Date of Award:

2014

Document Type:

Thesis

Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)

Department:

English

Advisor/Chair:

Lisa Gabbert

Abstract

Modern scholarly theories of oral folk narrative suggest that urban legends contain expressions of cultural beliefs that can be understood both through the contexts in which these stories are told and through the elements of the stories that remain constant across multiple tellings by various narrators. This study centers exclusively on stories and popular culture products that utilize missing or damaged fingers, hands, or arms, in order to identify the cultural values that are attached to hands in American culture. These stories in particular were chosen because the severed hand was perceived at the onset to be a common element within stories that had not been broadly analyzed. The particular theories that drive this study are drawn from the fields of folklore, disability studies, psychology, and neuroscience, and suggest that stories about severed hands express belief about the nature of humanity.

Once the hypothesis was formed, I turned to the Fife Folklore Archives of the Merril-Cazier Library at Utah State University in order to collect transcripts of interviews in which severed hand legends had been told. Three hundred fifty potential texts were initially identified, and two hundred fifty featured a mention of severed hands. Those texts were then classified by what role the severed hand played in the course of the story into three distinct categories: villains with severed hands and prosthetics, victims who lose hands in the course of the narrative, and severed hands appearing in pranks or as contaminants. The narratives of each category were then analyzed, and themes of evil, risk, safety, and crossed boundaries began to emerge.

To verify the cultural themes of the textual study, popular culture narratives were then analyzed to determine if similar themes were expressed. This set of narratives included movies, television, comic books, and novels. While the same themes were expressed in these narratives, the categories of evil and crossed boundaries each featured subverted forms of heroism and hands as characters as well, all of which supported the original interpretation.

The results indicate that severed hands in American narratives represent lost humanity, and therefore that the hand is a vital part of how individuals within the culture might perceive their own humanity.

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