In late May, a Pennsylvania high school hums with the rumor that a Satanic cult plans on killing the first four couples through the door on prom night. A horror writer in the Catskills is overcome with grief, alienated from his wife, unable to write, and suffering from recurring thoughts of physical and sexual indignities he has no words to describe. He concludes he has been abducted by aliens. In a Pizza Hut in Ohio, employees refuse to close alone because the ghost of a hanged man haunts the refrigerator. Tales such as these are the subject of Bill Ellis's Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. In the book, he explores the complex relationship between ordinary life and outlandish but oft-told legends. What he finds is startling. In multiple case studies legends become part of life. Officials take action in answer to each story's weird details, and people adjust their behavior to avoid or to experience aliens and ghosts. Written for both the cultural studies expert and the reader fascinated with reactions to extraordinary phenomena, Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults pursues motivations for why people tell these "true stories, heard from a friend of a friend."
Ellis shows legends creating a sense of community in a multi-ethnic institutional camp. He traces some contemporary scares to such old tales as the vanishing hitchhiker and murderous gang initiations. In analyzing some newly emerging legend types, such as alien abductions and computer virus warnings, Ellis discovers connections between earlier types of religious experience and supposed witchcraft. Finally, the book reveals how legends can inspire people to actions, ranging from playful visits to haunted spots to horrifying threats of violence. Legends rely on active discussion to spread and mutate. This book considers them to be a social process, not a kind of narrative with a fixed form. People worldwide may tell a legend or one person to whom the event allegedly occurred may "own" the story. Individuals may relate an event as something strongly believed or as something laughable. Legends may be very new or have roots in old folklore. But when high schools, law enforcement agencies, city governments, and individuals take action, the story becomes one of the legends we live.
Bill Ellis is an associate professor of English and American studies at Penn State University, Hazleton campus. His previous books include Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media, and he has been published in Psychology Today, Skeptical Inquirer, Journal of American Folklore, and Journal of Popular Literature.