We are always making myths, whether we mean to or not. If you don’t believe me, just look at these pictures of people after Avatar came out who realized that really what they wanted to be all along was blue cat-like Na’vi. Look at conventions full of people in Jedi robes and the proliferation of baby Khaleesis this year. Some stories land in the gut. Even when you know they’re not real, they feel true.
In Thailand, the three-finger salute of the Hunger Games became an actual gesture of rebellion.
Or look at the “Slender Man stabbings,” in which two 12-year-olds in Waukesha County, Wis., viciously attacked a classmate (thankfully, she survived) claiming that they were seeking to become “proxies” for the horror meme.
But before the Sinister Meme backlash begins — well, maybe not before, as Kelly Faircloth at Jezebel notes, we seem to be lurching toward the narrative that “a disturbing Internet thing called Slender Man made them do it” — it’s only fair to note: this is not an Internet thing. This is a story thing.
It feels different because this is the first time it’s happened with a story that doesn’t really exist offline — yet.
Other eras had their urban legends, too. Sailing ships brought Alfred Bulltop Stormalong. Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe felled timber by the Great Lakes. Slender Man and The Rake and Jeff the Killer and whoever was phone all came to us with the Internet.
The thing that sets creepypasta like Slender Man apart is that, while these stories may start as the work of one individual — in fact, you can pinpoint the moment when Slender Man did start, on the SomethingAwful forums, as a user-made creepy photo from “Victor Surge” — they spread because of the efforts of legions. It’s a group effort, a mythology being constructed in real time where everyone can see, a tale kept alive mouth to mouth.
This both helps and hurts the myth. “Victor Surge” told a fansite, “It differs from the prior concept of the urban legend in that it is on the Internet, and this both helps and harms the status of the Slender Man as one. In my personal opinion, an urban legend requires an audience ignorant of the origin of the legend. It needs unverifiable third and fourth hand (or more) accounts to perpetuate the myth. On the Internet, anyone is privy to its origins as evidenced by the very public Something Awful thread. But what is funny is that despite this, it still spread.” The process of sharing goes from the copy-pasting of the original creepy pasta (hence the term) to increasing presences on forums and even spreading into new media like games, with new details being added all the time.
Creepypasta, the site that offers a home to some stories about Slender Man — not all, by any means; he is too tall a tale to fit the confines of one site — already includes a statement from user SloshedTrain condemning this. (“We are a literature site, not a crazy satanic cult.”)
But something strange does happen to these fables online. Full disclosure: I have been an avid reader of the Creepypasta wiki for a long time. I find Internet horror fascinating because it exists in a strange space where you actively choose to believe everything in front of you. It’s a suspension of disbelief that’s rare online. No Snopes. No debunking Googles.
The Creepypasta wiki offers a fascinating exercise in creating legends. It is populated by writers known only by a handle and through the stories they tell, building myths from the bones up. The goal is to make it feel as real as possible — to quote another horror forum’s manifesto, “Everything is true here, even if it’s not.” These sites are virtual campfires where you have license to terrify.
But online, that can get a little murky.
Few statements are more instantly snort-worthy than “It must be true; I read it on the Internet.” But how do we determine what’s true and what isn’t? Is Wikipedia safe now? There’s considering the source, of course. But even reputable news outlets run a story from The Onion by mistake from time to time. It’s enough to keep legions of fact-checkers in business. Consider this XKCD comic of the process by which an unverified fact becomes a verified fact. Can you carelessly make a thing true by not noticing it’s false?
This is always the trouble with stories, even the ones that start out obviously false — Na’vi, superheroes, Jedi. You can make something that isn’t real come true, in some way, by believing in it. But that’s not an Internet thing. That’s not a Slender Man thing. That’s tales, always, as long as we’ve been telling them.