Book Review: Encyclopedia of Urban Legends by Jan Harold Bruvard


Don’t you just love that cover?

The cover is based on the urban legend about the driver who stops at a gas station.  Usually, the driver is already nervous due to having heard a report about an escaped murderer or a missing mental patient.  When a frantic stranger approaches the car, the driver panics and drives off.  What the driver didn’t realize was that the stranger was trying to warn her that the killer was in the back seat of her car.

How about the one about the girl and the boy making out in the car when they hear a report that a killer with a hook for a hand is in the area?  I’ve heard several variations of that one but the thing they all have in common is that they never end well for the couple.  The underlying message, of course, is that the couple was punished for giving into temptation but, in all honesty, most people who hear the story are going to care more about the hook than the subtext.

It’s kind of like the story of the girl who thinks that a killer is trying to enter her dorm room so she locks the door, just to discover, in the safety of the morning hours, that the person pounding on the door was actually her now dead roommate.  Aren’t you glad you didn’t answer the door? is written in blood on the outside of the door.  That story gave me nightmares the first time that I heard it, even if memories of it didn’t exactly keep me from going out at night.  Actually, being scared made me even more determined to go out.  I wasn’t going to let an imaginary killer tell me what to do!

All of those stories and many more are included in Jan Harold Brunvand’s Encyclopedia of Urban Legends.  Many of the urban legends included in here are frightening.  A few of them are a little bit ridiculous, especially the ones that were obviously dreamt up as a way to scare kids straight in the 60s.  (We’ve all heard about the stoned babysitter and the microwave, right?)  Some of them are funny.  Some of them are embarrassing.  Some, I’ve actually heard repeated as fact by many different people.  The book not only details various urban legends but it also has entries about the cultural and historical roots of those legends.  (Satanic Panic, for instance, gets an entry all of its own.)  It also takes a look at the urban legends of various nations, examining how several different cultures can adopt the same story and make it uniquely their own.  Jan Harold Brunvand is one of the world’s leading authorities on folklore and urban legends.  His encyclopedia is both entertaining to read and rather thought-provoking as it examines the roots of some of the oldest urban legends around.  As well, in the introduction, he takes some time to write about how much he disliked the film Urban Legend.  You have to respect that.

Encyclopedia of Urban Legends is a great reference book.  It’s one of my favorites.  For the aspiring horror writer, it’s treasure trove of research and inspiration.  And did I mention how much I love the cover?

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