Many of us have at least once heard ancient legends about gods, fairies, giants, the creation of the world, the apocalypse, Ragnarok, and other similar stories. Originating from the times when people had no scientific methods of scrutinizing and comprehending the world around them, these myths and legends served as a way of explaining the mysterious phenomena (for the mind of an ancient person) surrounding them. What is lightning if not the manifestation of Zeus’ wrath? What is a rainbow if not a bridge to Asgard? How could all the diversity of nature appear if not created by the gods? Rather primitive in the beginning, these legends displayed the fear of an ancient individual in front of the unknown, and helped them cajole the forces of nature by worship, praying, and making sacrifices.
As societies developed, so did science, and gradually there were no more mysteries for an average person to be afraid of. Of course, scientists still do not know much about the Universe in view of its expanse, but for a regular Earth dweller, the world with its natural manifestations is no longer enigmatic. However, the fear of the unknown still remains; it has transformed, changed its form, and instead of fearing thunderstorms and darkness, people have created new fears: zombies, aliens, ghosts, and so on. Some of these fears are powerful enough to have become the new myths and legends of the modern technocratic age; instead of nature, they are now connected to urban environments, and reflect the deepest parts of modern people’s minds.
Perhaps the most famous urban legends are connected to alien abductions; there have been countless movies, books, documentaries, and stories dedicated to this subject, but probably one of the most credible and shocking is the story of Pier Zanfretta’s abduction by aliens; in fact, it is so realistic that it can hardly be called a legend. This man claimed to have been captured by aliens, and the descriptions he provided both in his clear thinking and under hypnosis are fascinatingly detailed and non-controversial. Zanfretta was a police officer on patrol in the Italian town of Torriglia. During the patrol, his car stopped dead; at the same time, he saw four strange lights in the garden behind the house, near where his car stopped. Thinking that it might be a crime in progress, Zanfretta rushed to the garden, when suddenly he felt a touch from behind; when the police officer turned his head, he saw “an enormous green, ugly, and frightful creature, with undulating skin, no less than ten feet tall.” Then the officer saw a triangular vessel taking off, and felt intense heat. He tried to reach the dispatcher via his radio, but the communication was almost immediately disrupted. A patrol group arrived an hour later; they found Zanfretta lying on the ground, with his clothes strangely warm (it was a cold December night outside); after waking up, Zanfretta could not recognize his colleagues, and did not seem to realize what was going on around him for a while. Later, he was questioned by the authorities, and hypnotized by Dr. Mauro Moretti (the video of this hypnosis session can be easily found on YouTube)—in both cases Zanfretta’s testimonies were detailed, logical, and non-controversial. So far, this case is considered to be one of the most credible and reliable in modern ufology (dfknj.wz.cz).
Another urban legend that has become extremely popular throughout the recent decade is Slenderman—a tall, haggard man-like silhouette with disproportionately long arms and legs, who haunts and kills (or cripples) his victims. Slenderman is able to hide in plain sight, and once you notice him, with each glimpse in his direction, he will appear closer. Slenderman prefers to stalk wooded areas, because there he can easily blend in with the environment due to his proportions; when he finds a victim, he haunts them in their house, beginning to appear in dark doorways or TV screens. Slenderman mesmerizes the victim, making them walk right into his hands; according to another version of the legend, Slenderman is a sort of Sandman: he wakes a sleeping victim up and asks them a question. If answered properly, he only breaks the victim’s arms and legs; if not, the victim dies in torture. The feature regarding arms and legs probably refers to Slenderman’s own story: it is said that he was once a regular man, who was beaten, impaled, and had his limbs torn out of their sockets (dfknj.wz.cz). Regardless of the origins, Slenderman is probably one of the creepiest and the most popular urban legends nowadays.
The two stories above refer mostly to western culture. However, if we take a look at the East—Asia, in particular—we will find an enormous amount of authentic and frightening stories. For example, in Japan there is a legend of the so-called Kuchisake Onna (“kuchi” mouth, “sake” slit, “onna” woman). It is said that she was once a samurai’s wife who cheated on her husband with another man. After learning of her betrayal, the samurai cut the woman’s mouth, making it twice as large than it should be. Since that time, the woman’s spirit haunts Japan; usually, Kuchisake Onna is depicted as a woman wearing a coat and a mask; when approaching her victim, she asks: “Am I pretty?” If the victim answers positively, the woman takes off her mask and asks the same question. If the answer this time is negative, she kills her victim—or, according to other versions of the story, cuts their mouth with a knife (dfknj.wz.cz).
Urban legends are much more numerous than those listed above. However, these are probably the most popular, widespread, and scary. Stories about being abducted by aliens are frightening, because knowing the size of the Universe, one can never be sure that aliens do not exist, or that their intentions are non-hostile; Slenderman is an example of a creepy wraith who dwells in big cities and surrounding forests, and perhaps a perfect embodiment of the unspoken fears that layer in our collective subconsciousness; as for Kuchisake Onna, she is an exotic Asian ghost, perhaps not too scary for westerners, but definitely frightening for Japanese people. Urban legends are likely to persist for centuries—unless all of the world’s mysteries are solved, and there is left nothing to be afraid of anymore.
- Alien Abduction in Italy: The Sad Story of Pier Fortunato Zanfretta, Page 1.dfknj.wz.cz N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Feb.
- McEntire, Jen. Urban Legends: The Terrible Legend of Slender Man. dfknj.wz.cz N.p., 15 Dec. Web. 14 Feb. .
- 10 Creepy Urban Legends from around the World. Listverse. N.p., 07 July Web. 14 Feb. .
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This collection of essays is the product of a larger research project led by Isabel Hofmeyer and James Ogude in the African Literature Department of Witwatersrand University, a collaborative and innovative enterprise well worth applauding. Despite its title, the book deals essentially with Kenya, and this is to be regretted since all the “Bongo flava” dynamism of present day Tanzania is left out. However, the emphasis on Kenya brings its own reward and provides an in-depth analysis of original cultural phenomena such as caricature and satire in the media, as well as the “Matatu” visual statements. One of the most interesting qualities of this book is that several Kenyan graduate students as well as young researchers took part in the project and give a special flair to the analysis of cultural phenomena. The book is divided into three sections; the main one focuses on popular media, while the other two deal with music and fiction.
In the first section, multimedia artists seldom mentioned in “formal” scholarly pieces are given ample recognition, thanks to an approach through “popular culture.” The entire approach is validated in the process, showing how these authors provide “deep commentary” into the workings of society. The “Kenyan journalist, humorist, literary writer” (to use Kimani Njogu’s words), Wahome Mutahi (–), is an original Nairobi writer: for more than twenty years before his death in he wrote a satirical newspaper column, “Whispers,” which (in the words of Nyairo and Ogude) became a “public space within the Kenyan social imaginary” (15, 79). “With the exception of God and disability, Wahome Mutahi could laugh at anything in life. He laughed at society, he laughed at the government and he laughed at his family—but he laughed at himself the hardest” (79), said [End Page ] a reviewer in the Daily Nation (July 23, ). His “world” is studied in an excellent chapter aptly titled “‘Christening Fiction’: Sermonising the Popular in ‘Whispers’” (79–96). Another paper titled “The Myriad Threads of Nairobi Matatu Discourse” (25–58) presents a convincing mixture of field work and hermeneutic analysis. Kenyan literature is taken seriously, as shown in the important analysis of Marjorie Macgoye in a chapter by Agnes Muriungi, “The (Re)Construction of Sexual Moralities in Popular Fiction” (–).
Bookshops are well stocked in Kenya; the readership is wide, and there are certainly Kenyan writers deserving serious analysis other than Ngũgĩ and Mazrui. The notion of “popular” means “read locally.” These works are very rewarding, as they apply to specific political contexts. Yet the section on music is disappointing, despite the quality of the contributors; what is lacking here is a specific socioeconomic analysis of the production of music and detailed reading and interpretation of the lyrics beyond general comments on Kenyan politics.
Other original features of the Kenyan press are singled out, such as the cartoons by Gado discussed in Grace Musila’s illuminating chapter “Democrazy: Laughter in Gado’s Editorial Cartoons (–),” which shows the range and effectiveness of insightful satirical commentary. Yet a very good question is asked at the end of this paper regarding “the relevance of Nyerere’s life and death to Kenyans, beyond being politically correct by mourning a fallen ‘leader’ and neighbour” (). The editors should have taken the time to clarify this matter and to provide a clearer East African dimension to this interesting book.
Langage, langues et cultures d’Afrique noire (LLACAN),
Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS),
Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales (INALCO),
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