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Slender Man and the Feedback Loop of Folk and Pop Cultures

December 01, 2015
The Slender Man The Slender Man

One of my favorite teaching experiences involved loading a horror-themed video game on the classroom PC, turning out the lights, and inviting students to play on the big projector screen.

One of my favorite teaching experiences involved loading a horror-themed video game on the classroom PC, turning out the lights, and inviting students to play on the big projector screen. (I did this in two separate semesters, and while my undergraduates seemed to find it interesting, I doubt they enjoyed it as much as I did.) The game I chose focused on Slender Man, the Internet monster who has been the focus of a fair bit of media attention over the past year or so. In the game, players are stalked by the skinny monster, and if he gets too close for too long, it's game over.

The purpose of this exercise was to demonstrate that digital media like Slender Man could be regarded as folklore—expressive culture that changes over time but retains recognizable traditional elements—and that folklore was always present in students' (and everyone else’s) own lives. Slender Man is widely known among young people today, very much a part of contemporary Internet-based culture. So it may be surprising to some to realize that the monster and his numerous stories could have something in common with Cinderella, or Jack and the Beanstalk, or whatever else they may think of when they hear the word "folklore." Like those stories, Slender Man narratives appear in many forms, and every text that features the inscrutable being has slight differences from the others, but the monster is still recognizably Slender Man.

A larger point that Slender Man underscores—long acknowledged by scholars but slower to catch on outside the Ivory Tower—is that the old distinctions between types of culture are increasingly irrelevant in the global, digital world. "Folk" and "pop" cultures once seemed distinct to academics dealing with human creativity. Now they’re seen to exist not on a spectrum or continuum but in a kind of feedback loop, to borrow an idea from my colleague Michael Dylan Foster, where each feeds constantly into the other. In this context the question of origins still has some weight, but only as a starting point for more serious, broader analysis.

This conclusion in and of itself isn't new (fan studies in particular has helped popularize this view), but by systematically examining these issues we can move completely away from the old patterns of sequestering one type of story, one piece of art, from another solely on the grounds of origin, aesthetic, or audience. Instead we can focus more fully on what are, presumably, the goals of all humanistic scholarship, the actions and attitudes and accomplishments of human beings using the materials of culture.

To bring things back to where we began, Slender Man is indeed folklore, as are tales of the Irish fairies, traditional English ballads, and vernacular religious stories about the miraculous appearances of the Virgin Mary. This doesn’t mean any of these things are false, nor does it mean they are in any way equivalent to one another. It only means that similar processes are at work in the creation and use of each. Exploring these processes can show us how intelligently people pick and choose the elements of culture that they, or their audiences, value most.

Jeffrey A. Tolbert is a PhD candidate in folklore at Indiana University and coeditor with Michael Dylan Foster of The Folkloresque: Reframing Folklore in a Popular Culture World. His research focuses on supernatural belief, and his dissertation examines belief and the landscape in contemporary Ireland. His broader research interests include folklore and popular culture, especially video games, and supernatural traditions in new/digital media, such as the Slender Man Internet phenomenon.

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