Regarding Slenderman

June 11, 2014 § Leave a comment


For those of you who haven’t heard from The Media, the internet is currently being stalked –STALKED!– by a mythological creature with origins dating as far back as ancient Egypt (i.e. 2009 on the Something Awful forums), who has already claimed…well one victim for sure, but maybe two depending on whether or not this mother is correct in assuming that the reason her daughter tried to stab her was because of something the daughter read about on the internet and which the mother then read about on the internet, thus putting the pieces together.

There have been some interesting takes on the story, like this Slate piece in which journalist Katy Wladman frames Slenderman as the perfect metaphor for how we describe (and -erroneously- decry as aberrant) acts of violence, and I like certain sections of this Verge article as well, particularly the bits where author Adrianne Jeffries debunks the idea that there’s such an easy relationship between people who do crazy things and their media engagement practices (although it also does what most of the articles on the subject do and speak of the Slenderman character as if it has its own agency, which is weird because it’s a meme).

For me, though, the Slenderman story does two interesting things unrelated to internet + teenagers = SCARY.  First, it is a reminder of how applicable discussions of folklore are to discussions of internet memes, and how easily folkloristics fit into existing theories of participatory media. Folklore was, in fact, my entree into internet studies (here’s a link to all the times I’ve talked about FLR on this here bloggie, including synopses of folklore stuff on my PhD exam list). Until that point, I’d encountered a lot of theory focused on the nouns of things, but what I was studying was pretty much all verbs. I needed a coherent way to talk about process and world building, and I found that with Barre Toelken (particularly the twin laws of conservatism and dynamism), Victor Turner (particularly the notion of liminality and communitas), questions of emic vs. etic data collection, Performance Studies generally (which isn’t a subset of folklore exactly but works beautifully in folkloric analyses), and of course my particular favorite, Richard Schechner’s notion of dark play. Really, folklore is ahead of its time — it’s just that historically, these theories have been applied to terrestrial offline and typically “traditional” (though folklore would question that basic framing) behaviors. (And to preempt the question IS THERE SUCH A THING AS DIGITAL FOLKLORE, the answer is yes, what a strange thing to ask.)  You definitely see all those issues at play with the Slenderman meme, with a healthy dose of reception theory thrown in for good measure.

Second, the Slenderman story raises a question for which I don’t have an answer, but which gestures in an indirect way to this Atlantic article urging the media to stop inspiring/incentivizing copycat murders (this article is focused specifically on mass murders but I’m inclined to extend the analysis to all violent crimes steeped in spectacle, what media studies scholar Douglas Kellner describes as the place where entertainment and business fuse). In a nutshell, the argument goes something like: the more you sensationalize every. hot. detail. from the latest mass shooting, the more mass shootings you can expect there to be, particularly when the shooter is framed as some sort of deep & brooding off-kilter anti-hero. Charlie Brooker argues as much in this must-watch clip:

Of course, what Brooker recommends isn’t what we’ve been seeing in the Slenderman case; sound the BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CHILLLDDREEN alarms decrying the nefarious impact of violent video games and television shows, all while flashing images of the Wisconsin teens, the crime scene, and every other bit of rubberneckery available.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that children are worth worrying over. And I sure don’t love violence. But this idea, that it’s all [insert entertainment media]’s fault, rings hollow — at least when you consider the demonstrable impact of reporting and indirectly glamorizing (i.e. “making worthwhile,” i.e. “you want your moment in the spotlight? try ultraviolence!”) high-profile violent crime. Yes we inhabit a click-based web economy. Yes, sensationalism is GREAT for business (as is additional tragedy; it’s called capitalism, guys). But how about this, how about instead of restricting our concerns to entertainment media, we also consider the  media effects of news media. Because what about the children, indeed.


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