What Happens Next?: Contemporary Urban Legends and Popular Culture

By Gail de Vos. 2012. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited. 242 pages. ISBN: 978-1-59884-633-1 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Jan Brunvand, University of Utah

[Review length: 916 words • Review posted on March 20, 2013]

This book is a follow-up to the same author’s Tales, Rumors, and Gossip: Exploring Contemporary Folk Literature in Grades 7-12 (1996). Like its predecessor, What Happens Next? focuses on “contemporary legends as they interest, influence and reflect young-adult audiences.” While de Vos’s background as a librarian, storyteller, teacher, and scholar brings a special perspective to this subject, the material covered goes beyond an application to young adults. In fact, the book comprises an ambitious survey of “contemporary urban legends” (combining the two most common terms for the genre) as they have “started to vanish . . . from the realm of oral tradition and . . . migrated from folklore into popular culture where they became stereotyped, standardized, exploited, commodified, and repackaged in a number of ways.” This last quotation is not from de Vos but from me (whom she quotes) as I phrased it in a 2001 conference paper and then published in 2004. [1] Thus, What Happens Next? in a sense also follows-up on my own observation about how urban legends have been adapted by popular culture media and especially the Internet. Researching these developments is a daunting task—one that I have neither the energy nor patience to pursue on a large scale—so all students of urban legends should be as grateful to Gail de Vos as I am for compiling this massive survey which includes literary adaptations, graphic novels, films, TV, websites, blogs, Facebook and You Tube postings, cryptozoology, the Darwin Awards, doomsday prophecies, chain letters, scams, hoaxes, Photoshopped parody images, ghost hunting, ghost tourism, and even such exotica as “shoefiti” (hanging shoes on overhead wires or in trees) and “shag or sex bracelets” (supposed code meanings of colored gel bracelets).

After an introduction to establish the baseline data of contemporary legends and how they behave, the material is presented in five chapters. First, an “Overview of Media Appearances of Contemporary Legends”; second, a chapter on “Ostension, Legend Tripping and Commodification of Folklore”; third, “Folklore and the Internet: Netlore”; fourth, “Conspiracy Theories”; and fifth, “Ghostlore and Scary Stories.” Chapter 6 looks in depth at a single theme, posing the question “A Meeting with the Devil at the Crossroads: A Contemporary Legend?” with special reference to the story about bluesman Robert Johnson trading his soul to the Devil in exchange for musical genius. The material available for chapters 1 through 5 is so voluminous that much of it is presented merely as lists, often marked as “selected examples” or “only a sampling,” or as limited by “space restrictions.” Most of these catalogs of data are simply alphabetical (i.e., E-Mail Hoaxes, Gang Initiation, Killer Clowns, Roaming Gnomes) but always with good notes and commentary to guide further research.

The author makes generous use of quotations from folklorists and other scholars, both as epigraphs to chapters and subsections and in block quotations and partial paraphrases. This feature, combined with the wide range and sheer number of examples from media and the Internet make the book more of a data collection and reference source than a conclusive analysis. The detailed table of contents reflects the nature of the book with numerous sections and subsections, some of them only a few paragraphs long. Even chapter 6 with its narrower focus has so much material to review that this section, too, has its lists of “brief excerpts” and one “minute sampling” (of the myriad musical allusions to the Devil at the Crossroads theme). There is material in this book to inspire a whole new generation of urban legend scholars to investigate folklore forms, once exchanged orally, as transformed into popular culture products circulated electronically or in print and images. In an epilogue de Vos documents yet more urban-legendary popcult material that came in while she was winding up this book, concluding with this revealing statement:

"Ultimately, my most major discovery is that it is impossible to complete any research on contemporary legends. As I was writing this book I kept extending the deadline of when I would stop collecting examples, articles, photographs, videos, suggestions and reworkings of the legends already under consideration and any newly developing ones. Charting the contemporary legend in popular culture can be a lifetime commitment. Keep in touch to see What Happens Next!"

Demonstrating how “impossible” it may seem to complete any definitive research on contemporary legends in popular culture are a couple of examples of sources overlooked in this book but known even to this fairly casual observer of the popcult scene. Writer and director Jon Shear’s film Urbania, premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, is the most successful film—artistically, if not commercially—to incorporate contemporary legends in its structure and subject matter. The DVD release even includes a folkloristic commentary. Secondly, the hoax-slayer.com website maintained by Brett Christensen of Australia is an Internet source ranking with snopes.com and David Emery’s site at about.com for timely and reliable information as well as an archive of past articles. Christensen’s emphasis is on email hoaxes and Internet scams.

Of course it’s also impossible to publish anything without a few typos. I note the following: “practically joke” (xvi) should be “practical joke”; “Many Characters” (xxvii) in a title cited should be “Manly Characters”; “Air Sellers” (12) in a title should be “Air Samplers”; “pig’s tale” (19) should be “pig’s tail”; “trading cars” (21) should probably be “trading cards”; “shots” (112) should probably be “shoots”; and “Tomas” (135) in a citation should be “Thomas.”

[1] Jan Harold Brunvand, “The Vanishing ‘Urban Legend’,” Midwestern Folklore 30 (2004) 5-20.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.