Yes, I Have Heard That One
Most people with a passing interest in urban legends are familiar with the name Jan Harold Brunvand. A professor at the University of Utah, Brunvand has written many popular books collecting urban legends, such as The Choking Doberman and Too Good to be True. Most articles about urban legends quote or refer to Brunvand at some point.
Brunvand’s books, including his latest The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story, are poised somewhere between academia and the mainstream. The Truth consists of twelve chapters based on papers Brunvand has given at various folklore conferences, plus a thirteenth chapter on computer lore by Erik Brunvand, the author’s son. Each self-contained chapter tackles an urban legend (or a group of related legends) with varying degrees of success and depth.
The second chapter, “‘The Brain Drain’ and the Long Hot Summer of 1995 (and Beyond),” is typical. It chronicles the range of the “Biscuit Bullet” legend. As the story goes, a woman sits in her car in a supermarket parking lot, leaning forward and clutching the back of her head until a good Samaritan asks her what’s wrong. “I’ve been shot,” she replies, revealing pale, gooey matter under her hand. groceries. The leaking brain matter was only a smattering of Pillsbury dough. What the woman had heard as a gunshot was just the tube exploding in the heat. In some versions of the story, the woman drives herself to the hospital, holding her brains in the entire trip. Brunvand lists the appearance of this story in different states, often getting the information from letters sent to him.
Eventually, he brings in folklore about animal trickster figures who used bread dough or egg yolk to fake head injuries. He also mentions how this story represents the fear of a new product (bread in a tube) or the comeuppance visited on those who don’t make biscuits from scratch. But this analysis is only in passing and none of it justifies reading through over a dozen variations of the same story.
Similar problems hurt the chapter “‘The Baby Roast’ as ‘New American Urban Legend’” one of the longest in the book. In this legend, sometimes called “The Hippie Baby-Sitter,” a drugged-out baby-sitter confuses an infant with a turkey, putting it in the oven to roast. Brunvand collects and retells numerous versions of this story and adds some fairly obvious commentary. Clearly, this legend builds on a fear of outsiders, hippies and drugs and plays on parental guilt. The focus of the chapter, like all the others, is so narrow that no larger conclusions can be drawn.
Brunvand’s legend-by-legend micro-approach does a disservice to the reader. Of course the legends themselves have a compulsive appeal, so much so that most people with an e-mail account or access to a water cooler have already heard them. Also, as friend of a friend tales - known in folklorist circles as “FOAF tales”—they can never be proven and rarely effectively traced. No one can find the first person to e-mail the story of the Neiman-Marcus Cookie (formerly, as Brunvand notes, the Mrs. Fields’ Cookie and before that, the Waldorf-Astoria $100 Cake). Too often, Brunvand is stuck repeating legend variations and noting how impossible it is to track down the facts.
The Truth compares poorly with another folklore book recently published by the academic press, Bill Ellis’ Aliens, Ghosts and Cults: Legends We Live. The complete review available here. Ellis also researches the origins of specific legends, but he focuses more on the reasons we tell these stories and the way we tell these stories. Also, the legends in Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults, by design or coincidence, are partially related as stories of youth culture, like haunted houses, satanic murders, road legends, prom rumors and campfire stories, giving the book a more connected feel. Although Ellis’ book is similarly a collection of papers, it maintains a more consistent and meaningful focus.
It appears to me that readers in and out of academia would be better served by a work with deeper commentary and a more narrow focus. A book delving into one area, for example religious legends or parenting stories, might not have such a slight, “greatest hits” feel to it.
Brunvand does strike gold tracking one legend to its source. “The Missing Day in Time” tells the story of NASA scientists who must turn to the literal truth of the Bible to account for a missing 24 hours in the universe. Brunvand traces the often-photocopied story back to two men, Harold Rimmer, a religious speaker who spread the story to churches and school groups, and Charles Totten, a military instructor at Yale from 1889-1892, “an anti-Semite and a crackpot besides, whose favorite pastime was predicting imminent apocalypse.” Totten appears to have simply fabricated the story, which may have existed previously in fragments, but never had scientific validity or anything to do with NASA.
Unfortunately, The Truth comes across as somewhat lazy. Readers of Brunvand’s earlier books will notice some recycled material here. The individual conference papers do not appear to have been significantly rewritten into chapters of a book. Often, the research seems to come to his desk, as he cites letters, clippings and e-mail sent to him and then comments how many similar stories he already has in, say, his “Exploding Toilet” file. A chapter on miscellaneous legends and his son’s guest authorship of the last chapter do nothing to alleviate this impression. Without a doubt, Brunvand commands a certain authority over the subject, but I would recommend readers interested in an urban legends collection instead look for his earlier, much more comprehensive book, Too Good to be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends.