Deep Thought: History and Folklore
You probably know that the website snopes.com got started as an urban legend discussion site for folklorists. You didn't? Okay, now you do. In those heady early days, they were more concerned with chasing down glurge and folklore than fact-checking politicians. They were inspired (as we all should be) by the work of Professor Jan Brunvand of Utah, author of such seminal works as The Vanishing Hitchhiker. Now, I've had a lot to do with folklorists, especially in Europe, and even published a book review in a folklore journal once. Okay, it was in the East Bloc, and in Romanian, so it's not exactly fame. But I did get involved, is what I'm saying. Back in the day, we thought our folklore research wasn't anything earth-shattering. I mean, it was interesting to us, but it didn't really relate to current events.
Boy, were we wrong.
In the early 1980s I got the first inkling that folklore studies might not be such an academic exercise after all. Back then, I taught English to the German military, among others. One of my students, a paratrooper, warned me about the Bildzeitung.
The Bildzeitung is a tabloid. In fact, it is the Ur-tabloid. On my way to work, I often saw its headlines on the papers being read by my fellow trolley passengers. Headlines like 'Man sticks head out of train window – beheaded!' or 'Man jumps into swimming pool – it was empty!' Now, you could see headlines like that in the US, even then. Usually in the supermarket. But the word in front of 'man' would have been 'Florida'. As in, 'Florida Man brings pet gator to Taco Bell, pays fine in pennies.'
Anyway, we were about to go on our August break, and my student warned me, 'Don't believe anything the Bildzeitung prints in August. They bring out the same stories every year. It's a tradition.' He gave me an example.
Every year, he said, they'd print the one about the stolen grandmother. It goes like this:
A German family – Mom, Dad, two kids, and Grandma – go on holiday to Spain. (It's usually Spain, but it could be Turkey.) They have a fine time camping at the beach until one day – oh, horror! – Grandma dies suddenly. They're sad, of course, but glad she got to enjoy the beach before she went. The problem is, what to do?
Now, this was before the EU had made everything easier. They're terrified of the red tape involved. They're afraid of the expense. Also, they don't want to have to bury Grandma so far from home. So they decide on a desperate measure: they wrap her body (carefully, respectfully) in a tarpaulin, They put it in the roof rack and head home. They drive quickly because…well, it's summer. Also, they're German and drive fast on general principle.
They get past the border between Spain and France, big relief. They pull over at a rest stop in France to have a meal and a break. But when they come back to the parking lot…more horror! Their car has been stolen! With Grandma on it! And it is never found!
I immediately recognised this story as a piece of folklore. Snopes.com has an analysis for you, complete with themes and variations. Jan Brunvand has included it in his collection. He says it goes back to shortly after the Second World War, which would make sense, as that's when most people started driving on holidays. Although I have always wondered if there weren't an older version out there somewhere involving a camel caravan.
You want to read some really old urban legends? Try the Gesta Romanorum. I won't say the tabloids haven't improved since the Middle Ages. I won't say that, not aloud, anyway. But I will think it.
Come to think of it, the old folks in the hills used to be really good at telling the difference between folklore and news. They knew how to appreciate both, but seldom confused one with the other. If you started describing an event and branched out into fictional detail, one of them was sure to stop you with, 'Now, that's a tale, son.'
Exaggeration for humorous effect was a specialty of my ancestors. But they didn't confuse a good yarn with the facts on the ground. We need to get back to our roots, people. We need to be able to tell the difference between fact and fiction if we're going to make it in the 21st Century.
So the next time somebody tells you that their second cousin's wife's hairdresser's brother-in-law has a really good cure for Covid-19 that involves horse medication, or they saw an absolutely genuine photo of a 15-foot-tall feral hog in Louisiana, just laugh. Don't get outraged. Just say, 'Now, that's a tale, friend.' And go about your business.