Perspectives on Contemporary Legend 2023 – A summary of the 40th anniversary conference of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR)

Written by Dr Diane A Rodgers

During 26-30 June 2023, this prestigious event was held at Sheffield Hallam University, hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Legend (CCL) in the Dorothy Fleming lecture theatre, Charles Street. Dr David Clarke, Andrew Robinson and myself, Dr Diane Rodgers, co-founders of the CCL, were privileged to welcome ISCLR to Sheffield where the very first seminar in the Contemporary Legend series was held at Halifax Hall in 1982. Scholars at the Centre for English Cultural Tradition (CECTAL) – then part of the School of English at the University of Sheffield – first instigated academic inquiry into what was then a newly recognised genre of folklore, the contemporary legend. Apart from missing one year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the contemporary legend conferences have been held annually at different international locations making this return to Sheffield a special 40th anniversary milestone.

(L-R – Centre for Contemporary Legend co-founders Dr Diane Rodgers, Dr David Clarke and Andrew Robinson, with Dr Craig Mann and PhD Candidate Sophie Parkes-Nield who provided invaluable technical support and assistance throughout the week)

The conference, with over fifty international attendees in -person (and more online), had a week-long packed schedule of over thirty paper presentations across twelve panels given by delegates from: USA; Canada; Sweden; Holland; Iceland; Estonia; the Czech Republic; Greece and the UK. Alongside the inclusion of a miniature bottle of Henderson’s Relish in delegate packs, in another light-hearted nod to the city’s heritage, the academic panels themselves were named after songs by musical artists from Sheffield such as ‘Nag, Nag, Nag: Politics, Fake News and Rumour’, ‘Don’t You Want Me?: Body Horror’ and ‘Temptation: Conspiracy and Belief’. Papers given covered a vast array of contemporary legend scholarship including topics such as: conspiracy theories, Halloween treats, needle spiking, alien big cats and the loch ness monster, werewolves, folk horror, indigenous legends, stone circles, vagina dentata (featuring the largest on-screen depiction of a vagina I’ve ever seen!), Japanese ghosts (in which I was delighted to learn of the existence of ‘screambulances’), haunted houses, furries, cybersecurity, campus legends and Greek myths.

A special panel ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge: X-Files and UFOs’ marked the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of seminal television series The X-Files, notable for its representations of notions about alien life and UFOs, abductees, alternative religions, conspiracy theories, politics and legends about folkloric creatures amongst other related themes. My CCL colleagues David Clarke and Andrew Robinson presented their own paper within this panel on UFO photography and the infamous Calvine photograph in which they discussed, alongside their own empirical research, ongoing debates between ‘believers’ and ‘debunkers’. The panel was chaired by me, Diane Rodgers who, along with my colleague James Fenwick, has edited the The Legacy of The X-Files, forthcoming from Bloomsbury later this year, to mark the 30th anniversary and the ongoing influence of the series.

The special X-Files themed panel (L-R chair Diane Rodgers, with Andrew Robinson, David Clarke and Jeanmarie Rouhier-Willoughby).
Image courtesy of Prof. Dr Theo Meder

Aside from the academic papers, each year the ISCLR conference hosts are expected to arrange a banquet meal and an excursion for delegates as part of the proceedings. The CCL team organised a number of events, beginning with a heritage walk around Sheffield city centre on the evening of Tues 27 June which included a recitation of the comic ballad (from the late 1600s) of the Dragon of Wantley in Sheffield Town Hall which, unforgettably, concludes that the dragon “groaned, kicked, shat and died”! The walk also included a guided tour around the inside of Sheffield Cathedral, and a performance by the Grenoside Sword Dancers of their own traditional longsword dance, unique for its inclusion of a mock beheading (which dates back at least 200 years) in the Cathedral forecourt.

The banquet meal was hosted by the Sheffield Showroom, housed in the 1930s art deco building with over 40 delegates opting to attend, where the background music playlist of cocktail lounge music I had created proved entirely unnecessary as excitable chatter ricocheted around the room for the duration of the evening! Several special presentations were enjoyed by delegates across the week: a series of short animated films were screened, produced by SHU BA Illustration students, based on the theme of custom and folklore. An art and photography exhibition created by Andrew Robinson, titled ‘An Incomplete Anthology of Vernacular English Calendar Customs’ was specially compiled for the conference, on display throughout the week on either side of the atrium in the Charles Street building. Ashley Powell of the Grenoside Sword Dancers, in full costume (which includes clogs), also kindly presented a special illustrated talk on the last day of our conference. Ashley spoke about the history of the team and the team, the costume and the dance itself which features the ritual ‘beheading’ of the captain near the beginning of the dance.

The main day-long excursion of the week was held on Thursday 29 June, when we took around forty delegates on a coach trip to the Peak District. The trip included an entertaining tour of The Devil’s Arse, also known as Peak Cavern in Castleton and a walking tour of the plague village of Eyam (led by Andrew Robinson). One highlight seemed to be the Eyam museum shop, which I suspect our delegates cleaned out of cuddly toy ‘plague rats’! Our conference dog Morris, accompanying one of our delegates, also seemed to have the time of her life and was well behaved (and much patted and admired) throughout the duration of the entire week.

One of the most notable sessions of the entire week, back in our conference room on the final day of proceedings was a special ‘40th anniversary’ panel featuring speakers who are eminent folklore and contemporary legend scholars. Dr Paul Smith presented the panel which included Emeritus Professor John Widdowson, Doc Rowe, Willem de Blécourt in person and Jan Brunvand, Georgina Boyes, Linda Ballard and Marion Bowman joining us online. This reunion was a significant moment for the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, and the gravitas was felt and understood by all in attendance. I make a special note of thanks to our colleague Dr Craig Mann here, whose help in keeping the online hybrid side of the conference running smoothly was invaluable.

Picture of the CCL team (image courtesy of Gail de Vos) making closing remarks (L-R Andrew Robinson, Diane Rodgers and David Clarke)

The atmosphere across the entire week was friendly, welcoming and supportive in terms of all the research presented and, though there were challenging questions posed at times, they were never in a combative or unkind manner. There was a genuinely warm feeling of family between this group of scholars and we have already had a huge amount of positive feedback on the week-long event (including a number of delegates stating this was the “best conference ever!”). I was also personally incredibly honoured to have been voted the next President-elect of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research during the AGM at the end of the week by the members in attendance – long may the Centre for Contemporary Legend and Sheffield Hallam’s association with this international group and branch of scholarship continue to grow and flourish!

Image courtesy of Dr Diane Rodgers