Monkey Sandwiches

Robert McCrum

  • The Vanishing Hitchhiker: Urban Legends and their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand
    Picador, 156 pp, £1.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 330 26950 X

What is an urban legend? First of all, it is not the 20th-century, metropolitan version of Greek and Roman myth. The villains and heroes of the so-called urban legends are not the inner-city heirs of Persephone or Theseus. Rather, the urban legend (more accurately, the apocryphal story) is one of those amazing tales which has been the recent experience of a friend of a friend. Unlike the great legends of Celtic or American or Mediterranean folklore, it is essential that the urban legend is reported as being true. Take the one about the hippy baby-sitter (high on Speed) who cooks the baby instead of the Christmas turkey. Or the old lady who shampoos her poodle and puts it to dry in the microwave oven. Or the take-away chicken that turns out to be a finger-lickin’ rat. Or the Porsche that’s on sale for 50 dollars (Mr Average has run away with his secretary leaving his wife instructions to cash up his assets and mail the proceeds to his new address). The Vanishing Hitchhiker reproduces some thirty such apocryphal stories, together with their regional variants. For those who want a useful sourcebook, Professor Brunvand has given us a handy compilation.

When it comes to themes, these ‘monkey sandwiches’, as they are known in Holland, do not differ from traditional narratives, legendary or otherwise, the world over. Sex and death, the staples of fiction, run through all the stories from ‘The Boyfriend’s Death’, to ‘The Killer in the Back Seat’, to ‘The Nude Surprise Party’. The settings, of course, are contemporary: Cadillacs, freeways, campsites, office blocks, diners and motels. The hapless victims are dating teenagers, harassed nuclear parents, sex-starved executives, bored housewives. The urban legend is to folklore what Steven Spielberg is to the Brothers Grimm. Brunvand does not make with sufficient force the point that not only are these tales repeated as true but the storytellers themselves will find it almost impossible to accept that their narrative is apocryphal and will point, often vehemently, to the circumstantial ‘facts’ that always surround such tales – the names, places, dates, times – as evidence that the story they are telling is not a fiction. Brunvand produces interesting evidence to show how the scope and vitality of these legends is enhanced by a powerful newspaper and literary currency. This story appeared on 6 March 1973 in the Norwegian paper Bergens Arbeiderblad, under the headline ‘TERRIBLE REVENGE OF A LOVER’:

A Bergen citizen who several days a week drives a ready-mix cement truck as a second job the other day came by his own residence and saw a friend’s car with a sun roof parked there. He stopped the cement truck and went in the apartment building to say hello. But sounds from the bedroom gave him to understand that it wasn’t him but rather his wife that the fellow had come to visit. Without disturbing the couple in the bedroom, the man went back out of the building and over to his friend’s car. He pulled the sun roof back and backed the cement truck alongside it. Then he switched on the delivery system and filled the parked car with about two cubic metres of cement. When the lover came for his car, the cement was completely hard.

Almost immediately, according to Brunvand, versions of this story, identifying both the driver of the car and the suburb, appeared in Politiken (Copenhagen), Aftonbladet (Stock-holm), the Daily Nation (Nairobi) and our own Daily Mirror. After a Scoop-like war of hyperbole which lasted about a week, and during which a rival Norwegian newspaper challenged the story, the Bergens Arbeiderblad was forced to admit that its story was ‘an international journalistic-joke’.

Professor Brunvand, who is based in the English department at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, shows how a higher, literary adoption (by Steinbeck and McCullers, for instance) helps to sustain some urban legends in the collective memory. Perhaps the most famous and memorable literary use of such material comes in Pynchon’s V:

‘Did he remember the baby alligators? Last year, or maybe the year before, kids all over Nueva York bought these little alligators for pets. Macy’s was selling them for fifty cents; every child, it seemed, had to have one. But soon the children grew bored with them. Some set them loose in the streets, but most flushed them down the toilets. And these had grown and reproduced, had fed off rats and sewage, so that now they moved, big, blind, albino, all over the sewer system. Down there, God knew how many there were. Some had turned cannibal because in their neighbourhood the rats had all been eaten, or had fled in terror.’

Rather confusingly, this story may not be apocryphal after all. The indefatigable Brunvand reveals that – uniquely – the tale has a genuine source: a report, in 1935, of one rather small reptile beneath the city streets, personally inspected by the New York City Sewer Commissioner. For the rest, though Brunvand and his research collaborators have travelled far and wide through the trackless wastes of American press archives in an attempt to ‘source’ legends they report, they have, predictably, failed. These stories, like jokes, begin where the rainbow ends.

Brunvand’s assemblage of the variants of nearly thirty apocryphal stories is a work of heroic synthesis that has taken him into the dusty byways of academic publishing, from Hoosier Folklore to the Keystone Folklore Quarterly. But when it comes to interpreting the ‘meaning’ of his legends, he is content to identify a few ‘traditional narrative motifs’ (relying on a six-volume publication entitled The Motif-Index of Folk-Literature). There is nothing serious (or well-written) in The Vanishing Hitchhiker about the relationship of these stories to fictional archetypes, to older legends of horror and the supernatural, or to the page-turning motor of fear and curiosity to which successful storytelling is addressed. Incredibly, there is no mention of Freud or Jung or of the place of the unconscious in this material. Instead, Brunvand glides with audible relief onto the ‘most telling aspect of legend interpretation’, which turns out to be ‘solid information about the narration of legends in their natural context’. This is surely misguided. With a very few exceptions, it is precisely this ‘solid information’ that such material will always deny.