Have you heard the one about the guy who was reading a book review on the Internet, and it was a book about death and curses and stuff? It came right out and said that if you read to the end you’ll die, but the guy kept reading. And just when he got to the very last word of the last paragraph, he died?
Have you heard that one? Probably not, considering I just made it up. Maybe you think you’ve heard it because you’ve probably heard a thousand stories like it. Chain letters. Prophecies that come true. Hapless victims walking into their own curses. Maybe you were dared to read a tombstone’s encryption in the moonlight and it ended with a reminder of your own mortality. Boo!
And once you’ve heard the stories, you’ve probably repeated them. Maybe you’ve even told them as “God’s honest truth! It happened to a friend of mine!” even though intellectually you should know that it’s not possible for every town to have an escaped mental patient with a hook for a hand or an old woman who tried to dry her poodle in the microwave. In Aliens, Ghosts and Cults: Legends We Live, Bill Ellis studies our fascination with urban legends, tall tales and other fringe stories that might be called folklore. Ellis, a Penn State University professor, has previously written Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions and the Media.
Clear writing and entertaining examples make the opening, term-defining chapters worthwhile, but some of this is just a bid to become a textbook for a Folklore 101 class. (At the final for my Folklore 101 class, a student continued writing after the professor told the hundred and fifty or so students to stop. When the student approached the front to leave his final on the pile, the professor told him he had already flunked because he ignored the time limit. “Do you know who I am?” demanded the student. “No, and I don’t care,” replied the professor. “Good,” said the student, and stuffed the final into the middle of the pile. True story.)
Ellis emphasizes the performance aspect of legend-telling, convincingly arguing that the way we tell these stories is as important as the stories themselves. He presents an elaborate transcription of two young women discussing of a haunted house. Without the performance aspect, the legend simply becomes an explanation for the ghosts: a jealous husband killed his family and then himself there. The transcript of their “legend-telling event,” including interruptions, asides and jokes, shows that this legend has become “primarily a discussion of ‘men’ and how to deal with their unreasonable demands. Whether or not the house is haunted is not important enough for the two to resolve; what is threatening is the possibility of being trapped in a male-dominated marriage. Of course the same legend may appear in other conversations to illustrate entirely different points.” This book is not a tour of haunted houses, but an examination of our need to tell legends.
In his chapter on Whitley Strieber’s Communion, Ellis studies the reception of the nonfiction account of alien abduction. Many readers, both skeptical and believing, accused the book of drawing conclusions that are not, in fact, present in the book. Ellis shows that these readers built their own version of Strieber’s story out of their own “belief-language,” deciding what the book said depending on whether they wanted to praise Strieber or condemn him. The story told does not become the legend heard. Considering the high profile of Communion, it is unfortunate that Ellis devotes no more space to this than to the “Pizza Hut Ghost.”
It’s probably not news to anybody that legends reinforce personal or cultural beliefs. It’s not surprising when rumors of black gang members killing white babies run through white communities. Nor is it surprising when the reverse legend—white gangs stealing black babies—thrives in black communities. (Seriously though, if you’re ever driving through central Connecticut at night and you see a car driving without its lights on, don’t flash your high beams. Just don’t.) Ellis shows how these stories endure whether or not the performer believes them and how the audience adds to this endurance by shaping the legends themselves. Using campfire stories as illustration, Ellis defines legends as a collective drama, shaped by the performer, but also changed by the audience as they accept, reject or edit the legend from telling to telling.
(By the way, when I was in college in 1991, a story made the rounds that Nostradamus had predicted a slaughter of college students in a building shaped like a letter. Well, okay, it didn’t happen, but it was supposed to happen because 1991 is a “reversible year” and I’d just like to point out that 2002 is coming up.)
Ellis compares these legends to what Richard Dawkins called “memes”—information acting as a virus or a parasite encouraging its own dissemination through its host (i.e. you)—to illustrate how these self-replicating stories come to have a life of their own. A visit to the “Rumors of War” page [see sidebar] demonstrates how quickly these stories are born and travel. Were you one of the millions sent a completely sincere warning to stay out of the malls on Halloween? Comparing our funny or scary stories to a virus may sound overly insidious, but Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults provides several case studies of the impact of legend on real life, earning the subtitle Legends We Live. “Events provoke stories; but it is far more likely that stories provoke events.”
For example, how much worry has been devoted to the safety of Halloween candy without a single documented case of strangers with tampered candy? In fact, the only incident of a child being harmed occurred in the eighties, long after the legend took root in our imagination. A Texas man killed his son with poisoned candy and then claimed it came from a “hairy-handed” stranger, hoping the legend would deflect suspicion from him. Ellis also runs through selected trials of childcare workers during the Satanism scare of the 80s showing that even a courtroom, supposedly an arena of facts and evidence, could provide a haven for legends.
One particularly strong chapter, “Devil Worshipers at the Prom,” examines how a rural Pennsylvania community reacted to pervasive rumors that Satanists intended to kill the first four couples through the door at the Prom. Ellis convincingly argues that the panic must be viewed against a background of the local religious conservatism, anxiety over teenagers’ “rebellious” or “Satanic” attire and, least obviously, the earlier, unexplained suicide of a popular student. The never-seen Satanists provide the town with an easy villain, an explanation for a tragedy and a climactic test.
Although the writing occasionally lapses into academic folklorist lingo and can be a little jumpy since it was originally written as numerous separate essays, Ellis mostly remains clear and interesting. Focusing on the background and effects of legends, Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults documents fewer legends than some collections out there, but is much more successful as a study of the people telling the stories. Given the X- Files font and colors on the cover, the University Press of Mississippi clearly wants some mainstream sales. Ellis’ book is more likely to be the textbook you don’t sell back when the semester is over. (By the way, this is the last word.)