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contemporary lore and legend

Bob Trubshaw

Based on a chapter in Explore Folklore

While on the one hand the phrase 'contemporary folklore' might seem almost tautological to American folklorists, whose studies of folklore almost entirely look at contemporary lore, the same phrase strikes many British ears as decidedly odd because the British idea of 'folklore' is popularly linked to an imagined lost rural idyll. Tales of people who had one of their kidneys stolen while on holiday indeed seem at odds with, say, eighteenth century ballad texts about maids in the heather meeting gallant gentlemen on fine white steeds.

This article is restricted to considering contemporary 'lore', both written and aural (elsewhere in Explore Folklore I look at contemporary folk song, dance and customs). The 'folk' of contemporary folklore are: 

    ... any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It does not matter what the linking factor is – it could be a common occupation, language or religion – but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own.
    (Dundes 1980: 6–7)
Groups can be as few as two people or as large as a nation. Not everyone in a group need know all the other members, but they will know the common core traditions belonging to the group. This 'common core tradition' is often a major component of the group identity. 'Large scale' examples of common traditions creating group identity include national identity – although all too often the highly emotionally-charged 'traditions' have little historical depth or accuracy.

Families build up considerable shared lore – usually framed by such opening words as 'Remember the time at Alan's wedding when… ' or derogatory references to absent members of the group with unfortunate habits, such as 'Don't do an Aunt Beth!'. Religious and ethnic groups are bound together by their common core traditions. But the most dynamic area of such group identity lore is that of occupational and leisure-interest groups. I think we can find it fairly easy to accept that the members of such traditional trades as deep-sea fishermen or coal miners shared common lore. But common lore bonds such modern-day occupations as diverse as computer programming, ambulance and fire crews, or professional footballers. Indeed every place of work has its own traditions and lore. In the same way, every leisure-time pursuit acquires its customs, traditions and other traits that bond members of that group together, whether they are anglers, surfers, golfers, bridge players, mountain bikers, members of an evening class, or just 'regulars' at a local pub.

We are all folk

So, from this perspective, we are all 'folk'. Indeed, unless we are exceptionally reclusive, we are all 'lots of folk', as we shift from one group to another in the course of a day. People in these folk groups have 'customary practices', although the participants would not consider themselves to be 'doing' folklore. Obvious examples include funerals, weddings and stag nights. For the purposes of this article the emphasis will be on the customary telling of 'tales' and jokes – although nicknames (both ones known to their 'owner' and scurrilous ones used only behind their back) are also a significant feature of many folk groups.

Indeed, jokes are often a key defining aspect of a group. The type of joke shared between 'the lads' after watching a football match would probably not be appropriate for a social evening to raise funds for a religious group. Context is often critical. Catholics may tell anticlerical jokes among themselves, but not to non-Catholics. Likewise, the best anti-Semitic jokes are said to be told by Jews themselves, but Gentiles normally only hear these from other non-Jews. Barre Toelken has suggested that up to 80 percent of the oral lore that bonds groups might be considered 'crude' or 'obscene' if heard out of context (Toelken 1996: 8). Tolerating or condoning humour that would be taboo in other contexts helps to define the folk group.

Although orally-transmitted jokes and tales are still paramount for bonding groups, as any office-based worker is well aware, when there is easy access to photocopiers or email then various forms of jokes are readily circulated. 'Photocopy lore' has been a genre of folklore studies for a number of years; those researching this genre now study how such tales are transmitted and adapted by email instead. Much of this humour follows the same lines as 'Top twenty reasons why chocolate is better than sex' (see below) – risqué but likely to be tolerated in most offices, perhaps because written from a female's perspective. Clearly these jokes usually originate from outside the group but the people who 'introduce' them to their groups make some deliberate decisions, not necessarily consciously, about who would be suitable recipients. This is typically people who are considered to share similar 'status' in the group or are considered to have a 'good sense of fun' – unwittingly the circulation list for such lore defines a group or subgroup.


Top twenty reasons why chocolate is better than sex

  1. You can get chocolate.
  2. "If you love me you'll swallow that" has real meaning with chocolate.
  3. Chocolate satisfies even when it has gone soft.
  4. You can safely eat chocolate when you are driving.
  5. You can make chocolate last as long as you want it to.
  6. You can have chocolate even in front of your mother.
  7. If you bite the nuts too hard the chocolate won't mind.
  8. Two people of the same sex can have chocolate without being called nasty names.
  9. The word "commitment" doesn't scare off chocolate.
  10. You can have chocolate on top of your desk during working hours without upsetting workmates.
  11. You can ask a stranger for chocolate without getting your face slapped.
  12. You don't get hairs in your mouth with chocolate.
  13. With chocolate there's no need to fake it.
  14. Chocolate doesn't make you pregnant.
  15. You can have chocolate at any time of the month.
  16. Good chocolate is easy to find.
  17. You can have as many kinds of chocolate as you can handle.
  18. You never too young or too old for chocolate.
  19. When you have chocolate it does not keep their neighbours awake.
  20. The chocolate, size doesn't matter, it's always good.


There is a long tradition of 'chain letters', which have now mutated into various email counterparts. Variants of these, very much creatures of our time, are the ever-mutating 'hoax' virus alerts, passed on in good faith by misguided computer 'newbies' (there are numerous Web sites devoted to publicising false virus warnings, although the organisers are rarely doing this for 'folkloristic' reasons). Email has become the 'natural home' of another 'tradition', that of spurious charity collection schemes. The best known of these in Britain started in 1989 when Craig Shergold, a nine year old suffering from a brain tumour, wanted to break the Guiness Book of Records for the number of get well cards received, then standing at about one million. Along the way the request mutated to include business cards. At the last count 350 million such cards had been received and they are still arriving at the rate of several thousand every day; Guiness have long-since closed the category. At least Craig Shergold was responsible for starting this saga, even he could never have predicted the unstoppable consequences. More typically such charity collections have no purpose at all. They date back to at least 1971, when a restauranteur in Kansas recruited Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to collect about eight million cigarette packages to help a dying girl obtain an iron lung; he later learned that there was no little girl, and no market for the empty packages (Lindahl 1996b: 79-80).

Oral narrative as performance

Orally-transmitted tales and jokes are still paramount for bonding groups, who form the 'folk' of contemporary folk lore studies. Such oral narratives are 'performed' for their listeners. To a large extent orally-transmitted folklore is entirely a subset of the performance of folklore. Vocal emphasis and numerous 'framing techniques' in the narrative style are employed (more-or-less self-consciously) by the teller to enliven the narrative. The storyteller is not only reporting an experience, but makes the telling of it into an experience for those listening.

Narrative techniques might be expected to make the events being described as comprehensible as possible. But in many cases the object of the telling is either to 'tell a tall one', where things are not as they seem to be and the concluding remarks 'reframe' previous assumptions, or there are other reasons for 'obscuring, hedging, confusing, exploring, or questioning what went on, that is, for keeping coherence or comprehensibility of narrated events open to question.' (Bauman 1986: 5).

Richard Bauman's study of personal experience narratives in a small Texan town (Bauman 1996) revealed complex and shifting contextual issues. Telling tall tales and other forms of what Bauman calls 'expressive lying' are combined with comic accounts of personal experiences and other ways of 'managing the point of view'. Bauman concludes that the cornerstones of these activities are 'story, performance and event' (1996: 112), and these are 'one of the most fundamental and potent foundations of our existence as social beings' (1996: 114).

FOAFs

There is much more to contemporary folklore than tales passed on within 'folk groups'. One genre is best-known to folklorists by its acronym 'FOAF', that is 'friend of a friend' tales. These are relatively short, usually plausible but rather improbable, stories that have the 'framing story' that starts 'A friend of a friend of mine... '. The 'friend of mine' might be named, if known to the listeners, but the 'friend of' typically remains anonymous. Often the doubly-anonymous FOAF opening alone adds sufficient 'veracity' to the tale.

The first FOAF tale to be studied by folklorists is known as the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker', although there are a number of variants. The four most common American versions are: 

1: An attractive young female hitchhiker is given a lift and gives the driver details of an address where she wants to go. At some point the driver suddenly discovers she has inexplicably vanished. The driver goes to the address given and is told that his passenger has been dead for some time.

2: A lift is given to an old woman who issues a prophecy or warning before disappearing. Later the driver and/or other passengers discover that the old woman is dead.

3: A young man meets a girl at a dance and gives her a lift home. She asks to be dropped off at a cemetery. Later he finds she is dead; however a personal item of his that he had given to the girl has been left on her grave.

4: An old lady carrying a basket is offer a ride and sooner-or-later disappears. Later the traveller(s) discover they have given a ride to the Hawaiian Goddess Pelee.

(Summaries based on Bennett 1998: 2)

The first folklorists to study this FOAF tale, Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey published details of 79 versions of the story they had discovered in America, mostly in the 1930s (cited in Bennett 1998: 1). The earliest known version of similar events greatly predates the modern notions of hitchhikers and dates to 1824. 'Token leaving phantoms' have even older roots.

Since the 1940s, versions of the story have been printed in a variety of newspapers and magazines worldwide, and the tale has mutated into a greater number of variants. However the ghostly protagonist is predominantly either an attractive young woman or a little old lady. Commonly the young woman is said to have died violently, often in a car accident at the place where she was picked up. A further twist may be that the event took place on the anniversary of her death.

Organ thieves

Whatever the tellers' and their listeners' beliefs are about the 'reality' of ghosts, the ubiquity of the 'Vanishing Hitchhiker' tales makes it easy for this to be recognised as 'just a story'. However FOAF tales also permutate into stories that initially appear plausible. So plausible that they appear in newspapers with 'actual' names to the protagonists – although follow up research reveals that they are fictional people. One such tale first appeared in the German tabloid Bild der Frau in September 1990. It recounted how a married man on holiday with his wife in Istanbul was 'kidnapped' by a seductive woman. He was drugged and woke the next day discover that one of his kidneys had been surgically removed, presumably for an organ transplant.

Although hotly denied by the Turkish authorities, the story spread rapidly through Germany and official warnings were issued to tourists and business travellers. At the same time the Australian press was reporting that Australians visiting Los Angeles, California, were falling victim to 'kidneynappers'. Within months examples of the tale were being collected from around the world. Variants of the tale started to appear, such as a young English woman travelling in India who was stricken with acute appendicitis. She consented to emergency surgery but, when back in Britain, the symptoms reappeared. She underwent further surgery when it was discovered that her appendix had not been removed in India, but one of her kidneys had (this appeared in The Observer 4 Dec 1994). Yet another variant reports the victim was an attractive woman shopping for clothes who is persuaded to go to the cellar of the shop or to a van out the back, where she is drugged and a kidney removed.

The tale has immediate precursors in accounts from the 1980s of the theft of body parts – typically kidneys or eyes – from babies and children in Latin America. Some versions of these tales report that the kidnappers are dressed as clowns. Such allegations led to official enquiries in Mexico in 1990 and 1992.

The tales are xenophobic in that they are situated in a Third World country. They incorporate common folkloric motifs as an attractive young woman (as seducer or victim) or adding a sinister element to an 'innocuous' figure such as a clown (in this the tales may be imitating examples of sinister gun-totting hijackers dressed as clowns in films).

Although organ transplants from living donors as well as from cadavers takes place throughout the world, and in some parts of the world donors may be paid for their organs (although in India legislation was passed to outlaw such 'rewarded gifting'), organ conservation needs sophisticated equipment that is improbable in the scenarios described. None of the official investigations or detailed follow-up research has found any truth in these tales. Nevertheless these rumours continue to spread, not least because tabloid journalists happily rework them in ignorance of the folkloristic aspects of the tales.

(All the above information on organ theft tales is taken from Campion-Vincent 1997 and Howe 2000.)

Contemporary legends

As these newspaper accounts of the organ theft 'FOAF tale' clearly show, such tales are not restricted to aural transmission. Variants of FOAF tales frequently appear in popular newspapers and magazines. FOAF tales are best considered part of a more general category of 'contemporary legends'. More or less the same scope of legends has also been referred to as 'belief legends', 'modern legends' and 'urban legends'. However, as Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith note, 'how does one measure the belief in a belief legend, establish beyond contradiction the modernness of a modern legend, or guarantee the urbanness of an urban legend?' (Bennett and Smith 1996: xxxix)

The way contemporary legends are told – both orally and in print – relies greatly on what is not said. Their interest is partly the way they are told, which forces recipients to assume the role of interpreters. This makes contemporary legends distinct – and distinctly modern. These 'elliptical plot structures', rather than the content itself, may even be their key defining feature. As an example of such 'elliptical' story telling, here is the summary of the so-called 'killer in the back seat' legend; the last line 'redefines' the preceding narrative:

    … a woman shopping late at night has forgotten to lock her car door. After reentering the car and driving off, she finds herself pursued by fearsome stranger in a truck: after several minutes of horrifying chase, the stranger reveals himself as a saviour in disguise. The real threat, indeed, with much close closer to her than the woman ever imagined. Conceal in the familiar confines of her car was a maniac; the truck driver had pursued a woman in order to protect her.
    (Lindahl 1996b: 82)

Contemporary legend studies

There has been a substantial number of articles and specific studies about aspects of contemporary legends. Despite this vitality there has been no recent overview of the research, with the exception of Bennett and Smith's introduction to Contemporary Legend: A reader (Bennett and Smith 1996) and Smith's chapter in that work.

The relative lack of interest in contemporary legend may be because:

    … as a genre, contemporary legends have been defined solely by folklorists and, unlike other types of traditional narratives, no "folk generic" category exists for the lay person. I would argue that this has come about simply because of the diversity of content, presentational forms, and functions which contemporary legends exhibit. Thus, while the lay person can, rightly or wrongly, deal with such concepts as "myth", "folk tale" and "legend", contemporary legends are often "just ordinary" forms of communication.
    (Smith 1989: 111)
Those who are active in the genre have plenty to keep them occupied. There are lots of variants of specific legends to collect. When told orally there are 'performative' aspects to be studied. As they differ significantly from more literary stories, some scholars regard the 'narrative style' as the key area of study. The more philosophically-inclined can explore the ambiguity as to whether the teller believes the tale or not.

Contemporary legends are a comparatively recent addition to the recognised genres of folklore, although this does not mean the tales did not exist for some considerable time previously. The study of contemporary legends can be traced back to A.S.E. Ackerman's Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected (1st edn 1907; 4th edn 1950), although Alexander Woollcot was probably one of the earliest to identify the contemporary legend genre, in the early 1930s. Harold Brunvand's compilation The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings, published in 1981 was immensely influential in both helping to define and arouse interest in contemporary legends.

Paul Smith notes specifically that contemporary legend studies have not acquired the same academic 'status' as interest as fairy tales. This has led to few attempts at overview and synthesis of contemporary legend research, and such attempts as have been made seem too narrow in their approaches compared to comparable overviews of fairy tales and myths (Smith 1989). The key approaches to contemporary legend studies have their roots in contributions to a symposium in 1959 (the papers were published in Hand 1971). Different contributors questioned the definitions then current, drew upon psychological studies of rumour, and introduced novel approaches based on sociology and psychology. In the subsequent years the proponents of these different approaches clashed and competed with each other. Three of the key speakers at the symposium, Linda Dégh, Robert Georges and Alan Dundes, became closely associated with contemporary legend research in the 70s and 80s. (Bennett and Smith 1996: xxii–xxxix provide a detailed historical overview of this formative phase of contemporary legend study.)

Ironically, academic interest in fairy tales has grown at a time when fairy tales have become less important to popular culture than contemporary legends. '… contemporary legends abound in magazines and daily papers, comedy and horror films, and, as always, in the words of everyday people, where they are retold as jokes, ornate tales, or plain news.' (Lindahl 1996a: xi) At the same time, legends have been incorporated into all kinds of artistic expressions. 'The "pedestrian" realism of legendary – the "this-could-happen-to-you" quality of the genre – has exerted great appeal on such authors as Margaret Atwood, Anthony Burgess, Ernest Hemingway, and Carson McCullers, to name a few… ' (Barnes 1991)

Contemporary legends have been popularised in their own right. Paul Smith has edited the Book of Nasty Legends (1983) and Book of Nastier Legends (1986). Three popular paperbacks by Phil Healey and Rick Glanvill (Urban Myths, 1992; The Return of Urban Myths, 1993; and Urban Myths Unplugged, 1994), based on their column in the weekend edition of The Guardian, are significant research aids for contemporary legend researchers. However such compiling of ever-increasing examples has not been matched by much-needed 'overviews' of the genre.

Contamination and contemporaneity

One theme dominates the contemporary legend canon – contamination. The scope ranges from reptiles, spiders or insects invading someone's body; through snakes or tarantulas lurking unseen in clothes, plants or household goods; to the most abiding of all these themes – the contamination of foodstuffs. Within recent decades a new variant has arisen, of which the commonest version tells of a man who picks up a woman in a local bar, sleeps with her, and awakens to find the message 'Welcome to the world of AIDs' scrawled in lipstick on the nearest mirror.

There are clear parallels here with the fears of 'invasion' and 'contamination' underlying the widespread popular interest in UFOs and close encounters with aliens, itself only an extraterrestrial extension of the xenophobia and racism lurking rather too close to the surface of Western societies. One does not need an in-depth training in psychology to spot the insecurities about our physical and social 'boundaries' that these scenarios feed upon.

See witchhunts today article.

It's all around us

Those interested in pursuing contemporary legends and folklore will find that several books by American folklorists provide adequate introductions, such as Oring (1986), Georges and Jones (1995), and Toelken (1996). Brunvand (1981) and Bennett and Smith (1996) are also essential reading.

bibliographical references

BARNES, Daniel R., 1991, 'The contemporary legend in literature: towards an annotated checklist', Contemporary Legend, 1: 173-83.
BAUMAN, Richard, 1986, Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual studies of oral narrative, Cambridge UP.
BENNETT, Gillian, 1998, 'The vanishing hitchhiker at fifty-five', Western Folklore 57 No.1 (Winter) 1-17.
BENNETT, Gillian and Paul SMITH, 1996, Contemporary Legend: A reader, Garland.
BRUNVAND, Jan Harold, 1981, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings.
CAMPION-VINCENT, Véronique, 1997, 'Organ theft narratives', Western Folklore 56 (Winter), 1-37.
DUNDES, Alan, 1980, Interpreting Folklore, Indiana UP.
GEORGES , Robert A. and Michael Owen JONES, 1995, Folkloristics: An introduction, Indiana UP.
HAND, Wayland D. (ed), 1971, American Folk Legend: A symposium, University of California Press.
HOWE, Alex, 2000, 'Kidney devils', Fortean Times, 138, 34-39.
LINDAHL, Carl, 1996a, 'Series editor's preface', in Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith, Contemporary Legend: A reader, Garland.
LINDAHL, Carl, 1996b, 'Psychic ambiguity at the legend core', in Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith, Contemporary Legend: A reader, Garland.
ORING, E. (ed), 1986, Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An introduction, Utah State UP.
SMITH, Paul, 1989, 'Contemporary legend: a legendary genre?' in G. Bennett and P. Smith (eds), The Questing Beast: Perspectives on contemporary legend IV, Sheffield Academic Press 1989; reprinted in G. Bennett and P. Smith, Contemporary Legend: A reader, Garland, 1996.
TOELKEN, Barre, 1996, The Dynamics of Folklore (2nd edn), Utah State UP (1st edn 1979).

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2002, 2003

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