Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Slenderman: Folklore in Real Time

This week the Internet is abuzz over the news that two twelve year old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin stabbed a friend nineteen times. But while these savage actions  by twelve year olds is  horrific, it's not what the Internet is talking about. Everyone is talking about the fact that the girls did this in order to gain the favor of the Slenderman.

There were several things that came to mind as I followed this story. The first thing was the nature of folklore. The second was how hard people are arguing against Slenderman as urban legend. The last were the popular culture connections I made with this story.

First, as horrible as this event is, for a folklorist, it's bizarre to watch folkloric events  unfold in real time in my Twitter feed. There are several layers to this story as folklore- there's the initial story of Slenderman, as seen on sites such as creepypasta who obviously feel connected enough to the narrative that they issued a statement yesterday about the fictional nature of Slenderman.  Think about the bizarre nature of that for a minute. A website felt the need to make a statement about a fictional character's influence on a real time event. It's a little meta.

My Twitter feed is full of statements like this:

And this type of statement bothers me for one simple reason- they're wrong. As Zipes states in The Irresistible Fairy Tale, "In the case of fairy tales- and also such other simple forms or genres as the fable, myth, and legend- memes help create and build traditions by creating pools of stories, millions of stories, predicated on the human communication of shared experience" (20). The fact that Slenderman was created by someone is irrelevant. This character has become a meme, an internet sensation. Slenderman has created its own tradition. One look at Google Search will tell you how much of a tradition it has created- there are videos, webpages, images, you name it. People are not only expanding the tradition but also reworking and revising it.  It has become folklore. The origins are immaterial. What is of interest to me as a folklorist is WHY this character would capture the popular imagination. What is it about a faceless bogeyman who stalks and kills people that resonates with people? What about the fact that he's an Internet creation? Is he a reflection of people's anxieties and fears about the faceless nature of technology? The erasure of privacy and personal identity?

I understand why people are posting things like this though, it's a way of responding to the tragedy and insanity of it all. To try and make sense of something you can't make sense of. But a better response is this, which I think gets to the heart of the matter.

These were two very disturbed girls. Mental illness should be at the center of this. I guarantee if the story of Slenderman did not exist they would have chosen something else as the focus of their insanity.

I believe part of the reason that this story has teeth has to do with it's connection to popular culture. Episode 15 of the most recent season (nine) of Supernatural featured a Slenderman story called "#Thinman." In the episode, Ghostfacers (the supernatural hunter wannabes) run into Sam and Dean while on the case of #Thinman. A young girl was killed by a faceless man in a locked room taking a selfie. One of the Ghostfacers, Ed, created the entire mythology of the Thinman, to prevent his friend from leaving him and breaking up the team. While he initially created it, the story takes the Internet by storm and soon takes on a life of its own, with people adding to the mythology as well as creating their own stories.
In the end, it is two very human killers, the town deputy and the busboy from the local dinner, inspired by the stories, who decide to stage and film their own Thinman killings, posting them on the Internet and making themselves famous. This episode is the definition of meta- Ed and Harry of Ghostfacers are a parallel for Dean and Sam, there are winks to the audience about being on Twitter, including the title of the episode itself. At the end of the episode when Sam expressed his surprise at the all too human crime,  Dean tells him, "people are sick." And that's the lesson. There does not need to be a supernatural reason for people to be sick and do horrific things.

Meta-narratives in horror as a way to comment on a historical and cultural moment is not new. In 2011, the entire plot of Scream 4 relies on it- from the fake out openings of the movie, to the big reveal at the end. Jill Roberts, Sidney Prescott's cousin, orchestrates all of the murders because she wants to BE Sidney, she wants the fame, she wants the Internet acclaim as she states in her reveal monologue:

Jill Roberts: My friends? What world are you living in? I don't need friends. I need fans. Don't you get it? This has never been about killing you? It's about becoming you. I mean, for fuck's sake, my own mother had to die, no great loss there, so I could stay true to the original. That's sick, right? Well, sick is the new sane. You had your 15 minutes, now I want mine! I mean, what am I supposed to do? Go to college? Grad school? Work? Look around. We all live in public now, we're all on the Internet. How do you think people become famous any more? You don't have to achieve anything. You just gotta have fucked up-shit happen to you. So you have to die, Sid. Those are the rules. New movie, new franchise. There's only room for one lead, and let's face it, your ingenue days, they're over.

Both of these popular culture references are of interest because they clearly state where the blame should be put- on the insanity of people crazy enough to try and use culture as an excuse for their behavior. At a time where few people want to take responsibility for their actions, where everyone seems to have an excuse as to why they should not be held accountable, it's of note that even our popular culture is telling us we have our values skewed.

In the age of the Internet, social media, and with all the intertextuality of popular culture, we are presented with new ways to examine folklore.  While the intersection of folklore and popular culture has examined folkloric motifs within popular culture, what has not been examined is the way in which popular culture can function as folklore. While some argue that popular culture cannot be folklore because it's commercial, I think that narrow definition ignores the similarities between some popular culture and folklore. The images, motifs, plots that are instantly recognizable by people across socio-economic classes are just some of the ways that popular culture can be read as modern folklore.

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