31st October 2014

Halloween special - If we live in a digital culture, then what are our digital myths?

Nearly 30 years before Stoker created our culture’s defining vampire myth, another Irish writer, Sheridan Le Fanu, created what would become the template for modern (even digital) horror stories.

Between 1871 and 1873, Le Fanu published a series of periodicals and short stories about the mysterious vampire Carmilla. Like Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Stoker's Dracula, Carmilla was presented as a series of found diary entries (think Victorian Blair Witch Project). With this format Le Fanu places the reader at the centre of the story – we get glimpses of the horror, but it's our imaginations that truly scare us

Carmilla is more than just a horror story – the format, narrative, and themes touch on the social and cultural fears of the age. In this way it shares much with our own dominant medium’s predominant horror character, Slender Man.

Slender Man is, arguably, one of the web’s creepiest creations. Preternaturally tall and thin, with extended stick-like arms, this digital boogieman can be found standing motionless among abandoned ruins, dark forests, and children’s playgrounds.

Like Carmilla, and indeed Dracula, Slender Man is presented as a found narrative in the darker reaches of YouTube, Reddit, and Deviantart. Users tell tales of personal encounters with the creature by creating and sharing digital text, photoshopped images, and shaky YouTube videos – each designed to evoke a visceral response in the viewer.

Of course, those who create and consume Slender Man media know the stories are untrue. But, then, this is part of the folklore – the shared experience of fear is a significant part of the character’s appeal (if that’s the right word).

Creations like Slender Man have always found their place in new media – the character can be seen as a continuation of urban legends like Spring-Heeled Jack, the mysterious diabolical soul who stalked London in the 19 century. As with Slender Man, Jack’s folklore began with the arrival of a new medium – the mass-produced Penny Dreadful. Spring-Heeled Jack grew out of the latter stages of the Victorian era as cities rapidly grew and rural areas became heavily depopulated. Urban slums fuelled crime (and the fear of crime), which in turn fuelled stories of fantastical creatures.

The knowledge, or even belief, that something isn’t real does little to dull its impact. Orson Welles’ 1938 adaptation of H.G’s War of the Worlds serves as a one of the best example of this. Using the new medium of radio, Welles adapted the traditional light-entertainment format that listeners were used to, and interspersed fictionalised news bulletins that reported an otherworldly invasion. Welles was tapping into America’s isolationist policies, the fear of another war in Europe, while also playing on the country’s own fears of invasion.

The web’s horror folklore may be young but it serves the same purpose as any other, to reveal society’s fears – but the question is, what do the likes of Slender Man reveal about the web’s collective fears?

Apart from urban legends, this week we collected some of the web's scarier links. We explore the city of Pripyat, which was (mostly) abandoned after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. We listened to the sinister UVB-76, the Soviet-era radio station that still broadcasts mysterious signals from deep within Russia; and we also listened to Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast - a good example of experience design (of a sort).

  • #Mobile
  • Back from the dead
  • Your smartphone's interesting (and terrifying) afterlife
  • Read More »
  • #eCommerce
  • Tricked or treated?
  • The economics of trick or treating this Hallowe'en
  • Read More »
  • #Data
  • Dead hand switch
  • This Soviet-era radio station has been broadcasting mysterious signals for over 40 years  - no one know why it started, who it's for...or what happens if it stops
  • Read More »
  • #Experience Design
  • "Regarded this earth with envious eyes"
  • It's not hard to see why Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds radio play caused (some) panic when it was first broadcast
  • Listen »
  • #Internet of Things
  • Those Things will kill you
  • IoT could be used to murder someone by the end of the year, or so says Europol (it's not as crazy as it sounds)
  • Read More »
  • #Happy Hallowe'en
  • Free zombies!
  • Because of a copyright mistake,  George A. Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead is now in the public domain, which means you can watch it online for free.
  • Watch »

Animation: Patrick Cusack