PERSPECTIVES ON CONTEMPORARY LEGEND

Petr Janeček

International Society for

Contemporar y Legend Research,

26th International Conference,

Dublin, Ireland, July 7 – 9, 2008.

Contemporary legends, rumors, gossip

and other ephemeral forms of folk narratives

typical for postmodern society represent

one of the most interesting issues

of contemporary social sciences. Since

the 1980s, when these fictional narratives

told as true were “discovered” by

U.S. folklorists, their study attracted not

only specialists in folk narratives, but

also cultural anthropologists, sociologists,

literary historians, media researchers

and scholars from other disciplines.

The vanguard of the study of these narratives

has always been represented by the

International Society for Contemporary

Legend Research (ISCLR). This scientific

society, founded in 1988 in Sheffield, UK,

originated from (now almost legendary)

Sheffield theoretical and terminological

seminars organized by British folklorist

Gillian Bennett and Canadian folklorist

Paul Smith. It was the ISCLR that coined

the now standard term for these narratives

“contemporary legend” (instead of

urban legend and urban myth preferred

by media and popular culture) and it

was the ISCLR publications – the journal

Contemporary Legend and the newsletter

FOAFTale News – which are now

regarded as standard research tools for

anyone interested in contemporary oral

tradition. The most important part of the

ISCLR activity is its annual international

conferences, held in North America and

Europe. The last, 26th ISCLR conference,

titled Perspectives on Contemporary Legend,

was held in Dublin, Ireland, July 7-9,

2008, with more than twenty active participants

from the fields of folkloristics,

cultural anthropology, psychology, literary

history and media and cultural studies.

The majority of the presentations

were devoted to well–documented case

studies of actual legend traditions; the

most interesting ones were Contemporary

Legends Are Ephemeral: What Was

Really Told About the Hatchet–Lady At

Red Rocks, Colorado by Michael J. Preston

(University of Colorado, USA), The

Search for Winnie the Puma. Wild Animals

in Civilized Environment by Theo

Meder (Meertens Institute, The Netherlands),

Japanese Ghost Lore by Gunella

Thorgeirsdottir (University of Sheffield,

UK) and Collecting Student Lore in Göttingen:

Expectations and Results by Christine

Shojaei Kawan (Enzyklopädie des

Märchens, Germany). Two special sections

were devoted to historical narratives;

these included papers on various

local guises of traditional folkloric character:

Spring-heeled Jack – Unmasking

Spring-heeled Jack: A Case Study of

a 19th Century Ghost Panic by David

Clarke (Sheffield Halam University, UK)

and Urban Maniac Or Resistance Fighter?

Rumours And Legends About the Spring

Man by Petr Janeček (National Museum,

Czech Republic), and interesting sociocultural

interpretation of Soviet post-

WWII cannibalism narratives in The

Legend of the Sausage Factory: Post-

War Images of Violence and Evil by Eda

Kalmre (Estonian Literary Museum,

Estonia). One interesting section touched

on economical exploitation of folk beliefs

by mercantile corporations – e.g., the

so-called Spikeys and date-rape drug test

strips utilizing the false belief in drink

spiking in clubs and discotheques (Crime

Legends in Different Media by Peter

Burger, Leiden University, The Netherlands)

or sleeping gas alarms inspired by

false public scare of gas attacks directed

against tourist in caravans, trucks and

trains (Gassed and Robbed by Sandy

Hobbs and Seonaid Anderson, University

of the West of Scotland, UK). The issue

of deliberate utilization of folk beliefs

was also touched on in other papers, the

most interesting ones being Contemporary

Legend: A Fundamentally Political

Act by Bill Ellis (Pennsylvania State University,

USA), interpreting political use of

rumors in official U.S. propaganda during

the Gulf and Iraq Wars, and Man Disposes,

God Discloses: Legend of the Levees

by Carl Lindahl (University of Houston,

USA), interpreting African–

American

rumors about deliberate flooding of lowincome

neighborhoods of New Orleans

during the hurricane Katrina disaster

in order to save rich “white” neighborhoods.

Mechanisms of planting false

232

r e p o r t s

beliefs in the media and wider cultural

systems were subjects of other interesting

papers – What Else is Black, White

and Read All Over: Legends That Sounds

Like News in a journalistic interpretation

of Russell Frank (Pennsylvania State

University, USA) and an anthropological

interpretation in Contemporary Legend

and Cultural Proscriptions by Mark

Glazer (The University of Texas–Pan

American, USA). In comparison with

earlier conferences, there was a slight

shortage of purely psychological papers,

one interesting exemption being Classifying

Contemporary Legend By Their Psychological

Function: A New Look by David

Main (University of West of Scotland,

UK). The twenty-sixth international

conference of the ISCLR showed again

that investigation of contemporary legend

is far from the scientific fad typical

of the 1980s and 1990s, but still attracts

more international scholars from various

fields, most notably anthropology

and media studies, and from a still-growing

number of countries (represented not

only by “traditional” English-speaking

countries, but also Western European

countries like Germany or the Netherlands

and Eastern European countries

like the Czech Republic and Estonia). Let

us hope that the next conference held in

Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada in 2009,

will present similarly interesting issues

and topics.


Petr Janeček


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