Contemporary Folklore in the Digital Age

By Emma Louise Backe

The word folklore likely conjures images of elves or faeries dancing beneath a harvest moon, or selkies sunning themselves on the beach. Popular understandings of folklore have points of reference, although these examples—such as the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales or the supernatural Boggart popularized by the Harry Potter series and Susan Cooper’s novel The Boggart (1993)—are always located in the past, within a historical context. Students may be interested in the discipline, yet universities are discontinuing folkloric studies, partially because many people struggle to grasp the continued use or prescience of folklore in the so-called modern world. But as an Internet geek and nascent gamer, I think that folklore is in fact more popular than ever. Contemporary folklore can be found within geek enclaves and hubs, such as video games and Internet urban legends. By drawing on folkloric traditions from around the world, and crafting their own universe-specific lore, video game writers and developers are building new interactive spaces for folklore and reifying the significance of folklore within our cultural imagination. Internet related and generated urban legends such as Slender Man also demonstrate the importance of cyberlore and the transformation of folklore in the digital age.

The study of folklore was professionalized and solidified by Alan Dundes (1934-2005). Dundes taught folklore at University of California, Berkeley and wrote numerous books on the subject, including The Study of Folklore (1965), which established popular definitions of folklore, the folk, and the theoretical and methodological practices of folklorists. According to Dundes, “The term ‘folk’ can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor. It does not matter what the linking factor is- it could be a common occupation, language, or religion- but what is important is that a group formed for whatever reason will have some traditions which it calls its own. In theory a group must consist of at least two persons, but generally most groups consist of many individuals. A member of the group may not know all other members, but he will probably know the common core of traditions belonging to the group, traditions which help the group have a sense of group identity” (1980:2). Folklore can include a variety of creative forms, including folktales, myths, legends, songs, dances, food recipes, and traditional artistic techniques (University of Illinois 2013). Although folklore has often been studied according to the oral tradition, Dundes argued that technology would eventually become the study of folklore and generate new forms of communication that would follow other folkloristic criteria (1980).

Dundes was also acutely aware of the potential for obsolescence in the study of folklore, particularly if its practitioners remained wedded to antiquated notions of what constituted “folk.” He spent a large part of his career demonstrating and exploring the ongoing vitality of the discipline, noting, “it would be absurd to argue that there is no folklore in the United States and that industrialization stamps out folk groups and folklore. There may be a diminution in the number of peasants, but peasants constitute only one type of folk. Industrialization has in fact created new folklore, for example, the folklore of computers” (1980:7). While many folklorists throughout the 20th century lamented the introduction of modern technology as a death sentence for folklore, Dundes instead argued, “technology isn’t stamping out folklore; rather it is becoming a vital factor in the transmission of folklore and it is providing an exciting source of inspiration for the generation of new folklore. The rise of the computer symbolizes the impact of technology upon the modern world. My point is that there is folklore of and about the computer” (1980:16-17). Dundes even pointed out that since folk communities don’t necessarily need to know each other IRL, the computer actually begets new kinds of folk groups. Dundes, widely regarded as the father of modern folklore, in fact anticipated the transition of folklore into cyberspace and celebrated the formulation of folklore of, about and within the digital domain.

Video games are increasingly drawing upon historical traditions of folklore to supplement their world-building, while also implementing elements of folklore and folklife to craft novel lore for their fictional universes. As video games often involve immersive storytelling within an entirely fictional setting, the veracity of the constructed world is amplified and deepened through a convincing video game lore. Wiki pages for video games within the last decade include whole backstories and mythologies for what would seem to be relatively straightforward RPG’s. Myst (1993) was foundational to digital lore; the fragmentary narrative of the game, the player’s relationship with Atrus, and the history of the “Ages” worlds is revealed through journals, books, murmurs and puzzles littered throughout the virtual landscape. The circuitous, enigmatic quality of the game is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s palimpsestic book of myths Labyrinths (1962), and has spawned numerous books and websites to document the lore hidden throughout the game. Many video games since Myst have utilized similar devices that help the player build a foundational corpus of folklore that informs the fictional world they briefly inhabit. Throughout Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009), the player encounters hidden messages from the Asylum founder, Amadeus Arkham, recordings which relate the arcane and twisted superstitions and beliefs that built the institution. The interview tapes with Arkham inmates could also be seen as elements of material culture, documenting the social interactions and psychological welfare of the residents over the years. These elements lend a sense of historicity and verisimilitude to the game, while encouraging the player’s participation in the video game lore itself. Similarly, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) incorporates Scandanavian myths and Old Norse legends into the fantasy. The various races that inhabit Tamriel all have their own distinct history and cultural practices. Books, ruins and conversations throughout the game relate the beliefs, folkltales, songs and legends that imbue the frosty domain and contain important cultural information about the world. Part of what makes Skyrim so enchanting is the brilliance of the lore that informs it.

Dishonored (2012) is a perfect example of the combination of preexisting and virtually fabricated folklore. Dishonored is set in the city of Dunwall, positioned within an alternate, technologically advanced history of Great Britain or “the Isles”. The city of Dunwall is besieged by the plague, which has catalyzed strict rules of containment by the aristocracy and fomented superstitions throughout the Dunwall populace. The pathology of the plague and use of bone charms or runes to ward off the ailment in the game parallel the symptoms and popular superstitions during the Bubonic Plague of the 14th century. Before germ theory emerged, many believed that the Bubonic Plague was a divine curse or punishment, one that could be avoided through various rituals. Just as gangs throughout Dunwall dispense special drinks to impart immunity to the plague-riddled rats, individuals throughout Europe concocted potions and smelling substances they believed would prevent illness. The use of charms and runes whittled from whale and other animal bones is also found in cultures throughout the world, particularly ones that have totemic relationships with the natural world. The figure of The Outsider, who gives special powers to the player, is said to possess chthonic traits imparted by “the Void.” The folklore and cults surrounding The Outsider are revealed through book passages, scribbled journals, audiographs, conversations and encounters throughout the game, so that the lore unfolds like a living thing built into the sinews of the game system. Before the game was even released, videos about Dunwall and its reckoning were released. “The Tales from Dunwall,” released in three parts, built anticipation for the game and deepened “the folklore and back-story surrounding the characters and storyline of the game” (“Revenge Solves Everything” 2014). “The Awakening,” “The Hand That Feeds” and “In the Mind of Madness” all have characteristically folkloric elements, including The Outsider; the characterization of the Lonely Rat Boy, who becomes somewhat mythic in Dunwall lore himself; stories that connect present Dunwall citizens to the past, but provide somewhat chilling, preternatural overtones to that history; and the use of symbols to embody the continuity of certain themes throughout time within a particular place and community. The short films not only encompass effective transmedia storytelling, but also build the folklore of Dishonored through the multitude of art forms often studied by folklorists.

"The Tales from Dunwall, Part II: The Hand that Feeds"

“The Tales from Dunwall, Part II: The Hand that Feeds”

Practicing folklorists today have become increasingly interested in the relationship between folklore and the Internet. Digital folklore has emerged as an important field of study within the discipline. Robert Glenn Howard writes, “Since the early 1990s, scholars have recognized technologically mediated folklore in the form of online traditional discourse. In forms as diverse as jokes, contemporary legends, local rumors, folk belief, music, and storytelling, this ‘e-lore- is well documented and easy to assimilate into already-established genres” (2008:193). Digital folklorists have studied phenomena like the meme, chain-emails, and online memorial pages for deceased individuals, otherwise known as digital graveyards. In the book Folklore and the Internet, Simon Bronner coined the term “the folk universe of cyberspace,” noting, “The folk realm is not located in a socioeconomic sector or particular nationality but instead represents a participatory process that some posters refer to as the democratic or open web” (2009:23), while Robert Glenn Howard has discussed “the vernacular web” (Owens 2013). Bronner believes that the cultural and symbolic framework folklore provides shapes the way people interact with and mediate cyberspace.

One of the most interesting elements of digital folklore is the creation of Internet urban legends. Urban legends are “‘stories of unusual, humorous or horrible events that contain themes related to the modern world, are told as something that did or may have happened, variations of which are found in numerous places and times, and contain moral implications’” (DiFonzo & Bordia 2007:28). Although these stories can be exchanged and replicated through oral interaction, print media sources like tabloids have increasingly reproduced urban legends, ostensibly lending a sense of legitimacy to the stories. Urban legends are also migratory, in that they can be transmitted across folk groups and geographic barriers, adjusted to fit the particular cultural milieu in which they are told (Brunvand 2001). Although the Internet has increased the transmission and dispersal of urban legends, the web has also begun to generate its own urban legends or cyberlore. Websites like Creepypasta host competitions for the creation of new urban legends, while others document the legends embedded in computer and video games. The urban legends produced on Creepypasta have spawned other folkloric projects, including Emily Carroll’s horrific web comics and recently published book Through the Woods. Carroll’s stories play off of fairy tale tropes while exploring the way that folktales can be transformed and rendered more frightening through web formatting.

Emily Carroll, "Out of Skin." Source:

Emily Carroll, “Out of Skin.” Source:

But perhaps the most famous Internet urban legend of late is Slender Man. Slender Man was created in 2009 by Eric Knudsen/Victor Surge, who says he “invented the character as an explicit ‘attempt to cooperatively create new folklore’ by mixing stock horror tropes with the generative power of the Internet” (Evans 2014). The faceless creature, sometimes depicted with Lovecraftian tentacles, quickly assumed mythic qualities. In a recent interview with Joe Laycock on Monstertalk, Laycock commented that “some fans of the Slender Man believe that he is real — either existing already from time immemorial, or that he exists now, brought to life by the combined belief of millions of humans in the form of a living creature known as a Tulpa” (“Slenderman and Tulpas” 2014). The Idea Channel described Slender Man as a “psychically crowd sourced […] Internet nightmare” (PBS Digital Stories 2013).  This belief in the veracity of Slenderman led two young girls in Wisconsin to stab a peer 19 times this June. The stabbing was committed by the girls to prove their devotion to the supernatural creature, in the hopes of becoming Slenderman’s proxies. The attack understandably horrified the public, but also demonstrated power of cyberlore and the role folklore still plays within our modern lives. Timothy H. Evans, an associate professor of folklore and anthropology at Western Kentucky University, wrote that violence related to other urban legends, such as Bloody Mary or Ouija boards, has occurred in the past, yet the Slenderman Stabbings, “like other examples of the folklore of horror and the supernatural […] can lead us to question distinctions between “everyday life” and the unreal or the numinous — distinctions that may be made even more ambiguous by the bewildering variety of alternative realities found online” (2014). Folklore not only continues to be reproduced and impact our daily lives, but can also have deadly consequences for the ways in which it is internalized and acted upon.

The Mothman is also said to be a tulpa created through urban legends and popular beliefs. Source:

The Mothman is also said to be a tulpa created through urban legends and popular beliefs. Source:

Websites like Snopes archive Internet urban legends, while shows like Supernatural (2005-), Once Upon a Time (2011- ), Grimm (2011- ) and Sleepy Hollow (2013- ) reenact fairy tales and folk legends, updating and adapting folk stories for the television screen. Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods (2001), which examines the way that folk creatures of legend and myth become warped through transmigration and industrialization, is currently being adapted into a miniseries. Even the surrealist podcast Welcome to Night Vale (2012- ), which has been compared to Twin Peaks, Stephen King, and H. P. Lovecraft, has crafted its own internal mythology for a town where conspiracy theories and urban legends are real phenomena. While folklore has changed and revisioned itself over the years, the discipline and the practice remain as strong as ever. “As a fundamental human capacity and need,” Bronner argues, “the production of folklore to represent tradition is a continuous vital force, and it is imperative to view how it is enacted with, and problematized by, media, old and new. Indeed, we may comprehend the way, in a new wired age, folklore is digitized and virtualized, or we may folklorize the age, perhaps outside our awareness” (2009:65). Throughout the production of video games and interactive digital media, we can consider the role folklore plays in a fictional world’s development and immersive qualities. By playing video games like Dishonored and BioShock: Infinite (2013), folklore becomes not only a necessary component for understanding the world of the game, but also an interactive dimension of our participatory experience with the virtual reality. Cyberlore is a digital manifestation of folklore in the virtual age, providing new and novel avenues of study and fieldwork for practicing folklorists today. Just as stories can fluctuate over time and space, folklore has refashioned itself, melded into the webs of signification in our digital age.


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About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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