- Frequently Asked Questions -
   
 
  Q: How did you get started studying urban legends?  
  A: They were discussed briefly in the first folklore course I took in the early 1950's; we called them "urban belief tales" in those days. When I began my own teaching in 1961 I used them at the beginning of my courses to demonstrate to students that all folklore was not ancient and that they, too, knew some folk stories. It was always a popular unit in the classes. About 20 years later, having accumulated a fat folder of examples and some ideas about their functions and meanings, I expanded my class notes to an article for Psychology Today. This caught the attention of radio and TV talk shows, including Late Night with David Letterman, and I realized that there was a huge audience that knew such stories without recognizing them as folklore. W. W. Norton, publisher of my textbook in American folklore, took a chance with my first urban legend book The Vanishing Hitchhiker in 1981, and the rest is history.  
   
  Q: What's the difference between folklore and urban legends?  
  A: Legends are part of narrative folklore, along with myths, fairy tales, jokes, tall tales, etc.  
   
  Q: Did you actually make a whole university career out of teaching urban legend courses?  
  A: No, no. I taught a variety of folklore courses, as well as some literature and writing courses. In fact, I only taught a special course on urban legends one time. You could say that American folklore was my professional field and urban legends were more-or-less my hobby.  
   
  Q: Does folklore include more than just stories?  
  A: Yes, indeed. Folklore includes not only verbal traditions (proverbs, riddles, rhymes, stories, songs, etc.) but also customary traditions (beliefs, customs, festivals, dances, etc.) and material traditions (log cabins, rail fences, quilts, homemade toys, many ethnic foods, etc.) The hallmarks of all folklore are 1) passed on by word of mouth and simple demonstration, 2) occurring in different versions and variants, and 3) being part of the living tradition of a distinctive group.  
   
  Q: So what folk group do urban legends circulate among?  
  A: Relatively sophisticated, educated, urbanized modern people. The "folk" are just people who have folklore, so we are all part of the folk, or more correctly, we all belong to various folk groups (families, occupational groups, age- or gender-based groups, regional groups, ethnic groups, etc.)  
   
  Q: How can I learn more about this field?  
  A: Take a folklore course at a college or university. Read my textbook The Study of American Folklore. Consult the Encyclopedia of American Folklore.  
   
  Q: Is Paul Bunyan the most typical example of American folklore.  
  A: Far from it. Paul Bunyan is actually fakelore. (See the sources mentioned above.)  
   
  Q: What are the most important features of an urban legend?  
  A: As stated on p. 10 of The Vanishing Hitchhiker: "a strong basic story-appeal, a foundation in actual belief, and a meaningful message or 'moral'." I still agreee with myself, as expressed back in 1981. It's also necessary to say that any legends are "too good to be true," that is, unverified and too coincidental to be taken as literal truth.  
   
  Q: What are the main tell-tale signs that a story may be an urban legend?  
  A: That it is a story with a twist verified only by such vague references as that it "happened to a friend of a friend." That the same story with minor variations occurs widely and is localized in details. That it is similar to one of the legends cataloged in my books!  
   
  Q: What makes an urban legend successful?  
  A: Getting picked up and repeated by the maximum number of people. What makes that happen is a mystery.  
   
  Q: How do urban legends originate?  
  A: Another mystery. Some are updatings of older traditional legends. Some were probably made up by individuals, and some may even have sprung from an actual incident. Many of them, I believe, just evolved as people talked about some of their concerns and mixed bits of fantasy with real incidents. I also think the "what if?" principle played a part, as in "What if someone put a small animal into a microwave oven?" or "What if someone's grandmother died while a family was driving somewhere on vacation?" To attempt to determine origins of an urban legends, one has to study a particular legend in all possible depth and detail. But you still may not be able to figure it out.  
   
  Q: Is most study of urban legends about determining origins or weighing their possible truth?  
  A: No. Most study is directed towards determining their meanings and functions. But I admit that debunking urban legends has a big appeal for the general public and that my works have been read in that way by many. Note that I am also an active member of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.  
   
  Q: How many urban legends are there?  
  A: I've cataloged about 250 distinct stories, mostly American, but new ones keep appearing. I would guess that this number could be multiplied four times over if we could inventory every country's modern folklore. The number of re-tellings and variations of these stories is beyond anyone's ability to count.  
   
  Q: What is the most common urban legend?  
  A: Impossible to answer. Who keeps such statistics on a world-wide basis? Perhaps "The Vanishing Hitchhiker" is the most widely distributed and longest-lasting, but at any given time others may be much more common. Urban legends, like all folklore, come and go.  
   
  Q: Do you ever believe any urban legends you hear?  
  A: If you mean do I believe them to be true? Not a chance. By definition urban legends are fictional, even if they include some factual details. Of course, I have thought some weird stories to be legends that soon turned out to be true. See the entries True Urban Legends and Truth Claims in Urban Legends in the second edition of my Encyclopedia of Urban Legends.  
   
  Q: Are you shocked by some of the more violent, graphic, or sexual urban legends?  
  A: Not really. If you are going to be shocked by such details, you should not be studying folklore.  
   
  Q: What's the point of studying urban legends?  
  A: The same point as studying any folklore, whether ancient or modern: To reveal the motivations, hopes, dreams, fears, etc. of the people among whom these traditions circulate. The history of particular themes and plots in urban legends is itself a fascinating study, but behind it all is the wish to learn more about the human sources and carriers of the lore.  
   
  Q: Do urban legends have any positive value in society?  
  A: Besides entertainment, they often teach valuable lessons: Keep your eyes on your kids. Check the back seat of your car. Don't trust big business or government always to act in your favor. Of course, they also may support racism, homophobia, greed, or other negative attitudes, but that's life. The study of urban legends may help to defuse such effects by exposing the legends' "messages."  
   
  Q: If you wanted to start an urban legend, how would you do it?  
  A: I tried it once, figuring it had to be a simple story with a twist and probably be similar to a story already going around. Having in mind the one about the pelican or eagle stealing someone's tiny pet dog, I made up a story about a peregrine falcon in downtown Salt Lake City swooping down and capturing a tourist's pet parakeet which was riding around on its owner's shoulder. The story went nowhere. (There were at that time peregrines nesting on a hotel window ledge overlooking Temple Square, and lots of tourists do park their cars and campers around the area to tour downtown. It's plausible that someone would have a pet parakeet along.)  
   
  Q: What is your favorite urban legend?  
  A: That's the most common question people ask, and my least favorite question. I think it's like asking a chemist "What's your favorite element?" After all, it's just data. But the real answer may be found on page 575 in Volume 2 of the second edition of my Encyclopedia of Urban Legends.  
   
  Q: Has the Internet had an impact on urban legends?  
  A: Definitely. In fact, I maintain that e-mail and website transmission of ULs has surpassed the oral tradition. I call it "The Vanishing Urban Legend" and have been giving talks along this line at folklore conferences for several years. (Not all folklorists agree with me.) The Internet is a wonderful medium for spreading, studying, collecting, and discussing urban legends, although you simply cannot believe everything you find there. As in daily life and conversation (including talk shows) anyone can say just about anything he or she wants on the Internet. Internet transmission of ULs is very fast and spans the globe, but really that is not nearly as interesting to me, as a folklorist, as was the oral spread of tradition and the resulting variations. Or is this just an excuse for me to do less research and more fly fishing and skiing??  
   
  Q: Are you the only expert on urban legends?  
  A: Not by a long shot. All modern folklorists are aware of them, and quite a few others make it their speciality. I'm just the folklorist who has written the most about urban legends in books for the ordinary reader, not just for students or other scholars. The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR) is the main group holding conferences and publishing material about urban legends. The website at snopes.com is the main meeting place for all students of urban legends, whether trained scholars or devoted fans.  
   
  Q: What do you consider your most important book on urban legends?  
  A: My Encyclopedia of Urban Legends, in its second updated and expanded edition. This two-volume reference work is found in many university and college libraries as well as some large public libraries. I hope that it will eventually be published in an affordable paperback edition, as was the first edition.  
   
  Q: Do you recommend any link to other sites?  
  The best of several urban legend websites is Snopes.com. Also see the entry "Internet Resources" in the second edition of my Encyclopedia of Urban Legends.  
     
  Q: What were your most recent books?  
  A: A paperback collection titled Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Book of Scary Urban Legends was published by W. W. Norton in 2004. Beginning with a selection of precursors to our modern urban horror legends found in journalistic and literary sources, I chose examples of scary "true" stories right up to some circulated currently on the Internet. The second updated and expanded edition of my Encyclopedia of Urban Legends was published in 2012.  
   
  Q: Do you have any new books coming out?  
  A: I am working on an updating and expansion of Too Good to be True which should be published later in 2013 or early the next year.  
     
  Q: What's the story behind your book about Romanian house decoration?  
  A: On my first research trip to Romania in 1970-71 I reviewed how folklore is collected and studied there, and I published a survey article. Near the end of that year I became interested in the traditional house types seen in villages and in the open air ethnographic museums. I met an expert in that field who encouraged me to return and document the rich tradition of house decoration in rural Romania. After two more research trips and a couple of articles, I published the book depicted above in the "His books" section of this site. The book has only black and white illustrations, but if you click on the cover photo you will bring up a set of color photographs of the same houses as well as some shots of a much younger Jan Brunvand doing fieldwork. Incidentally, also in Romania I heard some unique urban legends. I incorporated some of these into the entry on Romania in my Encyclopedia of Urban Legends.  
     
  Dr. Brunvand's books are available at the major book stores worldwide near you, plus some large online stores including the following sites:  
  www.amazon.com   www.amazon.co.uk  
  www.barnesandnoble.com   www.wwnorton