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Bodies: Sex, Violence, Disease, and Death in Contemporary Legend

Copyright Date: 2005
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Because they are so often told as news, contemporary legends force us to reevaluate life as we know it. They confront us with macabre, fantastic, horrific, or hilarious characters and events that seem to come straight out of myths and folktales, but are presented as present day events. The difficulty is that it is not at all easy to decide whether these often disturbing stories should be treated as reliable or dismissed as fantasy.

    The legends explored in this book are some of the most bizarre, gruesome, and politically sensitive stories in the contemporary legend canon. At any moment a body may be invaded by noxious creatures, deliberately infected with deadly disease, or raided to provide donor organs for sick foreigners. These are "winter's tales," the stuff of nightmares.

    In this book Gillian Bennett traces the cultural history of six legends, well-known in Europe and America from medieval times to the present day. Appearing in broadsides, ballads, myths, ancient and modern legends, novels, plays, films, television shows, and stories told in the oral tradition, these legends are not just silly tales which can be dismissed as trivial and untrue. They reveal much about the concerns and fears of everyday life and demonstrate the limits of knowledge and power in the modern world.

    Gillian Bennett is the author of"Alas, Poor Ghost!": Traditions of Belief in Story and DiscourseandTraditions of Belief: Women and the Supernaturaland coauthor of the standard legend bibliography and reader. She lives in Stockport, United Kingdom.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-065-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-2)
    (pp. 3-59)

    In this chapter I shall be looking at the complex of old medical beliefs, religious and secular prodigy stories, and sensational stories of today that is generally referred to as the legend of the ʺBosom Serpent.ʺ The name given to this classic of the contemporary legend genre is taken from a short story entitled ʺEgotism; or, The Bosom Serpent,ʺ by American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who uses the legend as an allegory for the destructive effects of selfish pride.¹ This name does not actually provide a very accurate description of the legendʹs contents; nevertheless, it has caught on since the earliest...

    (pp. 60-103)

    A large number of rumors and contemporary legends are preoccupied with the possibility that the pleasures, comforts, and necessities of life may somehow be rendered harmful. Some of these are concerned with ʺdirtʺ of various forms—out of place bodily excretions (usually blood and semen), mind-altering substances, and so on.¹ Among these are stories of drug-laced transfers or tattoos that circulated widely in the late 1980s and early 1990s.² Others concern chemical and biological warfare.³ Among these we may count rumors of the poisoning of wells or foodstuffs, the presentation of ʺsmallpox blanketsʺ to Native Americans during the opening up...

    (pp. 104-141)

    Swinburneʹs Dolores was accused of eating him alive but not of infecting him with syphilis, typhoid, cholera, plague, or AIDS. Yet infection with disease, either accidentally or deliberately, has been one way tradition has decreed that women can kill men (or more rarely, men kill women). Michelle Maskiell and Adrienne Mayor, for example, suggested that the Indian contaminated garments they studied worked in three ways, through disease as well as poison and fire. They quote a poisoned robe story that closely resembles one of the legends we shall look at in this chapter: ʺA grim story is told of Safdar...

    (pp. 142-187)

    A broadside sold in the streets of London in Charles Dickensʹs and Queen Victoriaʹs day reported,

    Showing How a Father and Mother Barbarously Murdered Their Own Son.

    A few days ago a sea faring man, who had just returned to England after an absence of thirty years in the East Indies, called at a lodging house in Liverpool, for sailors, and asked for supper and a bed; the landlord and landlady were elderly people, and apparently poor. The young man entered into conversation with them, and invited them to partake of his cheer, asked many questions about themselves and their...

    (pp. 188-246)

    This chapter deals with horrors perpetrated, or said to have been perpetrated, because the victim has lost possession of his/her own body, which has become a commodity. These are stories and rumors which the press and media have seized upon and made into local or national causes célèbres. The interaction of the oral and the written word is nowhere more evident than here. It is difficult to know how many of the stories were originally spread along oral conduits and were then taken up by the press or vice versa, or, indeed, if this was a simultaneous process. It hardly...

    (pp. 247-303)

    A perennial theme in accusations brought against persecuted minorities is that they indulge in disgusting secret rituals involving any or all of the following: orgiastic sex, incest, baby sacrifice, consumption of human flesh or blood, and other breaches of bodily integrity such as the collection and use of stolen body parts. These rituals are very often seen as evidence of a conspiracy to overthrow the political, social, or religious order, to rule the world for personal gain or in the service of some dark lord. The documented history of such accusations can be traced over the best part of two...

    (pp. 304-310)

    The study of contemporary legend has been bedeviled by two widely followed but almost contradictory approaches. The first is the assumption that contemporary legends are false (hence the popular term for the genre,urban myths). The second is that contemporary legends are cautionary tales or at least reflections of the fears of modern society. These claims sit badly together, yet scholars have often managed to adopt both of them: while themselves believing the stories to be untrue, scholars have claimed that such tales are worth studying because other people believe them and therefore the shrewd observer can use them to...

  12. INDEX
    (pp. 311-313)