FAKELORE – Folklore, Urban Legends and the Rise of the Creepypasta (And I Ain’t Talkin’ Linguini!)”
From the dawn of humanity, we’ve told stories. Whether to convey important information, or just entertain each other, we’ve spun tall tales, woven fables and concocted legends, often of real people and events, embellished with fantastical elements layered thick as lasagna. And speaking of pasta, with the advent of the Internet and the ability to spread stories and information all over the world at lightning speed, we’ve become masters at the art of a type of viral storytelling called “fakelore.” Okay, so the pasta reference comes a bit later.
The use of myth, legend, folklore and fairy tales is an important part of our cultural development, both regionally and globally. Through stories, our ancestors give us clues to what their lives and experiences were like, even if those clues were embedded below levels and levels of sheer imagination. Oral tradition allowed for the conveyance of information, often via stories, to carry down through generations, somewhat intact, despite a few alterations here and there. With the advent of the written word, believe it or not, those alterations became more widespread. It may sound counterintuitive to say that oral passing of information is more accurate than getting it in writing, but our ancestors were a lot like we are today. When writing, they altered and embellished, simply because they had the time and the opportunity to do so.
Think about it. If you’re telling a story orally, you better tell it quick and you better tell it well, or you’ll quickly lose your audience. Unless it’s your dog. But with writing, one could take more time to get the story across, and even add in a little personal spin, a little personal style, and a little personal interpretation. A story that might take five minutes to tell via the mouth could end up a fifty-page novella complete with vampires, zombies and aliens. The written word may have allowed us as a species to communicate MORE…but not necessarily BETTER.
So today, we may look at legend, myth, folklore and fairy tales as sheer fiction, and yet, we are doing ourselves a disservice, because often at the heart of these incredulous tales, there is a nugget of truth. The stories may indeed be telling us key elements about a historical person or event, and it’s up to us today to properly interpret them. This is how legends come down to us from generation to generation, even to the point of being taught in schools. Remember the giant lumberjack, Paul Bunyan, and his blue ox, Babe? Blue ox? Really? How about Johnny Appleseed and the pan he wore on his head.
And yet, legends begin with people or events that are, well, legendary. In a thousand years, people will be telling stories about a goofy guy with a bad toupee who ran for president one year…or a grumpy cat that had more fans than Jesus. Oops, did I say that? Legends begin in reality, and morph into a more fictional scenario as they are passed on down the line.
The same might be said for folklore, fairy tales and even myths, which often portray events that history can back up, yet in the context of fiction. Mythology is a form of communication noted for giving us the “science” of our ancestors in a language they understood. Think of the gods and goddesses of planets and the ocean and volcanoes. These deities represented natural events our distant ancestors had no real scientific understanding of, thus their experience of it came out as wild, imaginative myths rampant with magic and strange beasts and ladies with snakes for hair. They didn’t know about seismic waves and fault lines and calderas, or tornadic winds and storm cells. They didn’t even understand how the stars and planets above them formed, but they sure held them in awe, which inspired their stories.
But the truth is, myths hid truths, whether scientific, behavioral or sociological that scholars today now uncover and look at the same way an archeologist digs up a pot and tries to determine its age, its use, and why it has “Made in China” on the bottom. Just kidding. Not everything is made in China. Vulcan working at his forge beneath the volcano was an ancient, albeit uneducated way of trying to figure out how the red-hot lava spewed out of the top of a shaking and shuddering mountain. Surely it had to involved a pissed off deity! The name “volcano” comes the island of Vulcano, located in the Mediterranean Sea near Sicily. Romans believed that Volcano was the chimney to the god Vulcan’s workshop. They also believed that the earthquakes that shook the ground around the island came from Vulcan working in his shop, creating weapons for the gods to make war on one another.
They knew what was happening, i.e. a volcano erupting, but didn’t have the scientific vocabulary or acumen to properly tell us, so they told us in a way that they could.. They told us a myth…a story.
Today, we have this lovely thing called the Internet, and with the advent of lightning speed communication of information, we can post a story on a website or forum and within seconds, someone across the globe will be reading it, and reposting it, and so on and so on. This is how stories today go viral, and yet some of them go viral under the premise they might be true, even as their creators insist they are simply fiction.
I remember the first time my son used the word “creepypasta.” I was offended, thinking he hated my spaghetti, but he explained that there are websites and forums online that allow people to post stories, usually horror, for others to read and take viral. Some of these stories were taken so seriously by readers that they started actually claiming to see the monsters or the entities in the stories, which, please remember, were entirely made up by contributors and not real at all. I wanted to know more, because to me, this was a truly intriguing sociological phenomenon.
A creepypasta is fakelore, usually of the horror genre, or even just a picture or image that gets copied and pasted to online forums and sites, and goes viral. The term “creepypasta” actually comes from “copypasta,” which involves literally copying and pasting information to forums and sites that allow it. One such site, 4chan, is a cross between Pinterest, where people “pin” images they like onto their “page,” and reddit, a hugely popular forums site that younger people flock to with information on just about everything under and over the sun. I asked my son about 4chan and he said, “Mom, you don’t want to go there, trust me.” So I didn’t. According to him, the things people post run the gamut from pure smut to disgusting and gross, and I have enough of that raising a kid and a dog. One very popular meme that came out of the bowels of 4chan is the Rickrolling phenom that took the Internet by storm a few years ago, involving strange and unexpected videos of pop star Rick Astley suddenly appearing on screen singing “Never Gonna Give You Up.” If you’ve never been Rickrolled, you’ve been living under a rock!
Creepypastas can be about urban legends, crimes and gruesome murders that never took place, but the tone of the stories is often so realistic, anyone who didn’t know they were fictional might be easily misled. Some of the stories on the various creepypasta sites and Wikis are downright bone chilling!
But my son was hooked for awhile on the Creepypasta stories, most notably one called “Slender Man,” which became such a huge rage, he even wore a Slender Man costume to Comic Con, and was one of thousands doing likewise. Apparently, this utterly sinister entity, totally fictional mind you, came from the twisted brain of one Eric Knudsen, also known as Victor Surge, for a forum called “Something Awful.” He created the image as a meme, of a very tall, slender man with no face wearing a black suit and white shirt and collar, with tie. This spectral entity was said to lurk near places children played or went to school, and legend had it (there’s that word, legend again!) if you looked at Slender Man, you would die on the spot. Slender Man would abduct children and was eventually linked to the more paranormal “shadow people” entities being reported worldwide. Yet this one was not real…
The stories proliferated, and the legend grew, and soon Slender Man was, as stated earlier, a popular Halloween and Con costume, but also a very scary example of how something totally fake could, well, take on a life of its own, even spawning potential acts of violence. In 2014, two teenage girls were arrested in Waukesha, Wisconsin after they stabbed a classmate and left her for dead, claiming Slender Man told them to commit the crime. The stabbing victim recovered, but will no doubt be scarred physically and emotionally for life, all because two girls believed in something that was nothing more than the brainchild of a creative imagination. IT WASN’T REAL. IT ISN’T REAL. And yet…if you read some of the alleged reports, they sound so authentic. Chalk it up to good writing skills!
Scholars have dubbed things like this “digital folklore,” and they are a real phenomenon worthy of study, combining true elements of folk tales with modern methods of fast communication. The perfect storm for spreading a story to millions of people even before anyone can say, “It’s fake!” The power of mass communication has taken fakelore to a new level. But where oral and written traditions of old have stood the test of time, fakelore suffers from quick burnout and the overwhelming amount of new stories available with a few keystrokes. Slender Man is no longer very popular. Now the “kids” are onto something else, like zombie apocalypses and human/alien hybrids in their schools.
Like folklore, fakelore can sometimes include nuggets of truth or be based on or inspired by a true person or event. One such piece of creepypasta fakelore is called Jeff the Killer, and involves a very sinister looking teenage boy named Jeff whose face was badly burned by a bully, causing him to go insane, and sport a sinister smile much like the Heath Ledger version of the Joker. Jeff the Killer became a serial killer with the M.O. of sneaking into his victims homes, whispering in their ear, “Go to sleep,” then killing them. Jeff the Killer is a feared person, if you read the stories, and it almost sounds like people believe he is real, possibly because of our inherent fear of “copycats,” who might be prone to take this fictional stuff and adopt the identities and characteristics and behaviors. Copycat killers pop up whenever we hear about real serial killers…why not those that aren’t quite real? To a crazy person, the mind doesn’t distinguish much difference.
There is also a humanoid entity called The Rake that has created its own place in the creepypasta Hall of Fame. Like Slender Man, this cyptozoological thing on four legs with glowing red eyes, said to attach people for no reason and cause severe psychological trauma in its victims, has spawned hundreds of eyewitness sightings (dating back to the 1690s!), if you believe the reports on the various sites. Some of them sound terrifyingly genuine, and herein lies the curse of storytelling…it can sound awfully close to the truth, and we are left to figure out what is fact and what is fiction. One glance at The Rake’s own Wiki page and you can see the many drawings and renditions people have made over the years. It’s like fan art and fan fiction!
Perhaps the creepypasta entities and creatures are not all that far removed from stories and reports of Bigfoot, Nessie, Mothman, Thunderbirds, and even Skunk Ape, a Florida cryptid with its own urban legend. And perhaps they are not that far removed from the paranormal entities many people report, such as shadow figures, black-eyed kids, apparitions and demons. Even urban lore such as Bloody Mary, you know, that chick you’re supposed to see when you stand before the bathroom mirror and chant her name three times, fall into the category of fakelore. Has anyone actually proven Bloody Mary exists, outside of bars and Super Bowl parties, that is? Some say she is the image of a woman named Mary Worth burned at the stakes during the witch trials. Another legend suggests she’s a fortune teller who will predict your future husband by making his image appear in a mirror if you follow her ritual. Another still suggests she is the spirit of Mary Tudor of England who had Protestants put to death during her reign, thus giving her the name “Bloody Mary.” Others suggest her popularity with young girls has to do with a connection between their anxiety over beginning menstruation manifesting in a spectral form. Hmmmm. And yet, that piece of lore continues to spawn countless trips to the bathroom at night by groups of giggling teenage girls or gullible boys. Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary. Make mine with a sprig of celery, please!
My son has long since moved on from his fascination with Slender Man and his creepypasta friends, now that he is older and knows that even though Paul Bunyan might have been really, really, really tall, it’s doubtful he had a blue ox. And he knows that Johnny Appleseed was a real person important to the apple industry, but perhaps not quite as eccentric as stories labeled him. As we become more educated, we realize that stories are both a blend of the real and the unreal, the normal and the paranormal, the natural and the supernatural…Okay, I’ll stop. Stories combine fact and fiction in order to influence and affect the right and left brain, the subconscious and the conscious. Often stories contain symbols, motifs and themes that have a deeper meaning only understood by our subconscious minds. Often they contain fairies and elves and beasties and three-headed hydras, which may simply be the creepypasta creations of the subconscious realm.
The bottom line is, folklore and fakelore are almost indistinguishable, unless one has access to the exact origin point of said tall tale. In the case of Slender Man, we know who created the damn thing, and we know where and when. That is where its power should end. With other legendary beasties and entities, we may not have that information at hand, and that is why many legends continue to be passed down to younger generations. Until someone proves it’s true or false, and locates the original perpetrator of said story, we are left to guess. We are left to imagine.
Slender Man may simply be a monster created from the collective mind of humanity, birthed onto a website as a just-for-fun meme that caused real fear in the hearts of many. Whether or not he lurks around the elementary school or parks and takes kids, or is simply a symbol of the perverts that we truly need to fear that do abduct children, is a part of the sociological importance of legend and lore, even fakelore.
What is it trying to tell us about ourselves?
Marie D. Jones is the author of several books about the paranormal, metaphysics, and cutting-edge science (many coauthored with Larry Flaxman), including PSIence, The Déjà vu Enigma, Destiny vs. Choice: The Scientific and Spiritual Evidence Behind Fate and Free Will,11:11 The Time Prompt Phenomenon and Mind Wars. She has appeared on more than 1,000 radio shows worldwide, and on television, most recently on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. Her website is mariedjones.com.