Why do some stories hang around and others fizzle out into nothing? Since the rise of the internet, there is no better way to track what we’re interested in and what we’re not. The story ‘Politician exposed for tax evasion’ will run its course over a week or two. But the belief that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen is still prevalent, despite the fact that he was cremated in 1966.
After all, as they say, you should never let facts get in the way of a good story.
We’re talking about viral fiction, ‘an image, video, piece of information, etc. that is circulated rapidly and widely on the internet’ (oxforddictionaries.com). This is the driving factor behind urban legends. Fiction which may be created by an author, but transcends them, becoming its own living creature. As though every great work is someone’s Monster and they’re Doctor Frankenstein.
As I said in my Fake News post, this is generally because the image, video, information, etc. has triggered some emotional response. Being the highly communicative animals that we are, we feel the need to share it rather than fact checking it first.
So what does this mean for us?
There is a popular urban legend you’ll see around the clickbait sites. In 1950, a man in a Victorian period suit suddenly appeared in Times Square, New York. Witnesses said he looked confused before being knocked down and killed by a car. When investigating, police found his business card, revealing his name as Rudolph Fentz. He also had 19th-century money and a letter dated 1876. Using these to track down relations, they found the widow Mrs Rudolph Fentz. It transpired that this woman had been married to Rudolph Fentz Jr. The man’s father had disappeared mysteriously in 1876.
A creepy and intriguing story, right? And one a lot of people believed (to various degrees) and shared online until it became a viral urban legend. There are photographs and everything.
Trouble is, this is actually a short story called I’m Scared by Jack Finney for the Collier’s Weekly, written as though it had actually happened. You can actually read the first page of it here.
I would also argue that there’s something else going on here and that’s the Completion Principle. However, I had to remove all of that section from this post as it ran into 2000 words! So if you’re interested, I’ll be doing a post about that next Monday. But briefly, our brains are programmed to know when it’s completed a task. Or come to the end of the story. Leave it uncompleted, and the unconscious mind reserves a little bit of space to deal with it. So we’re always thinking about it. The time traveller story gives us enough information to activate that part of our brain which perks up because it thinks there’s a mystery to be solved. But not enough that we can ever actually solve it.
But there’s also an ‘X’ factor. On some level, we have to want it to be true.
Fiction has power across all platforms. Words and ideas live on forever. And the more heads there are, the faster it travels. Unfortunately, in this Information Age, things travel perhaps faster than we’re ready for them to. The things we create don’t stay ours for long. Sometimes, the thing you offer up to the internet can become something you didn’t want it to be.
In 2009, Eric Knudsen created a fictional, supernatural character as a meme on the site Creepypasta. The creature looks like a black suited man, but unnaturally tall, thin with a featureless face. Slenderman. Primary occupation: hiding in forests or stalking children. The character was picked up and turned into a now famous and terrifying video game.
In 2014, in the city of Waukesha, USA, two school aged girls stabbed their friend with a knife, very nearly killing her, in order to prove their loyalty to Slenderman and become his followers.
And he began as a silly meme to scare people. It makes you think.
It’s important to think about all this. If we know what people are after when they open up their minds to read, watch or play, we have a hope of creating something meaningful. And if we’re lucky, maybe one day we’ll create something that outlives us. Being the atheist that I am, for me, it’s the only way to achieve immortality.
As I say, there’s a ridiculous power in words and ideas, for good or bad. And we’re a species with a desperate need to communicate. It’s like throwing fuel on a fire. If you’re reading this as a writer, remember what you create may one day take lodge in someone’s head and become more than you ever expected it to be.
How do you feel about viral stories and modern urban legends? Are they harmful? Or are they just a new way of expressing ourselves? This is a subject I find really fascinating, so if anyone wants to see more of this, let me know!