Emily Urquhart on Urban Legends

Book Cover Beyond the Pale

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Emily Urquhart is a folklorist, journalist, and mother and the author of Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes


I have a number of deeply embedded fears—costumed employees at living history sites, open water, sink holes, airline turbulence and cougars are chief among them—but until I had children urban legends never frightened me. As a folklorist, I understood that these tales instilled order and moral codes, that they reflected social concerns, and that they were a form of entertainment. I knew they weren’t real. They were fun but also forgettable. Then, when my second child was a newborn, I heard the one called "A Mother’s Plea."

In this tale a recently married couple were driving down an empty stretch of highway when they came across a terrible car accident. The police hadn’t arrived yet and so the man leapt out to help while his wife waited in the car and called 9-1-1. At the crash site the man encountered a woman who’d been in the accident. She was badly hurt, hysterical, and pleaded with him to crawl into the overturned car to release her infant, strapped in his car seat. "My husband is dead, but the baby is alive," she’d said. "Please help."

The man sent the distraught mother back to wait with his wife. Determined not to be distracted by the dead bodies in the front seat, the man freed the crying baby and brought the infant back to his car. The mother wasn’t there. His wife said she’d gone back to help, so the man returned to the crash site and this time he looked through the smashed windshield of the car. He recognized one of the two lifeless victims—it was the mother who’d flagged him down. His blood ran cold, and, admittedly, so did mine.

Legends do not happen once upon a time in a land far away, nor are they relegated to the city as the qualifier "urban" might suggest. Folklorists refer to these tales as contemporary legends and they play out in our homes and neighbourhoods, in the food we eat (Kentucky Fried rat, anyone?) and in the sewer systems (watch for crocs!) that run under our sidewalks. This is what makes them historically significant: they are the canvas onto which society projects their fears. They represent how we feel about progress; we might surmise that the deep fried rat symbolizes our uncertainty over the rise in mass produced food. They are also morality tales embedded with warnings: Drink too much last night? Hope you still have your kidneys! And these stories maintain social conduct and order. For example, a murderer with a hook for a hand is a more immediate threat to necking teenagers than an unwanted pregnancy.

Legends help to enforce the codes by which we live, but how we live changes and this affects the stories we tell. Consider an earlier but similar story to "A Mother’s Plea." In this Scandinavian legend dating back to the late nineteenth century a deceased mother resurrects to nurse her crying infant. People believed the ghoulish breastfeeding session caused illness or failure to thrive, and because of this a baby whose mother died needed to be watched closely. Like the car crash victim, the mother transcends death to get to her wailing child. The details of the pre- and post-industrialization tales reflect their historical periods but operate on the same principle: a newborn without a mother is vulnerable and needs to be protected.

We tell legends like they happened to us, or, more often, to someone with whom we’re socially connected. This is why they’re sometimes referred to as FOAF (friend-of-a-friend) tales. Establishing a connection, however tenuous, lends the teller authority.

I explored storytelling in my academic life, but after my first child was born with albinism folklore took on a new meaning when I discovered belief tales that related to her genetic condition. Albinism is a lack of pigment in the hair, skin, and eyes and is accompanied by a visual impairment. This has inspired what I call albinism-lore across the globe—from Panama to Tanzania to North America where I discovered a proliferation of “colony” legends. In these tales people with albinism, or dwarfism, lived together, segregated from the rest of society, usually in a rural setting. The colonies existed on the outskirts of small towns, in ambiguous, liminal spaces. Legend-tripping teenagers would drive to these places at night, honking their horns and daring the (entirely fictional) inhabitants to show themselves.

The human differences at the heart of these beliefs were easily identified by the masses and at the same time grossly misunderstood. People fear what they can’t explain. Neatly drawing categories of "us" and "them" likely holds a psychological imperative—a shield against these differences turning up in family lines. But we are all carriers for genetic mutations. There isn’t a "them" only an "us". Understanding what lay at the core of these tales helped me to make peace with them.

How we categorize groups of people as "others" shifts over time. The colony stories are dying out, and are perhaps a throwback to the days of TB sanitariums when people were segregated due to medical conditions. The medical fears were replaced by religious concerns. Satanic cults were allegedly rampant in the '80s, stories that gained traction through dubious recovered memory accounts, and bogus news reports about devil worship. Now these belief tales tend to fall along ethnic divides with a proliferation of Al Qaeda myths that cropped up after the September 11 terrorist attacks. (One theory being that the group is an invention of the US government.)

For a legend to take flight it needs the components of a good story—plot, narrative, and to a lesser extent, character. A compelling yarn, especially one that is deliciously grisly, will stay with you. There are some you might wish you could forget. For me, this was "A Mother’s Plea."

While this legend might be an imperative to safeguard newborns, or even a comment on the dangers of technology and progress, as a parent I see it as a warning to the young couple who comes across the accident. Having children will alter you beyond recognition and your love for them knows no limits. It is boundless and terrifying. It can transcend almost anything—maybe even death.

Suggestions for Further Reading: 

Latitudes of Melt, by Joan Clark

About the book: This bountiful, magical novel opens with the discovery by two fishermen of a baby floating in a cradle on an ice pan in the North Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland in 1912. To the small fishing community into which the foundling is adopted, Aurora, as they name her—with her shock of white hair, one blue eye and one brown—is clearly enchanted. But it is not until Aurora is herself an old woman that she learns the heart-wrenching story behind her miraculous survival on the ice.

Book Cover the Return of the Ancestral Gods

The Return of Ancestral Gods: Modern Ukrainian Paganism as an Alternative for a Nation, by Mariya Lesiv

About the book: As Ukraine struggles to find its national identity, modern Ukrainian Pagans offer an alternative vision of the Ukrainian nation. Drawing inspiration from the spiritual life of past millennia, they strive to return to the pre-Christian roots of their ancestors. Since Christianity dominates the spiritual discourse in Ukraine, Pagans are marginalized, and their ideas are perceived as radical. 

In The Return of Ancestral Gods, Mariya Lesiv explores Pagan beliefs and practices in Ukraine and amongst the North American Ukrainian diaspora. Drawing on intensive fieldwork, archival documents, and published sources not available in English, she allows the voices of Pagans to be heard. Paganism in Slavic countries is heavily charged with ethno-nationalist politics, and previous scholarship has mainly focused on this aspect. Lesiv finds it important to consider not only how Paganism is preached but also the way that it is understood on a private level. She shows that many Ukrainians embrace Paganism because of its aesthetic aspects rather than its associated politics and discusses the role that aesthetics may play in the further development of Ukrainian Paganism. 

Paganism in Eastern Europe remains underrepresented within Pagan studies, and this work helps to fill that gap. Extensive comparative references to various forms of Western Paganism allows English-speaking readers to better understand the world of Ukrainian Pagans.

Making Witches: Newfoundland Traditions of Spells and Counterspells, by Barbara Rieti

About the book: There is a little-known tradition of witch lore in Newfoundland culture. Those believed to have the power to influence the fortunes of others are not mythological characters but neighbours, relations, or even friends. Drawing from her own interviews and a wealth of material from the Memorial University Folklore and Language Archive, Barbara Rieti explores the range and depth of Newfoundland witch tradition, looking at why certain people acquired reputations as witches, and why others considered themselves bewitched. The tales that emerge—despite their seemingly fantastic elements of spells and black heart books, hags, and healing charms—concern everyday affairs and reveal the intense social interdependence central to outport life. Frequently featuring women, they provide fascinating new perspectives on female coping strategies in a volatile economy. By addressing the perennial human issues at the heart of witchcraft—construction of enmity and intertwined fate—these narrative accounts also illuminate older witch beliefs revealed in witchcraft trial documents. Making Witches shows that in storytelling communities with a rich legacy of witch lore, witch tradition has endured well into the twentieth century.

Book Cover Strange Terrain

Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland, by Barbara Rieti

About the book: Fairy beliefs were more common in certain areas of Newfoundland, and a useful map shows the location of these regions. Rieti notes that previous writers and some informants think that fairy beliefs existed in the past but are now almost extinct. However, as she demonstrates, the belief in fairies is alive and well in the Newfoundland outports. Her stated aim is to examine the nature of the fairies, the narratives and customs that express ideas about them, and to consider why people tell stories about them. Chapters are centered on particular informants, who are described in some detail and shown in photographs. There are many stories about fairies substituting changelings for human babies, abducting persons for long periods, playing tricks, etc. Some stories describe the fairies as fallen angels or devils, and others seem to identify them with ghosts or witches. Rieti concludes: "The fairies are the ultimate strangers and serve as metaphor for all that is strange, not only in nature but in other people."

Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family, and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, by Emily Urquhart

About the book: Like any new mother, Emily is thrilled when her first child, a daughter, is born. The baby, Sadie, is healthy and stunningly beautiful, with snow white hair and fair skin. Even the doctors and nurses can’t help a second look at this magical child. But soon a darker current begins to emerge—something is amiss. After three months of testing, Sadie is diagnosed with albinism, a rare genetic condition.

Emily, a folklore scholar and an award-winning journalist, is accustomed to understanding and processing the world through stories. With Sadie at her side, Emily researches the cultural beliefs surrounding albinism and finds a curious history of outlandish tales of magic, and of good and evil reaching back through time, along with present-day atrocities. In some parts of the world, people with albinism are stalked; their condition is seen to bring luck and health as well as danger and death. Investigating the different reactions, in different cultures, to those with albinism, Emily begins to see her child as a connection between worlds.

Part memoir, part cultural critique, and part genetic travelogue, Beyond the Pale is a brave, intimate investigation into the secret histories that each of us carries in our genes and an inspiring and beautiful memoir about parenting a child with a disability—and building a better future for that child.

August 7, 2015
Books mentioned in this post
Making Witches

Making Witches

Newfoundland Traditions of Spells and Counterspells
also available: Hardcover eBook
More Info
Beyond The Pale

Beyond The Pale

Folklore, Family, and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes
also available: eBook Paperback Hardcover
More Info
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