To make me feel like I’m back in the Midwest, Mother Nature has decided to pelt us with thunderstorms all day and night and I’ve only just felt comfortable turning on the computer to type this, so this will be brief. Today It’s My TV, It’s My Peanut Butter is going to teach you an important term in folkloristics: FOAF
You actually know this term, but maybe you don’t know you know it. It’s one of the defining characteristics of Contemporary Legends (you may call them Urban Legends because maybe you haven’t noticed they don’t always take place in urban locales). It’s an acronym. It stands for “Friend of a Friend.”
And by now you’re probably nodding or rolling your eyes at the fact that I actually thought you needed this explained to you.
The importance of the FOAF factor is that Contemporary Legends, in order to have that “keep you up at night with a heavy object by your bed listening for footsteps on the stairs” appeal need to hit close to home. Things that happen to some random chick a million miles away might be creepy, but not as creepy.
But if they hit too close to home they are too easily proved false. If you say the event happened to your friend instead of a FOAF inevitably someone’s going to ask “What’s her name?” Then you either have to make up a friend no one’s ever met or say it happened to an actual friend and hope said friend will play along if questioned. Or panic under the pressure of being asked about the lie you just told and blurt out, “Foot massage!” thereby ruining the whole thing. And if you know the story isn’t true it’s far less terrifying. Which means you’ll be less likely to pass it on to others and the story will die out. Also, an assertion of truth is a major dividing lines between folktales and legends, so from a scholars perspective it’s very important. So it doesn’t happen to a friend. Happens to a FOAF.
So next time you hear or tell that creepy story and assert it happened to a Friend of a Friend, just remember you’re not a cliché. You’re part of a major socio-cultural phenomenon and somewhere you’ve just made a folklorist very happy.