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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 490-491
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Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. By Jan Harold Brunvand. Illustrated by Randy Hickman. (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2001. Pp. xxxiv + 525, preface, introduction, incidental illustrations, selected bibliography, index.)
Urban legends have become part and parcel of everyday life in America. The stories are familiar—tales of food, travel, crime, romance, sex, shopping, technology, scientific discovery, pets and the like—yet many Americans often fail to recognize the legends and their various permutations as they exchange them in electronic mail, debate them over dinner, or watch them being played out in movies. That being the case, Jan Brunvand has done both everyday America and academia a good turn by compiling in the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends what seems to be a comprehensive collection of these all-too-believable, but mostly apocryphal, stories that entertain us and enrich our daily lives.
Beginning with an introduction that defines the "urban legend" concept and then provides a general outline of the history of urban legend studies in the United States and abroad, Brunvand's text contains entries for some 300-plus individual legends and several dozen more discussions of legend themes such as tourist horror stories, fast food, sex in the classroom, and the like. By detailing these hundreds of individual legends and their variants, explaining prevalent and reoccurring urban legend themes, and discussing the range of possible scholarly approaches to the genre, Brunvand has managed to embrace nearly every aspect of this modern folk narrative. Other entries in the book briefly examine the multiple connections of urban legends to religion, literature, film, television, tabloids, comic books, music, and other areas of popular culture. Another group of entries is focused specifically on various scholarly approaches to interpreting the lore. These entries typically include the historical, theoretical, and international aspects of the approaches. The end result is a compilation that is not only an exhaustive treatment of urban legends of the United States, Britain, Canada, and other English-speaking countries, but a virtual paradigm for collecting, classifying, and analyzing urban legend texts and performances internationally.
Arranged alphabetically, the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends entries include many of the contemporary legends we have come to know and love. Lesser-known tales and their variants from around the globe join old favorites like "AIDS Mary," "The Vanishing Hitchhiker," and "The Death Car." The collection includes discussions of some legend motifs dating back several centuries but focuses principally on the past several decades of the academic study of legends and includes several references as recent as 2001. Because Brunvand is such a prolific and widely published American scholar in this subject area, it is not surprising that many of the references cited in the individual entries are his. Nonetheless, he draws broadly from across the folklore community and cites many of the best scholars, past and present, of American and contemporary legend folklore.
The best element for the general reader is likely to be the extremely readable nature of the text; the smooth narrative reads like very few other encyclopedias. Beginning folklore students will appreciate the historical and methodological considerations of urban legend themes and the fairly robust bibliography. The best parts for advanced scholars are apt to be the individual legend narratives and their variants as well as the discussions of scholarly approaches to the field, especially the informed [End Page 490] discussions of the growing awareness of the international character of the genre. All readers interested in the field will certainly appreciate Brunvand's mastery of the topic, the cross-referenced entries, and the inclusion of directions for finding some of the contemporary legend materials available on the Internet. Although the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends is intended primarily as a reference work, its liveliness might make a useful undergraduate course textbook.
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