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Book Review

Ben Radford

Volume 36.6, November/December 2012

Encyclopedia of Urban Legends book cover

Encyclopedia of Urban Legends: Updated and Expanded Edition. By Jan Harold Brunvand. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-59884-720-8. 782 pp., $173.

With his new Encyclopedia of Urban Legends: Updated and Expanded Edition, Jan Brun­vand—the professor emeritus of Eng­lish at the University of Utah widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on urban legends—updates and greatly expands his previous magnum opus of folklore.

Brunvand is author of many books on urban legends that are (or should be) familiar to skeptics, including The Baby Train, The Choking Doberman, and The Vanishing Hitchhiker. Brunvand’s other books provide much more detail, history, and variations of the legends, but for a comprehensive single source, this encyclopedia (which runs nearly 800 pages over two volumes) is the best of its kind. The entries are generally short, ranging from a paragraph to a few pages, and give a concise narrative of the legend and some analysis. Each entry provides references, and many of them are cross-referenced with other entries, Brunvand’s books, other books on urban legends, folklore journals, and even the occasional Snopes.com page.

This book is more than just a collection of urban legends—it also includes interesting entries on important folkloric concepts and topics such as Memorates (“a first-person account of a personal experience with the supernatural”), Bogus Warnings, the Satanic Panic, and my favorite, the Body Parts Legends. Folklore, because it is amorphous and constantly changing, is notoriously difficult to quantify and categorize (for example, the story of the Vanishing Hitchhiker is clearly an urban legend—but is a forwarded email warning about a mall rapist? Or what about a true news story about a woman who microwaved her dog?). To help with this, Brunvand offers a useful Type Index of Urban Legends, categorizing various legends according to theme.

The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends also helps clarify what exactly is meant by “urban legend”; the public often uses the term overly broadly. As Brunvand notes in his introduction, “I am not in­cluding plotless rumors, gossip, bits of misinformation, etc. Although these materials share some of the same features as urban legends they are not technically in the same genre, even though a few such borderline cases do merit mention in some of my entries” (xxvii).

Folklore often informs skeptical in­vestigation, and it has been invaluable in my research into such varied topics as ghosts, djinn (genies), lake monsters, kidney-theft rumors, chupacabra myth­ology, and Halloween poisoned candy scares. Just about every paranormal or “unexplained” subject (whether objectively real or not) has a robust and rich mythology surrounding it; without at least a passing knowledge of its folkloric aspects, an investigation is incomplete at best.

Accessible enough for the casual reader yet scholarly enough for academic researchers, The Encyclopedia of Urban Legends is an invaluable and fascinating book that merits a place on the shelf of any skeptic and student of folklore. The book is currently priced as an academic book but will hopefully be issued in a cheaper edition next year.

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Benjamin Radford 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 six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.