Monday, September 17, 2012

Part ll: Interview with Jan Harold Brunvand, Author of Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Updated and Expanded Edition

What role does the Internet play in the study and spread of urban legends?

Not to repeat myself too much (see “Internet Resources,” pp. 328-330), the Internet is “both a tool for researching urban legends and a conduit for the dissemination and discussion of rumors and legends.” For the scholar, urban legends archives, indexes, journals, newsletters, etc. are often available online. For the non-academic enthusiast, the Internet, including email and social media, offers a rapid means of swapping stories and resources for checking them out.

Have you heard any new urban legends lately?

“New” is a relative term in this context, since so many of the rumors and stories that go around are variations on older themes. Here’s a “new” example that ties together several things I’ve already mentioned:

A college student in Buenos Aires emailed me to ask about a story she had heard; evidently she had not come across it in the lectures or readings for her folklore class, although she had read some of my books. It seems that an Argentine girl goes with her class on their high school graduation trip to the well-known “party town” (and ski resort) Bariloche, and after meeting a boy in a club she has unprotected sex with him. When the group is ready to leave for home on their tour bus, the boy gives her a box that, he says, contains a surprise. As soon as the bus starts off, the girl opens the box finding inside only a black rose and a note reading “Welcome to the Club of AIDS.” 

I replied to her email explaining that this was a localized version of the “AIDS Harry” (aka “AIDS Mary”) legend (Type 05540 in my index). It is a story told internationally in many variations. The black rose is an unusual touch, and the note more often reads “Welcome to the AIDS club,” or something similar in another language. (She did not give me the presumed Spanish text of the note.) Even the graduation trip and the long bus ride to and from Bariloche fit the local tradition with comfortable long-distance coaches complete with meal service, videos, and restrooms as the norm of such travel in Argentina.

What’s new in urban legend studies?

While I was proofreading my Encyclopedia, the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) held its annual conference in Göttingen, Germany, from June 5-9, 2012. Abstracts of the papers presented appeared in the newsletter Foaftale News, which I consulted online. Among the topics discussed were these:

            Two papers on Russian legends, one concerning a constitutional crisis set off by an action of President Boris Yeltsin in 1993, and the other about Russian children’s horror legends of the 1970s-‘90’s.

            The so-called “snuff films” and some legendary reactions to them in Germany.

            Legends and legend-tripping involving the ritualistic decorative painting of railway trestle-bridges by adolescents in Canada.

            Protests among Dutch Protestants against supposed “Gay Jesus” films as well as against some real movies about Jesus.

            “New spiritualities” as represented by stories about a supposed “mystery” area of South West France.

            Scam letters and emails similar to the “Double Theft” urban legends.

            A prototype system developed for computerized cataloging of Polish urban legends.

            Emergent legends critical of Barack Obama, circulated mainly as email forwards by far-right detractors of the president.

            Legends about Frank Lloyd Wright.

            Child Abduction legends from Eastern European counries.

            “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” revisited [again!] and also as circulated in Portugal both orally and in a short film shown on YouTube.

            A “friendly ghost” figure in recent Japanese legends that helps people deal with current social problems.

            Legends about the kidnapping of children in Mexico.

And a topic that illustrates the emergence of new legends from current events:

            Post BP-Oil Spill rumors and legends from Costal Louisiana.

This researcher reported stories of outsiders illegally becoming “spillionaires” by falsely claiming losses from the spill or by securing huge clean-up contracts that employed outside workers rather than locals. Other stories claimed that New Orleans restaurant workers and Bourbon Street strippers were supposedly “receiving generous settlements (because their income from tips might be affected if tourism dropped).”

Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, Updated and Expanded Edition is available now at!

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