Thursday, June 5, 2014

Slenderman, Creepypasta, and Our Stories of Horror

When I was a boy, I loved horror stories.  They were fascinating and terrifying, and I'd lose myself in the reading of them.  Stories of primal ooze and ancient evil, of death and terror in the darkness, of blood and fang and strangled cries?

Oh yeah.  Those books came home by the dozen from my local library, and cost me countless hours of sleep.

There were the hours spent reading furtively at the foot of my bed, as my eyes picked out the tales of terror from the darkness.  Then there were the hours trying to go to sleep, as every creak and susurration of the world around me was interpreted as imminent doom.

Was it the slime that rose from the deep that gurgled under the floorboards?  Was it the horror of something that should have long ago been claimed by death that creaked beneath my bed?  Whichever way, I'd lie there, very awake, very aware of my eight-year-old mortal frailty.

My sons take after their dad, and so they'd read scary stories.  In this new era of instant media, they'd increasingly watch them and read them online.  Which is why the ghost-tales of horror from the site Creepypasta were well known to me, and why the character of Slenderman--a terrible figure who stalks and kills in the woods--was familiar.

These stories were little more than the same tales I'd hear as a boy, ones that took the form of quasi-reality.  "It's been said that..."  "Rumors have it that this might have happened..."  "...And there, stuck in the door of the car, was the hook."

It was nothing more than ghost stories, mixed in with the classical framework for the telling of such tales.  People play along, pretending it's more and more real.  As the story gets passed along, it gets embellished with more personal flourishes, until the boundaries between the real and the story are blurry.  That's the way of good storytelling--around a fire, as the listeners stare wide-eyed into the darkness--has always worked.

Which made this last week's peculiar story from Wisconsin so hard.  Two girls, obsessed with the ghost stories on Creepypasta and Slenderman, stabbing another girl 19 times in the woods.  It was brutal, savage, heartlessly monstrous.  And yet seeing the pictures of the arrest, it's clear: these are girls, not women, not even close.

Here are kids, at that peculiar, awkward, difficult transition between childhood and adulthood.  They've lost themselves in a dark story, abandoning credulity in a strange fever-dream of early adolescence.

Somewhere, something broke in one or both of those girls, and they lost themselves in a story of horror.  It became something they believed they inhabited.

As creatures of narrative, who spin our lives out as a story, that's something that impacts us all.  There are stories we tell so that we can laugh, and so that we can pretend.  Stories help us more deeply understand truth, forcing us beyond a mechanical literalism, demanding that we think, imagine, and grow.   That was my Teacher's method, after all.

But there are also other stories that become so woven into us, repeated over and over again, that we become them.

Our narratives of anger, of hatred, of bitterness and resentment?  Those shape and form us.  Our endless commercialized tales of empty sex and retributive violence?  Those become us.  The stories that rise from our faith that do not build us up in grace, but turn our eyes away from the reality we are helping to shape?  They are equally dangerous.

Stories are not product.  They have power.

It's a difficult truth, and one our culture struggles to grasp.