No. 51                                                                                                             March 2002

ISSN 1026-1001





Book Review

Ellis, Aliens, Ghosts and Cults



Mikel J. Koven

International Society of Contemporary Legend Research


    I try to avoid editorializing: anyone who knows me knows how difficult it is to get me to shut-up once I start. And, as editor of FTN, I do believe that my job is facilitate the on-going discussion about contemporary legends in this newsletter, rather than lead it.

    So let me begin by an apology for the lateness of this issue. It was supposed to be out to all of you around the beginning of the year and now we’re approaching the scheduled deadline of the next issue.

    But the reason this issue is late is due to the lack of articles I have received for inclusion. I know I could fill four pages every couple of months with my own ramblings and discussions – but that would turn this into something very different, and I’m not sure even I would want to read that.

    And so I ask … no, plead all of you, on virtual bended knee, to contribute to FTN. In particular, as the Bodner piece in this issue is evidence of, pieces that will facilitate further discussion in these pages.  ISCLR’s journal, Contemporary Legend, does not feature any kind of “Notes and Queries” section, and nor should it. This is the place for those kinds of pieces and I want to be the one to publish them to our group.

    While I am still in begging mode, I have received a number of references to journal articles and books which might be of interest to you. I’ve not received enough to really post the kind of enormous ‘recently published’ lists that FTN used to, and was wondering whether or not someone out there (Paul?) would be willing to take up that banner and produce for me, every few months or so, this kind of bibliographical list.

    As always, these correspondences should be posted to the FTN email account:





John Bodner

Memorial University of Newfoundland


    On Wednesday November 7th 2001, Steve (name has been changed) sent me an email announcing that a member of the Green Party was detained because of her objections to the war on Afghanistan.  The emergence of this rumor among politically active and generally counter-hegemonic groups/individuals is, in itself, helpful.  What I want to suggest in this brief introduction to the rumor is that its very short life also tells us something about the people disseminating and consuming this narrative.  The story first appeared in the Bangor Daily News and The Associated Press November 3rd 2000.’s traditional debunking was helpful in explaining the facts of the case but once again missed any sociologic analysis concerning the function and nature of this rumor.  While it may be true, as Snopes argues, that the initial incident was created to generate publicity, it does not explain why the story was widely disseminated via email.  Rather than speculate on the creation of the rumor what is usually more interesting and more dynamic is why people disseminate, recreate and consume these narratives.  In this case it is clear that the story was a vindication for groups who argued that the draconian anti-terrorist legislation passed in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom would curtail the civil liberties of ordinary citizens.  The rumor has its power, and I would argue, its currency, because it shows a clear causal relationship between the legislation and the erosion of civil rights.  The display of clear and obvious relationships is important in political and social debates because it duplicates the privileged truth-value of scientific discourse.  Without evidence groups and individuals opposed to the legislation have little influence.  The politically instrumental use of this rumor is further proven by Steve’s quick debunking of his original posting on November 8th.  He writes: “Sorry, all - it appears that the message I forwarded you earlier today can't be taken at face value. I've attached a response (I don't know who it's from).”  He then provided a link to and an excerpt from their response to the rumor.  Once again we see that rumors are not blindly accepted as fact but sifted and sorted, used instrumentally to achieve individual and group goals and then quickly abandoned when they conflict with those goals and with esoteric systems for achieving these ends.


    GREEN PARTY USA will hold press conference in CHICAGO SATURDAY, NOV.  3 10 a.m. at the J. Ira and Nicki Family Hostel 24 East Congress Parkway (at Wabash), 2nd floor




    Armed government agents grabbed Nancy Oden, Green Party USA coordinating committee member, Thursday at Bangor International Airport in Bangor Maine, as she attempted to board an American Airlines flight to Chicago. 

    "An official told me that my name had been flagged in the computer," a shaken Oden said. "I was targeted because the Green Party USA opposes the bombing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan."

    Oden, a long-time organic farmer and peace activist in northern Maine, was ordered away from the plane. Military personnel with automatic weapons surrounded Oden and instructed all airlines to deny her passage on ANY flight. "I was told that the airport was closed to me until further notice and that my ticket would not be refunded," Oden said.

    Oden is scheduled to speak in Chicago Friday night on a panel concerning pesticides as weapons of war. She had helped to coordinate the Green Party USA's antiwar efforts these past few months, and was to report on these to The Greens national committee. "Not only did they stop me at the airport but some mysterious party had called the hotel and cancelled my reservation," Oden said.

    The Greens National Committee -- the governing body of the Green Party USA -- is meeting in Chicago Nov. 2-4 to hammer out the details of national campaigns against bio-chemical warfare, the spraying of toxic pesticides, genetic engineering, and the Party's involvement in the burgeoning peace movement.

    "I am shocked that US military prevented one of our prominent Green Party members from attending the meeting in Chicago," said Elizabeth Fattah, a GPUSA representative from Pennsylvania who drove to Chicago. "I am outraged at the way the Bill of Rights is being trampled upon." Chicago Green activist Lionel Trepanier concluded, "The attack on the right of association of an opposition political party is chilling. The harassment of peace activists is reprehensible."

    For further information, please call 1-866-GREENS-2 (toll-free)




Book Review

Laura Tonks

University of Wales, Aberystwtyh


Aliens, Ghosts and Cults: Legends We Live. By Bill Ellis. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Pp. i – 291. Table of Contents, acknowledgements, index. Hardcover.)


    In his book Aliens, Ghost and Cults: Legends We Live, Bill Ellis elaborates on his work moving away from the traditional treatment of legends as just “texts” to a consideration of legends as a social and cultural process by examining the extraordinary relationship between ‘real life’ and ‘legend’. In his introduction, he explains his intentions for the book: “[T]he essays in this collection try out ways of analyzing legends that credit their emergent nature and force” (xv). It is this approach, in “trying out” different modes of analysis that makes this book so exceptional.

    The volume is divided into three main parts: “The Life of Legends” (3-92), “Life as Legend” (93-159) and “Legend as Life” (161-235). The first section focuses on the very foundations of the subject, the legend. Ellis states: “As folklorists’ scholarship grows, the need also grows for defining our goals and methods to suit the peculiarly elusive nature of the living beast we are chasing, or at least trying to observe from the underbrush” (4). Rather than assuming what is understood to be a legend, Ellis explores the debates that surround definitions and challenges the assumptions made about a subject tackled numerous times before. He emphasizes the importance of the actual communication of a legend, explaining how it can expose the reasons for the circulation of a given text and what it can mean to narrator and audience alike. Ellis not only reconsiders the discourses that concern studies in folklore, such as the accuracy of identifying a legend as ‘contemporary’ but also views the analysis of legends in light of other disciplines.

    In a part of the first section entitled “Why is a Legend”, in an examination of how legends can function on the individual, Ellis presents possibly one of the most intriguing approaches. He draws on the work, zoologist, Richard Dawkins’ has conducted on “mind viruses” (76). Mind viruses, are explained as “packets of information that with the apparently autonomous ability to pass from brain to brain” (76). Dawkins exemplifies ‘chain letters’ as a form of mind virus, an aspect of his work that, for Ellis, exhibits relevance to folklorists. Ellis identifies a parallel between the ‘mind virus’ and the approach to studying folklore that, quoting Linda Dégh, pays attention “to the dynamics of telling and transmitting stories from person to person and from people to people, through means of direct contact, interaction, and resulting processes responsible for the formation and continual recreation of narrative” (90).

    The second section, Ellis textually analyses specific examples of unexplained occurrences, such as vanishing hitchhikers, ghosts and alien abductions at first demonstrating the complexities of legend interpretation by presenting the perspectives of those other than folklorists. Throughout the chapter, Ellis draws attention not only to the attempts scientists make to provide rational explanations but more interestingly, also to the work of those outside of the academy, namely the Forteans. The Forteans involvement in this area is the publishing of unexplained occurrences collected from media sources “as a challenge to conventional science” (96). By considering possible Fortean explanations in the analysis of “The Frackville Angel” (99-116), Ellis is demonstrating how important it is to take into account all forms of communication and interpretation to “provide academics with a more complete picture of how the legend process actually works” (115).

    In addition to varying interpretations and explanations by analysts from varying disciplines, Ellis considers and explains the difficulties that are often encountered by those who attempt to tell of unexplainable occurrences that they were involved in or had been told about. Ellis explains this in terms of “belief-language” (94), and how the lack of belief-language available can make them more concerned about the social consequences of communicating such stories that are difficult to comprehend in terms of reality. He examines thoroughly, through a detailed textual analysis of the “Pizza Hut Ghost”, how those who when retelling their supernatural encounters attempt to rationalize the experiences through available belief-language. The following section that focuses on alien abduction discusses the problem for those who do not have a belief-language and the explanations that arise from outsiders who analyze such encounters, from this Ellis intelligently negotiates positions in which the folklorist can take when analyzing these empirical experiences.

    In the third part, drawing on the subjects of some of his most familiar work, such as legend-tripping and ‘satanic’ cults, Ellis examines how legends can influence reality through the notion of ostension. Throughout this part he explains and illustrates the varying degrees in which ostension could explain actions that “suggests the legend but does not fully enact it” (162) although, he suggests that rarely, certain legends may have been acted out. Ellis discusses the social implications of what the dramatization of a legend (in a seemingly controlled environment) and legend-tripping can mean to its participants. In analyzing an incident in Pennsylvania where a satanic cult was rumored to have deadly plans for the prom night of one area’s high school, Ellis presents a detailed account of the processes in which a community can become gripped by a legend, so much so that it becomes a reality for those concerned. He demonstrates the importance for folklorists to not only study legends as verbal narration but to not ignore legend performances.

    With seemingly unfamiliar legends always in emergence, those who wish to study them must have the appropriate “tools” in which to deal with them. As Ellis states, folklorists are in a prime position to shed light on the reasons behind their often puzzling, appearance within society. He states that “We [folklorists] have the theoretical tools to distinguish between the experience observed, the interpretations provided by culture and the language choices used by an individual to mediate the two” (157). What Ellis does in Aliens, Ghosts and Cults… is attempt to provide such tools or suggests a range of possibilities and ideas to develop further when seemingly new legends emerge or present themselves.

    Due to Ellis’ constant consideration and reconsideration of folklorists’ aims within the discipline, he reveals a number of avenues in which to follow rather than presenting a narrow, restricted path by developing methods already used and also by the unearthing of more appropriate ways of thinking. Therefore he is presenting those interested with numerous possibilities in which to study of legends in the future.



FTN needs your contributions!

Please send me news, queries, research notes, clippings, calls for papers, book and movie reviews, or notes about local rumor and legend cycles for inclusion in FTN.




Deadline for next issue:

May 2002


Next Issue Out:

June 2002




FoafTale News (FTN) is the newsletter of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research.  We study "modern" and "urban" legends, and also any legend circulating actively.  To join, send a cheque made out to "ISCLR" for US$30.00 or UK£18 to Mark Glazer, Arts & Sciences, University of Texas - Pan-American, Edinburgh TX 78539-2999, USA for North American subscriptions, or Sandy Hobbs, ASS Department, University of Paisley, Paisley, Scotland, PA1 2BE for European subscriptions. Institutional rates available upon request.  Members also receive Contemporary Legend, a refereed academic journal.  Most back issues of FTN are available from the Editor at a charge of US$3 each.   FoafTale News is indexed in the MLA Bibliography.


This newsletter is called FoafTale News for the jocular term current among legend scholars for over twenty years.  The term "foaf" was introduced by Rodney Dale (in his 1978 book, The Tumour in the Whale) for an oft-attributed but anonymous source of contemporary legends: a "friend of a friend."  Dale pointed out that contemporary legends always seemed to be about someone just two or three steps from the teller  — a boyfriend’s cousin, a co‑worker’s aunt, or a neighbor of the teller’s mechanic.  "Foaf" became a popular term at the Sheffield legend conferences in the 1980s.   It was only a short step to the pun "foaftale," a step taken by a yet-anonymous wag. 


FoafTale News welcomes contributions, including those documenting legends” travels on electronic media and in the press.  All research notes and articles are copyright by the individual authors who reserve all rights.  For permission to reprint, contact them at the addresses given in the headnote of the article. Send queries, notices, and research reports to a maximum of 3000 words to the Editor; clippings, offprints, and citations are also encouraged.


The opinions expressed in FoafTale News are those of the authors and do not in any necessary way represent those of the editor, the contributing compilers, the International Society for the Study of Contemporary Legends, its Council, or its members.


Editor:  Mikel J. Koven, Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies, Parry-Williams, Building, Penglais Campus, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, United Kingdom, SY23 2AJ 



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ISSN 1026-1001