Bill Ellis is a professor, author and researcher who contributes to the Journal of American Folklore (JAF).


William Ellis was born January 3, 1950 in Roanoke, VA and spent his childhood in Roanoke, as well as in Portsmouth, Ohio when his father was transferred to a section branch with the Norfolk & Western Railway. Growing up in Ohio, he was introduced to many stories, especially those told by his family, which had a strong respect for ‘traditionality.’


He became interested in folklore while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. His main interest was in Medieval Studies, for which he received a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in June 1972. He chose to attend graduate school at Ohio State University due to a group of talented faculty members in Medieval Studies, such as Francis Lee Utley, who led the group. Dr. Ellis took his first folklore course when many of the faculty were unavailable for him to study under. The folklore course helped him understand that many of the things that interested him about medieval literature were still current in contemporary folklore, with the difference being that the folk elements in medieval literature had been studied quite a bit, whereas the same things in contemporary folklore were not being studied at all. So, at a fairly late point in his graduate career, he changed his dissertation to a subject in folklore, and in December 1973, he graduated with a Master of Arts (M.A.) in English. He continued his education at the Ohio State University and in August 1978, he received his Ph.D. in English. Since then, he has been an influential folklorist whose work has gravitated toward folk-belief and contemporary legend. He has been working at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU), since 1990, as a professor in English and American Studies, and is currently teaching with the PSU World Campus.

Even though he is affiliated with the Lutheran Church, he does not write his books from a doctrinaire Lutheran point of view. He is a fact-by-fact ethnographer and historian who conducts his research based on its cultural importance to society. One aspect of Dr. Ellis’ work is the way in which he argues that there is an element of the human mind that wants to mythologize or romanticize the world we live in. He states, “the mundane is what we contend with and deal with on a daily basis, but in order to live we need to have some kind of devil’s half-acre where we can go and we can have some kind of out-of-the-normal adventure, but in a way that is strategically designed so that It doesn’t become too intense and it doesn’t become a replacement for everyday reality.”[1]

Dr. Ellis has advancedthe understanding of what Linda Degh and Andrew Vazsonyi called, ostension. Dr. Ellis describes ostension as “literally enacting part of a narrative.”[2] He has discussed ostension in depth and was instrumental in getting it into the mainstream, as well as demonstrating that it is widely adaptable in different contexts, other than what was originally implied. He was also instrumental in the work he did for the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research (ISCLR), where he was the editor of the FOAFTale News from 1989 to 1994, and as the President from 1994 to 1999. His editorial job with ISCLR helped to hold the group together, and made it clear that the ISCLR was doing important work that needed to be done. The work conducted by ISCLR broke out of the insular English folklore studied by English scholars, and American folklore studied by American scholars. In other words, it made folklore much more of an international discipline.

Ellis states that “folklore is the part of culture that people choose to preserve,”[3] and this choice is important. “As soon as you choose not to do something, it simply disappears, but if somebody forces to do something it’s not folklore either.”[4] Folklore is a relatively new discipline, first proposed by William Thoms on August 12, 1846. Therefore, it’s still being defined and is still misunderstood. Part of the reason is that the methodologies being used in folklore “are mystifying and poorly understood by those who are actually evaluating our work,”[5] says Dr. Ellis, and the folklorist’s “main responsibility is to get people to understand the significance of the things that they do and take for granted on a daily basis. We all tend to be farsighted. We can see the significance of other peoples’ cultures very easily because we recognize the differences, but we live and we swim in our contemporary life, and, like a fish that doesn’t understand what water is, most people don’t understand what folklore is. So, it’s the folklorist’s job to look at the normal mundane everyday sorts of things, which are immensely important, because they’re the things that people choose to do and continue to do on a daily basis.”[6]


Ph.D. Ohio State University, Columbus, OH (English), August 1978. M.A. Ohio State University, Columbus, OH (English), December 1973. B.A. University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA (English), June 1972.

Work experience

Fall/2008 – Present – Instructor, American Attitudes Toward Religion and Business Writing, The Pennsylvania State University World Campus, University Park, PA. Fall/2009 – Professor, Basic Writing, Wor-Wic Community College, Salisbury, MD. 2004-2009 - Professor, English/American Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, Hazleton, PA. 2006-07 - Visiting Professor, English, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA. (2 courses, one on folklore and Japanese manga/anime and one on contemporary legend) 1990-2004 - Associate Professor, English/American Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, Hazleton, PA. 1984-1990 - Assistant Professor, English/American Studies, The Pennsylvania State University, Hazleton, PA. 1982-1983 - Supervisor, Center for Textual Studies, Ohio State Library, Columbus, OH. 1982 - Visiting Assistant Professor, Folklore Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN (summer course on midwestern folklore) 1973-82 - Graduate Teaching Assistant/Lecturer, Ohio State University, various campuses

Community Services/Committees

Information Director and Webmaster, Eastern Shore Chapter, Thrivent Financial for Lutherans (a religious-based fraternal organization). Curator/Webmaster, Sensei's Anime Gallery, a web-based exhibition of Japanese animation art. Available:


Commonwealth College, Penn State University - Excellence in Academic Integration Award for extraordinary achievement in the integration of teaching, research, and service, April 2004.

Hazleton Campus, Penn State University - Butler Technology and Teaching Award for excellence in using computer-mediated instruction in the classroom and demonstrating its effect in promoting student learning, May 2001.


The Global Grapevine: Why Rumors and Legends about Immigrants, Terrorists, and Foreign Trade Matter. Coauthored with Gary Alan Fine (Northwestern University). New York: Oxford University Press, in production.

“Whispers in an Ice Cream Parlor: Culinary Tourism, Contemporary Legends, and the Urban Interzone.” Journal of American Folklore 122 (2009): 53-74.

"Sleeping Beauty Awakens Herself: Folklore and Gender Inversion in Cardcaptor Sakura." The Japanification of Children's Popular Culture: From Godzilla to Spirited Away. Ed. Mark I. West, pp. 249–266. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008.

“Death by Folklore: Ostension, Contemporary Legend, and Murder,” Western Folklore 48, no. 3 (July 1989): 201-220.

“The Devil-Worshippers at the Prom: Rumor-Panic as Therapeutic Magic,” Western Folklore 49, no. 1 (January 1990): 27-49.

“The Highgate Cemetery Vampire Hunt: The Anglo-American Connection in Satanic Cult Lore,” Folklore 104, no. 1/2 (1993): 13-39.

“Kurt E. Koch and the "Civitas Diaboli": Germanic Folk Healing as Satanic Ritual Abuse of Children,” Western Folklore 54, no. 2 (April 1995): 77-94.

Lucifer Ascending: The Occult in Folk and Popular Culture. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2003.

Making a Big Apple Crumble: The Role of Humor in Constructing a Global Response to Disaster. New Directions in Folklore 6 (June 2002). Available:

Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2001.

Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2000.

See also


  1. Dr. Bill Ellis, "Personal Interview.," Telephone, March 4, 2010.
  2. Bill Ellis, Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000).
  3. Ellis, "Personal Interview."
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.

External links

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