The Truth about Good Stories
Bloomberg, David, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
A Review of The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story, by Jan Harold Brunvand. University of Illinois Press, $22.95, hardcover.
JAN HAROLD BRUNVAND is well-known as the dean of urban legends. He has written numerous books and even had a syndicated newspaper column on the subject for several years. His latest addition is which is a more scholarly look at urban legends than his overview book last year, Too Good to Be True.
In The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story Brunvand looks at types, motifs, and historical bases for current tales, and follows these legends back in time as far as he can. For example, the cover cartoon deals with a legend he dubs "The Brain Drain," in which a woman who recently left the grocery store is hit in the back of her head by biscuit dough that has exploded out of its tube. The popping noise and the impact, along with the gooey substance on her head, makes her think she's been shot and her brains are leaking out. Brunvand found stories associated with food being misconstrued as leaking brains all the way back to Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In several other urban legends specific names of people who were supposedly associated with the occurrences are given. Brunvand discusses how some of those names were tracked backwards in time and found to be, in some cases, real people who did play some role in a situation that led to their being associated with the legend. This warrants a reminder, which Brunvand notes in several places, that just because something is an urban legend doesn't mean nothing like it has ever happened. For example, people have apparently, for one reason or another, put their pets in microwave ovens. The difference is that these things have not happened as told in the well-known tale.
One hallmark of urban legends is the way they merge and change. This is the case whether the legend had a true basis or not. One that started off untrue and continues to be untrue is the famous tale about the Red Velvet Cake from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The story goes that a woman so enjoyed the cake that she asked for the recipe and, due to a misunderstanding, was charged an inordinate amount. Then, to get revenge, she passes it out free to everybody she knows (the supposed recipe is usually passed along as part of the story). Changes in this story have included different restaurants, different cakes, and now the most popular version includes Mrs. Fields cookies!
Two of the legends Brunvand discusses here are of particular interest to skeptics. One deals with the ghost (or angel) who summons help; the other discusses the missing day in time allegedly discovered by scientists that supports the biblical story of the sun standing still.
The ghost/angel story has been promoted by Billy Graham and was debunked as an urban legend by paranormal investigator and skeptic par excellence, Joe Nickell, and Brunvand takes the analysis even deeper in time. The oft-told version is that a doctor is awakened by a young girl at his door on a cold and snowy night. …