Contemporary legends; or, “Give the people what they want!”

Some of my excellent readers and fellow-bloggers suggested, in response to my previous post, that I do something dealing with urban legends, and also something dealing with the pop culture/folklore relationship. Kudos to you, Lenora and fringevoid, for having great ideas and providing me with a much-needed excuse to do stuff other than the stuff I’m supposed to be doing.

Actually I see these two issues as being very closely related. Pop culture makes a lot of use of stuff that it refers to as “folklore.” I always give the example of the British guy from Buffy who always helped them figure out how to beat the monster of the week (I assume his name was Giles, but I don’t know for sure as I’m not a Buffy fan. Please be gentle with the death threats.).

That’s one popular image of folklore. But another is the idea of a legend–a noteworthy, often supernatural story that happened relatively recently, and is believed (or believable)–that has some bearing on the present-day world. This is the setup for approximately 75% of all horror films ever made, so it seems like a good place to begin talking about the issues suggested in the comments on my previous post.

This will probably be an ongoing thing, spread over a number of posts, so bear with me.

First off, take a quick look at my previous post where I outline the old standby definitions of narrative folklore genres according to a model provided by folklorist William Bascom. Folklorists tend to argue over the usefulness of these (and all) definitions a lot, and it’s important to note that while these categories can be useful for analysis, they don’t always pass muster with real people. But they help get us thinking about different kinds of narratives and other things that people actually do in their daily lives.

So we’ve got legends, which are stories told as true, set in historical times/real places, and which often have supernatural elements. This kind of narrative pops up in popular culture all the time (especially horror). The Haunting of Hill House, for example, features a mansion which is notoriously haunted, about which the locals tell all sorts of stories.

A related term that pops up precisely 1.7 bajillion times in pop culture is urban legend. This term is a weird one, and has baggage of its own that I’ll go into in a second. Urban legends were really popularized by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand. In The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981), Brunvand writes, “Urban legends … are realistic stories concerning recent events (or alleged events) with an ironic or supernatural twist” (xi). Probably the most significant characteristic of urban legends, for Brunvand, is that there’s no “gap” in time/space between the story and the person telling it (or if there is, it’s pretty small) (4).

Brunvand’s work is quite dated, and folklorists today tend to view things in very different terms. For one thing, Brunvand is at pains to point out how these types of stories are false, or at least, “not history” (xii). Generally most folklorists today wouldn’t venture a claim like that, for a lot of reasons (among them, who gets to decide what constitutes history?). He also argues, in his first chapter, that

All true folklore ultimately depends upon continued oral dissemination, usually within fairly homogeneous ‘folk groups,’ and upon the retention through time of internal patterns and motifs that become traditional in the oral exchanges. The corollary of this rule of stability in oral tradition is that all items of folklore, while retaining a fixed central core, are constantly changing as they are transmitted, so as to create countless ‘variants’ differing in length, detail, style, and performance technique. Folklore, in short, consists of oral tradition in variants. (3)

This tendency–to assume that folklore has to be oral, and that it’s limited to “homogeneous” groups–characterized a much earlier type of folklore scholarship. Today we view folklore from a  much more holistic perspective, and while group is often an important concept, it’s not limited to any one group (or kind of group)–but more on that another time. We also use the term contemporary legend in place of urban legend. There are several reasons for this, which are also going to have to wait for another post, as I’m fading pretty fast.

To be fair, I’ve never actually read the entire work, despite having used the first chapter in my undergrad courses more than once. And Brunvand does end chapter 1 on a high note, which is worth including here: “… [Y]our own oral versions of urban legends are every bit as ‘authentic’ as those previously collected by folklore scholars; after all, you are the folk who possess and transmit this genre of modern folklore” (16). Most folklorists today would agree–although we’d probably say “our” and “we” instead of “your” and “you.”

Incidentally, if you’ve ever seen this awful movie, a lot of this will sound familiar. Terrible as the film is, somebody did some homework. I show a clip from this in a lot of the folklore courses I teach. I think Robert Englund makes a pretty convincing folklorist.


Works Cited
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981, xi.

9 thoughts on “Contemporary legends; or, “Give the people what they want!”

  1. Writing posts on historical themes I keep coming across legends and folk-lore all of the time so its good to find out more about it, and that it is still a live process!

    Oh and I have been reading Huffford’s ‘Terror that comes in the night’ that you recommended to Miss Jessel (my co-conspirator on my blog!). Its great, although I have to say I do keep reading it very late at night and getting all creeped out by the case studies!! I am familiar with the concept of ‘hag ridden’ in relation to witchcraft but the Old Hag phenom described by Hufford is new to me and the intensity of the experiences described is astounding. Thanks for the great recommendation!

    • I’m glad you like it! Yeah, the Old Hag thing in general is pretty darn creepy. I had it happen one time not long after I’d watched “The Ring.” So naturally I felt there was a creepy little girl with long black hair trying to kill me. Pretty terrifying.

  2. Psshh, that author sounds like a tool.

    Surely, back in the day, “contemporary legends” were passed around orally from group to group, but today’s forum posters and Youtube uploaders have changed that. Now, today’s urban legends, such as those of The Slender Man and The Rake, are disseminated with viral videos and what-not, for people of all walks of life to “like” and re-post. Same goes for those pictures of giant pigs and sharks mauling helicopters.

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