Digital Mythology and the Internet's Monster
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Digital Mythology and the Internet's Monster

The Slender Man

Vivian Asimos

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eBook - ePub

Digital Mythology and the Internet's Monster

The Slender Man

Vivian Asimos

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About This Book

Exploring a prominent digital mythology, this book proposes a new way of viewing both online narratives and the online communities which tell them. The Slender Man – a monster known for making children disappear and causing violent deaths to the adults who seek to know more about him – is used as an extended case study to explore the role of digital communities, as well as the question of the existence of a broader "digital culture". Structural anthropological mythic analysis and ethnographic details demonstrate how the Slender Man mythology is structured, and how its everlasting nature in the online communities demonstrates an importance of the mythos.

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Year
2021
ISBN
9781350181465
1
Mythology and digitizing Lévi-Strauss
When I was a child, my mother used to tell me a story of a Buddhist monk. The monk was walking through the woods when a rabbit jumped across his path. Soon after, a hunter ran by as well. The hunter stopped the monk and asked him if he had seen a rabbit pass by. ‘Why do you need to know?’ the monk asked. ‘I am a hunter’, the hunter explained, ‘I need to hunt the rabbit so I may eat.’ The monk was then faced with an ethical predicament: if he chose to tell the hunter where the rabbit went, he put the innocent life of the rabbit at risk. If he denied telling the hunter where the rabbit went, the hunter’s life may be at risk. Both choices went against Buddhist precepts of causing no harm. And the story did not tell which way the monk chose – it ended at the choice being presented.
This may seem a strange way to begin a book about digital horror stories, with a short narrative of a Buddhist monk told to a child-version of myself. This narrative, however, is important to an understanding of myth which is used throughout this thesis. My mother’s form of storytelling reflects the way most people tell stories. My mother was not concerned with whether or not the monk lived, nor was she concerned with which way this historic monk, if he did live, chose. She was more concerned with an underlying importance to the narrative. For her, the story was true, even if the characters never existed.
It may be a bit strange to start a thesis about mythology, and mythology online, with an older tale about a Buddhist monk. But a classic example may be the best to use as a way of leading into a discussion about stories in new media. Stories are a core element of the human experience, and this does not change between the nature of telling a Zen story to your child and horror narratives told visually online. At the base of this thesis is the theory that humans will always be humans; though the medium through which they act or create may change, they are still acting and creating. At times, scholars may forget that although they are sitting in front of a computer as they look at these narratives or watch web videos, there are people on the other side: commentating, creating and telling stories.
This chapter will review the theoretical and methodological elements which are the foundations for this study. What is myth in our understanding here? How is this reflected in the Slender Man mythos? What is structuralism, and what happens when we bring Lévi-Strauss into the digital world?
1.1 What is myth?
Some of the early anthropological understandings of myth came from Tylor and Frazer, who both gave definitions which understood myth as explanations of the world, a historic ‘truth’ which was similar to a science in how it explained phenomena in the surrounding world. Tylor understood myth as a rational explanation (Tylor 1871), while Frazer saw it as an explanation for the presence of a ritual (Frazer [1922] 1994). Similarly, Bascom famously distinguished between folklore, legend and myth through similar ideas. Myths are ‘considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past’, which is set in direct contrast to his concept of folklore as that which was regarded as ‘fiction’ (Bascom 1984, 9). These views of myth are also often substantialist in definition, involving specific features or content elements, most notably involvement of gods.
Earlier substantialist definitions are troubling as they cause the mythographer to choose which content elements are considered significant enough to be definable. These elements are often chosen from a more Western standpoint, as these were the more significant mythographers and anthropologists early on. The contextual elements should be looked at within their context.
Led by Bascom, these distinctions lay a foundation which has separated narratives into two distinct categories: the first fantastic or fictional, and the second truth or fact. For many of these scholars, the fundamental problem is the consistent belief in the paradigmatic opposition – and mutual exclusivity – of truth and fiction. If a community does not believe the narrative is historically accurate, it cannot also consider the narrative to be true. These inflexible categories are not accurate in how individuals engage with narratives. My mother’s story of the Buddhist monk, for example, problematizes these issues. Despite my mother knowing the narrative as a work of fiction, she recognized other truths which justify the retelling of the narrative many times, and not only for herself but to her children. A narrative which provides meaning for an individual does not necessarily need to be tied to a more ostensive and non-fictional truth.
More functional definitions shift the focus from the content to the role myth plays. Famously, Malinowski’s myth as a social charter (Malinowski 1948) demonstrates this more functional approach. Where the previous, more substantialist, definitions create a dichotomy between myth and history, functionalist definitions typically created a dichotomy between myth and science. In some ways, this is reminiscent of Tylor and Frazer’s connection of myth as an explanation. Malinowski’s assertion of myth as a social charter can sometimes be considered too literally. In these cases, the myth is seen as an exact blueprint rather than a metaphoric or symbolic one. In a similar way, Robert Segal understands myth’s survival as through its link with science and fact (Segal 1996, 82). But science is not necessarily separate from myth, and in some ways we can see science as a myth. Bruce Lincoln, for example, sees myth as a form of ideology, and in doing so one can link academic work as a form of myth itself (Lincoln 1999).
The functionalist focus on what a myth is doing for a group of people is incredibly important to me and the study of this particular study. I believe there is a way to combine the functionalist essence to a structuralist method. Much of this kind of approach would solve some of the criticisms levelled against Lévi-Strauss and his structuralism. This is a particular approach not new to structuralism. Combinations of structuralism with functionalism have been done previously by Edmund Leach (Leach and Aycock 1983; Leach 1969; Leach 1972). More on how this looks will be studied in a later section. It serves to see how more structuralist ideas of myth see it as a pattern for organizing their reality.
As the term will be used here, myths are narratives, or similar cultural artefacts, which are used by a community or an individual in order to structure their understanding of themselves and the world around them. I am not the first to link this type of thought to myth, as it is similar to Seth Kunin (2003), who links his definition with a structural study of myth. Structuralism, although sometimes conceived of as being out of fashion, is most important to use here, in more ways than its linking to our definition.
The former definition is purposely void of substantial elements, such as depiction of supernatural entities, strict concepts of setting, or relations of mythic time or otherworldly locations. The purpose is to retain the attention on the function the myth plays for the community, rather than what it contains. It is the function, the deeper understanding of myth, which allows us to see myth in a more contemporary setting with contemporary narratives. Like my mother’s Buddhist story, myth can be found anywhere inherent truth to an individual, and sometimes their children, can also be found.
In both connecting the way my mother tells a Zen story, as well as looking into popular culture more widely, we are discounting in many ways some scholars who see very little future for myth. Robert Segal, through the linking of science and myth, understands myth’s death with the rise of science (Segal 1996). Most relevant to us is Lévi-Strauss’s own assertion of myth’s death. He claims that as myth spreads and shifts, it either becomes romance, or popular narratives, or legends which are worked into history (Lévi-Strauss 1983). However, the basis of Lévi-Strauss’s thought is that all aspects of culture, from the myth to the houses, are based on the same underlying structure. This would mean that the historical legend and the popular romance narratives would have the same structure as the myth. Taken from this point of view, if there is no structural difference between popular culture, myth, legend and folklore, then they can be considered on the same level of understanding. Structurally speaking, I see no difference in these narratives. The importance is on the more functional role the story plays for the individual in order for it to count as a myth.
1.1.1 Myth and popular culture
I am not the first to see a correlation between mythology and popular culture. Some work is dedicated to the mythology in Tolkien’s worlds (Chance 2004; Hiley 2004), the use and exploration of myth in live action role-playing games (Milspaw and Evans 2010), and even the relation of mythology’s construction to the ability to sell toys and a television show (Laycock 2010). Some studies of online communication have led scholars to see a relation between digital and oral communication (Fernback 2003; Blank 2009; Blank 2012; Howard 2015).
What these studies explicitly show us is how myth operates, either linguistically or structurally, in these popular culture narratives. What they implicitly show us is how myth has not died, and it is far from dying anytime soon. Often, these narratives stop one or two steps shy of proclaiming myth’s life, often discussing instead how these stories are like myth, or they use myth, but rarely that they are myth. Most often, when it is pushed to seeing these narratives as myth, it is pushed to the extreme of hyper-real religions, where the participants begin to engage with the narratives with a new form of fervour (Davidsen 2012; Cusack 2013). Both sides of this presentation – the narratives like myth, and the hyper-real myths – are important to study and realistically present in the world. These studies have laid the foundation for engagement with myth in popular culture, an important consideration to this study as it is necessary to take both a step forward (in the case of those like myth) and a step back (for the hyper-real case).
This study wants to look at these popular culture narratives as myth, but not to the same extreme extent as the hyper-real religion. It is not necessary to put Jediism on a census record in order for Star Wars to mean something significant to you. Our definition of myth calls for emotional investment in the narrative itself, seeing it as important not because it is like anything, but because it is, though with a differing knowledge of ‘reality’ and ‘truth’, different emotional and practical engagement, as their hyper-real counterparts.
This approach may recall elements of Bailey’s implicit religion (Bailey 1998). That being said, I have some hesitation to fully place this study into the realm of implicit religion. Despite its positive intentions of attempting to define what has been related to spirituality, it often has the implication of attempting to demonstrate religion where participants may be hesitant to use the word. At its heart, it is an issue between the emic and the etic. Directly connecting implicit religion to forms of popular culture and the narrative of the Slender Man is not my intention. Comparisons between religion, popular culture and fandom is often over-exaggerated (Reysen 2006), and the comparisons revert the study from becoming about the strange and over-enthused Other. Early fan studies echoed this, understanding fans as ‘fanatics’, and overly stressed their connections to the element of popular culture. Connecting fans to implicit religion risks returning to the pathologization of fans (Duffett 2003; Duffett 2013, 149–50; Crome 2015). With that in mind, I choose to focus on the term ‘myth’ because it is a word used and chosen by the participants and the community without academic influence. Terms related to mythology are frequently used in popular culture more generally, including a world’s ‘mythos’ or ‘lore’. The fans and participants in my study are not crazed Others. The term ‘mythology’ is more useful in demonstrating a human connection to a narrative throughout many centuries; the term ‘myth’ demonstrates an emotional connection to the story.
And if we are looking for emotional investment to find myth, popular culture narratives are given mythic light. Emotional investment in popular culture is reiterated in both fan groups and fan studies. Cornel Sandvoss emphasizes this in his definition of fandom: ‘the regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative or text’ (82005, 8). While fan studies once saw fandom as a strange subculture, or the misunderstood Other, contemporary fan studies only see fans as those who are emotionally engaged and invested in popular culture narratives (Gray, Sandvoss, Harrington 2007, 10). These fans, then, are clear indications of how contemporary audiences engage with contemporary narratives – with emotional connections and inves tments which have the potential to directly affect the audience on a deeper level. Popular culture narratives embody myth.
Often, popular culture audiences are described as passive, allowing the narratives to happen to them, but do little to act on the narrative itself. This is echoed more explicitly in discourse around digital popular culture. Massively popular videos or images are said to have gone ‘viral’ – a term denoting an idea of disease which passes over the audience, or something that happens to them without thought. But not everyone sees engagement with popular culture narratives as a passive experience. Michel de Certeau’s view of readership, for example, is one in which readers ‘poach’ in their environment (2013, 174), which echoes Lévi-Strauss’s concept ...

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