Wednesday, June 04, 2014

"Slender Man" and the Psychology of Stories

As someone whose primary interest is myth, religion and folklore, I was naturally interested in the bizarre stabbing this week that took place in Wisconsin. Two girls tried to murder a third to appease something called "Slender Man", an Internet meme that was apparently created as part of a contest to create a "paranormal" creature. There is a Blair-Witch style backstory, and even a video that supposedly tells the origins of "Slender Man", a Chthulu-like figure that lives in the forest. Many people are fans of this story in the same way one might be a fan of Lovecraft and his monsters.

Slender Man is described as a meme in some places, and as an urban legend in others. Urban legends are a version of local folklore--someone tells a story that they swear is true from a "friend of a friend", and it gets spread with even more variations. They may potentially have a grain of truth to them, though they are not necessarily "true". I question whether or not this is an urban legend per se; however, the more relevant question might be, can Internet memes become urban legends? As noted, there is a "clear paper trail" for this tale--it is not one of those stories told many times over and the origins get lost, like stories of "Resurrection Mary". It was clearly intended as fiction.

Why would two girls believe this is true? And do they really believe it is true, or is this just a way of getting out of murder prosecution? All the details on the girls, their background, and their relationship to the third girl are still unknown. This is hardly the typical response to a fictional story, even if you want to believe it.

Part of me wants to look at the story and ignore it, as I'm sure there will be a thousand half-baked theories as to what is going on, and people don't necessarily need to hear mine. I don't claim to understand the reason at all. But as the same Jezebel article noted, the potential for this to turn into something like the "Satanic Panic" of the 1980s is pretty darn good. So, for better or for worse, I feel a need to step back and look at what is going on here. That's what I'm paid to do in at least part of my life.

So--first--this is one type of illustration of what Jung meant when he said that "imagination is a fact". Slender Man is clearly fiction, and yet the impact he has is very real. He takes on a psychological reality manifest in the actions of the girls. Now, I anticipate two reactions--one says that Slender Man is still not REAL, the girls are just deluded at best and crazy at worst. The other will try to compare it to religion, but religion arises out of a natural need to negotiate the unknown. While Slender Man may have represented something to the individual psyches of the girls, I do not think you can convincingly compare him to a "deity". This is an isolated incident; there are no mass gatherings of Slender Man worshippers. That would be a different situation entirely.

If Slender Man resembles Chthulu in some respect, it may be worth considering the symbolism of that monster, and other Lovecraftian monsters. Lovecraft, as I've said before, was a hardcore materialist. He had no knowledge of the occult, and did not believe in souls, life after death, or religion. In fact, his monsters represent the blind forces of the universe. They will trample you in a moment, because they have no interest in you, and you are nothing compared to them. As Robert Price once pointed out, "the Devil at least takes an interest in your soul." These monsters do not. It might be fitting that new monsters in our mechanical/automatic worldview are as indifferent as Chthulu. At least its a switch from zombies.

This brings to mind another fictional phenomenon that people believe is real--Lovecraft's Necronomicon. Supposedly it is an ancient work written by Abdul Al-Hazra that reveals ancient incantations for bringing these Titanic monsters into the world. This is entirely fictional, but occult bookstore owners have probably lost count of the number of times they've been asked for the "real" Necronomicon. Even my ex-husband believed it was real; and actually tried some of the rituals, to some effect (according to him). It's very difficult to convince people it's fiction once they've decided it is real; this is true about false ideas in the world as well. Example: the notion that vaccinations cause autism. That has been debunked long ago, but many still believe it.

So, we've seen how we can transform fictional things into "real" things in our minds. The Satanic Panic was another example. Real Satanists have no interest in stealing children or in human sacrifice, or in torturing children. Like "Slender Man" it is a "mythical" manifestation of a different issue. When I say "mythical", I don't mean false. I mean it is a metaphorical story that may tell us something about the point of view in question. Myth is either fascinating, repellent, or indifferent. In the latter case, the myth is obsolete, or at least useless to the indifferent individual. In the two former cases, it says something about the neurotic, conflicted, or potentially psychotic nature of the fascinated or repelled individual (or group). If we don't relate to the story in some fashion, it has no meaning for us. Fears of Slender Man, Satan, or any other frightening being are symptomatic of a personal or social fear that we don't want to confront.

Which brings us to the reality of the story itself. Even fictional stories may be metaphorical of some collective fear or desire--that's what makes them popular. I have always argued against things like scriptural literalism, because I feel people are doing exactly what these girls are doing--taking something symbolic (or potentially symbolic) to be a reality. Years ago, one of my professors likened it to believing in Santa Claus--we believe literally as children, we don't believe as adults, but we still appreciate the symbolism and perhaps the tradition. Literal belief does occur among children, and it's not a bad thing, it's a state of development. Usually the beliefs are acted out in play, which is again entirely appropriate. Acting things out is a good preparation for being faced with adult situations, as fairy tales often attempt to solve difficult real world problems in fantastic ways. (See Bruno Bettelheim's "Uses of Enchantment" for some good examples of this.)

In this case, as they say, "sh*t got real". This is not two girls pretending that Slender Man is real--they are taking very disturbing action in the belief that he is literally real. This suggests an inability to draw lines between what is psychological and what is material. That could be an indication of something like schizophrenia (very unlikely, I think), or it could be a continuation of a worldview that assumes that for something to be "real" it has to be a "fact". As it was once said by another wise professor, "Facticity does not equal truth".

So, some of that is the ironic fallout of the scientific worldview. While the notion of Biblical inerrancy predated the rational era, to a certain extent it is the product of rational thinking about the Bible. The underlying notion is that for the Bible to be true, it must all be factual. It's not--and in fact, the Bible stands up much better as "truth" if it is read metaphorically, and in the context of the time when it was written. The need to make something that fascinates us "real" in a material sense may suggest that in order for our feelings to be validated in terms of the idea, it has to be made manifest. We want to see "material proof", the only thing we accept as evidence, even when dealing with the non-material. This can be good--if an inventor dreams of a particular kind of machine and then builds it, that is a positive. In this case, making Slender Man real by murdering someone is a decided negative.

What does any of this prove? It proves that the psyche is like fire--it can create or destroy, yet it is neither good or bad in and of itself. This is not an argument for rigidly controlling the psyche, because that is impossible--the more you try to do that, the less control you actually have. It's a bit like trying not to think of pink elephants--as soon as you decide that, you can think of nothing but pink elephants. It is also not an argument for "controlling" what children are exposed to--these girls were 12, which is really more adolescence than childhood. The best you can do is to allow children and adolescents to express themselves without judgment--especially with adolescents. You can't tell them what to do meaningfully, so it's better to say, "Yeah, I get what you're saying--but did you also think about this?" Teaching how to balance what is felt with what is reasonable behavior goes a long way.

Of course, this could all be a lot of BS. We don't know all the circumstances surrounding this case. But I would still say it is prudent to not take an individual case and turn it into a nationwide epidemic. There is more going on here than meets the eye, and it is best to reserve judgment until all facts are known. Slender Man is no more responsible for deaths than heavy metal music, Chthulu, Satan, or anything else deemed monstrous or rebellious. If Slender Man is symbolic of anything in this case, it is fear of the future and the unknown. Work on improving that instead of trying to suppress or eliminate fictional, mythical, or religious characters.

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