54. Contemporary legends, fiction and reality in a global world

This post is also available in: Catalan

Carme Oriol
Universitat Rovira i Virgili


A contemporary legend, also known as an urban legend or a modern legend among other names, is one of the genres of folk (or ethnopoetic) literature that is enjoying great vitality today. It is a fictional story of an extraordinary, surprising and curious nature, but it is presented as an account of something that may have really happened. Transmission of a contemporary legend basically takes place in two types of communicative situations: in our daily conversations and in informal spaces where social interaction takes place among a group—for example, young people at summer camps or in recreational groups.

Contemporary legends derive their appearance of reality from the conviction with which they are described by their narrator, who, in fact, will believe them to be true. The listener, on the other hand, can react in various ways: with credulity, scepticism or even disbelief. And this is so because the debate over whether or not it is true is an implicit part of the legend, unlike the dynamic in play in other genres of folk literature such as the folktale, whose audience clearly perceives that what it is being told did not happen.

Contemporary legends have certain stylistic features that reinforce the appearance of reality. First, the stories they tell are set in a specific space and time—for example, a busy shopping centre, a nearby road, a trendy restaurant or a foreign country. Second, their protagonists are specific person or groups—for example, a film actor, a famous singer, a village resident or the police. Third, they start with a formula that, with some small variations, is summed up as “This happened to a friend of a friend.” This stylistic hallmark is why in the English-speaking West the contemporary legend has another name that is catching on: “FOAF legend” (Friend of a Friend Legend).

Contemporary legends have the function of warning or alerting us to possible dangers and channeling our fears about things that are unknown to us or that we cannot understand. The use of literary devices (the poetic function of language) makes what is told through these stories very effective—much more effective than any message expressed in a purely informative way.

The issues raised by contemporary legends have a very close relationship with the reality that we are familiar with as we experience it in our personal relationships or as it reaches us through the media (press, radio and television), social networks and the Internet. The themes of contemporary legends concern, among others, travel abroad, organ transplants, the emergence of new diseases, the dangers posed by drivers, purchases of exotic pets, unexplained phenomena, ghostly apparitions and terrorist attacks. Contemporary legends arise from the need to account for inexplicable or curious things that happen around us, and they allow us to express the feelings, concerns, uncertainties, needs and fears that such things bring about within us.

Due to their brevity and surprising nature, as well as to the topicality of the subject matter, these narratives are easily shared and, in this process, each individual recreates them and explains them in his or her own way. In an increasingly interconnected world, contemporary legends deal with global issues, but they do so according to the particularities of the culture within which they are told. One feature of these stories is therefore their variation. In fact, we find different versions of the same legend told in different countries, as existing collections, catalogues and specialized databases of contemporary legends demonstrate.

On the international scene, contemporary legends have been studied by folklorists such as the American Jan Harol Brunvand, author of several books on urban legends, including the Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (2012); the German Rolf W. Brednich; and France’s Véronique Campion-Vincent and Jean-Bruno Renard. The International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, founded in 1988, organizes an annual congress and has been publishing the journal Contemporary Legend since 1991. Outside the academic sphere and on a more mainstream level, it is worth mentioning Snopes <snopes.com>, a website that offers very comprehensive and up-to-date information on this type of story. From an academic standpoint in Catalonia, a key work is «Benvingut/da al club de la sida» i altres rumors dactualitat (2002), written by the Grup de Recerca Folklòrica d’Osona and Josep M. Pujol. It contains an extensive introductory study and a varied collection of widely documented legends.

One of the things that research on contemporary legends has addressed is these stories’ connection to real events. In De source sûre. Nouvelles rumeurs d’aujourd’hui (2002), Véronique Campion-Vincent and Jean-Bruno Renard explain how a legend can be based on events that actually happened. Building on that premise, they have studied the processes of transformation that create a legend from a real event. One of these mechanisms, amplification, makes it possible to distort reality through exaggeration and so heighten people’s fears and increase their perceptions of dangers. Another mechanism, displacement, makes it possible to change a real fact’s context and, therefore, to connect different places and circumstances to that fact. These mechanisms are often used to create legends. However, to be able to corroborate that a story of this kind really is a legend, two requirements must be met: variants of the story must circulate, and the story must include some strange element that makes it possible to doubt its authenticity.

These connections between reality and fiction can be seen in a legend that circulated a few years ago and is related to the problem caused by the palm-weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) infestation that began to spread throughout the Catalan-speaking land and killed many palm trees here. The legend was created in an attempt to offer an explanation for the infestation, but that explanation was not always the same. Rather, different versions of the legend attributed different causes to the problem.

With regard to the reality of the infestation, the Department of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries, Food and the Natural Environment of Catalonia’s regional government offered the following information on its website: The palm weevil is a beetle native to Southeast Asia and Polynesia. It has spread continuously to other areas with a temperate climate, colonizing different palm species. The first appearances in Spain, in 1995, were recorded in the provinces of Granada and Málaga. It was later detected in 2004 in the Valencia region. In 2005 there was a major spread of the infestation and, at the end of December, a first instance of it was identified in Catalonia, in the town of El Vendrell. As insecticide treatments are ineffective against the weevil, rapid detection of outbreaks is essential in order to proceed with the uprooting and destruction of affected palms and prevent the spread of the infestation. Due to the danger posed by this infestation, the law requires that, in order to be transported in Spain, palm trees are covered by a phytosanitary passport that guarantees that they are free of this infestation and others.

The legend arose from the existence of a real infestation and spread through several versions. I will discuss two of these, which came to me through friends from Valencia in 2012. The first explains how the palm trees were slowly dying because people were putting drops of gasoline in their crowns. This act was apparently motivated by real-estate speculation, since very large, protected palm groves were preventing large construction projects. If the palm trees died, they had to be cut down. Homes could then be built on those sites.

In fact, 2012 was one of the peak years of Spain’s housing bubble; building was taking place everywhere. In the case of this legend, the explanation given for a worrying development, namely the death of palm trees as a result of an infestation, connects with another development that came about at the same time, namely real-estate speculation. For someone aware of the need to safeguard the environment, such as the person who had told me the legend, real-estate speculation, which in those years was happening all around us in a way that was excessive and troublesome in all kinds of respects, the legend offered a very logical explanation for why palm trees were being cut down. However, according to this version, palm trees were not dying because of weevils but because of the drops of gasoline poured on their crowns. This is the strange element that creates scope for doubting the story’s authenticity.

An acquaintance told me the second version of the legend via e-mail. He said that a friend of his, a maintenance worker for the local council of Albalat de la Ribera (in the Valencia region) who worked on all kinds of things (from gardens to water supply and electricity), told him that the weevil was introduced by insecticide companies that wanted to increase their sales, but things got out of hand and they did not have a way to control the infestation. In the maintenance worker’s eyes, this infestation was no different from others, such as that affecting orange trees; he attributed them all to the same cause.

The legend speaks of the weevil infestation and equates its origin to that affecting orange trees. In the case of orange trees, the pest, known as the Japanese citrus scale (Unaspis yanonensis), affects citrus trees and can even kill them. It would seem that in the Valencia region the Japanese citrus scale infestation was detected a little earlier than the weevil infestation. In any case, the legend attributes the origin of the problem to certain companies that, through their unlawful practices, apparently caused the infestation and made more money by selling the insecticides used to treat the infestation. In this version of the legend, stating that the two infestations had the same origin reinforces the story’s apparent reflection of reality by means of the repetition (duplication). At the same time, it also gives an intensity to the idea that alleged fraudulent acts committed by large companies have created a danger to the population through these infestations.

The two variants of the legend explain the origin of the death of the palm trees in a different way, but what they have in common is their underlying rationale: certain people’s speculation, malpractice and, ultimately, greed. We could all be hit by the consequences of this new infestation that is causing enormous damage to the economy and that we cannot control. And the feeling of insecurity caused by a situation like this is what leads to the creation and subsequent dissemination of the legend in its various variants.

Very often, legends’ motifs are reused and updated, thus becoming part of new stories that have emerged as a result of new problems that have arisen. So, for example, the reason behind the intentional introduction of the infestation, which we saw in the latter version of the weevil legend, can be found in a legend that arose as a result of the current situation that we have been facing in Catalonia since February 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. A characteristic of this pandemic is that it is evolving over several waves, so that, when it seems that we have it under control, there is another outbreak of it and a rise in case numbers.

There is a legend that, based on this real fact, seeks to explain why the pandemic is evolving in this way. The legend, which a student sent to me a few months ago, holds that COVID-19 came into our lives because of planes whose role is to spray the civilian population with biological or chemical agents. From time to time, these planes apparently fly over the country and release the virus, and that is why these waves of contagion occur when everything seems to be going well.

According to this legend, the pandemic has been caused by the acts of people who have absolutely no scruples and are endangering the population. The legend also includes a strange element that allows us to question its truthfulness. In this case, that element is the difficulty posed by releasing a virus from an airplane (that is, from a considerable height) so that it gets inside human bodies. One of the recommendations that health authorities have made during the COVID-19 pandemic is to avoid close contact with other people inside closed spaces and, instead, to opt for interacting in open spaces. In addition, a distance of two metres is apparently enough to prevent airborne contagion.

Through these brief examples, we have seen how legends can be created from real facts and can be identified by applying particular criteria to them. Contemporary legends allow us to indirectly manage the uncertainties and insecurities we have as humans in the face of facts that are difficult for us to explain. This is their function. And that is why it is so important to study them.