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Books Chat

Jan Harold Brunvand

September 22, 1999
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EDT

The following is an edited transcript of our chat with Jan Harold Brunvand, author of "Too Good to be True - The Colossal Book of Urban Legends." Mr. Brunvand joined us Tuesday, September 21st, from Salt Lake City, Utah. provided a typist for him.

Chat Moderator: Welcome, Jan Harold Brunvand!

Jan Harold Brunvand: Thank you.

Chat Moderator: Who starts these urban legends? Do any of them ever have a basis in truth?

Jan Harold Brunvand: They do have a basis in truth. They are about things that really happen in the areas of travel, pets, business, sex, you name it. However, the whole story that you hear going around from person to person with different variations, attributed to different times and places, never happened.

It is an open question as to who starts them. The best we can say is that everyone who repeats one contributes to the growth and development of these stories. Seldom do we get back to a specific origin.

Question from Sparky: Do you believe that Internet-based folklore needs a separate classification?

Brunvand: No, I don't. Just calling it folklore puts it in the domain of the folklorist, which is what I am. Of course, Internet-based folklore, typed and read on the screen, printed rather than in oral tradition, is different in a lot of ways from traditional folklore. A lot of the same kinds of material circulate on the Internet that used to have exclusively oral transmission.

Chat Moderator: Do you foresee a whole new line of urban legends surrounding the growing role technology plays in our lives?

Jan Harold Brunvand: I expect that urban legends based on technology will continue; there have been lots of them already. For example, they involve cell phones, computers, ATMs, modern warfare, airplane travel, microwave ovens. I expect there will continue to be new legends about new technological advances. If not, I am an out of business!

Question from Kensey: Do you ever read the Internet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, which considers your work akin to canon in the UL field?

Jan Harold Brunvand: I read it sporadically, not because it isn't an interesting site, but because my life is so full of many other things that I must do other than look at news groups. But yes, I have looked at that.

Question from Monger: > To what extent do urban legends exist in other cultures? I'm specifically curious about indigenous cultures.

Brunvand: That is an excellent question. They certainly exist in other urban modern cultures. They are all over Europe; they are told in Japan; they have been told in New Zealand and Australia.

It is in the manner of old traditional legends, mythological themes. I don't detect much interplay between what we are calling the urban legend and native cultures, not that they don't have a rich folklore, of course.

Question from PortaWeb: Do you think ULs follow an evolutionary pattern like living organisms (mimetics)?

Brunvand: We use the language of evolution in talking about legends and how they change, as if they are living organism. I think that is mostly a metaphor, a way of thinking about changes that take place. The changes are the result of things such as people misunderstanding what they hear, being creative as they retell a story, forgetting part of it, or rationalizing some detail to make sense out of it. In those ways, folklorists sometimes talk about the "life history" of a folk narrative.

Question from CarolA: How do you define an urban legend?

Brunvand: Starting this summer, when my latest book appeared, I defined them with the title "too good to be true."

What I mean is that these are stories told with some conviction as if they are true, attributed to a friend or a friend of a friend that are too coincidental or bizarre to be literally true.

The same basic stories are told in lots of different places, always localized and with different various. Those are the crux of what I call urban legends.

Question from Kensey: Do you see the Internet as a major vector of ULs? Do you think people overall are more or less skeptical than they traditionally have been about ULs, and do you think the Internet has affected that either way?

Brunvand: That is a complicated question. The Internet has increased the speed at which some of these stories are circulated. Just like "that" they are all over. They are transmitted very quickly.

There are also people discussing urban legends and archiving them on Internet sites, so that is an area of skepticism -- recognizing them as folklore. Judging from the e-mail I get, there are still plenty of people sophisticated in the use of computers who are falling for the most incredible legends that pop up.

I would just say, as a student of folklore, I still find the oral tradition, the face-to-face transmission of stories, more interesting than just having someone forward me a story as e-mail. Then there is no facial expression, no gestures, no audience reaction, no rich context, although, I guess you can say that the Internet has its own context. There are emoticons.

Question from Tom3: What's your favorite urban legend??

Brunvand: I always start off answering that question by saying, would you ask a chemist, "what is your favorite element?" In a way, all the stories are just data.

However, my favorite story is the "ski accident." The one about the beginning skier, a woman, who ends up sliding down the mountain on her skis, backwards, with her pants down until she hits a tree or something. In the ski patrol first aid room, an injured ski instructor is brought in. She asks him, "How could you have an accident? You are a professional!" He says, "Well, I was riding up the lift this morning when I saw this woman, etc. zipping down the hill. I leaned out for a better look, and fell out of the chair. What about you?"

Actually, maybe a better answer to question might be my favorite is the latest one that is going around. More data!!

Question from CarolA: If a person knows of a possible anecdote for your book, how should they contact you?

Brunvand: The best way is by e-mail. It is

Chat Moderator: Why do people continue to believe urban legends?

Brunvand: First, because people hear them from credible sources: family members, co-workers, neighbors, friends at school. Hairdressers are always "reliable" sources. The sources say that the story happened to a friend of a friend.

Another reason people believe them is that they are not that incredible. They are about familiar places like shopping malls, familiar experiences like traveling, things we are worried about like crime. It seems as though they could have happened.

Question from Monger: How much of a role do you think the media play in "legitimizing" ULs?

Brunvand: I think the media play big role. You find ULs in the newspaper columns, repeated on talk shows, worked into television programs and films, comic strips, and popular songs. Even if the context of a newspaper article is to debunk the story, some people tend to remember the story rather than the discussion of it.

Chat Moderator: Do you ever run into anyone that refuses to believe that a particular legend isn't true? Do you have an anecdote you could share with us?

Brunvand: Most people who correspond with me know about my writings and the reason they are contacting me is that they suspect a story they have heard is a legend. I don't meet too many true believers.

A few people have written to me, insisting that a particular story is true. Much of the time what they have experienced is somewhat close to a legend, but not really the same story. For example, some kind of foreign matter in food, but not a Kentucky Fried Rat or a mouse in a Coke bottle.

I think the most insistent true believer I heard from was somebody who had seen a car with a long narrow package on the roof several times while driving on an interstate highway, passing her car, at a rest stop, etc. Having heard the story about the dead grandmother on the roof, she wrote to me, saying, "This surely must be what was in that mysterious package."

Needless to say, I didn't agree.

Chat Moderator: Where did you have to go to research these stories? How do you know they're not true?

Brunvand: Every story requires a separate line of research. You have to take up an individual plot and its variations and look into it. If the story is about a celebrity, let's say Reggie Jackson on the elevator, Johnny Carson making off-color remarks on the air, it is then fairly obvious who to contact.

But by the time I think of doing that, lots of journalists have called Reggie Jackson or Eddie Murphy, asking if he were the man on the elevator who said, "Sit, lady" to his dog and some ladies on the elevator thought he was mugger talking to them.

The general approach to folk narrative research involves collecting as many variations of the story as possible, seeing how they are distributed in time and space, comparing the variations in detail. When we get a broad distribution of these versions, it is pretty clear that we are dealing with a traditional story and not a news item.

Question from PortaWeb: Do you think the current Internet UL archives might evolve into quick UL-debunking systems, preventing contagion of many legends?

Brunvand: In a sense, it has already happened. Earlier, someone mentioned alt.folklore.urban. If you look at that archive, you find the stories are already marked "definitely true," "false," "unlikely," etc. In a way, it is just a kind of speeding up of the folklorists old-fashioned paper archives, books, indices, and so on.

I don't really think there will be any infallible, automatic debunking program because there will still be the human interest factor. People love the stories and have a kind of will to believe; they kind of think these stories might be true.

Question from Monger: Many ULs do attempt to convey some lesson or warning. Do you think many have a positive effect on society overall, albeit in a somewhat unorthodox way?

Brunvand: "Many" is the hard term here. Certainly some stories conveyed worth while messages, such as "check the back seat of your car before you get in," or "keep your eye on your kids" when you are at the amusement park or shopping mall, or "you can't really trust big business."

On the other hand, some of these are bogus warnings. Among them are the warnings not to flash your headlights at an oncoming car if its headlights are off because, supposedly, the occupants of the other car could be gang members taking part in an initiation. According to the story, when you flash your lights at them, they follow you and kill you. That would not be a very positive effect if every body just quit doing that courtesy flash.

I would say that quite a few of the legends are like fables, that is stories that demonstrate and lead up to a message or meaning or interpretation of some kind.

Question from Kensey: Do you often get hit with "author's syndrome" where people knowing (or even not knowing) who you are, try to tell you their favorite old UL?

Brunvand: I don't mind a bit if people send me their favorite stories or the latest one they have heard. I am not quite as cooperative when people send me original fiction, the outline of their novel, or write to ask "can you help me get published." I am sure that everyone who has been published must get something like that from readers.

Sometimes, I wish I had the time to go through some of the long letters, 15, 20, 25 pages, in which people go through my books, story by story, and tell me every variation they have ever heard.

Even in these impossibly detailed letters, there is almost always some particular variation on a theme that I have not heard before which I find interesting. Although I use a form letter as my basic reply, I always add a comment at the bottom of the letter about some particularly unusual detail in one of the versions they have sent me.

Question from pfeaster: Do we have a good sense for what the geographical scope of the "urban legend" is? Do the "types" found in the United States frequently appear elsewhere?

Brunvand: My first urban legend book was "The Vanished Hitchhiker." It was subtitled, "American Urban Legends and their Meanings." Boy, was I wrong. Most of the legends I wrote about in the book turned out to have some international circulation.

Now that there is an organization called The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR), with its own newsletter, journal, and annual meetings, folklorists have become more aware than ever of how widespread these stories are.

I am working now on an encyclopedia of urban legends. Most of my material is American or at least English-language, but I am including entries for as many individual foreign countries as possible, drawing on whatever published materials I can find.

I was not surprised to write entries for Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, Italy, and so on. I was a bit surprised to find a report in the ISCLR newsletter about legends from Mongolia.

I am just getting up to the letter "P" in my writing of this encyclopedia. Just a few entries down the list is Poland. Unfortunately, what this review of foreign examples depends upon is that there be someone in these countries collecting and publishing them. I don't have good examples from Romania, except some I heard while I was there for a while.

There seemed to be no geographic limits to where modern legends are created and told.

Question from PortaWeb: About your new book, is it mostly an updated compilation of legends from your previous books, or does it include many more new ones?

Brunvand: The stories in the new book that are also found in the earlier books are different versions, new, better, or some how more interesting versions. Yes, there are some new ones, too, that have not appeared in my previous books

For example, a new one, which I call "the brain drain," leads off the new book. It is the story about a woman sitting in her car in the supermarket on a hot day. She hears a loud bang from behind her; something hits her in the back of the head. She puts her hand up to the back of her head, and feels something gooey.

She thinks she has been shot and her brains are coming out. When someone stops to help her, the person discovers that a canister of Pillsbury Pop'n'Fresh biscuit dough has exploded in her grocery bag, located in the back seat of her car.

Incidentally, all the notes on the story whether old ones or new ones, are updated. I also included some parodies of urban legends.

Question from phamton: Why do some stories refuse to die like the Proctor & Gamble/ Satanist connection?


Another factor in the long life of that particular story is that it is circulated in printed form, hand outs, faxes. There can be a whole series of individuals who will pick up on it, find it on a bulletin board, or get it from someone at church, duplicate it, and away it goes.

One other thing that keeps the story going is that it gets updated. In the past, supposedly, the head of the company, appeared on a show like Donahue. Today it might be Oprah.

Question from Racer_X: What kind of feeling do you get when you find out that what seemed completely loopy is absolutely true?

Brunvand: I love it!! In very rare situations, I get the great feeling of satisfaction in discovering that a story that is too good to be true is true.

I have a short section on true urban legends in my latest book. I think my greatest triumph, if I may call it that, was in tracking down the source of the story about the student who solves the unsolvable math problem.

It turned out that it was not an undergraduate coming to class late and copying a problem from the board that he thought was part of the test, but was actually an unsolvable problem that had baffled Einstein.

It turned out that the experience of solving a previously unsolvable problem in mathematics had happened to a famous mathematician named George Dantzig when he was a graduate student. When his experience was told to others and repeated and repeated, it evolved into the fictionalize version that I collected.

Did I mind finding out that this supposed urban legend had happened? Not at all. In fact, I was thrilled to finally meet Professor Dantzig and discuss it with him. He pointed out that I should not title the story the "unsolvable" math problem because he had, in fact, solved it.

I should say that finding a specific origin for a legend is pretty rare, and not necessarily what I am trying to do.

Another thing to mention is that Dantzig's story got into folklore via print and repetition on a national television program. In other words, the media played an important role in creating that legend.

Chat Moderator: Which legend was the hardest to debunk?

Brunvand: I would say the hardest to debunk, and it has been in three of my books, is the one I call "blue star acid." This story circulates in printed form on fliers that are passed around.

The claim is that people are giving LSD impregnated tattoos to children. These tattoos supposedly include cartoon figures in various designs, including blue stars. Some of the fliers state that these sheets of tattoos are laced with strychnine so that even handling the papers could be fatal.

These are what I call bogus warnings. These fliers have been around for many years. No police departments or narcotics agents have found the stories to be true, almost every detail in the description of these supposed, drug-laced fatal tattoos is spurious.

Why is it hard to debunk? Because LSD is in fact sometimes distributed in the form of paper absorbed with the chemical. It is called blotter acid. It is not a tattoo, although it may have a design on it and people may chew on it (I think) Any time I or any other folklorist asserts "blue star acid" is just a rumor or legend, someone is bound to respond "Oh no, I've seen that stuff. It really exists."

The legend part, of course, is that anyone is giving it away to kids, and that it is a "new" form of distributing LSD. That one has been rather hard to deal with, I think.

Question from Monger: What motivates a UL researcher? Does any sort of professional rivalry exist in your field?

Brunvand: I was motivated to focus on urban legends by my students. They always seemed to think that folklore belonged to somebody else, usually in the past, that it was something quaint and outdated. So I started asking them what kind of stories did they learn by word of mouth; what did they repeat. Once I started collecting these stories, I just became fascinated with them.

Rivalry in the field? We are mostly cooperating with each other. The American Folklore Society, for example, has an annual meeting, publishes a journal. It has been in existence since 1888. The contemporary legend group only dates back to the 1980s. In our meetings and publications, we pretty freely share data and ideas.

Sure, there are some disagreements about interpretation. Just try a Freudian interpretation of a legend at UL conference and sides quickly form.

Chat Moderator: Thanks, Jan Harold Brunvand, for joining us this evening!

Jan Harold Brunvand: Thank you. It has been a pleasure. It's been nice to hear from people with such interesting monikers and good questions.

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