted to
"debunk" it, thus suggesting that it was already in wide circulation. And in
fact, most accounts of the story within Columbus seem to have circulated
electronically, as in the following message, posted on the Ohio State
University folklore listserv on 27 April 1998:
This was sent
to me by a woman I used to work with at The Midland on Broad Street. It is NOT
a joke...Please share with everyone you know.
I've got a story for you:
"A woman that I
work with told me about this. It happened to someone she knows last week.
"The lady was
at Tuttle Mall around 2 in the afternoon. When he [sic] went out to her car,
her tire was flat. She started changing it and a guy in a business suit walked
up and offered to help her. They changed the tire and then he asked her if she
would drive him to his car on the other side of the mall. She asked him why he
came out that door if he wasn't parked there and he said he had been talking
to some friends. She told him she didn't feel comfortable giving him a ride
and he kept pushing for her to do it.
"Finally she told him
she still had a couple of things to buy, so she closed her trunk and went back
in the mall and he left. She reported it to the security guy, then went back
to her car. He was gone and so she drove to a garage to get her tire fixed.
They told her there was nothing wrong with it and that someone had let the air
opened her trunk and noticed he had left his briefcase in there, where he laid
it while he was helping her. She opened it and the only things in it were some
rope and a butcher knife! She turned it into the police.
Isn't that scary? Be careful out there in case he tries this scam again. I go
to Tuttle all the time at lunch, so it freaks me out. These guys are
nutcases! Just think about that girl that disappeared from Marianne's old
complex a few weeks ago, and stay on guard."
The story eventually
gained much wider circulation on the Internet (see below), which is a bit
surprising, given that persons outside Columbus would be unfamiliar with the
kind of coded local cultural messages this version of
the legend transmits. Tuttle
Mall only opened within the last year in a developing area of Columbus that,
just ten or fifteen years ago, was generic "farmland" located somewhere
between the more established communities of Hilliard and Dublin, once rural communities
now stretched to their limits by intensive development. The mall was designed
quite deliberately to give residents of these new developments more upscale
shopping choices on their own end of town. To adapt Gary Alan Fine's
argument, then, Tuttle may have become the "target" of this legend merely by
virtue of its newness and self‑promotion. However, the fact that both the
mall and its target shoppers are located in an area that is shifting
culturally also suggests that the legend may serve as a warning to potential
Tuttle‑Mall shoppers to remember that not everyone in the area is "like
There is a more
important piece of local cultural context in the version cited above, though,
that also helps explain the legend's wide circulation
and importance in Columbus. The "teller" above makes a cryptic (but crucial)
reference to "that girl who disappeared from Marianne's old complex a few
weeks ago" ‑‑
a detail that notably almost never appears in versions of the legend
circulating outside a specific local audience. Yet in the local context, this
was perhaps the most crucial detail, since it quite probably refers to the
disappearance of a young Columbus woman, Stacey Colbert, in late March 1998.
A recent Ohio State grad and former sorority member, Colbert lived in a
presumably "safe" part of town near the wealthy suburb of Upper Arlington, but
was nevertheless apparently abducted from her own apartment; a neighbour later
reported having heard screams coming from Colbert's apartment (http://www.dispatch.com/panarchive/save/miss28nws.html).
Despite exhaustive search efforts and a police investigation, Colbert has not
yet been found.
When the Tuttle Mall
legend first appeared, then, the disturbing "real" news about the sudden (and
violent) disappearance of a local woman from an apparently safe part of town
was very much on people's minds; in fact, a discussion in April with
introductory Folklore students at Ohio State University about the Tuttle Mall
legend immediately elicited connections with the Stacey Colbert incident. One
female student who works at a store in the City Center Mall (the upscale
downtown mall that Tuttle was designed to emulate and rival) said that her
coworkers at the Tuttle Mall branch first told her the story, and related it
to the Colbert disappearance. Another student, currently a member of OSU's
"Greek system" (of fraternities and sororities), said the legend had been told
in her sorority house and was also related to the Colbert disappearance there.
Notably, the version
above is directed specifically toward a female audience ("Girls, I've got a
story for you"), and many other electronic versions of the legend direct their
warnings specifically toward women, even when the Stacey Colbert reference
is missing; a 9 August 1998 posting on ‑‑ of all places ‑‑
alt.religion.christian.pentecostal ends with this very specific advice: The
moral of this story...learn to change your own tire, call someone you know and
trust to help you or call mall security
in the first
place to assist you. Please Be Safe....and not sorry. Although this happened
in Columbus, it could happen anywhere there are NUTS around. Just a warning to
always be alert. Pass this along to every woman you have access too [sic].
Never let your guard down. Good story for women to know about.
What is fascinating about
this kind of gendered performance cue or message is its relation to the text
of the story itself. In the Tuttle Mall legend, the would‑be
victim does everything right: she is
her "hero," despite his professional attire and friendly demeanor; she refuses
to return his favor (thus violating standard "manners"); and she consults
several "real" authorities to confirm her suspicions and to protect her (the
mall security guard, the auto mechanic).
In many ways, this
legend is more of an "anti‑legend,"
in that its action is only potential action: the threat is purely
hypothetical, and the would‑be
victim's refusal to abide by standard female legend‑victim behaviours derails
the story's denouement before the legend even gains any momentum. Nothing
happens. This "near‑miss" plot device is present in other legends, of course
(e.g., the Hook, the killer in the backseat, the roommate's death, and so
forth), but the use of the device in the Tuttle legend seems different in
nature. In those other legends, there is a definite and specific threat: the
radio announces that the hookman is a homicidal maniac, and he clearly
attempts to open the would‑be victim's door; the killer in the backseat is
actively brandishing a knife, preparing to do his worst, and so on. But the
"weapons" in the Tuttle legend are not only locked in a briefcase, but in a
car trunk ‑‑ not exactly readily accessible. Additionally, the "bad guy"
never makes any active threat, aside from being pushy about getting a ride,
and disappears without having done anything, and
From a discussion in Rosemary Hathaway's English 270: "Introduction to
Folklore" class at Ohio State University, Spring quarter 1998.
sans weapons. Yet the
potential for what could have happened had the heroine not been so savvy makes
the legend both
compelling and tellable, even if it ultimately makes it more of a cautionary
tale than a full‑blown legend. In Columbus, and specifically on campus, the
connection between this inversion of standard legend action ‑‑ where something
terrible does happen ‑‑ and the Colbert disappearance suggest that the story
may function as a way to advise young women that operating against dictates to
repay kindnesses may save their lives. If Colbert had behaved as the woman in
the legend does, perhaps she, too, would have a survivor's tale to tell.
Some people passing
along the legend seemed to resist the gender‑specific message of earlier
versions, however, and cautioned that this was an important tale for both men
and women to hear; one version posted on alt.tv.beauty+beast
ends with the suggestion that while this is a "Good story for women to know
about," "with the danger in today's world, everyone needs to be careful ‑‑‑
not just women" (22 July 1998). A male discussant on the group alt.fifty‑plus.friends
chose to undermine the sexist implications of the legend's scare tactics while
jokingly working the paranoia it might inspire to his own romantic advantage;
he followed up a discussion of the tale with the comment,
Be careful out there people ‑ I need you around
cause someday you might buy something from me. Women can rent me for a week
for $49.95. I can't do much but I can tell you a lot of jokes and if you get
frisky I can make you laugh in other ways. :) (21 July 1998)
So it seems the legend's
potential as an aphrodisiac (cf. Ellis) might account for its circulation not
just among women, but in mixed‑gender
groups as well.
Too, the story probably
gained wider circulation because of its similarities to other mall parking‑lot
legends, notably that of the attacker waiting underneath the woman's car who
cuts her Achilles tendon to disable her. The motif of the butcher knife, of
course, recalls the "killer in the backseat" legend. The need to localize the
legend persists, however: in one notable electronic version (posted on
alt.support.loneliness on 23 July 1998), the mall is located in Columbus,
Georgia (note that the text cited above does not name Ohio specifically), and
independent versions have been described as happening in California and
Connecticut (as reported by discussants Alice Faber and Jo Ann Malina on
alt.folklore.urban in late July).
Not everyone took the
Tuttle Mall legend seriously, though. On the same day he posted the
"original" text on the OSU folklore listserv (27 April),
Don Yarman posted a parody of
the legend he received from a friend, written by another acquaintance, Dan
I heard this
story from a very good friend of mine ‑ there's another stalker out there ‑
after sharing this story with me, she has since been forced to change her name
and move to Saskatchewan. Well apparently, she knows a woman who had a sister
who used to take art classes at the Columbus Museum of Art in Dayton. Well,
one day, she was walking out to her car after class when this man approached
her and said his car had broken down and needed a quarter to call Triple A.
Well, she took pity on him and offered him the quarter. As she handed it to
him, she noticed that his left hand was missing and he had a hook instead.
She also noticed that the hook was DRIPPING BLOOD!!!!!!! She asked what had
happened, and he said that he was attacked by a mad cow at Ryan's steak house
and had to defend himself. She thought that sounded good enough, she does
watch Oprah after all. Well, anyway, they called Triple A and the truck came
and fixed his car and left. Well, the guy offered to pay her for her help, and
she said no, she had to get home to her big empty house off by itself in the
woods, where someone could get killed and not be found for days. Well, she
hopped in her car and drove home, but all the way home, she heard this
scraping sound coming from the trunk. She thought it was just the wind,
wouldn't you? Well, later that night, the phone rang, and when she answered,
she heard that scraping sound again. She knew it was the wind this time, and
hung up. The phone rang again, she answered, and heard the scraping sound
again. She hung up and went into the kitchen, and saw blood on her good dish
towel. Now she was scared, and very angry!!! Well, she called the phone
company, and they said the call was coming from her own house. So she grabbed
her keys and ran out the door, and she heard the scraping sound coming down
the stairs behind her. She turned around, and it was the MAD COW!!!!!!! It was
its nose ring on the wall !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! She was lucky to
get away with her life!!!!!!!!! Be sure and tell EVERYONE about this story, we
must whip up the masses into a frenzy!! The cow is still out there!!!!!!!!!"
This story, of the well-dressed, would-be attacker in the parking lot, was in
hot circulation in mid-March 1999 in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. The CBC
radio morning show interviewed me 15 March about it. The interview piqued the
interest of the national radio afternoon programme produced out of CBC Ottawa,
Ontario, and they interviewed me later that day.]
Turkey: "Health Alert!"?
On October 17, 1998,
while on a bus tour to Cappadocia in central Turkey, the wife on one of the
local Turkish Rotary Club members showed me a flyer she'd received and had
been sharing with other members of the tour group. The flyer concerned a
health warning she wanted us all to be aware of. The notice began:
Check the ingredients listed
on your shampoo bottle, and see if they have this substance by the name of
Sodium Laureth Sulfate, or simply SLS. This substance is found in most
the manufacturers use it because it produces a lot of foam and it is cheap.
BUT the fact is that SLS is used to scrub garage floors, and it is very
strong. It is also proven that it can cause cancer in the long run, and this
is no joke.
quickly moved even more noticeably into the sort of rhetoric we often find in
contemporary legend photocopy lore. The writer of the "Health Alert" flyer
claimed to have called one company and
product contains a substance
that will cause people
to have cancer. They said "Yeah, we knew about it but there is nothing we can
do about it because we need that substance to produce foam'" (emphasis
Several products containing
the chemical compound are mentioned as well as one that does
not contain the foaming
agent. The writer also cautions:
Research has shown that in
the 1980s, the chances of getting cancer is [sic] 1 out of 8000 and now, in
the 1990s, the chances of getting cancer is 1 our [sic] of 3, which is very
serious. So I hope that you will take this seriously and pass this on to all
the people you know, and hopefully, we can stop "giving" ourselves the cancer
The writer concludes with an
additional "This is serious," with another injunction to pass on the notice to
as many people
as possible, and with a disclaimer that "this is not a chain letter, but it
concerns our health."
Two names are listed
at the bottom of the sheet. One of the named persons is ostensibly an
"Executive Secretary" in the University of Pennsylvania Health System; the
other name is Turkish and identified as a "Program Associate" with a major
international corporation. Phone numbers follow both names.
second name is that of a well‑know and respected Turkish physician, but
attempts to contact him (through a Turkish friend) were unsuccessful.
The flyer had become the subject of some
argument on the bus because one of the group claimed to have seen a newspaper
article the day before which had attempted to debunk the flyer. The newspaper
had, unfortunately, been discarded and, not surprisingly, later attempts to
find the article proved unsuccessful. No one knew that I worked on
contemporary legends when I was first shown the article but, as the paper
listed American products and one American name and institution as an
information source, they thought I might know more about the matter. As
usual, I found myself having to walk the fine line between "debunking" what
seemed obvious to me to be a legend flyer and showing respect for
the real concerns and sensibilities of those involved in the argument. A
quick teaching session in legend processes followed.
When I raised the subject at school a few
days later, one Turkish colleague also reported having seen the flyer; it had
been passed on
to her by a friend who had downloaded it from the Internet. The body of the
text (dated 1 Oct 1998 and later forwarded to me) was identical to the flyer
I'd seen on the bus, while the names of sources claimed at the bottom were
someone from Marketing/Education Outreach at Clemson University and a PhD RN
from the Department of Family and Community Nursing at the University of North
Carolina at Charlotte.
The subject header of
the email was "Health alert!" and the message was preceeded by indications of
previous forwarding and claiming:
>"The following message was
sent by someone who has her doctorate in public health nursing as a serious
Please pass it on. >>>
Interestingly, the body of
the message contained no forwarding arrows.
Had the sender had gone to trouble of getting the notice ready for easy
photo‑copying and distribution by the receiver, or had the "forwarded"
indicators been added?
Claims that product
additives cause cancer are not new. As Bill Ellis pointed out in a personal
email contact, the "Health Alert" notice resembles the "Villejuif Flyer, which
for many years provided the masthead for FTN," and he suggests Jean‑Noel
Kapferer's 1989 article, "A mass poisoning rumor in Europe"
(Public Opinion Quarterly 53:
4 (Winter): 467‑481)
as a good treatment of the issue.
The notice seems to
have captured only minor attention here; enough apparently to gain a small
counter‑notice in a local newspaper, but not enough to gain widespread
interest. That the newspaper article seems to have appeared almost
simultaneously with the local receipt and circulation of the flyers, however,
may indicate that the flyers had begun circulating earlier. At any rate, I
have heard little other mention of it since, and the Turkish colleague who
forwarded the email to me didn't seem very concerned about the content of the
notice. Turkish worldview is perhaps too fatalistic and present‑oriented for
such a notice to gain more than passing attention here. That it does seem to
have captured even some brief intense interest, however, seems to reflect what
I see as changing Turkish attitudes toward the ability to control one's own
situations in life ‑‑ at least among the social class of people circulating
same warning, with many of the same phrases started circulating by email, at
least within Eastern Canadian universities, as a chain letter in March 1999.]
Characteristics of the Contemporary Legend
Department of Folklore
Memorial University of
St John's, Newfoundland A1B
At the 1995
Perspectives on Contemporary Legend Conference in San Antonio, Texas, I
indicated that I would circulate part of my paper “Defining the Contemporary
Legend: Trials and Tribulations” in
FoafTale News in
order to gather input from ISCLR members.
This research had
begun, without my realizing it, when I had agreed to contribute an entry
(Smith 1997) on contemporary legend to Tom Green's
Folklore: An Encyclopedia....
Having already made several attempts at such definitions, either for students
in my classes, as part of my academic writings, or as background material for
readers of my popular anthologies, I felt that this task would not take up too
much of my time. How wrong I was.
So what were the
problems I encountered?
First, we appear not
to be able to agree as to how to define legend
so what chance does anyone have when attempting to develop a quintessential
definition of the contemporary legend? (And it must be the quintessential
definition -- after all, I was writing for an Encyclopedia.)
Second, the mutability
of the contemporary legend genre, as with the legend
is notorious (Georges 1971).
Third, not everyone
embraces a common canon of material when employing the term "contemporary
legend." For example, some see contemporary legends as being just a
collection of sensational blood-chilling stories, while others take a broader
view as to what is embraced in the canon.
Fourth, not everyone
chooses to employ the term “contemporary” when referring to legends of this
type. For example, the same items are variously referred to as “contemporary,”
“urban,” “modern,” “belief” legend, and the like (Bennett and Smith 1996).
Fifth, many existing
definitions are based on readings and interpretations of a limited range of,
if not a single type of, contemporary legend -- often focussing on a single
topic. Such definitions are, therefore, not necessarily universal statements,
nor necessarily applicable to other contemporary legends.
Sixth, each of us belongs to our own group
and, consequently, subscribes to the ideologies, beliefs,
perceptions and practices of that group. In turn, statements made by the
members of a group tend to converge and so express a consensus about issues,
ideologies, beliefs, perceptions, and practices of group members.
Now, remembering that
in no way are folklorists a unified group, and for that matter neither are the
members of ISCLR, the consequence of this issue for our studies is that we
need to consider that
are spatio/temporal phenomena in that they are the products of their creators’
past, present, and perceived future experiences and expectations. Each
definition, therefore has a different perspective to offer.
In short then, each of
us is influenced by our interests and orientations, based on our formal and
informal education. This, in turn, creates manifest and latent biases which
become apparent in terms of what we
choose to include in,
and what we
choose to exclude from,
And we all do it -- without exception. Consequently, we are
not just faced with the mutability of the contemporary legend but also the
mutability of contemporary legend definitions.
Armed with these
realizations, which are not new or revolutionary but rather just frequently
overlooked, my approach was to attempt to create a definition, not just based
on my own biased opinions as to what constitutes a contemporary legend, but
which also embraces the varieties of interests, orientations, and biases
apparent in other proffered definitions.
I must stress before I
continue that my concern here is with identifying trends, spectrums, clusters,
ranges, and continuums rather than absolutes. I am not overly concerned with
exceptions to the rule, of which I am sure there are many. I am looking to
identify those elements which appear to be central to a definition of
contemporary legends -- thereby providing a holistic definition which should
not demonstrate a major conflict with any one specifically focussed
Furthermore, when addressing the canon of
contemporary legend definitions which have accumulated over the years, we find
that many combine both academic concepts and ethnographic features -- adding
yet more confusion. For the purposes of this discussion, I have not directly
incorporated my work on popular definitions of legend and contemporary
legend. Instead, this piece focusses on observations by folklorists and
cognate academics which are, I hope, in turn based on "readings" of the
well as aspects such as form and content, the contexts those narratives were
used in, user interpretations of those narratives, and on observations and
discussions of issues such as belief, truth, and so forth.
To turn to the nature
of the beast, so to speak, contemporary legends share certain basic features
with all other forms of cultural tradition in that
1:Contemporary legends do not
exist as single, unique items, as do works of art. Instead many examples of
any one text will be in circulation at any
2:Contemporary legends are
highly mutable and are not static; consequently, no two examples of the
supposedly "same" story are exactly alike.
3:Contemporary legends appear
to be anonymous creations, although they may have discoverable sources.
On the other hand, it is not unknown for texts to have spuriously attributed
Such observations, while
significant, are very general. In order to explore the trends as to what we
choose to include in
and what we choose
to exclude from
I undertook a survey of the many definitions of “contemporary” / "urban" /
"modern" legends already in existence. I also looked to Robert Georges’ 1971
essay, "The General Concept of Legend: Some Assumptions to be Reexamined and
Reassessed." Georges presents a definition based on three multi-dimensional
propositions deconstructed thus:
A legend is:
1: a story or narrative
- that may not be a story
or narrative at all;
2: set in a recent or
- that may be conceived to
be remote or antihistorical or not really past at all;
3: believed to be true by
some, false by others
- and both or neither by
most. (Georges 1971: 18)
Although limited in terms of
the characteristics it embraces, Georges provides
what has become a well-applied, baseline definition while offering a possible
structure for the creation of a multi-faceted definition.
What follows is
a summation of the initial findings based on the definitional characteristics
described in the literature as well as my own observation of the narratives
and related contexts, organized using a structure similar to that employed by
Over and above the
three general criteria outlined above, which contemporary legends share with
all other forms of folklore, approximately sixty-four persistently recurring
definitional characteristics were identified, and there are probably more
which have been missed, or yet await to be observed in the field.
This initial corpus of
definitional characteristics was then further sub-divided into the following
describe the nature of contemporary legends in terms of what they
are or are not.
describe the nature of contemporary legends in terms of what they
may or may not be.
These could be thought of as
Primary Characteristics (Group A), and Secondary Characteristics (Group B).
In both instances,
further sub-divisions were made using the following headings:
1: Narrative Status
7: Context of
/ Sacred Status
surveyed material under these headings gives us the following structured set
of definitional characteristics of the contemporary legend -- in essence
providing a multi-faceted definition of the genre.
A: CHARACTERISTICS WHICH
DESCRIBE THE NATURE OF CONTEMPORARY LEGENDS IN TERMS OF WHAT THEY
A1: Narrative status
A contemporary legend is a type of traditional discourse.
b: Contemporary legends appear to be anonymous creations.
c: Contemporary legends do not exist as single, unique items and many examples
of any one text will be in circulation at any one time.
Contemporary legends demonstrate a high propensity for mutability. As such,
all aspects of the contemporary legend are capable of change or prone to being
changed. As such, they are not static, and no two examples of the supposedly
same story are exactly alike.
The contemporary legend is primarily a conversational genre.
Contemporary legends vary in terms of structure.
Contemporary legends, in general, comprise only a single episode or motif.
Contemporary legends, in general, have no formulaic openings and closings.
d: Contemporary legends have no definitive text and, consequently, their
traditional nature is not always immediately apparent.
a: Contemporary legends, in general, do not have an artistically developed
form, and no effort is made to polish the story.
Contemporary legends, in general, use informal and/or colloquial language.
Contemporary legends in general have a wide, sometimes international,
legends are communicated primarily by word of mouth, although they are also
frequently disseminated through the mass media (eg., films, television, radio,
newspapers), office communications technology (eg., fax, photocopiers,
email), as well as
novels and short stories.
In general, we are all potential narrators / communicators of contemporary
Contemporary legends require no specialist performers and so there is no
dividing line between the narrators and the listeners.
Contemporary legend narrators are, in general, unaware that they are telling a
traditional narrative which has previously been told by others.
Contemporary legends are not considered to be the property of any one
A7: Context of narration
Contemporary legends have no specific context for performance but instead are
performed in a wide variety of contexts.
Contemporary legends are, in general, presented to the listener within the
context of an existing group relationship.
The "narration" of a contemporary legends is an interactive process.
The "narration" of a contemporary legend stems from normal conversation rather
than in response to a request for someone to tell a tale.
Contemporary legends are the
expressions of a variety of legendary themes, motifs, and allomotifs -- not a
fixed body of material. Contemporary legends are broadly related
thematically, in that they emerge out of current physical and social contexts
as well as
social interaction, and they describe culturally proscribed behaviour (implied
or explicit) of one kind or another.
Contemporary legends, in
general, appear to be plausible, and even possible, in that they present
descriptions and discussions of mundane and ordinary, rather than
extraordinary and sensational, experiences and events (although often as
having an unusual twist).
Contemporary legends are set in the "here and now," as if they happened
recently -- although
the stories may have historical antecedents, roots in historical fact, or make
reference to the past or reflect age-old concerns.
Contemporary legends are not
simply traditional legends which have been modernized and/or "rationalized"
and which are in circulation today.
Contemporary legends are set in the real world and focus on ordinary
individuals whom we encounter in the course of our everyday lives.
Contemporary legends are set in the real world
and focus on familiar places we recognize and inhabit.
Contemporary legends portray situations which we, or someone we know, may have
experienced, are currently experiencing, or could possibly experience.
Secular / Sacred Status:
Contemporary legends are primarily secular (as opposed to sacred).
Supernatural Status: Contemporary
legends are, in general, non-supernatural.
Connotation: - - -
Ostension: - - -.
Contemporary legends are presented as describing true events, even when they
are intended as "lies," "hoaxes," and "jokes."
contemporary legends, as often as not, the question of the truthfulness of the
events described is overlooked because the tales sound so plausible and
possible, even when
they may have an odd flaw in the logic or story line.
Contemporary legends, although probably unsubstantiable, nevertheless
appear to be substantiated
through the inclusion of details such as names, times, and places.
d: The fact that
the participants in the events described are named is not validation that
these individuals exist or that events ever took place.
Rarely are the narrators identified as the participants in the story. Instead
they distance themselves, though not necessarily intentionally, from the
events they describe by the inclusion of such phrases as "...it happened to a
friend," thereby making themselves less accountable for the truth of the
Contemporary legends vary in terms of the level of belief in the story
exhibited by the narrators or listeners.
Contemporary legends, in general, do not require that the narrators or
listeners subscribe to any
or belief system,
but rather they emerge out of the existing beliefs of a given group.
Contemporary legends, in general, include some implicit or explicit, positive
or negative "statement of belief" out of which arises "dialogue" and "debate"
in the form of confirmation or challenge by participants.
The selection of an appropriate contemporary legend for narration is generally
based on the current context of the discourse taking place; that is, they are
usually proffered in response to a preceding item of conversation.
The selection of a contemporary legend for narration generally focusses on
topics and issues which are
important by the speaker and/or listener alike.
Some contemporary legends describe scenarios which are perceived to be more
important to the narrators and listeners than others, and so cycles of tales
will be circulating simultaneously.
Contemporary legends have no single meaning and so can have different meanings
for different individuals.
Contemporary legends have a wide variety of functions for both their telling
and narrative content. As such, any one contemporary legend may be informative
and/or entertaining while carrying other messages, all at the same time.
legends have no single function and so can have different functions for
Contemporary legends provide an opportunity for speakers to introduce some
statement or debate about a "contemporary" issue from his/her chosen
B: CHARACTERISTICS WHICH
DESCRIBE CONTEMPORARY LEGENDS IN TERMS OF WHAT THEY
MAY NOT BE
B1: Narrative Status
Although contemporary legends appear to be anonymous creations, they may have
Although contemporary legends appear to be anonymous creations, it is not
unknown for texts to have spuriously attributed authorship.
Although the contemporary legend is primarily a conversational genre, they may
be found embedded in other types of traditional discourse (eg., joke, memorate,
dite, rumour, gossip, personal experience narrative) and in diverse settings
-- ranging from news-reporting to after-dinner speeches.
A contemporary legend may or may not be an elaborate, underdeveloped or
fragmentary narrative or find expression as a kernel narrative, a digest, or a
statement of belief, or as a reference or allusion to a narrative or
Contemporary legends may or may not have the narrative structure of a
Contemporary legends may or may not have reflective descriptions added.
Contemporary legends may or may not be dramatic in their presentation.
Contemporary legends may or may not use “politically correct” language.
B5: Dissemination: - - -.
B6: Narrators: - - -.
B7: Context of Narration
The telling of a contemporary legend may or may not include much interaction
between the speaker and the listener.
Themes: - - -.
Plausibility: - - -.
Temporality: - - -.
A contemporary legend may or may not contain specifically contemporary
material. Contemporary legends may or may not be updated narratives
(historical and otherwise) which deal with contemporary issues, characters,
legend may or
may not have historical antecedents in terms of plots and texts.
Principal Characters: - - -.
Setting: - - -.
A contemporary legend may or
may not describe what are perceived to be newly emergent events (threats,
problems, and the
like) that are in the physical and social contexts of the narrator and/or
Secular / Sacred Status: - -
Supernatural Status: - - -.
A contemporary legend may or may not be "politically correct."
contemporary legend may or may not suggest or call for action on the part of
the narrators or listeners.
A contemporary legend may or may not, in whole or part, be true. This may not
but perhaps truth which comes from typifying life in the twentieth century.
A contemporary legend may or may not be believed (in whole or part) to be
A contemporary legend may or may not involve the suspension of disbelief.
B11: Selection - - -.
B12: Meaning - - -.
A contemporary legend may or may not be used to validate other aspects of
culture -- for example collective beliefs.
A contemporary legend may or may not provided justifications as to why we
behave or should behave in particular ways in certain situations.
A contemporary legend may or may not be used to integrate knowledge within a
culture and so maintain group cohesion.
A contemporary legend may or may not be used to compensate and to fill a gap
in our empirical knowledge with suppositions about the way the world works.
A contemporary legend may or may not reconcile us to the lives we are
experiencing rather than the lives we would like to experience.
A contemporary legend may or may not be didactic (eg., etiological and/or
etymological) in that they may be employed to explore, explain, or illustrate
a particular point.
A contemporary legend may or may not be used to present a rational explanation
of some issue or phenomena which is ambiguous or beyond our control.
A contemporary legend may or may not function to provide a forum for social
control in that they may deliver meaningful moral, personal, and political
A contemporary legend may or may not function to substantiate something said
in the current or a previous conversation.
A contemporary legend may or may not function as an emotional response to a
situation, in that it may allow us to express our fears and provide commentary
and explanations of abnormal situations or strange behavior or be offered as a
warnings against involvement in particular types of situations.
A contemporary legend may or may not function as an aesthetic response to a
definition of the contemporary legend embraces many points of view and many
options. Because of the variety of interests and orientations it reflects, it
is hoped that this may prove to be more universally applicable than many of
the existing definitions.
So what is left to
do? Well, perhaps this approach and the resulting definition could be further
enhanced if we:
1:Check that we have not
omitted any obvious (and not so obvious) characteristics from the definition.
Certainly in the
second group of characteristics, those “which describe
contemporary legends in terms of what they
may or may not be,”
we could expect a considerable number of additions (see for example the
already- spiraling list of items accumulating under B13: Function).
But here we have to tread with care and assess which characteristics are
“central” to the definition and which are not--perhaps instead just reflecting
2:Rework the whole schedule
in terms of a comparative definition embracing
other sub-genres of folk
narrative. This would allow us not only to focus on the nature of the
contemporary legend but also on how it relates to (and differs from) other
traditional narrative forms.
To that end, I see this essay
as not necessarily presenting
a definitive solution, in terms of the ultimate definition of the contemporary
legend, but rather as providing an opportunity for the reader to have some
input towards an eventual definition. If you would like to share observations
about, or enhancements of, this set of definitional characteristics, please
feel free to write me.
Bennett, Gillian and Paul
Smith. 1996. "Introduction."
Contemporary Legend: A
New York: Garland, pp.
Georges, Robert A. "The
General Concept of Legend: Some Assumptions to be Reexamined and Reassessed."
American Folk Legend: A
ed. Wayland D. Hand (1971), pp. 1-20.
Smith, Paul. 1997. "Legend,
Contemporary." In Thomas A. Green (ed.),
Folklore: An Encyclopedia of
Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music and Art.
Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, pp. 493-495.
warning: Join The Crew
MUN Folklore & Language
Memorial University of
St John's, Newfoundland A1B
In mid-February 1998
the following was going around email circles. Like warnings about other such
emails, this one was taken seriously by thousands of computer users, but found
to be quite unnecessary because viruses do not normally get transmitted by
this method. As in most of these virus warnings, the medical metaphor is
strong and the parallel to modern campaigns against infections like HIV is
On the computer system
I use everyday, the system managers have a standard two or three line advice
against passing along these “warnings”; the real virus, it says, it the
snowball effect of the naive warnings across thousands of computer lines.
Subject: This is important
The attached message is
FYI to all!
VIRUS WARNING !!!!!!
If you receive an email
titled "JOIN THE CREW" DO NOT open it. It will erase everything on your
hard drive. Forward this letter out to as many
people as you can. This is a new, very malicious virus and not many people
know about it. This information was announced yesterday morning from IBM;
please share it with everyone that might access the internet. Once again,
pass this along to EVERYONE in your address book so that this may be stopped.
Also, do not open or even look at any mail that says "RETURNED OR UNABLE TO
DELIVERY" This virus will attach itself to your computer components and
render them useless. Immediately delete any mail items that say this. AOL has
said that this is a very dangerous virus and that there is NO remedy for it at
this time. Please practice cautionary measures and forward this to all users.
Disney & Nike:Somebody Slipped Us an Email Mickey
[The following article
appeared in the
Daily Times (Blount
County, Tennessee, USA, Monday 15 March 1999. It is reprinted here with the
permission of the author, who is an American folklorist and storyteller living
in Scotland. She recommended her readers check out David Mikkelson's Web Site
from which some of the information came.]
Whistle while you
wait; it's gonna be a long, long wait.
Walt Disney Jr. is not
sending 5,000 people to Disneyworld. Bill Gates is not giving $1,000 to those
who "test" his email tracing software; Bill Gates does not
tracing software. And Nike is not now, nor has it ever been, in the business
of distributing free shoes.
How these three
companies got mixed together is a testament to the Western psyche: we like
fun, we like to run, and we like lots and lots of money.
On 21 November 1997, an email
Hello Everybody, My name is
Bill Gates. I have just written up an email tracing program that traces
everyone to whom this message is forwarded to [sic]. I am experimenting with
this and I need
your help. Forward this to everyone you know and if it reaches 1,000 people
everyone on this list will receive $1,000 at my expense. Your Friend, Bill
This little mishmash
of bad grammar and great generosity went flying 'round the world; estimates
are it reached 1,000 people in a couple of hours. Another testament to North
American psyches: many people circulated the email with a disclaiming opener.
"I doubt this is true, but just in case. . ." "Too good to be true, probably.
Still. . ." and so on. We knew it was fake, but we just had to wish upon a
(perhaps a little too enlightening; do we really want to know how gullible we
are about free money?) that so many people forwarded it when there was no
means by which the money could have been sent. How was Mr. Gates going to
find our checking accounts with his email tracer?
Phase II: Somebody
saw a good opportunity. He/she/they sent a follow-up email, which didn't
circulate quite so widely because it was a dead give-away and a really smooth
piece of tongue-in-cheek text. (To read it in its entirety, check out
The letter thanked
everyone for breaking the 1,000 barrier "with a final push from the Boston
area" and asked them to send their credit card numbers so their $1,000 could
be paid in. It explained that the "software" they had been testing was the
computer equivalent of an inoculation, a virus that combatted emailed
viruses. On a healthy computer, it had the unfortunate side effect of erasing
most of the stored files on the hard drive. The $1,000 was compensation.
Ah well, nobody really
believed these jokers anyway. But the first email kept circulating. More
people have forwarded the Gates offer than the Afghanistan women's petition
(encouraging people to sign in protest of Afghani women's subjugation, with no
address for it to be sent registering these protests). This is saying
something, as the Afghan faux petition has made the top ten list of circulated
It's good to know that,
while we are motivated by greed, we also respond to altruism.
The Gates saga
continues. In May 1998, Nike came on board, unbeknownst to Nike, of course,
offering free shoes to 500 listed people with this great opening line:
"Believing that a healthy body makes a healthy mind. . ."
But the best was yet
to come. In August, Walt Disney, Jr. released an email offering 13,000 people
on the list $5,000 cash or a trip to Disneyworld.
When you wish upon an
email, nothing happens.
Walt Disney, Jr.
Two daughters and a nephew, yes; Walt Jr., no. Surely this should have
tipped us off. But it hasn't; that email is still flying on its magic carpet
ride. Perhaps the lure of the Magic Kingdom is just too much for us. The
Bill Gates Free Money offer is still Somewhere Out There -- way out.
in circulation in early 1998: lover tested
There's a piece of
netlore currently [February 1998] making the rounds about an Army man who is
supposed to meet a blind date at Grand Central Station. The arranged signal
is that his date will be wearing a rose on her lapel, and he is somewhat
disappointed when he finds that the rose‑wearer is a frumpy woman in her
forties. He makes the best of the situtation and proceeds with the date
anyway, only to discover that this was a test, and his real date is a gorgeous
young woman. The details are at http://www.snopes.com/spoons/faxlore/rose.htm.
Needles in vending machines
There have been reports circulating by
word-of-mouth and email for some months (since, I think, mid-1998) that one
should be careful about putting one's fingers in coin return
slots of pay-phones and vending machines as HIV-infected needles have been
known to be found there, and they might stick you. These reports came fast on
the heels of a series of rumours about evil-minded dancers who stuck patrons
at dance bars with similar needles.
Thanks to Paul Smith
we have the URL of the web page of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in
the United States of America. The page denies the claim that the CDC has
tested any such needles and it suggests the danger of such an event is very
low. "The majority of these reports and warnings appear to have no
foundation in fact," says the page. Its URL is http://www.cdc.gov/nchstp/hiv_aids/pubs/faq/faq5a.htm.
Cancer child appeal
Judith S. Neulander
Folklore Institute, Indiana
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Here is something for
The American Cancer Society disconfirms the claim, while at the same time
encouraging the good will
it generated. Also included is a useful Web address they give that lists
cancer and virus hoaxes.
This is from the
American Cancer Society web page at http://www.cancer.org/chain.html:
The American Cancer
Society is greatly disturbed by reports of a fraudulent chain letter
circulating on the internet which lists the American Cancer Society as a
"corporate sponsor" but which has in no way been endorsed by the American
Cancer Society. There are several variations of this letter in circulation,
including one which has a picture of "Tickle Me Elmo" and one that is
essentially a paraphrase of the letter [reproduced on the Web page].
As far as the American Cancer Society can
determine, the story of Jessica Mydek is completely unsubstantiated. No
efforts are being made by the American Cancer Society using chain letters of
any kind. Furthermore, the email address ACS@AOL.COM is inactive. Any
messages to the American Cancer Society should be instead sent through the
American Cancer Society website at http://www.cancer.org.
This particular chain letter with its
heartbreaking story appears to have struck an emotional chord with online
users. Although we are very concerned that the American Cancer Society's name
has been used to manipulate the online public, we applaud the good intentions
of all who participated
in this letter. We are pleased to note that there are so many caring
individuals out there and hope that they will find another way to support
cancer research. Jessica Mydek's story, whether true or false, is
representative of that of many cancer patients
who benefit daily from the efforts of legitimate cancer organizations
MUN Folklore & Language
Memorial University of
St John's, Newfoundland A1B
In an email joke sheet
I received in mid-February 1998 was the following story:
Two guys were taking Chemistry at the
University of Alabama. They were doing well in the class and thought that
going into the final they had a solid "A". They were so confident that the
weekend before finals week, they went to the University of Tennessee to party
with some friends. They had a great time. However, with hangovers and
everything, they overslept all day Sunday and didn't make it back to Alabama
until early Monday morning, the day of the exam. Rather than taking the final
then, they found their professor after the final to explain to him why they
missed the final. They told him that they went up to the University of
Tennessee for the weekend, and had planned to come back in time to study, but
that they had a flat tire on the way back, and didn't have a spare, and
couldn't get help for a long time, so they were late in getting back to
campus. The professor told them they could make
up the final on the following day. They were elated and relieved. At the
final, the professor placed them in separate rooms, handed each of them a test
booklet and told them to begin. The first problem, worth 5 Points, was
something simple about Molarity & Solutions. "Cool," they thought. "This is
going to be easy." The next problem was worth 95 Points. It said: ‑Which tire
HAVE YOU HEARD?
(Geauga Campus, Kent State
University, 14111 Claridon-Troy Road, Burton, Ohio 44021 USA) has inquired
about a legend encountered in oral history research with Vietnam War
veterans. The jist is that a coffin, containing the body of a slain soldier
returning home for burial, is attacked at the airport by anti-War protestors.
The Army investigates but officially finds the event did not happen, implying
that the soldier who witnessed the attack was lying to keep from returning to
the War. Dr Prescott wonders if anyone has come across similar legends, or
events. She can be reached at the above address; alternatively, you can email
her at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
justice: cactus murder
Roger Mongold <Rogmong@zianet.com>
I am a biologist and for the
past 15 years I have heard this story. There was a ne'er‑do‑well around the
Tucson, Arizona, area who continually shot up suguaro cacti in defiance of the
law. (Shooting these giant cacti will eventually kill them via the entrance of
disease and insects.) The authorities were totally frustrated in their
attempts to catch him in the act or to garner evidence to send him to jail.
Then one day they found the guy dead. He had been crushed to death when he
shot up a catcus with a disease‑weakened root system. The force of the impact
had been just enough to break the cactus free of its anchor and send its
several thousand pound body down on him. The question is: is this based on
fact or is it just an urban legend? I have had wildlife people tell me both
ways. I would be grateful if anyone could clear this up.
family freezes; rumour acts against national policy
Dept of History
Memorial University of
St. John's, Newfoundland A1C
I am interested
in a legend that began in southeastern Saskatchewan during the brutal winter
of 1906‑07. Not only was the weather especially bad but, because there had
been a serious coal strike in Lethbridge, Alberta, the previous summer which
produced the principal source of fuel for homesteads on the treeless prairie,
and because of a shortage of boxcars to carry coal, fuel was in short supply.
Canadian government was actively promoting the country to the British as a
North American garden abounded for settlement and investment. There was
numerous deaths that winter from exposure but in February of 1907 the worst
possible thing happened as far as Canada's plans were concerned: the freezing
to death of an English family (mother and three boys); the father was
reported to have met a similar fate while trying to transport coal home.
The story spread rapidly, appearing not only
in the Canadian press but overseas and also came to the attention of the
Canadian government, the Canadian High Commissioner in London, Lord Strathcona,
and the President of the Canadian Pacific Railways, Shaughnessey. Over the
next month the story appeared in a variety of forms in a large number of
prairie weekly papers, even though the rumour was found by the RNWMP
(precursor to the RCMP) to be false. My sense is that the rumour began with
fuel‑starved settlers concerned with their own plight and trying to bring
public attention to the situation.
I wonder if the nature
of the story, the circumstances, and the way it spread follow a pattern which
have elements which are common with similar stories elsewhere. Whatever light
readers might be able to cast on this matter would be greatly appreciated.
LEGEND AND LIFE
saves spinning cat
The following news
story, datelined London, was distributed by Reuters 22 January 1998.
If it had been a
cartoon, Hudson the dog would have just grinned gleefully when he saw his arch
rival Zoe the cat spinning around inside a burning hot tumble drier.
In real life, Hudson
saved Zoe's life by barking until their owner came to her rescue.
first I thought Hudson wanted to go outside, but he just kept on barking and
staring at the machine," said the animals' owner, Liz Beaumont, Thursday.
opened the door of the drier, she had to wait several seconds before she could
remove the badly‑scorched cat because she was too hot to handle.
"Funny thing is, Zoe
still hates Hudson and there's no sign of a reconciliation," said Beaumont.
best friends too
The 4 November 1998
edition of the Toronto newspaper
Globe and Mail (p.
A12) carried a story under the dateline of Agence France-Press, from Lucknow,
India. The headline read, "Deadly cobras have saved lives of villagers,
One snake drove a
family from their brick house in the town of Saikpurwa; the house then
collapsed. Next day a baby was saved from three wolves by the appearance of a
cobra that stayed to protect the child until the mother arrived. And a few
days later still, would-be burglars were scared off by a cobra at the front
door of a house. The story ends with, "The incidents have provoked widespread
interest, even among wildlife experts."
And, it happens, among
Following up from the
translation legends mentioned in an earlier issue of
Brian Chapman (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) in Victoria, British Columbia
notes the following. It is an excerpt from Douglas R. Hofstadter's
Le Ton beau de Marot. In
Praise of the Music of Language (NY:
Basic Books, 1997, p. 342).
I have often heard a couple of lovely
stories about the "early days" of machine translation ‑‑ always the "early
days," as if today's MT programs were way beyond such pitfalls‑‑in any case,
lovely stories of back‑and‑forth
translation. They are always told about English and Russian, for some reason.
Maybe they're true, although I doubt it strongly. In any case, the stories are
identical in structure. The first one goes this way.
One time in the early days of machine
translation, enthusiastic programmers fed the phrase "Out of sight, out of
mind" into an English‑to‑Russian translation program. Then, to check the
accuracy of their programs, they fed the Russian translation back into their
Russian‑to‑English program. When all the gears has stopped churning and all
the lights had stopped flickering, what they got back was quite a surprise ‑‑
just two words:
The second story runs
exactly the same, except that the alleged input phrase was "The spirit is
willing but the flesh is weak" and the alleged output phrase was "The vodka is
good but the meat is rotten".
These humorous tales are often repeated in
print as if they were the gospel truth, but I find them
both far too cute and perfect
to be true. But who knows?
Brian adds the following from
31 January 1998, p. 96:
Schoolkids will be
delighted to learn that labouring over their modern language homework could
soon be a thing of the past. The AltaVista web search engine now offers a
translation service. All you do is hit the right button and hey presto ‑‑ you
go straight to the top of the class.
Or perhaps not. Reader Ian Docherty decided
to put the service to the test by running some
classic English poems through it, translating them into German and then back
into English. Here is how a well‑know poem of Wordsworth's came out:
I was surprised lonely
as a cloud,
Swims on high o'er
vales and hill,
When in a course I saw
A central processor of
the golden Daffodils
Docherty tells us that this reminded him of
the old joke about earlier attempts at computer‑assisted
translation. When "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" was translated
into German and then back into English again, it came out as: "The whisky is
OK but the meat has gone off."
Brian adds himself:
I asked my sister, Janet
Chapman, a French‑English
translator, whether she had heard any such translation legends, and she
recalled that in 1981 her translation professor at the University of Victoria
told a version involving "an interpreter at some international body...who
translated 'out of sight, out of mind' as 'idiot invisible' in French."
[In a radio interview about
1980, Anthony Burgess spoke of the translation
into Italian of one of his Malayan novels. In the original, a character
laments the fate of so many Englishmen banished to the tropics: they just
get drunker and drunker. He says something about "the Englishmen going down
with the DTs." Burgess reported he was glad he knew Italian because, when the
Italian galleys came back, the phrase was rendered into Italian as something
like "Englishmen performing fellatio on the Doctors of Theology." [PH]]
Brian Chapman (email@example.com)
adds to the pile of legendary names an Ann Landers column with the following
It was published in the the
10 March 1998, p. E3:
Dear Ann Landers: I'm
a cemetery buff and spend many hours every week trudging though the cemeteries
of Los Angeles County is [sic] search of odd names.
During my many treks,
I have run across scores of off‑beat names, including: Early Byrd, Watts D.
Matter, Skinny Lasagna, Elda Berry and Anna Lovely Day.
With all due respect
to the deceased, I smile when I run across amusing names on grave markers and
wonder if the people who had to live with those names enjoyed them or felt
cursed. It's often said that a person is never dead till he or she is
forgotten, so a lot of these folks with strange names are destined to live
R.H. in Los Angeles
Thief on Television Again
11th St. South,
R.R. #1, St. Catharines,
Ontario L2R 6P7 CANADA
Here's yet another
incarnation of the stolen kidney legend, this one from the 19 March 1999
The Pretender (a
television series aired on NBC and Ontario Television, ONTV). The title
helps a man (Luther) escape from a Mexican prison when he agrees to donate a
kidney to save the son he didn't know he had. Luther, however, never intended
to donate the organ and instead takes off on Jarod. But Jarod tracks him down
and knocks him
unconsious. Luther is later found ‑‑ sedated, with a missing kidney, but in
stable condition ‑‑ in a Mexican motel room. He is returned to the prison and
the boy miraculously gets a mysterious kidney that is a perfect match and it
saves his life.
“Stuck on you”
Thanks, too, to Brian Chapman
we have the following story reported in
The Sun 23
February 1998. With the byeline of Gordon Raynor, it went as follows, except
for small paragraphing changes made for
Randy mum Joanne Davies spent three hours
with her hand superglued to her husband's willy. Joanne, 25, grabbed John
Jeffrey's manhood for a saucy romp on the sofa, unaware she had accidentally
got adhesive on her fingers while mending son Luke's toy guitar.
The glue stuck fast and the embarrassed couple had to be taken to hospital by
ambulance ‑ with Joanne's hand down her common‑law hubby's trousers.
yesterday: "Everyone in the hospital burst out Continued on Page Four
Continued from Page One laughing when we walked in. I just didn't know where
to look. "We'd had enough jokes from the ambulancemen on the way. One said, 'I
bet we don't need to take a pulse, ' then suggested we lie on the stretcher
bed! "At the hospital, they put us in a treatment room with towels and a bowl
of soapy water and told us to get on with it.
"It took about three
hours, but eventually, after a lot of rubbing, we managed to get free.
"Afterwards we got out as quick as we could. I wanted the ground to open and
Hairdresser Joanne ‑
mum to Luke, four, and daughter Louise, two ‑ told how calamity struck after
she began feeling frisky at the home she shares with John in Kempston, Beds.
She said: "John was just out of the shower and was sitting on the sofa in his
dressing gown after drying himself off. "I was mucking about and put my hand
in his robe and grabbed him. "It never occurred to me I still had glue on my
hands. But when I tried to move away I realised I was stuck."
John, 36, said: "At
first I thought she was joking, but when I tried to peel her hand off I found
it was stuck for real. We had to manoeuvre ourselves over to the phone
together and dial 999. The operator giggled when I tried to explain. I
managed to put some clothes on before the ambulance arrived, but it was like
playing a game of Twister. You can't imagine how we felt walking into
hospital. You didn't need to be a doctor to know what we'd been up to."
John, an unemployed carpenter, added: "It
might sound great to have a woman
gripping your privates for three hours, but believe me it's not. I was pretty
sore. "To make matters worse, when a nurse gave me some scissors to cut out
the clumps of glue stuck down below, they slipped and I nearly had a nasty
accident." Joanne added: "John left with his tail between his legs, but at
least he still had a tail. He's still very tender so we haven't had a chance
to find out yet if everything's working. But hopefully we will soon. We're
told he'll make a full recovery."
A hospital source
said: "This was a job in a million. The ambulance crew couldn't believe it."
An ambulance chief said: "They had to call us. There was no way they could
have driven themselves to hospital."
Gay Christ play
The Catholic League
launched a series of protests during May and June 1998 over Terrence
The vitriolic debate over the play began with the information that the it was
a retelling of the Christ story in which Jesus and the disciples are gay.
Following this, the Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) received threats ranging from
arson to murder. Reports circulated that the theater decided to drop the
play. This caused an even greater furor as the arts community condemned the
MTC then reversed its
decision and announced that the play would proceed. It was later discovered
that most of the protests were based on a workshop version of the play. The
information about the contents, characters and context early into the debate
were supplied to the media from The Catholic League. The finished play is
more about being gay in Corpus Christi, Texas, and uses the life of Christ as
an allegory. Of interest to folklorists is the way that information that
resembles rumour, gossip, and lies is spread, used and manipulated. This
event is likely to spawn folklore of its own and when it does
have it here. Thanks to Brian
Chapman who sent in email and
newspaper stories -- this note is complied from these sources. [JB]
educated are credulous?
[The following New York Times
story was posted to the Fortean List (firstname.lastname@example.org)
15 December 1998 where it was said to have been printed that day in the San
Mercury News The
title was given as "Science has its urban legends, with mythical
Everyone has heard
about the LSD‑soaked stickers given away to schoolchildren. The stamp‑size
tabs are reportedly decorated with blue stars or pictures of Superman,
butterflies or clowns.
Or how about the story
of the child who is dying of cancer and wants postcards sent to him? Or how
about Neiman Marcus' $250 cookie recipe?
They are all urban
myths, of course, stories that refuse to die matter how many times they are
Science is different,
right? Study results become part of the annals, authenticated by weighty
papers and validated by panels of experts. This is the usual route to
credibility. Then there are the myths.
Take the "Hawthorne effect," which is much
embraced in social psychology. It refers to a study from 1927 to 1933 of
factory workers at Western Electric's Hawthorne Plant in Illinois. It showed
that regardless of the changes made in working conditions ‑‑ more breaks,
longer breaks or fewer and shorter ones ‑‑
productivity increased. These changes apparently had nothing to do with the
workers' responses. The workers, or so the story goes, produced more because
they saw themselves as special, participants in an experiment, and their
Sounds very compelling. "The results of this
experiment, or rather the human relations interpretation
offered by the researchers who summarized the results, soon became gospel for
introductory textbooks in both psychology and management science," said Lee
Ross, a psychology professor at Stanford University.
But only five workers
participated in the study, Ross said, and two were replaced partway through
for gross insubordination and low output.
A psychology professor
at the University of Michigan, Richard Nisbett, called the Hawthorne effect "a
"Once you've got the
anecdote," he said, "you can throw away the data."
Myths happen in
medicine, too. Dr. Robert Buckman, a cancer specialist at the University of
Toronto, discovered an urban legend when he tracked the story of a spectacular
cancer treatment to its source.
Buckman first heard
the story on June 25, 1990, in Toronto in a lecture given by Dr. Bernard
Siegel, a doctor who has written popular books on the power of the mind over
cancer. Siegel told of two oncologists chatting about a study they were
participating in to test a combination of four chemotherapy drugs, which had
the initials EPHO.
One doctor's patients
were doing spectacularly well; three quarters were responding to the drugs.
But only a quarter of the other doctor's patients were improving. Then the
first doctor explained that he had simply rearranged the letters of the drugs
to spell HOPE.
Siegel's audience was overwhelmed. "If hope
did that, then it was the most powerful anti‑cancer
agent the world had ever known," Buckman said.
Still, he was
skeptical. He knew by the initials of the drugs that the treatment must be for
small‑cell lung cancer, which is very difficult to treat. Why had he not heard
of the study before?
Buckman asked Siegel
for his source, which turned out to be a book by Norman Cousins, who had
referred to an article published in a 1988 Western Journal of Medicine.
Buckman telephoned the writer, a cancer specialist in La Jolla.
The doctor told
Buckman he had invented the story. It was a parable meant to tell doctors that
there was more to treating cancer than merely doling out drugs, he said.
Are scientists as
credulous as the parents who worried about the LSD stickers? Perhaps urban
legends take hold, Ross said, because "sometimes a story deserves to be true."
* * *
ISCLR Meetings in Innsbruck, Austria
Hazleton, PA, USA
Society for Contemporary Legend Research held its Sixteenth International
Conference in Innsbruck, Austria, on 21-24 July 1998. The conference was
organized by Profs. Leander Petzoldt and Ingo Schneider and hosted by the
University of Innsbruck's Institute for European Ethnology. Sessions took
place at the Institute and at a historic meeting hall at the Old Town Hall in
the heart of Innsbruck's Altstadt.
The meeting included thirteen papers
discussing the history and nature of this still‑controversial
topic. Overall, the key themes addressed in this year's conference tended to
address the following questions:
Are contemporary legends and traditional legends distinct or part of the same
* How do contemporary legends
relate to other folk genres and to popular culture?
* How do subcultures use
contemporary legends to create or express identity?
* What new
theoretical approaches are needed to fully understand contemporary legends?
1. Contemporary Legends and
Legends of the Past.
addressed this issue and all agreed that we should see legends of today in
terms of the past. In "Contemporary Legends: The Continuity of Tradition,"
Bronislava KerbelytΘ (Vilnius,
presented results of analyzing the structure of some 85,000 texts in her
archive. She found few formal differences between variants that included
traditional or mythological elements, and those collected more recently that
presented purely contemporary beliefs. She presented several instances in
which older legends, in which a character's actions provoked reactions from a
variety of supernatural antagonists, with similar results.
In "Dangers in
Drinking Pleasures: A Continuity of Attitudes,"
Oliver M. Haid
(Meran, Italy), argued that
many contemporary legends dealing with the alleged harmful nature of Coca‑Cola
and other carbonated beverages in fact had antecedents in propaganda against
beverages such as coffee, tea, and distilled liquors. In particular, he
noted, alcohol remedies often included elements such as drowning mice in
liquor or claiming that the drink had been used to preserve a corpse. Such
legends often suggest that new beverages attract such legends as soon as their
consumption begins to expand into new populations.
Haya Bar‑Itzak (Haifa,
Israel) presented "Contemporary Saints' Legends in Israeli
Society," an analysis of narratives told by Jews who had emigrated from Yemen
or Asia, leaving behind the tombs of their holy men. She argued that these
narratives, focussing on the creation of synagogues devoted to these saints'
memory in Israel, occupied
a similar position to that of
"Saints' Legends" in Christian traditions. They also commented on the culture
shock suffered by immigrants who often find their own religious codes put into
question by the overall tolerance practiced in contemporary Israel.
2. Contemporary Legends and
A number of papers
addressed the ways in which legends relate to other genres, particularly to
popular literature and the media. In "Contemporary Legends in the Short
Stories of Roald Dahl," Peter
The Netherlands) examined the British author's adult fiction. Dahl, who often
used nasty stories in social settings to shock his audiences, also often
incorporated legends in his fiction. Also, many of his original horror
stories have legend‑like
twists at the end that resemble the "urban" qualities that Daniel Barnes has
said are central to oral legends.
"The Fracture in the Fairy Tale: Discursive
Space in Rupture," by Joann Conrad (Berkeley, CA, USA) began by discussing the
pervasiveness of the Märchen "Cinderella" (AT 510) in Anglo‑American
culture. Then she showed how it was deconstructed in popular culture dealing
with the tragic fates of celebrities such as Princess Diana and Jon‑Benet
Ramsey and with the mystery of the Russian princess Anastasia, who may have
survived her family's execution to become a poor working girl. The
traditional fairy tale, she argued, affirmed male‑centred images of
femininity, but their application to modern stories ruptures these stereotypes
and creates discursive space in which alternative models can be constructed.
"From Bavaria with
Love: The Illuminati in American Conspiracy Lore," by Bill
PA, USA) gave a history of a story that provided much of the structure for the
modern Satanism Scare in
the US and Great Britain. The Illuminati, originally a late‑17th‑century
secret society of freethinkers, became a super‑secretive cult in
Anglo‑American conspiracy lore. Devoted to destroying religions and gaining
world domination, the Illuminati were first identified as rogue Freemasons,
then, in the early 20th century, as influential Jewish financiers. The
scenario entered the conduits of early cult hunters during the Red Scares of
the 1950s and 1960s. Ellis argued that this tradition, composed of both oral
and popular culture elements, was best described as a subversion myth.
3. Contemporary Legends and
Four case studies
focussed in various ways on how legends help provide identify for specific
ethnic and regional cultures. "We're Number One: Party School Rankings and
Barry J. Ward (Morgantown,
WV, USA) dealt with the belief that West Virginia University had been named
the US's Number One "Party School" by Playboy Magazine. He gave a far‑ranging
tour of stereotypes that had been applied to West Virginia and its citizens as
ignorant and uncivilized, and he showed that, paradoxically, the title of
"Number One Party School" gave the university a point of pride around which to
cluster other positive images.
In "Myth and Cult of
the 20th Century: A Political Legend about the Presence of Benito Mussolini in
Austria and Particularly in Verarlberg," Reinhard
Austria) analyzed oral and popular history reports that the Italian dictator
had, early in
his career, lived as a poor workman in Western Austria. The stories varied in
emphasis: some portrayed him as a vagrant who did not pay back his loans and
fathered illegitimate children. Others showed him lending prestige to
emerging labour groups by delivering impassioned speeches. Each, in some way,
helped subcultures define themselves in terms of nearby Italy.
Patricia Turner (Davis,
CA, USA) presented "Shades of Ron Brown, Tupak Shakur and Tommy Hilfiger," a
survey of her recent research into African American contemporary legends.
Tommy Hilfiger, a hot new fashion designer, is said to have made disparaging
remarks about blacks on TV and also to exploit foreign workers in his
factory. Tupak Sakur's violent death was never solved; many fans, black and
white, believe that it was faked so that he could retire in peace from his
gangsta lifestyle and continue to produce recordings. Ron Brown's death from a
plane crash included many still‑unexplained oddities, which may have been part
of "The Plan," a government conspiracy to eliminate African American from
influential positions. Turner conceded that, after diligent research, she
could not say for certain that the last story was no more than a legend.
In "The Lost Colony of
Roanoke Island as Metaphor and Means for Contemporary Legends of Celebrated
Loss in Eastern North Carolina,"
Karen Baldwin (Greenville,
NC, USA) connected the historical details of the first British colony in the
New World with the metaphor it has become in her region. She found that the
Lost Colony story served to give the region primacy in the colonial history
over the later, ultimately successful Virginia colony. It also serves as a
focal point for many other legends dealing with vanished towns and the
isolating nature of the East Carolina wilderness.
4. Theoretical Approaches to
Three major papers
addressed key issues
concerning legends' status as rhetoric, belief, and genre. "Interstitiality
in Contemporary Legend: An Alternative Analysis" by Sandy
Hobbs and David
Scotland, UK; read by the former) returned to a useful theoretical concept
introduced by William M. Clements at the 1989 ISCLR conference. Clements
argued that legends often focussed on situations where phenomena could not fit
easily into accepted social categories; hence they fell into a gap or
interstices. Thus for
instance, a legend might show something defined as inedible (a rat, dog, or
crematory ashes) being accidentally eaten.
Hobbs and Cornwell found Clements's term
helpful in analyzing the rhetoric of legends, but showed that it needed
refining. In some cases, they found, the legend showed not a "gap" (or
interstices) between categories, but an ambiguity created by blurring or
overlapping of social categories. They also stressed that the concept was not
central to all legends or even to their social meanings.
Interstitiality, they concluded, was best understood as a means of creating an
effective story, using a dramatic punch line to embody a category shift that
makes the listener mentally reclassify previous events in the story.
USA), in "Contemporary Legend as Belief," reported on a questionnaire intended
to assess the prevalence of traditional and modern pseudo‑scientific beliefs
among a Mexican‑American population. Surveying 2012 informants, Glazer found
that a majority of informants believed in the devil and angels; nearly half
believed in black magic, and 31% had seen it practiced. By contrast, only 35%
believed in the scientific theory of evolution. Glazer's survey also
addressed belief in UFOs (38%), vampires (23%), Big Bird (a cryptozoological
entity seen in the Frontiera area about 20 years ago, 18%), and the chupacabra
(23%). In each case, he found a "critical mass" of believers, enough to
ensure continued circulation of legends on these themes.
The Conference's final
paper, "Folk Legend, Urban Legend and Memorabilia: A Single Genre?" by
(Los Angeles, USA) began by
addressing the question of whether a distinction can be drawn between
traditional and modern legends. In fact, he argued, the characteristics
that Gillian Bennett finds typical of the latter can be found abundantly in
full collections of the former.
But principally Ward
called attention to Andre Jolles's study Einfache Formen, in which he proposes
a broad generic category called "Memorabile," or "memorable events." This
genre, which encompasses not only oral narrative but stall ballads, tabloid
publications, and popular literature, comprises stories that help narrators
see the contemporary world in a systematic way. Ward notes that some of
Jolles's examples, such as "The Liverpool Tragedy" in which a son is killed by
his parents by mistake, could easily be defined as contemporary legends.
Conversely, many legends studied by subsequent scholars could more easily fit
into this category than into traditional definitions of legend or Sage.
A closing discussion arrived at the
consensus that a generic distinction between traditional and modern legends
was difficult to justify, if both were seen in terms of "news" rather than
"tradition." In any case, for non‑folklorists,
issues of genre are often irrelevant because they are more interested in what
legends do or why they circulate, not where they should be filed. While there
was interest in having Jolles's argument translated, or at least paraphrased
in detail, there also was consensus that "contemporary legend" was clear
enough as a term to justify its continued use.
an appeal to international scholars to attempt to breach language barriers and
find ways to share ideas with those fluent in international languages. There
was general agreement that discussions in only English limit research on both
sides, and that
more could be done to accommodate international scholars, particularly in
meetings held in non‑English venues such as the present.
The conference also included a guided tour
to the vicinity of Matrei, where participants in the Tiroler Bergsagen
prepared exhibitions and performances of the legends characteristic of the
area. The tour also included a visit to a historic inn, where regional food
and drink could be sampled.
In closing the
conference, President Bill Ellis expressed thanks to the organizers and hosts
of the meeting for providing stimulating discussion in an atmosphere of
The next conference will be held in St. John's, Newfoundland on 18-23 May
Thirteenth skeptical conference
The Association for
Skeptical Enquiry and the Manchester Humanists held a one‑day conference on
paranormal and superstitious beliefs at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU),
Manchester, England. The conference was sponsored by the MMU Dept. of
Sociology and took place Friday the 13th of November 1998. Speakers
Dr. Christopher French.
Department of Psychology, Goldsmith's College, "The Psychology Of
Dr. Michael Heap. Dept. of
Psychotherapeutic Studies, University of Sheffield,
Kevin McClure. Writer and
Investigator, "Alien Abductions."
Dr. David Stretch. Dept. of
Mathematical Psychology, University of Leicester, "Critical Thinking And
Dr. Timothy Taylor. Dept of
of Bradford, "Graham Hancock and Pseudo‑Archaeology."
Dr. Richard Wiseman. Perrott‑Warrick
Research Unit, University of Hertfordshire, "The Psychology of Luck."
Tony Youens. Conjurer,
"Demonstration of pseudo‑psychic
Newfoundland ISCLR Conference, 1999