I just learned some of the latest European legends from Leiden and Leuven, and they have a distinctly Low Country flavor. This proves once again that urban legends are truly international.
Peter Burger, a writer from Leiden, the Netherlands, and Stefaan Top, a folklorist at Leuven University, Belgium, recently sent me some samples of current urban legends from each country.Not surprisingly, many of the same stories known in the United States are told there as well. Among others, Burger mentioned the legends I call "The Exploding Toilet," and "AIDS Harry" as being known in the Netherlands; while Top listed "The Choking Doberman" and "The Runaway Grandmother" as being current in Belgium.
But each of my Low Country correspondents also included a few stories that I've never heard in this country, legends that are possibly unique to their nations.
For example, from his brother Burger heard the following legend that could be titled "The Contaminated Comforter." It contains a familiar theme of infestation, but here it concerns a typically European item, one of those large fluffy down comforters often used over there as bed coverings.
According to the story, a woman was able to buy a down comforter at a bargain price, and she put it onto her bed as soon as she returned home.
But when she entered her bedroom a short while later, she found that the new comforter had slipped to the floor. She put it back on, but soon saw that it had slipped off again.
That night she slept under the comforter, and again it slipped off her bed. The next morning she opened a seam in order to check the stuffing.
Inside, rather than the delicate eiderdown of a fine comforter, she found common chicken feathers with dried blood still stuck to the ends. The inside of the comforter was infested with maggots.
The squirming of the thousands of maggots was what had caused her contaminated comforter to crawl to the edge of the bed and fall to the floor.
That was certainly no Dutch treat!
Since down comforters are less common in the United States, this story is not told here, at least not to my knowledge. But we do have plenty of other contamination legends. They involve infested sweaters, coats and even electric blankets.
But the snake in the blanket in U.S. legends never causes the covering to fall off the bed.
Along with the Belgian urban legends he sent, Top commented that many of their stories "have three shades of meaning: bad, worse and worst."
As an example, he included a grisly tale about a farmer who accidentally started up his combine when preparing to drive it into the fields to harvest a crop. Unfortunately, he found out too late that his children were hidden inside, hoping to hitch a ride to the field.
To demonstrate the humorous side of recent Belgian legends, Top sent me a story that could be titled "The Stolen Cobblestones." Supposedly, this happened in the city of Berchem in the province of Antwerp, and it was told by a Leuven University student.
On a certain street, a heap of cobblestones had stood for some time. It was part of the material being used to repair the pavement.
A man from Berchem happened to be paving his own courtyard with similar cobblestones when he ran short by about ten stones. So he drove over to where the heap was and loaded the stones he needed from the pile into his van.
Just then a policeman came along, catching him in the act, and asked what he was doing.
"Oh," said the man, "You see, I had a few too many cobblestones for paving my courtyard, and so I thought I'd just add the extras to this pile."
"Nothing doing," said the policeman, "you keep those stones in your van and get out of here before I run you in for littering a public street."
There may be an American counterpart to this story that involves another kind of building material, but I don't expect to hear the cobblestone version repeated in this country.
At any rate, now that I have examples of urban legends from two of the three Low Countries, all I need to complete the set is a legend from Luxembourg.
- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to Prof. Brunvand in care of this newspaper.