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For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, an Urban Legend is one of those stories that someone tells you--typically they claim that it happened to a friend of a friend (FOAF)--which just seems, in the words of this title, "too good to be true." But when the person tells the story they do so with great authority and include some little hyperspecific detail that tends to allay some of your skepticism. Or at least it does until someone else tells you a slightly different version of the same story two days later. Personally, I've heard dozens of these stories over the years, many from my Mom or my friend Charlie, and I've developed a particular awareness for when folks are peddling these myths, becoming a kind of amateur clearing house. Here are a few I've had folks tell me personally : The Blow Dry Rabbit; The Vibrating Cactus; the Confused Driver; Batman in the Closet; The Disgruntled Bridegroom; any others, anybody?
I don't know that he coined the term Urban Legend, but Jan Harold Brunvand, a professor at the University of Utah, certainly popularized it with his newspaper column and a series of books in which he collects them and tries to trace their convoluted paths through the popular culture (It's amazing how often Ann Landers has a hand in promulgating them).
I've been a fan of Brunvand's work for years, even submitting some of my favorites to him, including one which he reprinted in The Baby Train. His writing tends to be a little prosaic and, in letting his correspondents speak for themselves, he often presents the legends in less amusing form than he might. But in all honesty,the real pleasure in his books lies not in the stories themselves, but in the joy of recognition, the thrill of the "Gotcha!," when you finally have proof that a story is bunk.
This debunking process has been made much easier by the advent of the Internet; all you usually have to do is include a couple keywords from a given story and the term "urban legend" in a search line and you'll get numerous hits from websites that specialize in collecting and trying to stay current with them. It's a good thing too, because this latest effort from Brunvand suffers from a major and inexplicable weakness : it has no index. This curious omission is especially unforgivable in a reference book and is almost serious enough for me not to recommend the book. As is, we'll give it a very qualified nod, but suggest you seek out the earlier books instead.
-CHAT : with Jan Harold Brunvand (CNN)
-REVIEW : of THE MEXICAN PET: More ''New'' Urban Legends and Some Old Favorites. By Jan Harold Brunvand (1986)(Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of THE MEXICAN PET More ''New'' Urban Legends and Some Old Favorites. By Jan Harold Brunvand (Scott Simon, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE BABY TRAIN And Other Lusty Urban Legends. By Jan Harold Brunvand (1993)(Gahan Wilson, NY Times Book Review)
URBAN LEGENDS (& MYTHS/MISTAKES/HOAXES) :
Dick Cheney to resign
-ESSAY : Chain-Chain-Cheney of Fools (Chris Suellentrop, Posted Monday, Oct. 2, 2000, at 5:08 p.m. PT, Slate)