Diane A. Rodgers brings us Perspectives on Contemporary Legend: reflections on an international contemporary legend conference
For the week of Monday 28 June – Friday 2nd July 2021, I was in virtual attendance at Perspectives on Contemporary Legend, the 38th International conference of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, postponed due to coronavirus restrictions and necessarily shifted online.
Over the course of my PhD, I have presented work at a vast array of conferences, including a number of virtual events, but this was the first time I had presented at an international conference hosted outside of the UK in an area so specific to my research. My work is concerned with the representation of folklore and contemporary legend in film and television, particularly as integral elements of folk horror. Folk horror is a subgenre of media in which the horror is not necessarily horrific; and folklore, contemporary legend or the paranormal are employed to unsettling ends. In simplistic terms, contemporary legends (sometimes referred to as urban legends, or just legends) can be described as stories that spread informally via word of mouth, social media or other forms of communication, which may sometimes be extended to include mass-media coverage. Such stories tend to centre around someone or something that is claimed to have existed or occurred in real life, even when the story recounts a supernatural or unusual event. In the paper I presented at this conference, I examined how Covid-19 circumstances have shaped custom and ritual as reflected in the supernatural horror film Host (2020).
I was honoured to be included in the opening panel of the event, alongside my Sheffield Hallam Centre for Contemporary Legend research group colleagues David Clarke and Andrew Robinson. It was wonderful to represent Sheffield Hallam as a team (and be invited to host another panel at the event) whilst also presenting our individual areas of interest. Hosted this year in Tarragona, Spain by the Universitat Rovira i Virgili and their Folklore Archive (the conference takes place in at locations in Europe and North America on alternating years), the event took place across a full week of live sessions, organised to suit as many time zones as possible, with around 50 attendees at most panel session. The community of international contemporary legend scholars at this event was an extremely supportive one, an aspect commented on by a number of participants over the week. I was pleased to receive a very warm reception for my research and to hear that a number of participants who had not already seen the film Host went on to watch it before the next day’s sessions.
A number of fascinating themes arose across the conference, notably some significant points about the importance of scholarship in this area in general. For example, folklore and contemporary legend studies seems strongly embedded in international curricula whereas in England, for example, there is currently only one MA course in Folklore Studies at Hertfordshire (there are courses in Scotland and Wales, but these are still few and far between). It is interesting that the subject is particularly well represented (and respected) across many universities in North America. The interdisciplinary nature of the subject is a strength, with contemporary legend scholars also having diverse backgrounds (in psychology; ethnography; journalism; photography; media, film and television amongst many others), all of which can be usefully informed by folklore studies in terms of explaining aspects of human interaction and social behaviour.
This year was particularly relevant with the quantity of papers necessarily focusing on conspiracy theories, fake news and the use of internet memes. Unfolding events in both British and US politics, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise and fall of Donald Trump’s presidency, QAnon and Covid-related conspiracy theories all featured prominently in presentations. There was an element of dismay expressed by some scholars at the apparent lack of interest from various establishments in working with those versed in folklore and contemporary legend studies with respect to recent events. For example, one area of this scholarship specialises in examining how the types of ideas presented in conspiracy theories and related perceptions come about: how such notions spread, develop and can shape behaviour and belief. Folklore and contemporary legend studies can, therefore, teach people to identify and understand rumour, misinformation and conspiracy theories. Wider understanding of the subject and consultation with its scholars could work to help avoid harmful information being spread, such as extreme ideas about injecting bleach to fight coronavirus, problematic arguments made by anti-vaxxers, or even avoid vulnerable people being taken in by scam artists (all of which were key topics covered in some fascinating papers).
It was wonderful not only to meet and be welcomed by such a prestigious international academic group (albeit virtually), but also to gain a wider perspective of the subject and see how truly vital the application of contemporary legend study continues to be. Folklore and legend continue to adapt and evolve as part of the shifting customs, rituals, beliefs and behaviour of the global population: the study of the topic can help only help to further understand such developments in the future.