Jul 24, 2019 in Literature

Folklore and Communication

Folklore is an important part of any nation’s culture. It is usually defined as the oral tradition passed from generation to generation, and it has a compound construction. Folklore includes superstitions, proverbs, lullabies, ballads, myths, and other materials. Most often, these beliefs originate from the peasantry and reflect the ancient past of the nation. Three basic categories of the folklore genres can be differentiated. First of all, it is the oral type, which includes songs, folktales, and legends. The customary type features rituals, games, folk religion, and rites of passage while the material type of the folk beliefs includes handmade objects and art. The most common elements of folklore are folktales, myths, and legends.

David Hufford, Barre Toelken, and Carl Lindahl made an important contribution to the understanding of the folk beliefs. Therefore, to better understand the emergence and development of the folk beliefs, it is important to examine the work of these folklorists.


David Hufford conducts numerous researches on ethnography and spiritual beliefs of ordinary people. His primary interests include folklore and its application in practice. For example, in one of his books, he studies the experiential basis of the belief in the supernatural, pervasiveness of the nightmare across cultures and scientific opinion about the sleep phenomena. One of the most important topics that Hufford researched was the so-called Old Hag experience. It involves waking up during the night and hearing or seeing something coming into the room and approaching the bed. In such a situation, a person feels pressure on the chest and suffocation. The victims cannot move or speak; subsequently, they wake up lying on the back and being sure that their experience was real.

In his research, Hufford proves that all spiritual beliefs rely on faith only. According to this author, a supernatural incident usually happens before a certain belief becomes established. In such cases, the details of this experience do not depend on the prior knowledge or considerations. Hufford also examined the notion of spirits and religious beliefs that many people had in them. He noticed that despite the development of the modern world, people still believe in spirits and ghosts since most of their folk beliefs are deeply rooted in their cultural traditions. Thus, Hufford’s contribution to the research of the concept of belief is undoubtedly huge.

Barre Toelken studied various schools of thought in folklore and was interested in the medieval English literature and ballads. In his opinion, a person’s worldview is determined by his or her experience and culture. However, different cultures have various ways of decoding and explaining the experience. For example, the events that seem to be supernatural for one culture can turn out to be common to another one. Therefore, according to Toelken, the limits of people’s understanding need to be stretched.

Toelken made an important contribution to exploring the lives of Native Americans, namely the Navajo people. In one of his works, he asserts that for the Indian people, a supernatural experience is a range of normal possibilities. Toelken spent much time on researching the lives of Indians and examining their legends, folktales, rituals, and traditions. Consequently, he was able to explain their beliefs and convey their meaning to others. Mostly due to his studies, many white people were able to better understand the Indian culture and find the aspects in it that would be interesting to other nations.

Carl Lindahl has an internationally recognized authority in the folklore studies, including medieval folklore, tales, legends, celebrations, festivals, customs, and healing practices. He studied many traditions, including the ones of the Appalachia, regional cultures of Texas, Creole, and Caribbean region. In one of his works, Lindahl researched the concept of ostension, which was defined as the process, through which people enacted a legend. In the same work, he also examined the so-called ghost tracks and roads, which, according to the legends, had gravity phenomena that people encountered on them.

Lindahl’s contribution to the study of folklore and spiritual beliefs was the following. He carefully listened to the stories told by the witnesses of supernatural events in order to analyze them precisely and see their particular points. He would take a close look at the mental condition of the witnesses, their emotions and perceptions of the experience, as well as cultural background and possible doubts. Lindahl’s conclusions allow seeing the experience from many perspectives in order to assess it critically.

It is necessary to understand that folklore remains an agent of the present, despite all these changes. However, working with the new media technologies is an important aspect. In the digital age, folk beliefs and the way of their distribution are certainly changing since people’s perceptions are also transforming. The folk culture has shown the ability to adapt and respond to the changing cultures and innovative communication technologies. Even though not all folklorists want to study the Internet folklore, but instead focus on the oral traditions and face-to-face communication, it is becoming more and more popular. What makes the Internet folklore different is its visual part, eye-catching components, and modern humor.

The society is constantly undergoing some changes that touch upon many spheres, including folklore. The latter is changing due to various factors, such as the emergence of new technologies, emphasis on the visual information, participatory culture, blurring the border between the public and private information, and appearance of the so-called disaster jokes. Considering these changes is important for studying folklore. In 1980, Gary Alan Fine examined these social changes and demonstrated how the “Kentucky Fried Rat” urban legend negotiated them. This legend, as well as Fine’s conclusions, is analyzed further.

In his article, Fine says that significant environmental changes of the modern age have led to the emergence of the new folklore themes and transformation of the old ones. In order to deal with these changes and negotiate the current reality, people create these new themes. The author also explores the components of change that can be found in the American society. They include labor division, differentiation of interests, impersonalization, urbanization, and changing values. As a result of all the social changes, new folktales and myths appear. For example, there is a storytelling that the New York sewer system is full of albino alligators that swim along the toilet pipes and bite people in public restrooms.

The modern American society has new values, such as the increased emphasis on consumption, change of gender roles, and open sexuality. The latter is reflected in the stories about bathing suits manufacturers, who use a special fabric that becomes transparent in the water. This legend reveals the fear of the overt sexuality effects. Indeed, the national worldview has an influence on the acceptance of beliefs, rumors, and legends. Only the stories that could theoretically happen are accepted as folklore, discarding many myths about supernatural beings since the narrations about human meanness seem to be more realistic.

Many modern legends are associated with the food consumption and the food that is prepared institutionally – in schools, summer camps, and army. These legends say that a certain chemical is added to this food in order to gain a particular result, such as obedience, for instance. There are also legends about fast food chains, such as the Kentucky Fried Chicken. They tell about people who ordered food at this restaurant and, while eating it, found out that instead of fried chicken they were eating a fried rat. What is interesting, the stories about rats found in food have been a typical part of folklore for a long time. However, they used to talk about the Chinese or Italian restaurants while now, they consider popular fast food chains. This fact proved that people are anxious and afraid of the foods served in these restaurants, and the stories about rats found in their foods serve as a confirmation of these fears showing that they are not groundless. A rat in these legends is a symbol of the moral decay of the community since finding this animal in food reveals how dirty the restaurant is and how neglectful its employees are.
It is worth mentioning that 81 percent of victims in these stories are women. It does not mean that females are more frequent customers of the fast food chains but reveals the change in the society. Namely, today, women are considered to be more neglectful of their traditional roles as housewives and food preparers. Thus, the abundance of females in these stories may serve as a symbolic punishment. In addition, a family dinner used to be a traditional element of the American culture; however, today, as a result of appearance of numerous fast food chains and restaurants, this tradition, as well as the eating habits of people, has changed. Eating became a secondary activity, which is mostly done in a hurry. To make the stories even more impressive, most legends end with the victim’s shock, illness, aversion to certain foods or food in general, or even death.

The following modern tendencies can be revealed in the legends similar to the “Kentucky Fried Rat” story. These fears include improper preparation of foods in particular restaurants, change of the female role, decline of the family eating traditions, and fears of corporatism and of those who strive for the economic gain. In the current digital age, such social changes are seen to be even quicker, and folklore still negotiates them. Analyzing the online disaster jokes, such as the “Tourist Guy” and “9/11 jokes”, it is possible to see this issue.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, a photograph appeared on the Internet, which showed a young man standing on the observation deck of the World Trading Center, seemingly seconds before the plane crashed into it. The picture seemed to be extremely impressive to people; however, soon numerous inconsistencies were found proving that the photograph was a fake. First of all, it was impossible to believe that a camera would survive the collision. Secondly, the plane crashed from another side of the building and, due to its speed, it had to be blurred in the picture. When the hoax was revealed, a number of jokes and parodies appeared depicting the same man in different circumstances related to fictional or historical tragedies. As a result, the image of the so-called “Tourist Guy” turned into the quintessence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time out of ignorance of what is about to happen around. Moreover, due to that fact, the man became a representation of all the Americans in the morning before the terroristic attack. Thus, being a disaster joke at first, the “Tourist Guy” turned into the modern legend. A number of “9/11” jokes also appeared in the US after the tragedy, and they are thought to be helping people cope with the trauma after the event. Those are the jokes that appeared in numerous talk shows, animated series, and comedies. All of them underlie the feeling of rebelliousness and alienation of the media culture.

Consequently, the modern folklore appears in order to express social anxiety and fears about certain issues that worry them at the moment. In the meantime, the emergence of computers and other gadgets, which help people communicate, generate new opportunities for the creation and spread of certain legends. Therefore, the current digital age has marked a new stage in the development of the contemporary folklore.


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