No. 71   January 2009
ISSN 1026-1001


From the Incoming Editor

ISCLR Conference Announcement:
Baddeck, Cape Breton, June 3-7, 2009

Prize Announcements

A Bag of Cookies: An Illustrated Internet Forward
Jan Harold Brunvand

Texting the Dead
Publorians/The Editor

Penis Shrinkers in West Africa
Elizabeth Tucker

Global Links
Brian Chapman

Book Reviews

Publishers’ Abstracts

Reminder: Membership Dues for 2009

From the Incoming Editor

Greetings, everyone! As the new editor of FOAFtale News, I want to thank Gillian Bennett for her outstanding editorial work. I have greatly enjoyed reading this fine newsletter and will do my best to perpetuate its usefulness as a resource for folklorists. Please send me your news, queries, research notes, clippings, calls for papers, book and movie reviews, and comments on local rumor and legend cycles. This newsletter relies on your contributions, so please keep them coming! My e-mail address is Thanks very much!

Elizabeth (Libby) Tucker

ISCLR Conference Announcement


International Society for Contemporary Legend Research
Twenty-seventh International Conference
Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada
June 3-7, 2009

The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research is pleased to announce that the 2009 Perspectives on Contemporary Legend Twenty-seventh International Conference is to be held at the Inverary Resort in Baddeck, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, summer home of Alexander Graham Bell and site of the first powered flight in the Commonwealth.

Proposals for papers on all aspects of contemporary, urban, or modern legend research are sought, as are those on any legend or legend-like tradition that circulate actively at present or have circulated at an earlier historical period. Previous discussions have ranged in focus from the ancient to the modern (including Internet-lore) and have covered diverse cultures worldwide (including our own academic world).

The 2009 meeting will be organized as a series of seminars at which the majority of those who attend will present papers and/or contribute to discussion sessions. Concurrent sessions will be avoided so that all participants can hear all the papers. Proposals for special panels of papers, discussion sessions, and other related events are encouraged.

To participate in the conference, please forward a title and abstract (250-300 words) to the organizers at the address below by 1st February 2009.

To submit an abstract, or for further information or travel advice, contact:

Ian Brodie
Department of Heritage and Culture
Cape Breton University
Sydney, NS B1P 4X5  CANADA
Office Phone: 902-563-1418   
Toll-Free: 1-800-474-7212, ext 1418


Travel: Baddeck is approximately one hour away from Sydney Airport (YQY), which is served principally by Air Canada, with connector flights from Halifax and Montreal. For those not choosing to rent a car, transport to and from Baddeck can be arranged.

Halifax International Airport (YHZ) is approximately three and a half hours away from Baddeck, and is served by Air Canada, American Airlines, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and WestJet Airlines, with connector flights to most major transit hubs, including Heathrow. Daily shuttle service is available, but for attendees wishing to take advantage of Cape Breton’s natural beauty, a rental car is recommended.

Prize Announcements
2009 Brian McConnell Book Award
The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research has established an annual book prize in honour of Brian McConnell. The purpose of the Award is to encourage scholarship in the field of Contemporary Legend, to recognize and inspire standards of excellence in Contemporary Legend publications and to commemorate the life and work of Brian McConnell, a long time member of ISCLR, celebrated crime reporter, author and legend scholar.

The Award is for a book receiving its first publication in the period 1st April to the following 30th March. Only books published during the preceding twelve months will be considered for the award in any given year. Eligible books will include original works and new scholarly editions of previously published texts, but excludes reprints.

Three copies of each book submitted for the 2009 Award should reach the Society’s President by 30 March. Books submitted for the Award will not be returned. The Award winner will be announced at the Annual General Meeting of ISCLR. The main prize will be the Award itself, but the winning author (or authors) will also be presented with a cheque for $250 (US).

There will be three judges appointed by the Society’s Council, one of whom will be the Society’s President, or First Vice-President. The judges may, at their discretion, consider books which have not been formally submitted for the prize. The winning book will be that which, in the opinion of the judges made the most distinguished contribution to the study of Contemporary Legend in the year in question.

Books to be considered for the McConnell Award should be sent to:
  Dr. Cathy Preston, President, ISCLR
 English Department
 Hellems 101
 226 UCB
 University of Colorado
 Boulder, Colorado 80309-0226


Dr. David Buchan Student Essay Prize
for Contemporary Legend Research (2009)
The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) is pleased to announce that it is to award an annual student essay prize to honour the memory of Dr. David Buchan (1939-1994), leading international ballad scholar, and a staunch supporter and perceptive writer in the area of contemporary legend research.
The prize will be awarded for the best student essay that combines research and analysis on some aspect of contemporary legend, or contemporary legend research.  Previously published essays will not be considered for the award.
Applications are invited from registered (post)graduate students, although undergraduate essays will also be accepted for consideration on the advice of faculty members.
Either students or their teachers may submit essays.  Instructors are asked to encourage students with eligible essays to enter the competition.
The deadline for submission is 1st of May in the year the award is to be made, and the essays should have been written within the previous academic year, or the current academic year. 
The award will be made by the President of ISCLR upon the recommendation of the Selection Committee appointed by him\her, and will be announced at the annual meeting of the Society.
The winner will receive $250 (U.S.), and a year's membership to ISCLR.  The winning essay will normally be submitted for publication in the Society's journal, Contemporary Legend.
For further information or a copy of the Guide For Applicants, please contact:
Professor Paul Smith
            Coordinator, David Buchan Student Essay Prize
            Department of Folklore
            Memorial University of Newfoundland
            St. John’s, Newfoundland
            Canada  A1B 3X8

A Bag of Cookies: An Illustrated Internet Forward
Jan Harold Brunvand

Link for slideshow:

A young lady was waiting for her flight in the boarding room of a big airport.

As she would need to wait many hours, she decided to buy a book to spend her time. She also bought a packet of cookies.

She sat down in an armchair, in the VIP room of the airport, to rest and read in peace.

Beside the armchair where the packet of cookies lay, a man sat down in the next seat, opened his magazine and started reading.

When she took out the first cookie, the man took one also. She felt irritated but said nothing. She just thought: What a nerve! If I was in the mood I would punch him for daring!

For each cookie she took, the man took one too. This was infuriating her but she didn’t want to cause a scene.

When only one cookie remained, she thought: ah..What this abusive man do now?

Then, the man, taking the last cookie, divided it into half, giving her one half.

Ah! That was too much!
She was much too angry now!

In a huff, she took her book, her things and stormed to the boarding place.

When she sat down in her seat, inside the plane, she looked into her purse to take her eyeglasses, and, to her surprise, her packet of cookies was there, untouched, unopened!

She felt so ashamed! She realized that she was wrong… She had forgotten that her cookies were kept in her purse.

The man had divided his cookies with her, without feeling angered or bitter.

…while she had been very angry, thinking that she was dividing her cookies with him. And now there was no chance to explain herself…nor to apologize.

There are 4 things you cannot recover.
The stone…after the throw!
The word…after it’s said!
The occasion…after the loss!
The time…after it’s gone!

[Image of cat waving goodbye] 

This little item was forwarded to me by my 13-year- old granddaughter Sadie Williams. It is, of course, an online illustrated version of the old "Package of Cookies" legend. It looks like someone selected some of the pix from a collection of clip art. The cookies shown are more like a Mrs. Fields or another airport brand than the usual commercially-wrapped package (or candy bar) described in other versions. The word "packet" seems closer to British versions than US versions.

(Editor: Variants of this slide show, including at least one that was combined with music for YouTube, are currently popular on the Internet).

Texting the Dead
Publorians/the Editor

The day after Christmas, 2008 (an appropriate time for ghost stories), members of the Publore listserv ( exchanged stories about unusual communications with the dead. The first submission, from Richard Vidutis, follows:

Dead Ringers: Including Cell Phones In Casket Growing Trend

Cell Phones Included In Funeral Plans

ThePittsburghChannel.Com (December 24, 2008)

PITTSBURGH - It's a new trend that has people talking. Families are now burying loved ones with cell phones in an effort to feel close to the person who has passed on. For thousands of years people have been buried with meaningful items from their life.

"People have been buried with decks of cards, golf clubs. One woman had her bingo chips. So there have been many different things that people have sent with their loved ones," said funeral director Frank Perman.

Perman said the family of a young man who recently died wanted their loved one buried with his cell phone. They even charged the battery and turned it on so he could receive messages.

It's not exactly what some people would call resting in peace.

"We knew messages were coming through because the cell phone would light up… It was important for them that it be there, and his friends were texting him, and they ended up burying the cell phone with him," Perman said.

While cell phones may be the latest craze, Perman said the concept is nothing new.

"It's not so much a fad. People have always been buried with something that important to them or important in their lives," said Perman.

A recent survey of 100,000 people found the top funeral rite request was to be cremated with a pet's ashes. To be buried with a cell phone comes in at No. 2. In third place, which some might say should be first place, is to make sure that they're really dead.

As for the future, Perman said he expects to see more people finding room in their final resting place for technological gadgets.

"I fully expect to see more people with iPods and BlackBerries and with cell phones," said Perman.

Perman said they cannot cremate any type of electronic device as the battery will explode. What they can do is place a device in the urn with the ashes.

Carol Burke, writing from the Green Zone in Iraq, responded to Richard’s posting on the same day: Yes, and there's the Mary Baker Eddy legend that she was buried with a phone in her casket.  I first heard this in the late 1960's. A quick check of Snopes revealed that the Barbara and David Mikkelson have devoted a section of their website, Phone Call from the Grave, to this legend about Mary Baker Eddy.

Since cell phones are so popular now, it seems natural that people expect to call and text-message deceased loved ones. We will probably see a growing number of legends about dead friends and relatives who have sent messages back from beyond the grave. Contributions on this subject would be welcome!

Penis Shrinkers in West Africa
Elizabeth Tucker

From 1972 to 1974, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the small town of Guiglo and then in the capital city of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. Abidjan is such a large, cosmopolitan city that it has earned the nickname the Paris of Africa. My small apartment in Abidjan’s Cocody neighborhood became a gathering place for Ivorian, French, and American friends. Some friends described amazing events that they had recently witnessed. Since I did not know much about folklore at that point in my life, I did not think of my friends’ stories as legends; they just seemed to be accounts of odd things that had happened.

Most of the stories told by my friends in Abidjan featured féticheurs, also known as sorciers (sorcerors or workers of magic). My Peace Corps friend George told me that he had visited a féticheur to ask how to get out of an invitation from the United States government to join the Army. Shortly after his visit to the féticheur, President Richard M. Nixon abolished the draft. Another American friend (a traveler, not a Peace Corps volunteer) described an encounter with a féticheur who had split a boulder in half by calling down lightning from the sky on a sunny day. Along with other eager listeners, I marveled at these strange occurrences.

The most interesting story concerned a féticheur who frequented Abidjan’s open-air market, looking for men who would pay him 5,000 CFA (Central African Francs). I never saw this worker of magic, but my Peace Corps friend Bill told me about seeing him at the market one day. Boldly approaching a man standing nearby, this féticheur had announced, Your penis has disappeared. Immediately, the man had opened the drawstring of his trousers and made an exclamation of horror. Give me 5,000 CFA! the féticheur had demanded. Without a word of protest, his victim had paid up.

Listening to Bill’s narrative and watching his dramatization of key gestures—opening the drawstring of his pants and reaching into a pocket for money—I wondered how it could be possible for a féticheur to perform such an act of magic. Did men go through some sort of bodily change, or were they just scared? I did not know the answers to those questions. Recent scholarship on rumors, legends, and gossip has made some issues clearer and introduced others. Luise White’s
Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (2000) raises some important questions about sharers of rumor and gossip:

What counts as experience and what counts as fantasy? How are the two to be distinguished? Can accounts of the real ever fully purge themselves of the fantastic, especially when the fantastic contains debates about the real? And how would people report things that do not conform to their own norms of experience? (66-67).

Cultural difference inevitably affects one’s response to a story, as does openness to new possibilities or refusal to accept unfamiliar perceptions.

In summarizing narratives recalled from my Peace Corps days, I have used the phrase accounts of odd things that had happened. This phrase emphasizes my perception of strangeness, as well as my impression that unusual events had actually taken place. Someone who had grown up in Cote d’Ivoire would almost certainly have described these narratives in different terms. In her analysis of rumor and gossip in colonial northern Rhodesia, Luise White explains that the Bemba word for rumor, talk, and conversation is the same, ilyashi. It refers to how people exchanged information, not the credibility of that information (57). If I had been doing folklore fieldwork in Cote d’Ivoire instead of teaching English, I would have asked Ivorians to tell me as much as they could about féticheurs’ assaults on men’s virility.

How can we classify assaults of this kind? The phrase voleur de sexe [thief of a sexual organ] comes up fairly often in reports of such incidents. While the English term organ theft might seem appropriate, it already applies to legends about theft of kidneys and other body parts by criminal trickery, not by magic. Jean-Jacques Mandel, author of the illuminating essay Les rétrécisseurs de sexe: Chronique d’une rumeur sorci?re (2008) and a shorter version of the essay published in Geo magazine in 1998, uses the terms rétrécisseur [shrinker] and réducteur [reducer]. Since many of the legends and rumors end in discovery that the penis is still there, Mandel’s term shrinkers seems to be the best choice.

Narratives about removals of men’s sexual organs have a long lineage. In medieval Europe, people feared practitioners of magic who could interfere with men’s virility. The
Malleus Maleficarum of Jacobus Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer (1486) devotes an entire chapter to how, as it were, [witches] deprive man of his virile member (90-94). The authors of this witch-hunting treatise explain that witches can take away the male organ, not indeed by actually despoiling the human body of it, but by concealing it with some glamour (90). The male devil seems to have more power to harm men than female witches do, since when the devil by himself takes away a member, he does actually take it away, and it is restored when it has to be restored (94).

Jean-Jacques Mandel explains that rumors about penis shrinkers, identified by the medical term Koro (genital retraction), circulated in the nineteenth century (2008). Exploration of the literature on Koro reveals that it was first documented in 1865 in Guangdong, China. Keepers of medical records noted an epidemic of Koro in Singapore in 1967 (Chowdhury 41). Mandel identifies occurrences of Koro in Nigeria in the 1930s. He connects the emergence of rumors about penis shrinkers in Mali in 1993 to the beginning of the devaluation of the CFA. His specific exploration of the rumors that began in August of 1996 is based on conversations with policemen, magistrates, victims, witnesses, doctors, and others involved in the rumor-panic that rapidly spread through West Africa.

Some of the most interesting descriptions in Mandel’s study pertain to examination of alleged victims. Two young men accused a 72-year-old professor who had retired from a university in Ghana of shrinking their penises; following their accusations, a crowd began to lynch the elderly man. When the young men had a physical examination, the results of the exam were negative (2008: 207). This focus on physical evidence reminds us of magistrates’ search for physical clues of diabolical influence during the witch trials in late medieval Europe.

Mandel’s description of the spread of rumors about penis shrinkers in Cote d’Ivoire is rich in detail. Explaining that the rumor started circulating in Abidjan in February of 1997, he locates the first cases of disappearing penises near the Ghanaian border. Rumors spread through Cocody, Treichville, and other neighborhoods. After a while, people began to shout Il faut braiser les Haoussas! [We should burn the Hausas]. As a result of this outcry, a number of innocent people were lynched or burned alive. Victims’ statements appeared in newspapers, and sales of protective powders and amulets skyrocketed in the outdoor markets (2008:189-190).

How can we interpret these frenzied attacks on suspected attackers of men’s or boys’ virility? Florence H. Ridley, Jan Harold Brunvand, Richard M. Dorson, Bill Ellis, Janet Langlois, Michael P. Carroll, and other folklorists have analyzed the legend of The Castrated Boy, in which a little boy is violently castrated in a women’s restroom. In his essay De Legendis Urbis: Modern Legends in Ancient Rome (1983), Bill Ellis connects the Castrated Boy legend to Blood Libel legends circulating in ancient Rome as early as 63 B.C. In some Blood Libel variants, Jews kill babies and drink their blood; in others, Christians do the same thing. Ellis notes that legends of this kind circulated in Rome and possibly in North Africa during the latter half of the 2nd century (203). He identifies four basic characteristics of these legends: (1) they spread rapidly as accounts of actual, recent happenings; (2) official investigations found no firsthand witnesses and no factual substantiation for any of the stories; (3) the culprits were ethnic, religious, or political groups rising in prominence; and (4) the stories expressed the existing anxieties and taboos of the established majority rather than the knowledge of the scapegoated group (201).
Carroll’s essay ’The Castrated Boy’: Another Contribution to the Psychoanalytic Study of Urban Legends provides a useful summary of this legend’s history, noting that [this legend] is associated with a considerable amount of quite evident anxiety among those who believe it (1987: 216). Although Carroll suggests that this legend does not always reflect fear of ’despised’ minorities, he makes it clear that many variants blame a black man for a white boy’s castration (216). The Castrated Boy legend reflects anxiety about race-based violence as well as fear of genital mutilation that destroys a young man’s sexuality.

This focus on danger from a racial Other matches Mandel’s observations during the rumor-panic of 1996-97. Demands to burn Hausas in Cote d’Ivoire show, he suggests, that l’Autre est devenu le Diable [the Other has become the Devil] (2008: 190). In other West African nations, similar fears result in development of xenophobia. Mandel quotes seekers of justice: A mort les étrangers, tuons tous les niaks, ce sont tous les sorciers! [Death to strangers, kill the niaks, all of them are sorcerors!] (191).

Fear of the Other does not, however, explain everything that happened during the rumor-panic in the late 1990s. Drawing upon interviewees’ statements, Mandel persuasively argues that social inequalities, economic crises, and nationalism, as well as the fear of global war, have caused people to seek scapegoats. He asks, Un virus est il en train de s’insinuer dans nos sociétés comme une forme modern de ré-enchantement du monde annon?ant l’av?nement messianique d’un croquemitaine globale? [Is a virus insinuating itself into our societies like a modern form of re-enchantment of the world, announcing the messianic arrival of a global bogeyman?] (2008: 207).

As frightening figures, penis shrinkers reflect complex problems with no simple solutions. Like people accused of practicing witchcraft in the Middle Ages, men who seem capable of destroying virility provoke extreme fear in our current era. Although legend scholarship covers this subject quite well, we still have much to learn about how such rumor-panics develop.


I want to thank Véronique Campion-Vincent for sending me some helpful publications that made it possible for me to write this essay.


 Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Choking Doberman and Other New Urban Legends. New York: Norton, 1984.

Carroll, Michael P. ’The Castrated Boy’: Another Contribution to the Psychoanalytic Study of Urban Legends.
Folklore 98:2 (1987): 216-25.

Chowdhury, Arabind N. The Definition and Classification of Koro.
Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 20 (1996): 41-65.

Dorson, Richard M.
Land of the Millrats. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Ellis, Bill. De Legendis Urbis: Modern Legends in Ancient Rome.
Journal of American Folklore 96 (1983): 200-208.

Langlois, Janet. Urban Legends and the Faces of Detroit.
Michigan Folklife Reader, ed. Kurt C. Dewhurst and Yvonne R. Lockwood. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1987, 107-120.

Mandel, Jean-Jacques. Le myst?re des réducteurs de sexe.
Geo 233 (1998): 51-58.

______. Les rétrécisseurs de sexe: Chronique d’une rumeur sorci?re.
Cahiers d’Études africaines 48:1-2 (2008): 185-208.

Ridley, Florence H. A Tale Told Too Often.
Western Folklore 26 (1967): 153-56.

Summers, Montague, tr.
Malleus Maleficarum, London: The Folio Society,1968.

White, Luise.
Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2000.

Global Links
Brian Chapman
The Star [Malaysia] | 13 December 2008

 Citizen's Blog
Mystery tunnels in Ipoh
Posted by: victorchew46
Search for a Tunnel in Ipoh

I read the article on the tunnel between the Ipoh Town Hall and the High Court with interests and as an Ipohite I wish to draw the attention of Mr. Kulasegaran (MP Ipoh Barat) to look into another possible one linking Ipoh Convent and SMI Ipoh [St. Michael's Institution, a boys' school. -- bc].
This rumour has been going on for a long time but the actual existence is still a mystery to former SMI and Convent students!

Ipoh is surrounded by limestone hills and sitting on top of a large layer of limestone rock bed.  There are definitely lots of underground streams creating tunnels and some may even be dry ones.  Maybe, with Mr. Kulasegaran's help, the Malaysian Nature Society and the Karst Society can team up to look for these tunnels and exploit them for eco-tourism for Ipoh in particular and Perak as a whole.

Sunday Sun [UK] | 14 December 2008

Cliff Richard rumour poo-pooed
by Ken Oxley,
Sunday Sun

IT'S hard to believe Sir Cliff Richard was ever serious about appearing in the next series of Celebrity Big Brother.

But the story that he has apparently pulled out because programme makers refused to give him a private toilet won't do anything to dispel a persistent rumour that has followed him for decades.

[Cliff Richard supposedly had a colostomy.]

Gazette-Times [Corvallis, OR] | 10 December 2008

The case of the buried OSU jersey

Rumors suggest Beavers gear may have been placed under Oregon's new baseball field

By Brooks Hatch
Gazette-Times reporter

Oregon State and Oregon won't revive their long-dormant baseball rivalry until March 27.

But the first beanball in the revived horsehide Civil War may have already been thrown. Rumors have been rampant the past month or so that several Beaver Believers secretly buried an OSU jersey or a commemorative Back-to-Back National Championships T-shirt in the ground underneath the PK Park playing surface.

If they did, it wasn't hidden near home plate. Oregon senior associate athletic director Joe Giansante said Wednesday that area was excavated on Dec. 5, just to make sure no Beavers memorabilia would sully the Ducks'
new ballpark.

Scotland on Sunday | 13 December 2008

Glitter sparks Moray madness

HE HAS gone from being a revered pop idol to one of Britain's most reviled sex offenders, writes Mark Horne. But Gary Glitter caused widespread alarm in a small corner of rural Scotland without a shred of evidence he had even been there.

A string of 'sightings' of the convicted paedophile along the Moray coastline have been reported recently. So strong were the rumours that officials at the alternative-lifestyle Findhorn Foundation searched their premises to find him.

During the spate of spurious sightings, Glitter - real name Paul Gadd - was 'seen' shopping in Forres, attempting to gain sanctuary at the Findhorn Foundation, and even eating egg and chips at Asda in Elgin.

Mormon Times | 15 December 2008

Book version 'full' of Mormon myths

By Lynn Arave
Deseret News

First there was the DVD on "Mormon Myth-ellaneous," and now there's a new 244-page book available on the same subject.

Written by J. Michael Hunter, the $15.95 book is published by Covenant Communications.
Ananova [UK] | 15 December 2008

Man's pet 'dog' was rare fox

A Chinese man was shocked to discover the dog he had raised from a pup was actually a rare Arctic fox.

Zhang, of Tunkou, bought what he thought was an all-white Pomeranian dog for 60 [pounds] a year ago on a business trip.

Financial Times [London] | 16 December 2008

His elusive Bobness
By Brian Groom

Does your vicinity have an urban legend attached to it? One of my favourites is about Bob Dylan and Crouch End.

The story has it that the singer once arrived by taxi in the fashionable London suburb to visit a recording studio owned by his friend Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. The driver dropped him in the wrong street; Mr Dylan knocked at the door and asked for Dave. By coincidence, a plumber lived there who was also called Dave. The  singer was told that Dave was out but invited to wait and have tea.
When the plumber returned he asked his wife if there were any messages. "No," she said, "but Bob Dylan's in the living room."

Several details of this story do not ring true (a plumber living in Crouch End?) and there are many variants. Banners, a local cafe, has a plaque marking where Mr Dylan allegedly sat to eat breakfast in 1993.

Haaretz [Israel] | 17 December 2008

Rumor of deadly Bamba snack brings down Osem stock

By Ayala Tsoref, TheMarker Correspondent

A malicious and false email announcing that a substance in the peanut-based snack "Bamba" caused a recent spate of mysterious infant deaths has caused the stocks of the product's manufacturer Osem to plummet.
Haaretz [Israel] | 16 December 2008

Spate of mysterious infant deaths prompts health ministry investigation

By Ran Reznick

The Health Ministry has launched an investigation into the sudden deaths in the past month of four babies and the severe illness of two others.

British Medical Journal | 17 December 2008

BMJ 2008;337:a2768

Rugby (the religion of Wales) and its influence on the Catholic church: should Pope Benedict XVI be worried?

Gareth C Payne, specialist registrar in clinical neurophysiology[1], Rebecca E Payne, general practitioner[2], Daniel M Farewell, MRC/WAG training fellow in health services research/health of the public[3]

Objective To explore the perceived wisdom that papal mortality is related to the success of the Welsh rugby union team.

British Medical Journal | 17 December 2008

BMJ 2008;337:a2873

Coca-Cola douches and contraception

Deborah J Anderson, professor of obstetrics/gynaecology and microbiology, lecturer in medicine

Deborah Anderson explains why women really shouldn't rely on Coca-Cola for family planning .
The Des Moines Register [IA] | 19 December 2008

Police, schools to probe tales of 'pill parties' in Urbandale

Urbandale police and school officials will investigate rumors of so-called "pharm" parties at which students exchange prescription drugs, sometimes stolen from their parents' medicine cabinets.

Also known as "fish bowl" parties, the gatherings have allegedly featured high-strength painkillers, anti-anxiety medications and stimulants, often washed down with alcohol.

Book Reviews

Stefaan Top, Op verhaal komen. Moderne sagen en geruchten uit Vlaanderen. Leuven, Uitgeverij Davidsfonds NV, 2008. 264 pp.

One day, a carcass was found in the middle of the road. It turned out to be a dead monkey that had fallen out of a van. Investigating this case, the police found out the van came from the zoo of Antwerp and was on its way to a hotdog factory (79).

This contemporary legend was taken down in Flanders in 2006 from a seventeen-year-old boy called Dennis. The narrative, of course, suggests that hotdogs contain meat we do not want to eat. The story started its career over here when it was first published in Dutch in 1978 by Ethel Portnoy (1927-2004) in a book called Broodje Aap,
1 which means ‘monkey burger’ – in Dutch the term Broodje Aap has become a pars pro toto for all tall tales and urban legends. Portnoy actually imported the story from New York, where she had lived for many years: her version of the story is situated in The Bronx. In 1978 a hotdog was still a typical American snack and hard to come by in the Low Countries. This specific monkey burger story has not been found in oral tradition much, but Stefaan Top was able to publish a specimen.

Op verhaal komen. Moderne sagen en geruchten uit Vlaanderen is the sixth and final part in a Flemish series of legends, published by Top. The predeceding parts are filled with traditional legends from the five provinces of Flanders,
1 the sixth part contains "modern legends and rumours" from all over Flanders (the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium).

Stefaan Top is one of the scholars who witnessed the birth of the ISCLR in Sheffield in 1982. From that moment on, he started collecting clippings and encouraging students from the university of Leuven to write down and collect contemporary legends. In 1990 he reports about the progress being made, and in both FOAFtale News and Fabula,
2 he promises that an anthology of collected ‘urban legends’ will soon appear. We had to wait until 2008, but in the meantime Top was able to profit from the fieldwork performed by his students. Op verhaal komen contains one collection dating back to 1982, and Top only used one story from it. Three other collections date from the nineties, but no less than fifteen collections were made between 2000 and 2007. This means that most of the Flemish contemporary legends published have been taken down quite recently. No material has been published before.

Apart from some corrections and the addition of titles, Stefaan Top did not rework or rewrite the tales. Unlike popular editions of folktales that present one 'representative' version of the story, Top regularly prints more versions in full, which gives us a proper impression of the variability without the reader getting bored. The experts will recognize a lot of tales we give names like the Vanishing Hitchhiker, the Scuba Diver in the Tree, the Razor Blades in the Water Slide, the Exploding Toilet, the Peanut Butter Surprise Party, Aids Harry, Aids Mary, Superhero Hijinks, Indecent Exposure, the Kidney Heist, the Licked Hand and so forth. Although most of the material is quite recent, in comparison to Peter Burger’s latest book De Jacht op de Veluwepoema
2 there are some delicate topics missing, like the attacks of September 11, acts of terrorism, Muslim aggression and Flemish nationalist movements like Vlaams Blok / Vlaams Belang. Stories about a wolf running around in Waasland that has never been captured are only mentioned in the comments (214-215), but none is published. Another delicate topic was unevitable though: the Flemish stories about the Angelic Smile3 (176-178), in which a youth gang mutilates girls who try to avoid a group rape. Most of the time the stories have an ethnic component, because the victims are supposed to have been white girls, while the boys are said to be North-Africans. This racist element is almost completely lacking in Top’s book: only in one of the four versions, it is mentioned that the gang consists of dark men. There is only one other tale in the book in which a group of violent men is identified as Moroccan (210). Another recently circulating tale is published in two versions: the tale of the mentally challenged boy who steals a penguin from the zoo (166-167). In his comments, Top supposes that this Flemish tale - taken down in 2007 - is not well known abroad (229), but the tale already hit the Dutch media in the summer of 20065, and had been circulating in England and the US at the end of 2005.
Almost all the storytellers in Top’s book are adolescents, between the ages of fourteen and twenty
2, whereas their stories are indeed about the proverbial friend of a friend a lot. On the basis of his own book, Top comes to the following division of sources mentioned by the storytellers themselves:

Friends, neighbours, other people: 32%
Media: 21%
Family: 20%
School: 13%
Clubs: 10%
‘Personal experience’: 3%

Top concludes that no less than 79% of the tales are still transmitted orally (p. 234), which falsifies the somewhat pessimistic idea that the natural habitat of the ‘urban legend’ would be the Internet these days. As far as the media are concerned, not only the Internet is mentioned, but radio and tv as well. Storytellers specifically remember the popular Flemish television series about ‘urban legends’ called Sterke Verhalen [Tall Tales], by Luk Wyns. At least one tale describes a scene from the American movie Urban Legend (1998) – the young storyteller just mentions film as her source (199-200). It is surprising to see how few newspapers are mentioned.

Top encountered the usual problems in contemporary legend research. For instance: the story about the truckdriver having sex with a nun who turns out to be a transvestite (52), is that a legend or a joke? It all depends on the intention of the narrator. In this case the storyteller presented the tale when he was asked for an urban legend. Another question is: is it a legend or is it true? The story of the old lady eating crisps and choking on a pug (a collectible toy coin) inside the bag has the features of a contaminated food story (or a silly old lady story), but in this case it really happened in Flanders in the mid-nineties.

Then there are the stories told in the first person. Some of them are memorates for sure, giving awkward interpretations of experienced facts. Other stories look more like cases of proto-ostension:
7 appropriations of existing tales, told as if they happened to the narrators themselves. And then there is the ‘Anti-Sage’ resembling the shaggy dog story, like the tale of the babysitter who spills some Coca Cola on the floor and repeatedly gets scary phone calls about the stain and the consequences. In the end the doorbell rings and there is… a salesman selling cleaning products (92) ! The tale is a ridiculization of the Man Upstairs-versions.

Some stories hardly have a plot, and Top classifies them as rumours. Here is one example, told by seventeen-year-old Thomas: A crocodile is supposed to wander around in the sewers of Paris; when he was still a child, Louis XIV had flushed it down the toilet (80).

Finally, I found one story that is a retelling of a literary short story. It is the tale of a man who developed a taste for consuming his own flesh. This cannibal chopped off two of his legs and one of his arms. He visits a friend to ask him to chop off the last limb (95-96). This short story was written in 1973 in the form of the diary of a physician by the Dutch author Belcampo (pseudonym for Herman Pieter Schönfeld Wichers, 1902-1990). I have not found this story in oral tradition before.

If you do not ask for specific legends, often enough you will not get them. This can be a problem in legend research. Top shows that there are many stories to be found on topics like police alcohol testing, wedding pranks, chain mail and contacting ghosts with a ouija board or a glass (34, 64-67, 111-136, 143-145, 205-207). In my view, one of the best decisions Stefaan Top made is to include all kinds of stories about the supernatural (and the extra-terrestrial). In the past, contemporary legends have been defined as "primarily non-supernatural, secular narratives" (31), and in his introduction, Top himself states the following: "In contemporary legends the religious element is completely lacking, in extreme contrast to the folk-legends in which the role of the church was most relevant" (41, note 81). Surely the influence of Christian doctrine is diminishing rapidly, belief in the supernatural on the other hand is not (which is a form of religious behaviour as well). Flemish fieldworkers inquiring for the supernatural obtained a tremendous number of tales in response, dealing with revenants (105-106, 137-143), summoned souls (111-136) and extra-terrestrials (the modern substitutes for devils, angels, saints or gods; 107-111). Stefaan Top's book proves that the stories are there in abundance, and that if they are lacking in other anthologies, they have just been filtered out by the collectors. That the modern supernatural tales are in fact reworkings of traditional legends cannot be a valid argument anymore, since we know that a lot of secular 'urban legends' have a notable past as well.

The text edition by Top is embedded in a scientific account, consisting of an introduction (22-42), comments (212-243), sources (244-245), survey form (246), bibliography (247-254) and indexes (255-263). I could not help noticing that in the introduction, Top creatively quotes Gillian Bennett on the difference between traditional and comtemporary legends: "(traditional) legend implies a long-lived story about the past told by elderly people living in remote rural places, told as true but inherently fictional". Then there are the "contemporary legends, [they] reflect the fears and anxieties of a particular age or are cautionary tales warning of modern dangers" (23). In the first quote Bennett actually deals with the old-fashioned folklorists' view on legends in general, in the second quote Bennett starts with the words "I do not concur with the common view that these stories are also contemporary in the sense that..."

In the comments, the texts are being confronted with each other - unfortunately this confrontation sometimes remains a bit of an enumeration of stories we have already read, while the interpretation may be a bit shallow or too popular at times. For instance, Top states that ghosts re-entered folk narrative, while in fact they never left. While Top considers belief in the supernatural a form of "irrational thinking", I would rather opt for spiritual or magical thinking (223, cf 234). I do admit ghosts have become a hype again in the age of Harry Potter, and that they lost most of their Christian context. However, the idea of a spiritual life after death has in fact not been abandoned by many.

In dealing with stories about students hazing freshmen, Top sees a connection with a loss of moral standards among students (232). Perhaps I am too much of an optimist when I think the situation is rather getting better than worse. At least the stories cannot be taken as proof for either view, only as a narrative image outsiders have created of students and their supposedly gruesome initiation rites. More than cultural facts, contemporary legends reflect cultural feelings.

However, these are details, for we should first and foremost be content with the fact that Stefaan Top - after keeping us waiting for quite a while - managed to publish this rich and valuable Flemish folktale material. We do need to keep in mind that this book firmly roots in the research tradition that above all considers legends to be folk literature, not so much folk behaviour.
I would like to finish with the quotation and interpretation of another interesting tale from the collection:

In our neighbourhood there lives a family, and a few years ago the mother had an abortion. She now claims that she is being haunted by the ghost of a little girl with long blonde hairs. She suspects it is her daughter (139).

The story can be interpreted as another example of belief in the existence of an afterlife and of restless souls returning in order to seek contact with the living. At the same time, the story of the little girl's apparition - either true or imaginative - can be regarded as a manifestation or projection of the mother's bad conscience.

Theo Meder
Meertens Institute, Amsterdam


Ethel Portnoy: Broodje Aap.
De folklore van de post-industri?le samenleving. Amsterdam 1978 (10th impression, 1992, p. 116).
2 Stefaan Top: Op verhaal komen - Limburgs sagenboek. Leuven 2004; idem: Op verhaal komen - Vlaams-Brabants sagenboek. Leuven 2005; idem: Op verhaal komen - West-Vlaams sagenboek. Leuven 2005; idem: Op verhaal komen - Oost-Vlaams sagenboek. Leuven 2006; idem: Op verhaal komen - Sagen uit de provincie Antwerpen. Leuven 2007.
3 S. Top: 'Modern Legends in the Belgian Oral Tradition: A Report', in: Fabula 31 (1990), pp. 272-278; idem: in: FOAFtale News 17 (1990), pp. 3-6.
4 Peter Burger: De Jacht op de Veluwepoema. Sagen en geruchten uit het moderne leven. Amsterdam 2006.
5 In the Netherlands the gang was called the Smiley Gang. The narratives are related to the Chelsey Smile tales. See: Peter Burger: ‘De sage van de Smileybende. Vertelfolklore, nieuws en morele paniek rond groepsverkrachtingen’, in: cULTUUR. Tijdschrift voor etnologie 4 (2006), pp. 40-55.
6 Annemiek Verbeek: ‘Broodje aap in 2006: kind steelt pingu?n uit Artis’, in: Het Parool, 25 July 2006.
7 Only two stories come from women aged 61 and 76 (pp. 103, 173). The 61-year-old Emilliene told the longest story in the book, about her son being confronted with a mysterious satanic sect in Italy (pp. 98-103).
8 L. Dégh: Narratives in society: a Performer-Centered Study of Narration. Helsinki 1995, pp. 250-253; B. Ellis: Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults. Legends We Live. Jackson 2001, p. 163; T. Meder: 'Proto-ostension. De primeurs in Hoeven en de mediamieke gaven van een kroongetuige', in: T. Meder: In graancirkelkringen. Een etnologisch onderzoek naar verhalen uit de grenswetenschap. Amsterdam 2006, pp. 281-302.
9 It looks like proto-ostension can be found on pp. 73-74, 93, 142, but - because of a lack of more contextual data - one can never be sure.
10 Gillian Bennett: Bodies. Sex, Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend. Jackson 2005, pp. ix and xiii.

The following review is reprinted from
Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore 34:3-4 (fall-winter 2008) with the kind permission of the journal’s editor. For more information about Voices and the New York Folklore Society, please visit

Urban Legends: A Collection of International Tall Tales and Terrors,
edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007. xxi + 343 pages, appendix, indexes, $85.00 cloth.

Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith, editors of the Perspectives on Contemporary Legend series and subsequent works that have significantly influenced legend scholarship, present a splendid range of legend texts in this entertaining, well-organized volume. Unlike Jan H. Brunvand’s alphabetically arranged
Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (2002), this book has nine sections: City Life, Horror, Accidents, Fate, and Chance, The Body and Disease, Animals, Sex and Nudity, Merchandise, Murder, Death, and Burial, and The Supernatural. Each section includes source material that demonstrates the legend’s dissemination and adaptability to social conditions.

The editors’ introduction explains that legends have been recently told and are clothed in modern dress but have, in many cases, a long lineage. The Blood Libel Legend, for example, originated in the Middle Ages. In contrast to folktales, which are sometimes known as fairy tales, legends do not feature fabulous beasts, enchanted forests, witches and magicians, ghosts and fairies, set in a fantasy world (xvi). Featuring unusual content in an everyday setting, legends may inspire belief or partial belief, but it is usually difficult to determine whether they are true or false. Such determinations seem unimportant, as stories are valuable and exciting regardless of their truth value (xx).

Bennett and Smith provide a short history of legend studies; while this history could be somewhat longer, it covers the field’s milestones effectively. Noting that folklorists have done the most assiduous legend research, the editors list other fields in which scholars have pursued legend studies, including anthropology, business, communications, English language and literature, history, and parapsychology. Wisely, the editors do not emphasize legend theory; the nine sections contain just the right amount of contextual information and interpretation, as well as suggestions for further reading.

Section one, City Life, presents a number of legends that have circulated widely, both in Europe and in the United States. Alligators in the Sewers, for example, has amused and frightened Americans and Europeans since the early 1980s. Articles from Paris newspapers show how seriously French citizens took this legend in the 1980s and 1990s; films and literary works have been shaped by its variants (3). Other legends discussed in this section include The March of the Sewer Rats, The Mutilated Shopper, The Grateful Terrorist, Roaming Gnomes, and The Severed Fingers.

Section two, Horror, covers some of the most hair-raising stories told by preadolescents and adolescents, including The Boyfriend’s Death, The Hook, and The Roommate’s Death. Little Alf’s Stamp Collection, a
wartime horror legend told by adults, first appeared in England in 1917 (68). Some of the titles in this section differ from the ones most familiar to American storytellers; The Doggie-Lick, for example, more commonly bears the title Humans Can Lick Too in the United States.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is section four, The Body and Disease, which reflects Bennett’s expertise in that area. The editors go into considerable depth on the subject of AIDS aggressors, with stories
about kisses, bites, sputum, mirrors, caskets, and needles. They also closely examine legends about stolen body parts, among which are baby parts, eyes, and kidneys. One of my favorite body legends, The Tapeworm Diet, is well represented, with variants from France, England, and the United States.

Another section that presents intriguing variants of popular legends is The Supernatural, which includes The Devil at the Disco, The Ghost in Search of Help for a Dying Man, Mary Whales I Believe in You, and The Vanishing Hitchhiker. Since The Vanishing Hitchhiker is one of the
oldest and best documented legends, it is good to see that the editors chose to include six examples of its variant forms, including The Coat on the Grave, Jesus on the Thru’way, and The Double Prophecy. Ghostlore aficionados like me might hope to see even more ghost legends, but the book has eight other sections, so the selection of texts has limits.

A helpful appendix provides a list of urban legends in film and literature; there is also a list of online resources and suggested readings. Since the book includes separate indexes for urban legend titles, urban legends on film, and urban legends in literature, it is easy to find whatever information one needs.

Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith have produced an outstanding sourcebook for legend scholars and general readers. Their carefully arranged selection of legend texts reminds us how consistent legend patterns can be, even
though each story has its own content and context. As they aptly observe, The world around us is altering all the time, but fear and laughter will always be with us, and will lead us to continue to swap our stories of the weird, the wonderful, the absurd, and the terrifying (xx).

Elizabeth Tucker
Binghamton University

Publishers’ Abstracts

Goldstein, Diane E., Sylvia Ann Grider, and Jeannie Banks Thomas. Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2007. Illustrations, notes, index.

Ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are widely represented throughout modern culture. They can be found in any number of entertainment, commercial, and other contexts, but popular media or commodified representations of ghosts can be quite different from the beliefs people hold about them, based on tradition or direct experience. Personal belief and cultural tradition on the one hand, and popular and commercial representation on the other, nevertheless continually feed each other. They frequently share space in how people think about the supernatural. In Haunting Experiences, three well-known folklorists seek to broaden the discussion of ghost lore by examining it from a variety of angles in various modern contexts. Diane E. Goldstein, Sylvia Ann Grider, and Jeannie Banks Thomas take ghosts seriously, as they draw on contemporary scholarship that emphasizes both the basis of belief in experience (rather than mere fantasy) and the usefulness of ghost stories. They look closely at the narrative role of such lore in matters such as socialization and gender. And they unravel the complex mix of mass media, commodification, and popular culture that today puts old spirits into new contexts.

(Editor: Congratulations to Diane Goldstein, Sylvia Grider, and Jeannie Thomas for winning the Brian McConnell Prize in 2008! This is a wonderful book. I ordered it for my Folklore of the Supernatural class last fall; the students loved it).

Tucker, Elizabeth. Haunted Halls: Ghostlore of American College Campuses. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Illustrations, index of types and motifs, general index. $20.00.

Why do so many American college students tell stories about encounters with ghosts? In Haunted Halls, the first book-length interpretive study of college ghostlore, Elizabeth Tucker takes the reader back to school to get acquainted with a wide range of college spirits. Some of the best-known ghosts that she discusses are Emory University's Dooley, who can disband classes by shooting professors with his water pistol; Mansfield University's Sara, who threw herself down a flight of stairs after being rejected by her boyfriend; and Huntingdon College's Red Lady, who slit her wrists while dressed in a red robe. Gettysburg College students have collided with ghosts of soldiers, while students at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College have reported frightening glimpses of the Faceless Nun.

Tucker presents campus ghostlore from the mid-1960s to 2006, with special attention to stories told by twenty-first-century students through e-mail and instant messages. Her approach combines social, psychological, and cultural analysis, with close attention to students' own explanations of the significance of spectral phenomena. As metaphors of disorder, insanity, and school spirit, college ghosts convey multiple meanings. Their colorful stories warn students about the dangers of overindulgence, as well as the pitfalls of potentially horrifying relationships.

Besides offering insight into students' initiation into campus life, college ghost stories make important statements about injustices suffered by Native Americans, African Americans, and others.

Now would be a good time to check whether your membership is up-to-date for 2009. To renew your membership, send a check made out to "ISCLR" for US$40.00, UK£20, CAN $42.50, or E30 to Mikel J. Koven, Arts, Humanities and Social Science, University of Worcester, Henwick Grove, Worcester WR2 6AJ, UK. Thanks very much for your support of ISCLR!

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$40.00 or UK£20 to Mikel J. Koven, AHSS, University of Worcester, Henwick Grove, Worcester WR2 6AJ, UK. Institutional rates available upon request. Members also receive Contemporary Legend, a refereed academic journal. Back issues of FTN are available on-line at

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.

The opinions expressed in FOAFtale News are those of the authors and do not in any necessary way represent those of the editor, the contributors, the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, its Council, or its members.

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