Slenderman & Tulpas
Brooke: Great to be with you here on this Tuesday. I’m Brooke Baldwin we have to begin with this ghost story and a character named “Slender Man” allegedly inspired two young girls, I’m talking middle school, to lead their young friend into the woods and stab her nineteen times.
male speaker: New details now emerging about the possible motive behind the stabbing, according to court documents, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, charged as adults with attempted first degree intentional homicide believed they would become agents for a fictional Internet character named Slender Man, by killing their friend.
male speaker: According to court documents the two plotted to kill their friend to please Slender Man, a demonic fictional character on the horror site, Creepy Pasta.
audio: It is most commonly known as Slender Man.
female speaker: Slender Man.
male speaker: Slender Man.
male speaker: Slender Man.
male speaker: Slender Man.
male speaker: Slender Man.
male speaker: Slender Man.
Blake Smith: Welcome to MonsterTalk, the science show about monsters. I’m Blake Smith and in this episode, Doctor Karen Stollznow and I will be talking Slender Man and tulpas.
Slender Man is an Internet creation made for a contest on the Something Awful website. It’s creator was Victor Surge who’s real name’s Eric Knudsen, I believe that’s pronounced correctly. The character’s tall, thin, faceless, wears a suit, and is often shown in the background of otherwise innocent photos. Sometimes showing tentacles creeping from behind his back.
His fictional story is he compels children to kill. On May 31, 2014, two young girls in Wisconsin attacked a third girl with a knife and alleged that their motivation was to become proxies of the Slender Man, and go live in his mansion in the woods.
Why would they believe that a fictional character was real? Since the creation of Slender Man the character’s gone viral and spun off numerous works of art, drawings, videos, poems, and fictional prose. Some people believe that he is real, either existing already from time and memorial or that he exists now, brought to live by the combined belief of millions of humans in the form of a living creature known as a tulpa.
I’ve been looking for a way to discuss Slender Man on MonsterTalk that consisted of something more substantial than of me calmly saying that Slender Man’s the work of fiction, and that like all fiction it can inspire positive or negative responses in audiences, but that culpability for such actions should not be slapped on the original creators.
After all, once an idea gets out into the wild it will inevitably change as it’s interpreted by the unique minds of each person who experiences it.
For monster enthusiasts, Slender Man’s something of a conundrum because there are folks who dismiss him as merely an Internet creation. I’ve met listeners to this show who’ve asked me why would I ever cover him, he’s just creepy pasta. I had to go look up the term “creepy pasta” after that conversation. The term creepy pasta is a bastardized form of “copy pasta”, which is itself a bastardized form of “cut and paste”. It refers to an Internet horror story.
The website CreepyPasta.com collects these horror stories, many of which riff on a particular theme such as a strange TV show or mysterious characters of a shared fictional universe.
In some ways it’s more like a democratized version of H.P. Lovecrafts’s writing circle. Where in the authors freely exchange monstrous ideas using common motifs.
It’s horror. The history of modern horror has been rife with complaints that it inspires people to do bad things. I’ve never seen compelling evidence that this is true. Even when murderers show an enthusiasm for a particular fictional character.
There can be many reasons why horror fictions gets a bad reputation. One is that people want easy explanations for why some people do terrible acts of violence. Labeling makes it easy to neatly store and explain stories, like “The Video Game Maniac who kills in real life.” Or “The devil worshiper who sacrifices people.” Maybe there are such people but those labels can also arise from investigators seeing a copy of Dungeons and Dragons or heavy metal albums in the home of a suspect, and not knowing the difference between occult pop culture and sincere occult religious belief.
I’ve noticed that while having non-Judeo Christian literature in one’s house can get you a devil worshiper label slapped on you, that the media rarely comes out alleging people to be “Christ worshiping murders.” If the perpetrators happen to have a New Testament.
My point is that such labels are representative of a cultural in-group/out-group dynamic more than an explanatory way of looking how these behaviors actually happen.
Okay, sorry that was a bit of a rant. Like millions of people worldwide, I love fiction and I get annoyed when people’s macabre taste and imaginary is blamed for the actions of a few people in real life.
Correlation and causation issues, confirmation bias issues, I just don’t think it’s fair to blame the creative impulses of one set of people on the behavioral failings of another. But let’s move on.
In this episode, we interview Professor Joe Laycock, a doctoral student Natasha Mikles who help us find out more about Slender Man, the history of tulpas and the reality of their supposedly ancient Far Eastern heritage. I think you’ll be surprised at some of their findings.
Blake: All right. Here we go. Welcome to MonsterTalk, today we have Joe Laycock and Natasha Mikles. Joe, I know you are an author and a researcher, as well as a Professor or teacher of Religious Studies. Natasha, the latest info I have on you is you’re a doctoral student focused on Tibetan Studies, but maybe you can flush out your bio’s a little bit?
Joe Laycock: I’m an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Texas State University, in San Marcos, Texas. I study American religious history, and new religious movements, or what other people would call cults.
Natasha Mikles: I’m a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, focusing in Sino-Tibetan Buddhism. Those practices found between the Tibetan world and the Chinese world. My research usually focuses on Tibetan oral epics and spiritual possession traditions.
Karen Stollznow: Joe, you’ve written a book on vampire culture as well haven’t you? About real vampire culture. We think that might be of interest to our listeners too. Can you tell us about that a bit?
Jay: Yeah. Before I went back to graduate school I was a High School history teacher in Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta, like several cities around the country, is home to a community of real vampires. These are people who feel that the have to feed on either the psychic energy or life force of other people, or the actual blood of other people to be healthy.
In my field of religious studies, there was an awareness that this community existed and they had just assumed that this must be some kind of a religious belief that these people were acting on.
No one had actually gone and spoken to a vampire. I went and reached out to them, and was able to earn their trust enough that I could go and attend meetings and so forth. It turned out, a lot of them were Baptists and Jews, back in the bible belt a lot of them were going to church every Sunday and people had no idea about this lifestyle.
What I learned was the real vampire community is much more complicated than anyone had previously given them credit for. It doesn’t appear to be that there is anything mentally wrong with them in terms of delusion. This also doesn’t seem to be a religion, at least most of the time, it’s much more complicated than that.
Karen: What about an iron deficiency? I’ve heard of that as being one possible theory to explain the cravings.
Jay: Yeah. The group I was studying is really taking this idea very seriously. When I was in Atlanta, the Atlanta Vampire Alliance was conducting a survey of other self identified vampires, and trying to ask them if anyone had been diagnosed for things like iron deficiency, fibromyalgia, tuberculosis, all these different theories, so the data is at least there. They hope this will encourage other people to collect more data using more professional methodology in the future.
Karen: It might be the subject for another show too.
Blake: Yeah. I think so, maybe. Did you also deal with psychic vampires in that research or just sanguinarians?
Jay: Yeah. Exactly, psychic and sanguinarian are the terms that are used. With the Internet these communities can discover each other for the first time. There were initially fights about who’s a real vampire, the psychic, or the sanguinarians.
Now the community is really comprised of people with different feeding typologies. The psychic vampires, the sanguinarian vampires and so-called hybrids that feel they can feed using either method. They more-or-less get a long.
Jay: Some concern that my research may dredge up old fears over who’s a real vampire and who is an imitator.
Blake: Yeah. It’s the people who really embrace the culture and those who are just masquerading? Is that … Oh my god. All right.
Blake: Just out of curiosity, this is not really my field even though I come from a fairly religious background, I don’t actually know much about religious studies, does modern religious studies include things like memetics, and folklore, and mythology?
Natasha: I think it can, it really depends on where you want to situate yourself in the field. My sense of the field that there are folklorists, there also is an entire separate field of folkloric studies that says we’re not part of religious studies. I, myself, tend to focus on narratives and myths, so I see my self as both a Folklorist and a Religious Studies scholar. J oe Laycock: Another misconception about the field is that we are Theologians, which we’re not. With things like psychic vampires, or tulpas, we’re not interested in whether these things are real or can be proven empirically. We’re interested in the history of the idea. This is a common misconception in the public. We’re not interested in proving religious truth claims, we’re interested in what their significance is culturally, historically, and sociologically.
Blake: In a parallel analogy, would it be like if you studied game mechanics and the construction of narrative purpose in role playing games, but you didn’t prescribe to a particular role playing game in particular. I’m not trying to diminish the role of religion … You don’t actually take on the belief aspect, you’re looking at the sociocultural
Natasha: Cultural aspects of, yeah.
Blake: … in historical context?
Jay: Yeah. You make the solution to the game mechanics, I think this is something that we spend a lot of time and a lot of angst discussing. Are there common mechanics, if you will, that go throughout different religious traditions? Or are we simply making a comparison that isn’t really there?
If we’re comparing folklore to the Council of Trent or something like that is … Is there something really there? Or does this similarity only exist in our minds?
Blake: Deus twenty?
Blake: That’s terrible.
Karen: Joe, you’ve recently written about Slender Man. This was in response to the May 31st stabbing of the Wisconsin child by two other children. This was a crime that was allegedly inspired in some way by Slender Man. Who or what is Slender Man? How has this character evolved?
Jay: I had never heard of Slender Man until my last birthday and Natasha bought me a cryptozoology poster. I recognized Big Foot, and Nessie, and Chupacabra. Then there was this character in a suit with no face, I said, “Who is that?” We Googled it and it turned out this is Slender Man. I had never heard of Slender Man because Slender Man was created in 2009.
Karen: Or so some believe.
Jay: Or so some believe, yeah, so I believe. Created for something awful, website, and won a contest to see who could make the creepiest image. The person who won, or made this image of a little girl holding the hand of this stretched out figure in a suit with no face.
They put a note to the photo, inspired by Lovecraft, or Bram Stoker, or something, that said, “I didn’t want to go with him, I didn’t want to kill them, but his long arms terrified me and comforted me at the same time.” Or something like this.
The image which was created just for fun, was begging for a story. On the website “Creepy Pasta”, people began writing fiction about Slender Man and it was always the same style of, “This could be a true account about Slender Man, or it could be I’m just making this up.”
That the fun of the story is that splinter of uncertainty about whether it’s true or not. Then you’ve got viral videos on You Tube, and you’ve got games and so-forth. This whole mythology forms. The original creator has actually copyrighted Slender Man, which is why there hasn’t been a Slender Man move on the Sci-Fi Channel or something like this.
He says, “I don’t feel like the creature’s creator, I feel like it’s manager, because these ideas are out there, I can’t really control them anymore.”
On May 31st, 2014, these two girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin actually stabbed their friend nineteen times. When asked why they did this they said, “We wanted to prove that Slender Man was real.” They had this methodology they had formed where Slender Man had a mansion in the woods in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and would appear and take them to go live with them in this mansion.
One of these girls had even packed photos of her family, and power bars, and things she was going to need for her new life in Waukesha. Fortunately the victim survived, miraculously. This was the story that grabbed a lot of headlines, because it was such a terrible crime and because the two girls were so young, they were twelve.
That started a lot of discussion about Slender Man and then I started to get comments when I wrote about this case, saying, “Slender Man wasn’t made up in 2009, Slender Man is real.” People would argue either that, “Slender Man has existed for thousands of years and shows up in cave paintings.” I would argue, “There’s only so many ways to represent a human being and if you get the arms and legs too long, that doesn’t mean it’s Slender Man.”
The other argument though was that Slender Man is a tulpa. When they say Slender Man is a tulpa, what they mean is that the collective imagination and mental energy of thousands of people on-line writing these stories has actually created a paranormal phenomenon where the creature has a literal existence. This brought this idea of the tulpa, which has been floating around in paranormal lore since the ‘70’s out to the front.
This is allegedly a Tibetan idea. I’ve been working with Natasha trying to get to the bottom of this and whether or not the tulpa has anything to do with Tibetan philosophy or not.
Natasha: This wasn’t the first time we had come across tulpa. Joe and I are fans of the show Supernatural. One of the earlier seasons before it jumped the shark, they were hunting a creature and it ended up being a tulpa. It was funny to me as a Tibetanist, because they lead up and they say, “Oh, somebody drew this Tibetan symbol in the house which called the tulpa forth and it grew strong on the energy of all this belief.”
The Tibetan symbol that they were drawing is actually a [nagee-com-ee 00:16:37] it’s a simple little single syllable that acts as topicalizer, a colon. I remember at that time thinking, “That’s funny, they just took a colon and put it up there and said, “Oh look at this great Tibetan symbol.”
I was quite surprised when a couple months ago Joe said, “You know those tulpas, they’re back.”
Karen: It’s like people getting tattoos of some Japanese character and they have no idea what it is and it turns out to be rude.
Natasha: Oh of course, I study Chinese and I think my Chinese skills really are only good for reading people’s tattoos on the subway.
Blake: How does one go about determining whether or not a tulpa really is a traditional Tibetan-Buddhist idea or not?
Natasha: You begin by going to look at what tulpa actually means. I guess the first part is looking at how they were actually spelling it.
Jay: In the West, Western ideas of the tulpa really began with a book called “Magic and Mystery in Tibet, by Alexandra David Neel” that was published in 1929. Alexandra David Neel was French, she was a woman, an adventurer, and she traveled throughout Tibet and she wrote a book about her experiences there.
She talked about how there was an idea in Tibet that if enough people believe in something or if they have unusual mental powers they can create something out of thin air that will have an independent existence and even a centium or intelligence.
In her book she says she tried to do this in Tibet, and she created … Of all the things that she could’ve created out of thin air, she chose to create a fat, jolly, Monk. Not a Tibetan Monk, mind you, a Friar Tuck character like you might see in medieval Europe.
She said she concentrated for days until she could see this Monk, and other people could see it as well, it had supernatural existence. Then she became suspicious, almost like a Frankenstein’s monster or artificial intelligence, it became more shifty and more cunning and she eventually had to put it down. She doesn’t say how she put down her tulpa.
The next time a tulpa comes up in the West in the Mothman Prophecies in 1975. Of course, John Keel had traveled to the Himalayas for his first book Jadoo, he was very fascinated with this idea of the mystical Orients. In some of his paranormal investigations John Keel kept encountering this problem where people described seeing a ghost, or an alien, or something, then he would notice a picture looking a lot like what they saw had appeared in a comic book or something much earlier.
His interpretation of this problem was not that people are confabulation, not that they’re confusing what they saw in a comic book with reality, but that they’re seeing a tulpa. They’re seeing … People reading a comic book give a physical reality to a paranormal phenomenon.
Then from John Keel it got picked up by Brad Steiger then the idea spread throughout the paranormal UFO community. Until it started appearing on shows like the X-Files and Supernatural. If you go back to the original material which is Magic and Mystery in Tibet, this word that she’s translating as tulpa, a more accurate pronunciation would be Toolpa?
Jay: Toolpa? It’s a tonal language and I can’t really hear it correctly
Natasha: It’s tonal and [asbury 00:20:19]
Karen: Yeah. Those ones are really tough, I’m a linguist and tonal languages are very different for English speakers.
Blake: Maybe now I can let Natasha take over and talk about what this word actually means, and in Tibetan context how it relates to Buddhist philosophy.
Natasha: Joe sent me the Wiley translation, the spelling, Tibetan is written with an alphabet, but it’s not an English alphabet, or a Roman alphabet. He sent me the Romanization of the Tibetan.
I started searching through the tens and twenties of dictionaries I have all around my apartment and tulpa is the nominalized form of the verb [tula 00:20:59] which means, “To emanate to manifest or to display.” It has … Tibetan’s a particle language, let me know if I’m getting too linguistically specific here
Blake: No. No. That’s what this show’s all about, not specifically the linguistics, but be as deep as you want to be. It’s free, if people don’t like it they can fast-forward.
Karen: No, they’ll love it.
Blake: They’ll love it, we go deep here.
Natasha: Wonderful, so Tibetan is, I call it, a particle language in the sense that it takes a lot of pieces of words to make new words. Tulpa in itself actually also becomes particularized with a lot of other languages. One example is [Zotul 00:21:43] which means, “That is an illusion, or a apparition or a Magician’s trick”. The “tul” is the same, “Manifest, or make an illusion of.” This tul actually gets used in tulkus which is what the Dalai Lama or the [cometa 00:21:59] it’s a reincarnation lineage.
The “tul” means to manifest, and the “coo” means body and it’s the manifestation body. This is a very particular Tibetan word, tulku is, meaning this manifestation body of a Buddha. This gets all tied into Tibetan Buddhist philosophy that there are three different bodies to every Buddha, and that there’s a [moramorphis 00:22:19], body of pure truth, that’s called the dharmakaya. Then there’s the samboghakaya which is the body which exists in different pure lands. The body that we see as suffering beings is the called the nirmanakya, which is the form body.
That’s what a tulku is. I did a bunch of research in my dictionaries and I started looking through the Tibetan Buddhist Canon and I kept finding that tulpa just meant tulku, that it was just another way of saying tulku.
In the times when tulpa would mean something outside this Buddhist context it usually meant an illusion in the way that the world is illusionary. A Magician’s trick, but not something that had form, that had volition and could act on it’s own.
Karen: It’s really a word that has been borrowed with a different meaning given to it in English?
Natasha: Entirely. I think it’s very important that David Neel really removed it from the Buddhist context to match an almost sorcery-like meaning.
Blake: Natasha can you explain what the Tibetan understanding of what the Dalai Lama is? Americans know him from the Apple commercials
Karen: … and Richard Gere …
Blake: … he’s nice to everyone, but can you explain how the Dalai Lama is regarded as, himself, an emanation.
Natasha: Yes. The Dalai Lama is both a tulku and a tulpa, this means that he is a tul- … Those are both very tightly bound together, and it means that he’s a tulpa because he is the Buddhist of [inaudible 00:23:55] of [Lokiteshuras 00:23:56] emanation into the world. He is the [Narmonicia 00:23:59] the form body of this cosmic Buddha who’s here to help stop suffering. He’s a tulku because he’s also the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama before him.
In some ways it’s very similar to, we were saying before, with Christianity that Jesus is both man and God, in this way the Dalai Lama is both man, he’s the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, and a divine figure in that he’s a Buddha. The difference is Buddhists don’t really see that as a mystery, they see that as a fact.
Blake: He’s also friends with Richard Gere, who starred in the Mothman Prophecies. Which was based on the book by John Keel, who used the tulpas!
Blake: It’s all connected man!
Karen: Yeah. It’s coming together.
Blake: It’s all connected.
Natasha: Conspiracy theory.
Blake: Or six degrees of John Keel, I don’t know.
Jay: The idea is there is this cosmic Buddha of compassion, Avalokitesvara, who can send out this emanation of himself that we experience as the Dalai Lama.
Jay: Right? So in that sense the Dalai Lama is an emanation from somewhere else. This afternoon we met with a Tibetan scholar to make sure that we weren’t missing anything. When we said, “Well this-” … We had to explain Slender Man to this Tibetan scholar.
Natasha: This ethnically Tibetan scholar.
Karen: Oh. How was that?
Jay: It took a long time. What it came down to is these emanations are to give people wisdom and compassion, not to make little girls kill each other in the woods. He was very offended by this notion that Slender Man had something to do with this idea of a tulpa.
Natasha: The example that I’ve been playing with, or the metaphor to understand what Alexander David Neel did with the verb tula and the nominalization tulpa, is the way we in English have the verb “to consummate”. If you say, “They consummated their marriage.” You mean they had sex, but to say they consummated it comes with a whole cart load of theological baggage.
In a similar way, tulpa, yes it means a manifestation, or emanation but it means it in a very particular religious context. In the idea … In this web of meaning which is supplied by Buddhist philosophy it really can’t be removed from.
Karen: Yeah. They said polysemous forms, as we call them in linguistic, just different related meanings. I was thinking too, that this is all pretty psychedelic some of this. I’m making parallels to the idea of thought forms in the new age, and also negative thought forms, I guess it comes from the law of attraction, the idea that you can think something into existence. I’m wondering which came first, I’m assuming it’s the Tibetan theories.
Jay: Right. What we think’s happening … You’re exactly right this notion of thought forms is a Western idea. It comes from theosophy, which I’ll talk about in just a second. We also have stories in the West, of course Frankenstein’s monster, or the Jewish legend of the Golem, these are all creatures that are created by human beings then turn on their masters, or are dangerous, or are sinister.
This is what Alexander David Neel is describing. She’s describing something that she should not have created and had to put down. That’s a very different idea from this idea that the Dalai Lama is not going into nirvana because he wants to go out and help you and give you wisdom.
The Theosophical Society was formed in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, this is a lot of the ideas that we now associate with the new age originated from theosophy. Theosophy in turn drew heavily from the spiritualist’s movement in the nineteenth century.
Theosophy was really preoccupied with this idea of resolving religion and science. Bringing these two ideas together. They also had an idea that there’s the rational West and mystical East. This is something in religious studies that we constantly have to combat with our students.
Our students expect Buddhism to be very irrational, and very peaceful, then we have to talk about Burma, for instance, where you have Buddhists burning down Muslim villages and so forth. It’s because this is so deeply embedded in our culture of the mystical East, Tibet has been especially affected by this mythology.
Tibet is the land of hidden masters, growing up when I was reading … I read Magic and Mystery in Tibetan High School and I was reading Doctor Strange comic books, and things like this. The theosophists want to reconcile mysticism and science and part of that of that project is the idea of the thought form.
I went through the journal of the Theosophical Society from the nineteenth century, which used to be called Lucifer, and they actually had a little disclaimer in their journal that said, “This has nothing to do with the devil, this is Lucifer the light bearer.” They’ve actually changed it to the Journal of Theosophy because I guess they were getting too many people clutching their pearls or something.
In 1891 an article appeared by someone calling himself Sepharial who was one of the founding members of theosophy and we now know that Sepharial was better known as Doctor Walter Gorn Old. He’s this caricature of the absent-minded professor. He would have these visions where he felt he was traveling on the astro-plane and so forth.
He tell this story about how he’s at dinner and he is sent to go down to the basement to get a jug a beer to have with dinner. They give him a key to the basement which is in a basket, and he goes down and he gets the beer out of a keg where it is in the basement, and then he realizes that he but the key to the basement in the jar that was supposed to hold the beer, and he put the beer in this basket which was made out of wicker or something. He sets the basket on the table, and of course it leaks beer everywhere.
His companions were like, “How did you manage to do that?” Because there’s absent-minded, then there’s really absent-minded. You carried a basket of leaky beer all the way up from the basement and didn’t notice what you were doing. Somebody … These were all Theosophists, and someone says, “You must have imposed the thought form of this jug on to the basket and that’s how you didn’t notice.”
Natasha: Is that after one jug of beer? Or two?
Jay: Or some opium, or … Victorians have all kinds of distractions. This is the first instance I can find of this term “thought form.” Here it’s created from his own thought, but it’s also beyond his control, it’s deceiving him, it’s causing problems.
The following year there’s longer discussion of thought forms, by Annie Besant. Annie Besant ended up becoming the leader of the theosophical movement and was this very radical woman. She was interested in birth-control, in women’s suffrage and all these causes before they were really fashionable.
She put a lot more energy into developing this notion of thought forms. She believed that thoughts actually have a physical reality to them. There’s a subtle manner to them, and they have consequences. If you have benevolent thoughts you are actually producing matter around you, which exerts a certain influence and draws other things to you.
Likewise if you’re very angry and having dark thoughts this can set other things in motion. She was using this to explain Asian concepts like karma and reincarnation, and saying, “See this isn’t just Eastern mysticism this is scientific.” There are physical reasons why karma happens, why you’re reborn as a result of your thoughts and consequences and so forth.
Natasha: I’ll just say, to defend the mystic East, that they actually did have very complicated and very rich explanations for how these things worked. The theosophists just didn’t care to read them, and couldn’t read them because they were in Tibetan.
Karen: Yes. It’s like a lot of new age people today.
Jay: The flip-side of the mystical East was they thought that they, as Londoners, were the only ones who could do anything in a rational and empirical way. This idea of thought forms is out there long before Alexander David Neel went to Tibet.
Then in 1895 there’s another shift where Annie Besant writes about what she calls, “Ensouled Thought Forms.” The theosophist believed in something called elementals. These were naturally occurring forces in part of the natural world and they’re quasi intelligence.
They’re not intelligent the way you and I are, but they do have an animal-like intelligence. They’re invisible but they do have a subtle physical existence to them. She said when you create a really … When you omit this thought stuff the elementals like to come in and live inside it and inhabit it. It can give your thoughts a soul and sentient existence.
Again, if you have positive thoughts it will attract positive elementals, and it can create something like a guardian angel. If you have very dark, negative thoughts it will attract destructive elementals and create something very negative.
She wrote in 1895, “Demons and angels of our own creation throng around us every day.” Then finally she says in this article that if a whole lot of people are thinking about the same thing it can create a composite entity of this ensouled thought form. It can become very powerful.
If there’s a whole lot of negativity it can actually create storms, and earthquakes and accidents, and things like this. This is all in 1895, then in 1901 she actually writes a book called “Thought Forms”, with Charles Leadbeater who’s another theosophist.
Alexander David Neel studied theosophy before she went to Tibet. The best we can tell is, these ideas she was really getting from London and from the West, became confused with her understanding of figures like the Dalai Lama, from Tibetan Buddhism, and the result was that we have a thoroughly Western concepts that gets attributed to Tibet. It gets attributed to the mystic East.
Blake: Now the ending of Ghostbusters II makes sense suddenly. But seriously, because Dan Akroyd, his family is heavy into spiritualism. This is probably a ready concept for him.
Jay: The pink slime in Ghostbusters II was a thought form. That was very much what Annie Besant meant.
Blake: Yeah. Yeah. I’m completely … I know it’s funny, but it’s also completely serious.
Natasha: Yeah. Another thing I forgot to mention of the verb tula is that it’s a voluntary verb. Tibetan makes a distinction between voluntary and involuntary verbs, so that to say, “I broke the cup.”, and, “The cup broke.” You’re using two different verbs for that breaking verb.
Tula is a voluntary verb. You “choose” to tula, so it’s very clear that David Need got a lot of this idea from Annie Besant, this involuntary tula, this unconscious. I want to say, “[Toola-ing 00:36:00] of the masses.”, but that’s not quite what I mean.
Jay: There are lots of ideas into that in Buddhism, that if you are a Buddha and you really have an insight into the nature of reality, that you can create illusions, you can create emanations and things like this. The idea that you can create something that turns on you and becomes dangerous, appears to be a thoroughly Western idea. We can’t find anything like that in Tibetan tradition.
Blake: What’s the Tibetan word for plagiarism of someone else’s religion?
Jay: [Zutrul 00:36:32] … Zutrul means an illusion. There are magicians in Tibet that can do magic tricks and things like this. When we were talking with the Tibetan scholar this afternoon I said, “If you can make something for Somethingawful.com where it looks like a tall skinny monster standing next to a little girl. Is that a form of Zutrul?” He said, “Well that … Well yeah.” In that sense Slender Man is a type of emanation, or type of illusion.
Natasha: In a round about way.
Karen: I thought I’d take things back a little bit to talk a bit more about Slender Man. We’ve got a few more questions about that. If we could return to that.
In the article that you wrote you talk about some of the theories which you use to explain the motivation for the attack.
You talked about things like diagnosis for mental illness, or the girls close friendship together, or the atrocity story as well. How do these games cross the line from fiction to someone’s reality?
Natasha: Initially after this happened, there was a storm on the Internet of different interpretations. There were two main theories, both of which I found dissatisfying and potentially dangerous.
The first one was, it’s the Internet’s fault. We need to censor the Internet, why were these girls allowed to look on Creepy Pasta, and so forth. The high school said, “We have filters on our Internet servers, but Creepy Pasta doesn’t trigger those filters, because it’s just scary stories.” There’s nothing graphic or so forth. I think that censorship is rarely the answer.
The other response was these girls are obviously, mentally ill. They might be, obviously they’re being evaluated by a psychiatrist, and their attorney is trying to have then ruled as mentally ill. It’s intellectually lazy to say that they’re mentally ill when all that we know about them is they committed this act of violence. This is a tautology.
I know you guys talk a lot about logical fallacies show, but the argument is well they must be mentally ill because they did something violent, and they did something violent because they’re mentally ill. I hear this argument a lot, particularly in the wake of mass shootings or something, “Well they had a mass shooting, so it means they were mentally ill.” Which means this isn’t a gun issue, it’s a mental illness issue.
Karen: [inaudible 00:38:56]
Jay: That’s right, and we know they were mentally ill because they had a mass shooting. No one who ever does a mass shooting will not be mentally ill. It will never be anything other than a mental illness issue. I think there is something else going on here. In my research I’ve looked a lot at play, and I’ve looked at another of similar cases.
In the vampire book there’s a famous case with a boy named Rod Ferrell who when he was sixteen has a coterie of teenagers who claimed to be vampires. He said at one point he was a four hundred year old vampire. Then in 1996 he actually killed a couple in Florida. If you read the description of what happened it doesn’t look like he had this elaborate plan where he was going to kill them, or drink their blood. He broke into their home, these were the parents of his ex-girlfriend and who he felt he was taking her away from her abusive family or something. The friend that went in there was frozen and thought, “We’re not seriously going to hurt people?”
What I think happens in these cases is there is a game that’s never actually declared as being a game. No one is really sure where that game is going to end until irrevocable consequences result.
If you look at how this attack actually happens, when they brought the victim, who was invited for a sleepover, into the woods the girls split agency. First they said, “We’re going to stab her in her sleep.” Then they didn’t. They said, “We’re going to take her out to the bathroom of this public park and the blood will go down the drain.” They take her in the bathroom and they don’t do anything.
Then they play hide and seek and finally one of them tackles here and pins her down in the woods, pulls out her knife and says, “I won’t do anything until you tell me to, until you give me the order.” One girl is giving the order but not stabbing, the other is stabbing but on somebody else’s order.
No one’s ever taking responsibility for the action. I think the scary part about this is, this snuck up on them in a way, this started out as a game then I think it just happened in the heat of the moment.
It was the perfect storm of a number of different factors. In a lot of ways, that is what’s disturbing to people. It could potentially happen at any time, right out of this consolation of factors. There isn’t something very simple we can all stick it on, mental illness or shut down this website.
Blake: It’s interesting because you have an audience there by having that second person as an accomplish. It’s not just about taking the action, it’s also about how is the person that you’re with going to perceive the actions that you take.
Jay: That’s right, this theory of corrupted play … There was a sociologist in Japan, named Ikuya Sato he was studying the Bosozoku who are these biker gangs in Japan. They would get in some pretty serious trouble. They would be drag racing but they would also be doing-, commit gang rapes sometimes, they would make molotov cocktails. These were, for the most part, affluent kids from middle class families.
In studying them, he actually would associate with these gang members, this was this fantasy, they would watch Western movies like Mad Max and want to be this persona of the biker, but then in the heat of the moment some of them would have these irrevocable consequences.
It’s one thing to dress as a biker and drive your bike too fast, but once you’ve actually done something like committed a rape or shot someone, then it’s no longer a game you’re playing.
Now you really are this dangerous biker and you can’t go back. Often those irrevocable consequences come about through, obviously a desire to perform for your peers, but also this desire to reach the limits. Sato talked about a lot of these bikers went to see how far they could go with something like this.
I imagine something similar happened leading up to the Slender Man stabbing. Apparently these girls first hit upon this idea sometime in January. You can imagine by the end of March when this actually happens there had been this move towards seeing just how far this can go before we finally admit, “Okay, it was just a fantasy.”
Karen: It really negates the idea of mental illness to all that malice of fore thought.
Jay: The other thing that was disturbing about his, we mentioned the 2006 episode of Supernatural hell house where the introduced the tulpa, then there was another episode that aired on March 4th of this year, months before the actual stabbing and the episode was called #Thinman.
Obvious parody of Slender Man where Slender Man appears to be going around killing people and the investigators say, “It’s probably another tulpa like we dealt with last time.” It turns out this Slender Man is not a tulpa, it’s actually ordinary people who are committing these murders because they want people to believe that this creature from the Internet, this Internet meme has a physical existence.
This was the same motive quoted by these poor twelve year old girls. It’s very eerie how prescient that episode of Supernatural was.
Blake: Didn’t they actually have an episode where it culminated in Stull, Kansas? It’s supposed to be a gateway to hell?
Natasha: The end of season five the apocalypse.
Blake: Yeah. I’ve been to Stull, Kansas, that’s a real urban legend, so to speak.
Natasha: Oh really?
Blake: Yeah. That there’s a gate to hell there. It’s not true and it’s lead to all kinds of terrible damage to their graveyard where people have broken gravestones, and come out looking for Satan to appear at Halloween night.
I guess the point is, I’m almost convinced Supernatural is not a good source for this information.
Jay: But if enough people believe that there’s a hell gate in Kansas won’t that create that one from the-
Blake: It’s going to create a lot of disappointment and trouble for their one Sheriff.
Karen: Or it might be hell in a different way.
Blake: Yeah. It could be. You talk about ostention. Can you talk about that in it’s context from the folklore?
Karen: Yeah. This is a term taken from the study of folklore. Folklore is a slightly different discipline from religious studies. I’m very influenced by folklorists such as Bill Ellis. You may know who Bill Ellis is, he wrote on satanic panic. Folklore is dying out, a lot of departments in folklore are closing their doors.
Folklorists have a lot of good theory that I think people in religious studies could use. This notion of ostention, first of all he talks about something called a legend complex. How legends congeal together and make a [carpist 00:46:12] of ideas.
With something like Creepy Pasta there’s different ideas about what exactly Slender Man is, is Slender Man good or bad, and so forth. It all blends together and then there’s a move to demonstrate that that legend complex is real. This can happen in a number of ways. Such as … Which are called ostention, so ostention could be something like, “I know Slender Man is real because I saw him in my closet last night as I was going to sleep.”, or something like this.
This would also include fake photographs and so forth. In some cases ostention could include actually doing the thing described in the legend complex. A famous example of this concerns the legend that people poison Halloween candy. You can’t let your kids go trick or treating because there are some people out there that put razor blades in apples or something like this.
I think it was 1974, there was a guy who took out a life insurance policy on his son, and on Halloween personally put strychnine in a pixie stix and poisoned his son. His hope was to appeal to this legend complex, some evil-doer for reasons we’ll never know poisoned my son. In a case like that where the legend actually comes to life by people pointing to it and actually acting it out. It starts as a claim, then the claims become an actual script for performance.
You can see that as well here with the stabbing. Part of the legend is that Slender Man doesn’t kill people, Slender Man persuades other people to become killers. One of the claims of these girls was, “We wanted to do this to show that Slender was real.”
Karen: Ostention is related to legend tripping then?
Jay: Yeah. Legend tripping would be a subcategory of ostention. Legend tripping, of course, is where a group of people, usually teenagers, go to a site where something dark happened, or is supposedly haunted, or where there’s supposedly a portal to hell, or something like this.
They go see what they can see. Some research on legend tripping, I’m thinking there’s a book by Michael Kinsella on legend tripping on-line. He actually went with a group of legend trippers to an abandoned metal institution. He said, “I actually saw things. I saw something moving in the darkness.”
He’s trained as an anthropologist, he’s someone who studies ritual, and he says, “I think the legend trip itself is a ritual that prepares you mentally to see things that you wouldn’t otherwise see.”
Jay: If he had gone to this mental institution in the daytime with his Grandmother, he probably would’ve just seen a mental institution. Because he goes with certain people, at a certain time, and all these prescribed methods, it has an affect. Which he experienced even going just as a researcher. Legend tripping is another way that these legends come to life, and gain more power.
Blake: Especially things that you’re going to experience through your mind. There’s already the whole “red pill/blue pill” problem. Now you’re going to do these things that are going to prime you for these kind of experiences.
It does make me wonder though, this concept of altering reality through combined communal belief, is that common to many religions? I’m trying to think of where, not just bringing things to life, but just making things true by common belief versus the actual “Is there a net difference, if no one actually verifies?”
In other words, say transubstantiation, if everyone believes that if they take communion that the wafer turns into the body of Christ in their mouth, then without any investigation it’s effectively true. Besides that though, I’m not really familiar with a lot of religions that do this sort of thing, maybe you guys are.
Jay: Yeah. We can’t speak definitively on all religions that ever existed, but at least to me this seems like-
Karen: Why not-
Jay: … seems like a very modern idea. I can’t find anything like this before the nineteenth century. That’s when you begin to get this idea of, “There’s religion and science, they’re at odds with each other and we have to figure out some sort of middle path.” That’s where you get these ideas where, “If we all believe in something, it could actually change the nature of reality.” Natasha?
Natasha: The closest … I’m struggling to try to think of … The closest I can come up with is that in Buddhism there is the idea of collective karma. That is more that everyone is together and perceives a certain reality because of their karma.
Their karma in some way constructs the reality and constructs the social and cultural forces that bring them together for that particular moment. It’s not like they could just all change their beliefs and then their karma would change and their reality would change. It’s a sort of causal force.
Jay: I almost feel like to arrive at an idea like this you would have to have an awareness that other cultures believed different things. Then you would also have a desire to say, “If it isn’t all just made up, if there’s something real here, how could that be?”
This is probably why John Keel was interested in tulpas, he was interviewing these people and he saw the evidence there. The things they were describing were derivative of television and other sources in culture.
He wanted some kind of interpretive lens so there could still be something there, so he said, “Maybe it’s a tulpa. Maybe there’s still something supernatural going on here even if it appears to just be you acting out your culture.”
Blake: I’m very interested in idea transfer. The tool of using memetics as a way to explain how information transfer happens or at least to model it is interesting to me. What I’ve noticed is, from reading a lot of paranormal literature and listening to a lot of paranormal media that the idea of being able to change reality just by joint belief is really really … I don’t want to say rampant, but it’s out there in a big way.
Not just things like the Secret, but I … There’s a really popular idea right now, or growing in popularity, that there’s spin-off timelines and that when you have a mistaken belief about … Something I would say was, “You have a mistaken memory or a bad memory.” People are believing that they are actually recalling a different timeline than everyone else. I find it difficult to understand how this happens.
Natasha: Wasn’t there a movie about that?
Blake: What’s that?
Natasha: I feel like there must have been a Sci-Fi movie about that.
Blake: The common one I keep hearing is about particular people who die. He’s supposed to be … He’s still alive at the time of this recording as far as I know, but there’s people who remember him dying. They don’t think, “Oh I’m mistaken.”
They think that’s because he died. In my reality it’s so alien to me I find it almost offensive. If can’t rely on testable methodology to test things, then what kind of a reality do you have? I don’t know. It’s very loose, it’s loosey goosey out there with some people.
Jay: I still see the legacy of theosophy in a claim like that. It’s taking an idea that’s magical thinking, a supernatural idea, then it’s invoking this idea of alternate-, parallel realities or something like this to give it an air of scientific validity. That’s the moves the theosophists were making, in saying, “Maybe karma works, because thoughts have matter.
It’s the twenty-first century version of that move. The thing Americans forget is the influence of new thought, new thought goes back to the nineteenth century. It’s a very old idea going back to the movements like Christian Science. If you get sick, or if bad things happen to you, this is because you were too negative, and that by positive thinking you can transform your life for the better.
That’s a very old idea. People have said America is a very optimistic culture, we don’t have poor people in America, we have temporarily embarrassed millionaires. This idea that you can transform your life just by thinking is deep in the way we think about things.
Blake: I wonder if it’s useful in anyway? Beyond that keeping a positive attitude is one thing, but believing … If you study cults from religions then you’ve probably at least looked at the trans-formative nature of things such as … What do they call it?
Karen: Prosperity Gospel.
Blake: Prosperity Gospel, yeah.
Jay: Yeah. The Prosperity Gospel, again, why is this so appealing? This keeps coming up over and over again whether it’s new thought, or the Prosperity Gospel, or the Secret. I’ve also written on EST which were these seminars in the ‘70’s. Werner Erhard the founder of EST studied new thought, and he also studied Buddhism. There are ideas in Buddhism that suffering can be mitigated by changing the way that you think about things. Altering your attitude about what’s causing you to suffering.
He would have these big seminars where he would do how he imagined Zen training, he imagined … Again, we have all these stories in the West about Zen Monasteries where they hit you with a stick, or something, or where they beat you up and you become enlightened. He would have these seminars in hotel rooms where he would abuse people for a few hours to help them “get it”, to become enlightened.
One of these seminars there was a Holocaust survivor who actually asked him, “Did what happened to me and my family happen because we had a bad attitude? Did everyone who died in the Holocaust just not think about things in the right way?” He couldn’t really reconcile that with the optimism and power of positive thinking he was selling. There are definitely limits to the, “Change your attitude, you can change the world.”, approach to reality.
Natasha: Again, you see here this Buddhist idea being, not entirely turned on it’s head, but being entirely removed from the cultural context with which it was used, and overly simplified.
I don’t think any Buddhist philosopher would say that, “The Holocaust happened because people had a bad attitude.” It’s a much more rich and deep tradition about ideas of what is suffering and how suffering arises, and the different kinds of suffering. Not just if you have good thoughts, good things will happen.
Jay: In that sense, things like the tulpa and strange ideas about reality and so forth are the product of globalization. There’s increased travel and dialogue between East and West.
Ideas are exchanged but those ideas rarely arrive to a new culture in tact. They get heavily distorted and so far it’s the West doing most of the distorting because they have the resources to go over there and bring back what appeals to them, and leave behind what doesn’t.
Karen: A cultural diffusion, or something.
Jay: Exactly. Today when we sat down with this Tibetan scholar and tried to explain what Americans think a tulpa is, we had to go through it several times, because it was really alien to his way of thinking.
Blake: His mind is too ordered for the stupid to stick. You mentioned EST, just on a complete side note there, didn’t that lead to NLP?
Jay: Yeah. Werner Erhard was heavily attacked on both for financial things that he did, and also anyone who is a charismatic leader of a movement like this will tend to get some pretty heavy attacks in the media. He ended up retiring and handing most of the copyright to the EST program on to other people.
There it morphed into a bunch of different things. One was called the Forum, one was called the Landmark Institute. Things derived from this training are still used in a lot of work environments.
In fact, in Atlanta at the Dekalb County Farmer’s Market there was actually a case over this. Where they were trying to require employees to go through this training, so they could see reality in a new way and be better employees. They passed some labor guidelines and said you can’t make your employees undergo new age training.
Blake: They have really great vegetable there, I didn’t realize they also have great nuts. That’s horrible. Okay.
Jay: People can still sell you there vegetables even with their limited understanding of reality.
Blake: That’s right. They really do have great vegetables there, it’s a great place to go shopping. Just for our listeners, if I stick this in here but it was a … EST stood for Erhard Seminar Training, and NLP was Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
Jay: Yeah [crosstalk 01:00:05]-
Karen: NLP just draws from so many different theories and belief systems.
Blake: All right. I guess we should wind up. Is there anything else about tulpas or Slender Man that we didn’t ask you about that you’d like to talk about?
Jay: I don’t think so. We have this research note, it’s not a full article but outlying of the linguistic and historical findings that’s coming out in Nova Religio which is an academic journal for the study of religious movements. We’re curious to see what happens to Slender Man and tulpas in the future.
Blake: Is that something we could link to in the show notes? Or when it comes out?
Jay: Yeah. When it comes out I’ll send you an email and you can link to it in the show notes.
Blake: Okay. Future link for the show notes there.
Jay: That’s right.
Blake: Okay. Guys we like to ask all our guests who come on the show, because this is MonsterTalk, what are your favorite monsters respectively?
Natasha: My favorite monster’s probably the Naga, it’s an Asian underwater creature that is associated with prosperity and wealth and has a really important role in the myth that I studied. I feel a lot of affinity for them.
Jay: We should mention, Natasha, we’re also working on a Tibetan Monastery in Scotland. Where the Abbot Monastery believes that Nessie is a naga, and has begun leaving traditional offerings to Nessie like you would in a Tibetan lake for the local Naga.
She feels that this will help tie her community to the land and help cultivate prosperity. It’s an interesting fusion Western cryptozoology and Buddhism.
Blake: I’m just trying to picture a Scottish person saying “Naga”, and me figuring out what they’re talking about.
Karen: Na-gath ?
Jay: For myself it would probably be Mothman.
Blake: Oh, that’s a good one.
Karen: Oh. Yeah.
Jay: I’ve been to the Mothman festival several times now, I made poor Natasha go a couple times. It’s probably because I encountered the Mothman story when I was very young. When I was reading some book for kids about monsters in American or something. This whole story of Linda Scarberry being chased in her car and everything was very compelling.
My grandmother grew up in Woodriver, Illinois, which is also near the Piasa Bird. Which, I don’t know if you’ve talked about the Piasa Bird on the show, but this an image painted on a cliff face by Native Americans of a massive winged creature.
Some of the hardcore Mothman enthusiasts say, “There actually was some ancient flying creature. The Native Americans knew about it, it stopped in Point Pleasant.” I think it was predisposed by my childhood to be fascinated with Mothman. I never had a chance really.
Blake: Did you watch the film?
Jay: I did. I liked the film. I thought the film was well done and eerie. I’ve actually written an article on Mothman and looking at what’s happened to the town of Point Pleasant from a religious studies perspective. I can send you a link for that for the show notes as well.
When people put a giant bronze statue of something in the center of their town, that’s the thing that attracts Religious Studies Scholars.
Blake: This is no idle speculation. This is- … Yeah, the statue, I’ve got a couple of shirts from the Mothman festivals from a couple of listeners. I really want to go to that festival and check it out.
Thank you guys for coming onto the show, we really appreciate it.
Karen: Yeah. That was a lot of fun. You guys are very knowledgeable.
Blake: You’ve been listening to MonsterTalk the science show about monsters. I’m your host Blake Smith and together with Doctor Karen Stollznow we’ve been discussing Slender Man and tulpas with Professor Joe Laycock, and doctoral student Natasha Mikles.
Check out our show notes at MonsterTalk.org or Skeptic.com for lots of additional information and articles related to this episode.
Also a link to Joe’s book on vampires.
Hopefully this episode has made a good case that tulpas are not and ancient Eastern belief of the ability of the mind to bring imaginary concepts into reality. When Joe’s article is published we’ll add a link to that in the show notes as well.
MonsterTalk is an official podcast of Skeptic Magazine. The ideas expressed on this show do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Skeptic Magazine or the Skeptic Society.
If you want to do an experiment, why don’t half of the listeners believe really firmly that you’ve bought a subscription to Skeptic Magazine. The other half actually purchase a subscription. It’s not really a very scientific experiment, but I suspect it would make the people at Skeptic Magazine’s staff happy. Who doesn’t like a happy staff? Anyway.
Speaking of the Atlanta Star Party, let me remind you that the sixth annual Atlanta Star Party is going be at the Emery University’s Math and Physics Building on August 28th, 2014.
MonsterTalk listeners can get a discount on tickets to that fundraiser by going to AtlantaStarParty.com and using the code “Monstertalk2014” to save five dollars off the ticket price. You’ll get a great lecture, great food and meet lots of interesting folks. I hope to see you there.
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Okay, that might not be quite right, regardless, please share and enjoy if you want folks to sass that you’re hoopy frood who really knows where your towel is.
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Karen: Did I ever tell you I knew a guy who was side-bottom? But he said it was pronounced [city batom 01:06:56].
Blake: No. I used to tell people that my name was pronounced [Suh-mit-ahey 01:07:04] like the Cherokee.
The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine.
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