Any folklorist who saw the 1998 Columbia Pictures film Urban Legend will probably remember the library scene for its depiction of one aspect of folklore research. In this scene the beautiful student Natalie (played by Alicia Witt) suspects that recent campus mayhem was inspired by urban legends, the same kind of stories she is studying in a folklore class at New England’s “Pendleton College.” As one reviewer put it, the plot of Urban Legend includes “the requisite killer in gender-concealing costume (a hooded parka rather than a Halloween mask covering the face here), who is methodically wiping out far-too-pretty college-age actors in reverse order of billing.” Sensing a folkloric pattern in the crimes, Natalie goes to the college library to consult the ultimate reference work on the subject, a hefty tome titled Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. There she finds the proof she is seeking—an illustrated description of the method used in the latest killing.
No such reference work existed at that time, of course, but the very one you are now reading had already been in preparation for about a year. This Encyclopedia of Urban Legends is the real-life counterpart to the made-up Hollywood volume.
The folklore class in Urban Legend, as taught by “Professor Wexler” is of interest to folklorists since it shows us Hollywood’s idea of what a college class in the subject might be like. Unfortunately, it’s a poor example, since Professor Wexler’s approach is merely to tell a lot of scary stories, show some slides, and encourage students to try “urban legend experiments,” like drinking a can of soda after eating Pop Rocks candies to test whether the combination will explode in the stomach. All of the best-looking students—the stars of the film, that is—sit in the front row and respond to all of the teacher’s questions; there is no evidence that anyone