Folklore

Folklore (or folklore studies, or folkloristics) is an academic discipline, a lot like cultural anthropology (though some folklorists, and most anthropologists, might disagree). The word “folklore” also refers to the specific things that folklorists study, which aren’t as obvious as you might think. Scholars have spent a lot of time arguing about what folklore is and what folklorists do, and even the official company line doesn’t shed much light on the matter. One folklorist might study quilts, while another studies “ethnic” cinema, and yet another studies Medieval saints’ legends. Many, many folklorists have tried to narrow down the field, but there’s really no consensus. [1] It’s frustrating on many levels, even as it’s liberating: in a very real sense, you can study just about anything you want under the heading of “folklore.”

For me, folklore is a point of entry into a larger discussion about an equally hazy concept, what we typically call culture. Folklore is any more-or-less cohesive thing–a story, a physical object, a song, a customary practice–which people create to be used in some way (be it for entertainment, utilitarian purposes, or anything else) which expresses something about the group of people who create and use it, and which at the same time  is constantly reimagined and remade by the individual or individuals who actually practice or live or speak or perform the thing in their daily lives. By considering these “things,” we can begin to move into a broader consideration of the systems of meaning that individuals and groups construct to make sense of their worlds. This is only a working definition, and it’s cobbled together from the sources already cited as well as my own experiences. It reflects my own take on a really tricky topic. It’s also highly subject to change.

Some of the first genres of folklore to be studied by professional folklorists were the narratives we typically refer to as myths, legends and folktales.[2] My own interests coincide with these early folklore studies to some extent: I’m particularly interested in supernatural legends and myths (hence my interest in horror film and literature). But it would be inaccurate to say that folklore is only stories. Stories arise and circulate within human groups, and they have no meaning without the cultural contexts in which they exist. They can take on new meanings in new contexts, of course. (In fact I and a colleague edited a book on this topic.) The point is that without human minds to give it meaning, no cultural product has meaning. Meaning is made by people, so people–folk–are the most important thing.

So, beginning with whatever form of folklore interests them, many folklorists then proceed to examine the ways in which the people they work with use folklore in their daily lives, for what purposes, and in what contexts. This is a lot like what anthropologists do, and in fact there’s a lot of theoretical overlap between folklore and cultural anthropology. I like to think of the two disciplines as very closely allied (though again, not everyone would agree with me), as both are concerned with human interactions and the social rules and assumptions that govern them. In the US, at least, folklore and anthropology share a common descent. Franz Boas, generally thought of as the pioneering figure in American anthropology, was also editor of the Journal of American Folklore.

(The history of folklore as a discipline, and what contemporary folklorists do, are of course much more complicated than this all suggests. For more information on folklore study in the US, see the American Folklore Society’s website.)

The horror genre makes ample use of particular types of folklore, most notably legends (particularly of the urban–or more properly, contemporary–variety). Supernatural legends are especially prevalent in horror, as anyone who has ever seen a horror movie ever can verify. Likewise, video games, especially those called survival horror, often include this kind of folklore. Besides offering film reviews, this blog is also an informal exploration of the interactions between “lived” folklore–by which I mean, very simply, stuff that real people do and say and think in the real world–and pop-culture uses of folklore. Folklore is often scary, and horror fiction, film and games use that inherent scariness to great effect. But you probably knew that already.


[1] See, for example: Ben-Amos, Dan. “Toward a Definition of Folklore in Context.” The Journal of American Folklore 84, no. 331 (January 1, 1971): 3–15; Toelken, Barre. “The Folklore Process.” In The Dynamics of Folklore, 23–47. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979; and Oring, Elliott, “On the Concepts of Folklore.” In Oring, ed. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1986), 1-22.
[2] See Oring, Elliott, “Folk Narratives.” In Oring, ed. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1986), 121-145.

3 thoughts on “Folklore

  1. So you mean myths and legends, I think, right? Supernatural beings, gods and demons, etc. Those are some of the genres I’m particularly interested in as well.

    The interesting thing is that “folklore” as a concept involves virtually any expressive act. TV shows and comic book conventions and high school club meetings and knitting circles–all of these things can be studied from the perspective of folklore. It doesn’t have to be old. Folklore, as we use the term, is very much a part of every human’s daily life.

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