This is a true story - it happened to the best friend of my cousin

25th April 1997 at 01:00
They are not necessarily urban - they circulate throughout the countryside as well as in cities - and they are definitely not myths, as they can be based on fact. But urban myths, as they have become known, are a compelling form of storytelling among and for teenagers as well as older people.

Who hasn't, as a 14-year-old, spent a whole night at a sleep-over party swapping stories about a vanishing hitchhiker or the woman who died from a tomato plant growing inside her or the man seeing a UFO land in the middle of the common one winter's night or the girl who had a heart attack after an alligator who had been flushed down the toilet came up through the sewers and bit her on the bum as she sat on the loo?

The great thing about these stories is that everyone swears that they're true because they've heard them from their cousin's best friend. And indeed, sometimes these stories do grow out of true events. But even if they haven't, they have an element of possibility about them which is what makes them so utterly titillating. And, unbeknown to most people who have ever told one of these tales, many have their roots in traditional stories hundreds of years old - or more.

Mike Wilson, a drama lecturer at Exeter University who did his doctoral thesis on oral narrative traditions among teenagers in England and Ireland,is himself one of the few storytellers working in secondary schools (under his stage name, Mike Dunstan).

He believes that urban myths, which he prefers to call contemporary legends, are "a significant part of the teenage repertoire. Teenage narrative traditions are often about challenging rational explanations and subverting the conventions of the adult world. Through this genre of oral teenage culture, they are exploring emotions, leaving the safety of childhood behind."

But while the traditions of storytelling are popular among teenagers themselves, there is a battle to be waged to win them over to the concept of being told stories, which they tend to see as childish.

The Society for Storytelling publishes a directory of storytellers, with details of individual storytellers and age groups. The society also has an easy access document for teachers, full of practical information. Both publications from the Society for Storytelling, PO Box 2344, Reading RG6 7FG (01734 351381). Dr Mike Wilson's book, Performance and Practice: Oral Narrative Traditions Among Teenagers in Britain and Ireland, is published in November by Ashgate and can be ordered on 01252 331 551.

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