Creepypasta and the era of digital myth
we didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but his lingering silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time …
These words, posted on a forum in 2009, were accompanied by a black-and-white image of schoolchildren, a vague but distinctly inhuman figure hovering in the background (see above).
The response was positive: On a thread dedicated to spooky photo edits, the combination of a vague but ominous caption and an even more nebulous photo edit made it a favorite among the others who posted.
The myth of the Slender Man, the name given to this character on the forum, has grown. Soon, more stories and images of the faceless humanoid emerged from different creators and on different channels. His powers multiplied; later iterations often featured ink tentacles. And as the stories grew, the number of supposed victims of his attacks increased – though his choice of clothing, a G-Man-esque suit and tie, remained consistent across most accounts.
The idea that this would eventually inspire a stab wounds in real life half a decade later would have seemed ridiculous at the time. But perhaps more disturbing is the fact that the evolution of the Slender Man myth offers a model for understanding how publications on digital platforms can lead to events ranging from a riot on Capitol Hill to the “revolt” of Wall. Street Bets against hedge funds. Despite all the talk of an enlightened age, myths can still impact the way we live on a fundamental level.
Enter the slim man
The Slender Man is the most infamous example of a “terrifying pasta, Internet folklore. The term derives from another colloquial language on the Internet, copypasta, a derogatory shorthand for prose that is commonly copied and pasted on Internet forums, sometimes as a joke. The creepy strain became a staple from the mid-2000s to the mid-2010s, often spanning the gamut from unsettling short stories with echoes of Edgar Allen Poe, to terrifying and expansive visions of Lovecraftian horrors, with grotesque childish tales rivaling the worst excesses of chain email. Some are ephemeral on picture boards, while others – like the 13-year-old SCP Foundation – have dedicated homes.
However, Creepypasta aren’t just digitized versions of ghost stories, says Joe Ondrak, senior researcher at counter-disinformation group Logically, and a doctoral student studying the subject:
One of the great things is that if the folklore is about iterative changes, you can have direct rehearsal and full cue changes when things spill over online.
The nature of the platform also affects what you see, he says. What started out as spooky photo edits with short captions ended up reappearing in different forms and with different stories in web series, videos. Games – and the inevitable livestreams of said Games.
Equally important is the interaction between a savvy group and newcomers who don’t realize the joke is at their expense, says Ondrak:
Because he’s online and his stories aren’t fictionalized, once he starts to gain momentum outside of the group … then others will see him as real.
And as these communities grow and the ideas within them mutate, we see the creation of decentralized myths in action – the creation of communities, located around the world, connected not so much by a leader as by leaders. acts of content creation and consumption.
The bigger picture
One of the great decentralized myth-making exercises in financial markets is the rally of memes stocks. Although individual Editors or the owners of Telegram channels played a role, the idea that it was a revolution of the common man against greedy hedge funds and the powers that be was broadcast and evolved by regular users.
QAnon, Superconspiracy of the Year 2020, provides us with a prime political example. The anonymous poster at the heart may have produced the Q drops – “clues” in the form of tiresome nonsense, links to YouTube videos or photo bank – but he relied on a community of self-proclaimed truth seekers to study these ideas and create the dense, ridiculous, and often inconsistent ideology that emerged.
Decentralized myth-making reflects the ambivalent power of the Internet as a great tool for collaboration. It’s not so much the death of the author – those who create the concept can continue to act as influencers. But it does offer a much broader view of who can shape the meaning of a movement.
From digital to analog
While talking about myths might seem inappropriate for an enlightened age, the reality is that ideas online have power offline. Hyperstition – the reification of fictions – is a slippery slope, it is true. Take it too seriously, and you end up promoting ideas like “meme magic”: An absurd belief that the power of alt-right memesters helped propel Donald Trump to victory in 2016.
“A lot of this magical meme stuff has overdetermined the power of online culture and separated it as if the things that were being voiced were coming out of a poisoned well online rather than reflecting larger societal belief systems,” explains Jessica Beyer, a professor at the University of Washington who has written extensively on Internet culture.
But she stresses that the line between the online and offline worlds is hardly impermeable. The fabrication of decentralized myths has already taken its toll in the real world. Some, in the case of Wall Street Bets and the stock rally itself, are relatively benign.
Others, less. In the case of QAnon, decentralized myth-making led to a litany of threats, protests, kidnappings and even murders. As for Slender Man, 2014 saw a series of attacks blamed on his inspiration, including the attack by two Wisconsinite teenagers on a friend to become the creature’s “proxies” on earth.
“Are people in collusion? Probably not. But they’re all affected by this meme in the same way and decide to do something the same, ”says Aaron Trammell, assistant professor of computer science at UC Irvine. “It’s a shared motive, a shared mood.”
Trammell sees more of a line between the act of chaotic, free-form play and the creation of more orderly myths, however:
When you’re in the moment, playing on the pitch, not thinking carefully about what you’re doing, it’s very different from creating myths.
The future of creepypasta
Waukesha’s stab wounds were a turning point for Slender Man, leading to a transformation of internet folklore into a public threat. But creepypasta were more generally affected by the change in attitude after 2016, says Ondrak, as public opinion darkened on platforms and media. Although new content still appears in captions like back to sleep, he says there has been a slight increase in horror fiction from well-known authors, who use the vanity that what they are describing is real.
In investment circles, however, financial counterparties to creepypasta still abound, encouraging readers to engage in penny stocks, unregulated commodities, and, yes, crypto. The villains in their stories may be even more nebulous than Slender Man, but their certain death threats to the unwary can be just as powerful. (NGMI! HFSP! Etc!) The costumed villain may have a bad tally to his name, but many more have been duped into reckless investments than they’ve fallen prey to his lure.