Urban Legends: A Collection of International Tall Tales and Terrors

By Jordan-Smith, Paul | Western Folklore, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Urban Legends: A Collection of International Tall Tales and Terrors


Jordan-Smith, Paul, Western Folklore


Urban Legends: A Collection of International Tall Tales and Terrors. Edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007. Pp. xxii + 352, acknowledgments, introduction, appendix, bibliography, indices. $85.00 cloth.)

We should have had this textbook long ago: a presentation of urban legends (contemporary legends, FOAFtales, whatever you want to call them), unadorned by efforts to debunk or interpret, arranged thematically, with descriptions, examples, and citations of further readings on each story type. The editors organize the legends under nine themes: city life; horror; accidents, fate, and chance; the body and disease; animals; sex and nudity; merchandise; murder, death, and burial; and the supernatural. Each of these nine sections begins with a brief presentation of the nature of the theme, with the rest of the section being subdivided by approximately fifteen descriptions of legends (using a representative and recognizable title), with examples and lists of further sources in which other examples and discussions may be found. The back matter comprises a "provisional" list of urban legends that have been used in film and literature, a reading list that includes online resources, subject and tide indexes, and separate indexes to urban legends in film and in literature.

Many legend titles come from the numerous anthologies compiled by Brunvand, and Brunvand is acknowledged as a principal collector. In the section on animal legends, for example, one finds "The Choking Doberman" as what might be called an urban legend type. Where Brunvand's presentation of the story in his book by that tide (1982) and his chattier one in Too Good to Be True (1999:48-52) provide extended discussion of the type, with numerous examples, Bennett and Smith provide a concise descriptive summary (citing Brunvand) and an example collected in England. The differences suggest a complementary approach that students can undertake, Bennett and Smith providing the textbook version (literally), and Brunvand and others offering further examples and discussion.

One element thankfully missing from Bennett and Smith's discussions is the practice of debunking too often indulged in by other folklorists, including Brunvand. "Unlike many urban legend books and websites," they write, "this volume is not designed as a 'rumor-buster.' This is because we do not see untruth as a defining criterion of urban legends; rather, we think that one of the things that help to define a legend is uncertainty about whether it is true (the 'If it's true, it's important, but is it true?' principle)" (xx; italics in original) . This view is similar to that described by Elliott Oring in "Legendry and the Rhetoric of Trutii" (2008) on tales "told as true." The difference is that while a tale might be told as true, even tale tellers might not consider themselves fully committed to die truth (or falsehood) of a tale. This uncertainty is easily overlooked, perhaps in some cases because it undermines the legitimacy, and therefore the self-gratification, of debunking. …

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