Jeffrey Tolbert, assistant professor of American studies and folklore in Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Humanities, is a folklorist examining vernacular belief and the manifestations of folklore within popular culture. He is interested in how folklore interacts with media, such as video games and the horror genre of entertainment.
“When we look at science in the West as the only true form of knowledge, we tend to be dismissive of other kinds of knowledge that science can’t address,” Tolbert said.
Tolbert looks at spirituality and supernatural belief as other ways of “knowing,” specifying that “supernatural doesn’t mean ‘bad’ or ‘untrue;’ it just refers to these kinds of experiences that aren’t able to be quantified in a way that satisfies Western science.”
Because of his interest in the supernatural, Tolbert gravitated towards the Slender Man phenomenon. Slender Man, arguably the most famous internet-originated monster, resembles a faceless, skinny, and overly tall man in a suit. Despite coming from an online forum with clear origins as a fictional story, Slender Man has things in common with pre-existing belief traditions, according to Tolbert. Over time, the fictional traits of the story became blurred with reality for some people, connecting the phenomenon to real-world events and tragedies.
Tolbert offered a glimpse into the phenomenon of the Slender Man and the digital world of supernatural belief during a presentation as part of the Penn State Harrisburg Capital Connections series. In his presentation, Belief in the Digital Age, Tolbert addressed how belief works in digital environments, focusing much of his attention on Slender Man.
During his presentation, he explained how this topic aligns with what scholars in his field refer to as legend. “For folklorists, legend is a narrative that is set in real historical time and in a real place. They imply belief or the possibility of belief, making up stories about the world and are available for debate,” he said.
Slender Man more resembles an example of contemporary legends, which “circulate now and are set in the relatively recent past. Because of the doubt that can be introduced when narratives circulate, stories like those about Slender Man can become legends. Communications media seem especially able to introduce this kind of doubt because of how manipulatable they are, and how quickly they can be transmitted to large numbers of people,” as he discussed.
The horror-based creation of Slender Man doesn’t fully fit the definition of a legend, however; Tolbert explained how it falls into a genre of internet horror stories called “creepypasta,” fictional stories that get copied and pasted across many different parts of the internet. Creepypasta often play deliberately with the issue of belief and confuse the issue of their own reality. Visits to sites like the Creepypasta Wiki can reveal how complex these narratives can be.
Tolbert claimed that understanding how belief integrates with digital media can help inform those who frequently interact with the internet – such as college students – to be open-minded about how others form their own beliefs. “Belief itself is more of a process rather than being fixed or stable,” he said. “It’s about how we take in information and stimuli, then form it into ideas we take to be true about the world and the universe. Examples like Slender Man might not resonate directly with everybody, but I think understanding belief more generally should matter to everyone: how we take communication from various sources and arrive at ideas that we think to be true about the world.”