Truly weird: the UFO believers look smart

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The Independent Online

HEARD THE one about the Siberian oil riggers who sent a drill down so far they broke into the roof of Hell? How about the poisoner who puts strychnine on the keys in telephone booths?

Urban legend lovers and UFO-spotters fought for space with faith healers and and monster hunters at the Commonwealth Institute in London yesterday, when Fortean Times magazine held its seventh annual UnConvention.

There were more nose rings and crop tops than anoraks in an unexpectedly young and fashionable crowd, although beards and beer bellies were far from rare.

The two-day event was billed as the weirdest weekend in the world. The actor and playwright Ken Campbell leapt about the stage as he discussed "Gastromancy, Euryclesis and the Fartomantics of the Innuit Shaman". This turned out to range from the gastromancers of ancient Egypt who conversed with ghosts through their guts - "you dowse for spirits with your arse" - to the techniques of modern ventriloquism.

"I'm fairly certain that many of these people are looking at things tongue-in- cheek," said Professor Jan Harold Brunvand, one of several academic speakers at the UnConvention.

"I'm not even sure I believe in the flea circus. But then you get the first-hand true believers who have themselves been abducted by aliens. They're not responding to something they've heard, they've had some sort of actual experience. Whether it's an abduction or a nightmare is up to some other expert to explore."

Fortean Times was established in 1973 to continue the work of Charles Fort, a New Yorker who chronicled what he called "damned data" - or "strange phenomena and experiences, curiosities, prodigies and portents" as the magazine now says. Fortean Times started as a fanzine but for the past four years it has been a glossy monthly magazine whose popularity reflects the growing interest in alternative news.

Professor Brunvand was there to examine urban legends, which he describes as "supposedly authentic episodes that people tell each other but they're too good to be true - by which I mean they're too well formed, too concidental. They're told all over the world, often, across countries, in different versions. They are part of modern folklore. They deal with things like automobiles and pets and crime and sex and business and celebrities, academic life and so on."

Stories like the poodle who was put in a microwave are often modern variations on ancient themes. So why do we still feel the need to tell - and believe - them?

"Part of it is encouraging proof that the human spirit is still alive and well, wanting to communicate and not willing to let the media tell us everything," says the professor, a former president of the American Folklore Society.

"They show that we're not entirely smothered by electronic devices, that people are still chatting and inventing things. There is a conspiracy feeling that says the official sources don't tell us everything."

Folklore has always been a treasury of wisdom, the stories a way of passing on common sense. "It's pretty good advice to check the back seat of your car if you parked it in a dark parking lot in a side street somewhere, or to keep an eye on your children in crowds - even if the story that gives you that warning isn't literally true. It's tribal lore still being transmitted person to person."

The rise of multinational corporations and their influence on politics and the media have also fuelled paranoia, which in turn generates stories, says the professor.

"There is a suspicion that big companies would do anything for profit, or that politics is corrupt. There's a theory called the Goliath effect, that the legends tend to gravitate towards the biggest company. So the story of the contaminated pizza would always tend to feature Domino's, and you would get the mouse in Coca-Cola."

The professor sees the disemination of such business legends as a mild form of resistance to forces beyond our control. "It's not quite on the level of the pie thrown at Ann Widdecombe or the demonstrators against the IMF but there is a sense that the common man still has some idea of what's really happening in the world."