Folklore and Contagion: Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception

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Professor of Practice / Director of Arkansas Folk and Traditional Arts

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Virginia Siegel
Subjects: Folklore

This research guide is specific to folklore related to health, contagion, and stigmatized diseases, which is most often studied through the folklore genres of narrative and legend. For more information on general folklore studies, visit the Folklore and Folklife research guide.

Welcome to Folklore and Contagion

What is folklore and folklife?

The American Folklore Society introduces folklore in their online article “What is Folklore?” as:

…the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practice that is disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioral example. Every group with a sense of its own identity shares, as a central part of that identity, folk traditions–the things that people traditionally believe (planting practices, family traditions, and other elements of worldview), do (dance, make music, sew clothing), know (how to build an irrigation dam, how to nurse an ailment, how to prepare barbecue), make (architecture, art, craft), and say (personal experience stories, riddles, song lyrics).

What does this have to do with contagion?

Folklorists and narrative scholars have long been interested in contemporary legends (often called urban legends) as a form of communication centered around negotiation of belief. Contemporary legends endure in the present age because the subject of legends evolve to reflect the concerns of the day; the subject of legends are often present-day concerns about the supernatural, violence, death, health/illness, and general fears of risk and the unknown.

While versions of famous legends, like the vanishing hiker or Crybaby Bridge, can be found across the United States, each version of the story is often localized to the regional areas within which they are told, which lends credibility to the proposed truth of the story. The hallmark of the legend is the "friend of a friend" trope ("I heard it happened to a friend of a friend...") which further contributes to the veracity of the claims made.

Experts in folklore have noted that because information surrounding health and disease is often disseminated, debated, believed and/or disbelieved through contemporary legend and rumor, legend-telling as a folklore practice can have a tangible impact on participants' risk perception, and thus on the public health of the community within which legends are told.

Using this Guide

This guide is provides a brief and very basic overview of current scholarship in folklore and contagion with emphasis on published books.

  • The Folklore and Contagion Books tab highlights selected books on the topic, as well as a handful of encyclopedias and anthologies where more information on legend and contamination legends may be found.
  • The Selected Folklore and Contagion Articles tab highlights selected articles in academic journals and a variety of online sources.
  • The Media and Podcasts links to several videos and audio interviews with experts on folklore and contagion.
  • The Find an Expert tab provides a list of key folklorists currently working and publishing in the areas of folklore and contagion.
  • The Diving Deeper: Doing Folklore Research tab invites you to explore beyond the selected resources in this guide. Use this tab for guidance as you search for books, journal articles, and archival research in folklore and folklife.