Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live

By Henken, Elissa R. | Western Folklore, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live


Henken, Elissa R., Western Folklore


Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. By Bill Ellis. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001. Pp. xv + 291, acknowledgments, introduction, notes, bibliography, index. $38.00 cloth).

Bill Ellis has pulled together over twenty years of articles, conference papers, and thinking into a remarkably seamless, strong, coherent, and stimulating study of legend--examining definitions and approaches used in studying legends, investigating uses that people make of legends to comment on and understand what happens to them, and exploring ways in which legends shape and become part of experience. In the first section of the book, "The Life of Legends," Ellis lays a good foundation for the whole, explaining (and questioning) folklore concepts and setting forth a history of theory (describing both an approach and problems with it) with a clarity that is satisfying for both the novice and the professional. Displaying a wide-ranging and thorough grasp of the material, he presents complex ideas with a truly clarifying simplicity. With particular attention to scientific models, he goes over well-known material and material less familiar or, at least, less well accepted, such as memetics, which he shows to encompass long-standing folklore ideas wrapped in new biological terminology. In the second section, "Life as Legend," using the specific examples of vanishing hitchhikers, a ghost in a fast food restaurant, and experiences of alien abduction, Ellis explores the manner in which legends are used as culturally comprehensible and acceptable means of describing extraordinary phenomena. In the third section, "Legend as Life," a study of various forms of ostensive behavior, he examines cases in which people's behavior and perceptions are affected by legend.

Throughout the book, Ellis effectively presents legend as part of a complex communication system, responding to and influencing a whole set of socio-cultural factors both immediate and wider-spread. Maintaining a balance of specific examples and broader concepts, he makes good use of case studies and of actual texts (employing a variety of transcription techniques), both for making his point clear and for demonstrating an analytic approach. He does, however, give more attention to camp horror stories and personal experience narratives than one might expect in a book on legends, though in the former case he uses the genre to scrutinize the role of traditionality in legends, and in the latter he ties them back into discussion of how legend scholars and legend users handle the paranormal. …

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