Folklore and the Fear Factor: The Evolution of Legends in the Era of Reddit

In the era of technology, modern medicine, and science, the concept that people still believe in, share, and adhere to folklore might sound absurd. Take, for instance, the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The story of a colorfully dressed rat catcher, hired by the town of Hamelin, who plays his flute, entrancing the pests and leading them out of the town. When the town refused to pay for his services, however, the Piper used his flute to lure a new set of victims: the town’s children. Lured by his tune, the children left town and vanished never to be seen again. By today’s standards, this story sounds more than a little odd, the type of tale that would be unlikely to pass the test of time as it once did. However, if you dig more deeply into that story, a truth unfolds.

Pied Piper of Hamelin rendition, copied from the glass window of the Market Church in Hamelin.

While the rats were a later addition to the story, one common truth remained: a stranger came to town, and left with the children. In 1227, approximately 50 years prior to the story in Hamelin, the Holy Roman Empire and Denmark fought in a battle that pushed back Danish borders. Colorfully dressed Roman salesmen, often called “locators,” travelled the land to find skilled men and women to move north to protect the Empire’s new borders. For obvious reasons, this was a hard sell. For towns like Hamelin, losing skilled laborers could put the town at risk. As a result, it was common practice to sell or give away children to this cause when locators came into town. For Hamelin, the tracing of surnames to new towns proves the less savory version of this folktale: a town made the collective decision to sell their children to locators to ship off to new towns. From there a collective story was constructed as a way to cope with their actions for years to come, and the Pied Piper was born.

Much like those that came before us, humans still tell stories to make sense of the world. Most especially, we continue to be drawn in by stories of tragedy, of what hides in the dark, or what steals our children. Our modern legends can be traced in figures such as the Slender Man. Slender Man, an unnaturally thin and tall humanoid creature, is said to stalk, abduct, and traumatize it’s victims, usually children or young adults. His story began on the Something Awful forum, with a couple of doctored photos, but those on the forum (and on other forums, such as Reddit and 4chan) began adding narrative and visual art, building a mythos of Slender Man.

The legend increased in popularity, showing up first in video games, blending into traditional popular culture, and then movies. Unfortunately, much of this limelight was a result of a 2014 tragedy, when two 12 year old girls lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her as an “offering” to Slender Man. Their actions, as awful as it may seem, continue to show the pervasive power of folklore in the modern era.

Film poster for Slender Man Movie, released 2018

While the original Slender Man story proliferated on a pre-Reddit site, there is little doubt that Reddit has become a breeding ground for modern day folkore. Subreddits such as r/creepypasta, r/nosleep, r/letsnotmeet, and more have acted as a space for entire communities built around the purpose of creating, sharing, and commenting on scary stories.

For now, my primary question remains: when we compare these stories against more traditional folklore, what role does a medium such as Reddit or TikTok play in the creation and proliferation of folklore? And in the era of science and technology, are we somehow more beholden to these stories than ever before?

In my project, I am hoping to explore some of the most popular subreddits and examples of modern folklore, examining how the medium of social media plays a part in the creation and proliferation of folklore. Without our knowledge, have these stories become even more important to our societies than the folktales we believe we have left behind?

For now, I will look at examples such as Slender Man (and other creepypasta figures) and trends such as Randonautica to track how they show up in social media (most likely using tools such as Voyant, Google n-gram, and topic modeling programs where possible). From there, I will attempt to assess the role these platforms play in the potency of the stories told, as well as assessing the lasting power of the legends in the context of “virality” and the fleeting nature of trends online.

Citations:

Blank, Trevor J., and Lynne S. McNeill. “Introduction: Fear Has No Face: Creepypasta as Digital Legendry.” In Slender Man Is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet, edited by Blank Trevor J. and McNeill Lynne S., 3-24. Logan: University Press of Colorado, 2018. Accessed February 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv5jxq0m.4.

Manhke, Aaron hosts, “A Stranger Among Us,” Lore (podcast). December 28, 2015. Accessed February 24, 2021. https://www.lorepodcast.com/episodes/24

photos:

https://www.cinematerial.com/movies/slender-man-i5690360/p/fwdpcmpf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pied_Piper_of_Hamelin

4 Replies to “Folklore and the Fear Factor: The Evolution of Legends in the Era of Reddit”

  1. Sajel, I think this is a great project. How are you defining modern folklore? Also, are you specifically talking about folklore of a scary nature. From what I gather it seems you are working with the scary side of folklore, will you be examining how these impact society and how people interact with these stories? (side note, these are just questions and do not have to make it into your project, just something to think about)

    1. Amanda, these are really good questions! In terms of defining modern folklore, these are some good sources for how I’m thinking about it “intellectually:” https://www-jstor-org.proxyau.wrlc.org/stable/3814683?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. But, my main reason for saying modern folklore specifically is because folklore is often used as a category that describes studies and practices that are specifically about histories or societies that are not modern, and so I denote that I will be discussing modern folklore as a way of showing that I will be focusing on contemporary communities and histories!

      And yes, you are 100% correct, I am focusing more on the “spooky” side of folklore! I certainly hope to have the opportunity to hone in a little more on what it is people and communities attempt to explore when they create and interact with fear-based content, as I think that is absolutely fascinating, but my priority will definitely be understanding the digital impact for this project!

  2. Really love this idea! I think you’re off to a great start with it too. As a resource to delve into some of the key quesitons about folklore I would recommend giving Lynne McNeil’s book “Folklore Rules” a read. It’s a really approachable text and it does a great job at clarifying the key aspects of folklore/vernacular culture that you can hang a lot of your analysis on.

    One of the things I find really fascinating about the whole space around digital folklore is that a key part of folklore has always involved variability and repetition. That is stories are told and retold and they change and morph. It’s really interesting to see how that still happens in digital culture even though there are fixed and clearly viewable origins to things like Slender Man. That is, we know exactly where he was created as part of a contest to photoshop different monsters. Similarly, I find the rules for r/nosleep absolutely facaniting. That is, it presents itself as a space for people to share horror stories, which clearly identifies it’s a place for works of fiction. With that noted, there is a whole complex set of rules about what they determine to be believable.
    https://www.reddit.com/r/nosleep/wiki/posting_guidelines I think there could be a whole interesting way to think about a paper that would just focus on how those rules manifest and play out for believability for these kinds of new legends.

    In any event, this is a great topic. I think you’re off to a great start and if you do run with this as your project there are a lot of directions/approaches you could take with it.

  3. One more thought, given that the subject matter of your paper is digital content, you don’t need to worry about looking at ways to incorporate some of the computational text analysis tools. You’re already focusing on studying something digital in this context and my sense is that close reading and general source analysis skills are going to work best for this kind of project.

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