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100% True! This Is Not a Joke!

Book Review

Ben Radford

Volume 24.5, September / October 2000

The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story! By Jan Harold Brunvand.
University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 2000.
ISBN 0-252-02424-9. 218 pp., $22.95.

From snuff films to microwaved babies, alligators in sewers to AIDS-infected needles in telephone coin slots, urban legends are everywhere. With The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story!, folklorist and CSICOP Fellow Jan Harold Brunvand produces a new batch of funny and fascinating urban legends. Among the dozen or so tales:

During the hot summer of 1995, a woman driving home from a trip to the grocery store heard a loud pop in the back of her car. Alarmed, she turned around, but didn't see what made the noise. She then touched the back of her head, and felt something soft and gooey in her hair. Though she felt no pain, she realized she'd been shot in the head and was terrified that it was her brains she was feeling. Panicked, she drove immediately to an emergency room. As paramedics treated the shaken woman, one rescuer noticed that a can of frozen biscuits had burst open in the heat; the dough had hit the woman in the head.

  • “Lights Out!”

    A story that circulated in 1993 and 1994 warned drivers not to flash their lights at cars whose lights were off. The reason, according to various sources (including a fictitious Sacramento police officer) was that doing so would trigger a horrible gang initiation in which the hapless victim would be followed to their destination and killed.

  • “The Ghost Searching for Help”

    A doctor is awakened one snowy night by a young girl in a worn coat who comes to his door pleading for help for her dying mother. The kindly physician quickly dresses and follows the girl to a small house, where he finds a woman desperately ill with pneumonia. After administering aid, the doctor compliments the woman on her brave and resourceful daughter. The woman is puzzled, and tells him that her daughter died a month ago. She points to a coat hanging nearby-the same one the doctor saw- yet it is warm and dry.

  • “Missing Day in Time”

    This urban legend still actively circulates, mainly among fundamentalist Christians. The story goes that astronomical data entered into a NASA computer program “proved” that Biblical accounts of a miracle were correct, as the program finds a “missing day” alluded to in Joshua 10:8. Brunvand discusses the origin of this legend and traces it in part back to “an anti-Semite and crackpot” who taught military science at Yale from 1889 to 1892.

  • Urban legends are in many ways the folklore of the people, being spread informally through word of mouth as well as over the Internet. Wherever ordinary people gather, such as schoolyards, picnics, in coffee bars and around water coolers, urban legends will be exchanged. In addition to providing a fascinating glimpse into modern folklore, urban legends allow us to study beliefs. Why do people believe the stories they hear? What are the reasons people have for believing them?

    As one folklore investigator wrote to Brunvand, “I have, in general, stopped trying to enlighten people about folklore, but it’s amazing how [investigating an urban legend] has affected my life, causing me to reject surface explanations and shallow thinking of all sorts. It doesn't make one very popular, I think, to understand folklore . . . . But, leaving aside popularity, I can think of few things that impart a healthy skepticism quite so enjoyably [as folklore study].”

    Jan Brunvand is author of many books on urban legends, including The Vanishing Hitchhiker (1981), The Choking Doberman (1984), The Mexican Pet (1986), and Curses! Broiled Again! (1989). Prior to his recent retirement, he was a professor emeritus specializing in folklore at the University of Utah.

    Drawing from years of experience and a sly wit, Brunvand discusses these urban legends, describes motifs, and catalogues story variations from around the world. He avoids berating those who pass urban legends along, and reserves his swipes for gullible journalists who don't check their facts and never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

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    Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.