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Reviewed by:
  • Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends
  • Elizabeth Tucker (bio)
Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends. By Mikel J. Koven. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008. ix +199 pp.

Films offer excellent opportunities to demonstrate the legend’s dynamics. I have shown The Burning (1981), Urban Legend (1998), and other films to my students, explaining how they reflect and encourage the spread of traditional narratives. Until now, there has been no textbook that covers convergences of legends with film. Mikel Koven’s Film, Folkore, and Urban Legends fills that gap, explaining complex interrelationships with thoroughness, insight, and wit.

This book brings together revised versions of Koven’s previously published essays on folklore and film, with the purpose of examining the relationship between traditional folklore and popular culture. The author explains that this is not meant to be a “definitive” study of folklore and film; instead, it strives to [End Page 343] apply folkloristic terms to film analysis, redefining for folklore studies “what and how we can engage within popular film and television debates” (ix). He succeeds in this endeavor, explicating aspects of methodology, belief, and ostension that concern legend scholars and other folklorists.

In his introductory chapter, Koven summarizes questions raised in earlier scholarship. Do mass-mediated texts qualify as folklore? How do mass-mediated texts influence traditional storytelling style and content? Citing S. Elizabeth Bird’s For Enquiring Minds (1992), he suggests that we focus on how “certain popular culture forms succeed because they act like folklore” (345). He decries “motif spotting” and tale-type identification, which connect films’ traditional content to myth, Märchen, and legend, because these methods seem too superficial.

Part 2, “In Search of a Methodology,” introduces some diverse relationships between folklore and film. In the chapter devoted to Robin Hardy’s film The Wicker Man (1973), Koven criticizes the film’s creators for uncritically using Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough as the basis for their portrayal of human sacrifice by inhabitants of a Scottish island. This portrayal, he argues, “unproblematically literalize[s] a colonialist agenda that sees the Celtic nations as an undifferentiated whole” (33). While this argument rings true, the next chapter, “Searching for Tale Types and Motifs in the Zombie Film,” seems less persuasive. One can delve deeper than identifying types and motifs, to be sure, but comparison of oral-traditional and cinematic zombies to their quasi-cognates in European folklore raises intriguing issues. Koven admits that “placing these two phenomena side by side does create a discursive juxtaposition” (50); it also makes the reader think about cultural differences and analytic categories.

In part 3, “Issues of Belief,” Koven analyzes two episodes of the popular series The X-Files, finding that the series stimulates discussion “within a framework of legend collection and folkloristic debates about belief” (81). Such debates also arise in relation to “killer bee” films such as Deadly Invasion (1995). How, Koven asks, do relatively recent anxieties about killer bees compare to worries about killer bees in the late 1970s? In “Beeing Anxious” he explains that recent films show American families under attack, while older films depict a whole society struggling with disaster. Although he could go farther in interpreting what this focus on the family means, he persuades the reader that these popular films “reflect contemporary anxieties much as urban legends do” (95).

The second chapter of part 4 presents slasher films as folkloristic social scripts. Carefully defining the slasher film and discussing such richly folkloric films as Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), Koven explains that “applying morphological and social-script approaches to these films reveals a different set of questions” (131). He asks whether Scream (1996) and other movies of that ilk have destroyed the possibility of audiences viewing [End Page 344] semi-humorous rules as social scripts. I suspect that the answer to that question is yes. In any case, Koven’s call for “proper audience studies . . . on actual audiences’ interpretations” is right on target (132).

Part 5 explores the key issue of ostension: translating a legend text into action. After considering studies by Linda Dégh, Andrew Vázsonyi, Bill Ellis, and Carl Lindahl, Koven closely examines how ostension works in Candyman (1992). First...


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pp. 343-345
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