Urban Legends: A Collection of International Tall Tales and Terrors

Edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. 2007. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group. 376 pages. ISBN: 978-0-313-33952-3 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Bill Ellis, Penn State University-Hazelton

[Review length: 1205 words • Review posted on August 26, 2008]


This handy reference provides brief discussions of about 150 “urban legends,” those narrative complexes also popularly known as “urban belief tales” or “modern myths.” Imitating Jan Harold Brunvand’s type-index of urban legends (1993:325-347), the stories are given punchy titles, then roughly grouped under their purported main themes: “City Life,” “Horror,” “Sex and Nudity,” “Animals,” and so on. Each entry sums up what is known about the history of the complex and gives a sample text, sometimes a performance transcription but more often a journalistic or summarized version. Short bibliographies are given for each. The Bennett/Smith work is similar to Brunvand’s Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (2001) but is much more wide-ranging in identifying the global travels of the stories and more likely to direct readers to international scholarship, whereas Brunvand’s reference often cites only his own works.

The work has limitations, however. Smith and Bennett were influential in establishing the “Contemporary Legend” seminars held at the University of Sheffield from 1982 onward and were founding members of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. The texts, background information, and references rely heavily on the wealth of collectanea submitted to ISCLR’s newsletter, FOAFTale News. These materials, from a variety of global sources including Eastern Europe and Asia, go part of the way toward rectifying Alan Dundes’ critique of “contemporary legend” research as “totally ignoring the scholarship devoted to legends among non-Western peoples” (in Bennett and Smith 1993:xii). However, the Western bias remains: the work, for instance, does not include the important contributions to African legend research made by William L. Friedland (1960) or Arthur Goldstuck (1990, 1993, 1994, 1999), and while a retrospective article by historian Luise White is cited, her immensely important work Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa (2000) is not referenced. The very active “toshidensetsu” or “city tradition” scene in contemporary Japan is overlooked altogether.

In addition, the work is under-theorized, and intentionally so. The authors choose not to discuss the various interpretations and methodologies that have developed in recent scholarship, saying, “What interests us here is not what the stories ‘mean,’ but how they have been told, by whom, and in what form” (xix). In an anemic introduction, the authors present only the briefest survey of scholarship in the area, not always accurately. For instance, the authors refer to Wayland Hand’s American Folk Legend: A Symposium (1971) as a record of the first academic conference devoted to urban legends. While this volume included some theoretical essays that subsequently became important to the scholarship on urban legends, its focus was on the traditional supernatural, religious, and hero-figure legends then considered central to the discipline. Even accepting the “Sheffield” emphasis, the authors should have noted the important work that has come from cross-disciplinary participants in the contemporary legend seminars, such as Joel Best, Véronique Campion-Vincent, Diane Goldstein, Gary Alan Fine, Jeffrey S. Victor, Patricia Turner, Carl Lindahl, and Ingo Schneider, which has led to a widening recognition of the phenomenon’s importance in the international academic world.

The work’s perspective is particularly skewed by the authors’ choice to define “legends” as “stories of some sort . . . [with] a beginning, a middle, and an end (though not necessarily in that order)” (xx). This approach has been recognized as self-defeating at least since 1971, when Robert A. Georges argued, “A legend is a story or narrative that may not be a story or narrative at all” (1971:18). Following Georges and Linda Dégh, most folklorists have since understood legend as a social process, of which “stories” are, as Georges stated elsewhere, “nothing more than a written representation of one aspect of the message of complex communicative events” (1969:318). Even sociologists have begun to accept this approach: Dan E. Miller learned, through his fieldwork on “The Snake in the Greens” legend complex (omitted by Bennett/Smith) that the story was never told as a stand-alone narrative but instead “either initiated or was embedded in extended conversations in diverse situations.” As a result, he concluded, it was pointless to study it “without taking into consideration its social context and the social processes involved in the diverse situations” (2005:516). Paradoxically, Bennett’s and Smith’s approach seems a relic of the folkloristic world some decades prior to the first Sheffield seminar.

The volume is good on the travels of short comic anecdotes and cautionary scare-stories, but it does not attempt to survey the politically more challenging research (some of it originally presented at the Sheffield seminars) on legendary phenomena more heavily embedded in political movements. These include panics and collective action over satanic cults, ritual abuse of children, Iraqis removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators, evil elite plots, and vaccination programs intended to sterilize ethnic minorities. A surprising omission is the claim--documented both in New Orleans (Remnick 2005) and in rural France (Campion-Vincent 2005)--that when floods threaten, authorities deliberately breach levees to inundate lower-class neighborhoods and spare the rich.

Thus the volume is a useful companion to Brunvand’s Encyclopedia but does not break new ground. Perhaps Greenwood felt that a serious survey of scholarship would not appeal to the generalist librarian market to which they cater, and encouraged the authors to keep the work easily accessible. The book does betray signs of casual production in several ways, especially its annoying proliferation of errors--including “suguaro” for saguaro [cactus], “Regan” for [former US president Ronald] Reagan, “Shangai” for Shanghai, “Linklater” for [American TV personality Art] Linkletter, and most mystifyingly, the attribution of an ancient tale analog to “Herod” rather than Herodotus--which a professional copyeditor should have caught and corrected.

An academically respectable survey of scholarship in this area remains to be compiled.

Works Cited

Bennett, Gillian, and Paul Smith. Contemporary Legend: A Folklore Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1993.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Baby Train & Other Lusty Urban Legends. New York: Norton, 1993.

__________. Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. New York: Norton, 2001.

Campion-Vincent, Véronique. “From Evil Others to Evil Elites: A Dominant Pattern in Conspiracy Theories Today.” In Rumor Mills: The Social Impact of Rumor and Legend, edited by Gary Alan Fine, Véronique Campion-Vincent, and Chip Heath. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2005.

Friedland, William H. “Some Urban Myths in East Africa”. In Myth in Modern Africa: The Fourteenth Conference Proceedings of the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute for Social Research, edited by Allie Dubb, 83-97. Lusaka: Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, 1960.

Georges, Robert A. "Toward an Understanding of Storytelling Events." Journal of American Folklore 82 (1969): 313-328.

__________. "The General Concept of Legend: Some Assumptions to be Re¬examined and Reassessed." In American Folk Legend: A Symposium, edited by Wayland D. Hand, 1 19. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Goldstuck, Arthur. The Rabbit in the Thorn Tree: Modern Myths and Urban Myths of South Africa. London: Penguin, 1990.

__________. The Leopard in the Luggage: Urban Legends from Southern Africa. London: Penguin, 1993.

__________. Ink in the Porridge: Urban Legends of the South African Elections. London: Penguin, 1994.

__________. The Aardvark in the Caravan: South Africa’s Greatest Urban Legends. London: Penguin, 1999.

Miller, Dan E. “Rumor: An Examination of Some Stereotypes.” Symbolic Interaction 28:4 (2006): 505-519.

Remnick, David. “High Water.” New Yorker, October 3, 2005: 48-57.

White, Luise. Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

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