Perhaps my not-so nascent paranoia is getting the better of me amidst all the talk about guerrilla skeptics (who have far more in common with silver-back primates beating on their chests than the rebels they imagine themselves as) and debunking strange phenomena, but I’ve come to regard the much ballyhooed notion of approaching anomalistics with “healthy” skepticism as an intellectual trap. The trick to skepticism is that it doubts the veracity of any claim, unless irrefutable evidence can be provided, while simultaneously ignoring its own dogmatism in establishing the very narrow criteria by which a claim can be proven. A skeptic proceeds from the assumption that monsters don’t exist, but graciously reserves the right to change his mind should someone present him with a living, breathing monster in a cage and a full battery of genetic tests demonstrating that it is an unknown species. This to a skeptic is being open-minded. I call it lazy. And joyless. Despite thousands of years of the world being an undeniably weird place, the skeptic awaits facts. Facts are nice. Facts are comfortable. They make a good exchange currency. That’s why I always keep a few in my back pocket to barter with. Unfortunately, facts are a platonic ideal, and seem to be capable of change e.g. the world isn’t flat, Napoleon was five foot seven, Nero wasn’t even in Rome when it burned, and Ms. O’Leary’s cow had nothing to do with the Chicago Fire (but is suspected of a number of South Side strong-arm robberies). The straw man that skepticism (cloaked in the letter of scientism, reductionism, and physicalism, rather than the spirit of scientific inquiry) conveniently arrays itself against is absolute relativism or someone else’s dogmatic skepticism, which of course has nothing whatsoever to do with the earnest curiosity of anomalists attempting to investigate the strangeness of the universe, and chasing anomalies which by definition are hard to reproduce and rooted in cultural interpretation.
Ambrose Bierce once observed, “It is evident that skepticism, while it makes no actual change in man, always makes him feel better.” Strangeness is an inextricably human phenomenon that requires the experience of something in the world, and an interpretation of that experience. If you are uncomfortable with ambiguity, but have the sneaking suspicion that the oddities of the world are lurking about unexplained, skepticism may indeed make you feel better. Were I to invest the time, I could probably figure out the physics that make my microwave work. Instead I regard it as a strange and magical tool that heats my food faster than the oven. The skeptic would call me an idiot since obviously it uses electromagnetic radiation, which can’t be seen either, but nonetheless has an effect on the physical universe, to build up thermal energy (or maybe because of what I said about his mother). The point is that there is more at work here in the story of my microwave than exciting some molecules in my pot pie. There is what the microwave does (bombards food with microwaves). There is my interpretation of the physical action of the microwave (it’s cooking). There is the general societal interpretation of my use of the microwave (I’m too lazy to cook on a stovetop). And there is my own mental map of microwave cooking (a magical object that prepares my dinner with little or no effort beyond unwrapping things and pushing buttons, the actual operations of which I know nothing, and care less about as long as the Hot Pocket tastes good).
Assuming you can find a cultural anthropologist who has recovered from their latest bout of malaria, they will explain that this is the difference between emic (loosely, internal cultural meaning) and etic (as observed by outsiders) interpretations of phenomena. The classic example a la anthropologist and cultural materialist Marvin Harris is when a researcher noted recurrently lopsided sex ratios among cattle of Kerala farmers in India. There were a whole lot more cows than bulls. A cattle rancher will tell you that this makes a lot of sense in a culture that gets a lot of mileage out of milk, but doesn’t eat beef since our bovine friends are considered sacred. You only need one bull to impregnate a whole lot of cows and thereby keep the milk flowing. The problem is cows give birth to male calves at a relatively predictable rate, which means we have a pretty good idea how many bulls should be around if nobody is turning them into steaks. The actual ratio of cows to bulls in Kerala suggested widespread bovicide, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, given that cows are considered sacred, and the notion of killing one would be rather offensive to a farmer in Kerala. It seems that male calves simply go unfed in times of shortage and consequently, don’t survive. Ask the right questions and you elicit four interpretations of the “facts on the ground”: (1) Emic/Behavioral: “No calves are starved to death”; (2) Etic/Behavioral: “Male calves are starved to death”; (3) Emic/Mental: “All calves have a right to life”; and (4) Etic/Mental: “Let male calves starve to death when feed is short”. (Harris, 1979). What are the facts in this case? The skeptic has his evidence, filtered through his own dogmatic cultural filter that male calves are being killed (albeit passively through neglect), and can stop here, comfortable that reality has been described. Reality, for the skeptic ends with an observation tempered in the fires of his own cultural bias, and disdains the notion that the interaction of the universe and our interpretation of the universe can create something wondrous or terrifying. Skepticism poses as wisdom and reserved judgment, when in fact it is a simple rejection of the phenomenal nature of something experienced by someone else.
Your higher class of social psychologist will tell you that behavior is a product of the person by the environment. An anomaly is similarly a function of a phenomenon (observed and remarked upon) and the meaning ascribed to the phenomenon (culturally and personally). You spot a big hairy monster meandering through the forest. You’ve seen a good sampling of primates and this one didn’t fit into any category you are familiar with. Local legend says it’s Bigfoot. You felt alarmed and just a little creeped out, and it vanished before you could show it to anybody, leaving only vague physical indications that something passed by. Rinse. Repeat. We wind up with a fascinating constellation of (1) an experienced event, (2) a cultural interpretation, and (3) a psychological sense that something odd just happened. Spread these experiences across a few thousand years of human history, and retaining skepticism begins to look a little bit like an emotional dodge, rather than a perspective conducive to understanding our world just a little better. It’s sort of like saying that you’re not so sure about UFO’s, but believe in angels or god. The difference may be subtle, but the skeptic’s quest for what is real (as in knock it on the head and put in a zoo), steadfastly sidesteps the far more interesting question (given humans are reasonably complicated creatures and that we don’t necessarily have a complete understanding of the material world) of whether an experience is “authentic”, and if authentic (the conscious self coming to terms with the external world), what it means. As producer Peter Gruber once said, “Truth is a point of view, but authenticity can’t be faked”. What does this all have to do with black-eyed children and the Slenderman?
If you bothered to put down your videogame or Jane Austen novel to read this, you probably have at least a passing acquaintance with the “modern” phenomena of the Slenderman and his cousins the black-eyed children. Slenderman is the tall, well-dressed, blank-faced, photographer-eating, child-abducting monster that the internet glitterati will condescendingly remind you was the invention of a skilled photo editor for a 2009 contest hosted by the Something Awful website and which the BBC dubbed, “the first great myth of the web.” Black-eyed children are those pesky little tween varmints with completely black eyes, wandering around asking to be let into houses and cars in the middle of the night, reports of which have seemed to increase exponentially on the internet since roughly 1998. The digital natives are restless, lurking about on strange phenomena forums, Reddit, Twitter, and any blog they can get their grubby little snark-smeared hands on, waiting for you to mention Slenderman and black-eyed children, specifically so they can relate the two factoids above to you with an air of bored skepticism. With an exasperated sigh they will point out that Slenderman and black-eyed children are just “internet memes” as if the conversation should end there, despite a somewhat superficial acquaintance with memetics, and ignorance of the fact the Richard Dawkins himself, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term “meme”, felt that the notion of an “internet meme” was a barbarization of the original concept, since his idea of a cultural meme was that it randomly mutated and was accurately reproduced, whereas an internet meme, at least as its currently used, is a deliberate act of creative reproduction and elaboration by humans. An internet meme has come to represent something gullible people believe through constant repetition on the internet or a social fad. Self-appointed skeptics, happy to ignore the flood of reports of Slenderman-like entities and black-eyed children that popped up on the internet after the mythopoetic expressions that they mark as the origin, thereby feel comfortable in dismissing the phenomena as extraordinary delusions, the madness of crowds, and the power of the internet to spread an idea far and wide regardless of its facticity. Try an experiment. Go start a serious discussion on an internet forum about Slenderman. At least fifty percent of those who respond will note the fact that he is not “real” and that you are a moron. Of course, do the same thing with “Obamacare” and you’ll get the same results, so let’s not regard that as conclusive evidence, but even the more benignly skeptical will direct you to the Something Awful site. If your mind is mired in the real, you don’t have much use for the Slenderman or the black-eyed kids once you hear that they are inventions of the internet age. If your fundamental motivation is to understand why the world is so indisputably weird, rather than the enclosure of anomalies in the safe boxes of proven or unproven, there is a rich vein of humanity here. Slenderman and the black-eyed kids have resonance. Now my chakras are misaligned and my spirit dolphin isn’t talking (I sided with the tuna in a recent debate), so I don’t mean resonance in the grand archetypal or cosmic alignment sense, rather that the experience of them is culturally meaningful and has deep historical roots, despite the fact that the latest incarnation of the symbol system happens to have first appeared on the internet. This is the trap of skepticism. Slenderman and the black-eyed kids may not be real, but they are authentic.
Folklore and mythology are replete with well-dressed fiends and corrupters of innocence, based on a deep-rooted suspicion about the predatory inclinations of the aristocracy that has lorded over humanity for most of history, at least until we came up with such foolhardy (given the current state of the American government) notions as democracy. There is nothing more despicable, seductive, and harder to avoid than a monster that is smart, fashionable, and well-financed. And since the upper classes have traditionally maintained two sets of laws, one for themselves and one for the unwashed masses, it is reasonable to assume a certain moral depredation accrues to them as well, what with the divine right of kings more or less translating into the divine right to “do whatever the hell I want”. Fashion has often been about class and authority, therefore the ultimate breach of trust is for the monster to appear in the costume of authority and sophistication. It speaks to fear of power.
Similarly facelessness has long been about the obliteration of identity, the essential quality that makes us human. We can find countless analogues for Slenderman in fairy tales, mythology and history, from the Men in Black, to Dracula to Spring-Heeled Jack to Jack the Ripper. If we were to delve into ancient mythologies across countless cultures, we would no doubt discover creatures with a certain sartorial flair and royal air preying on unsuspecting humans. My point isn’t to catalog ancestral memories that prove the existence of Slenderman, rather to insist that the image of Slenderman has a significance that transcends the fact that someone photoshopped a cool picture in 2009. Something is out there. Something dresses well. Something preys on the innocent, regardless of what you call it. And this fear has been with humanity for generations. Some people who get on the internet and talk about experiences with entities similar to Slenderman are crazy. Some are lying. Some are joking. And some are serious about an experience that they have interpreted as a Slenderman manifestation.
We seem to be genetically hardwired to worry about the safety of children, so when approached by youth adamantly requesting assistance, our inclination, assuming you are not a heartless bastard, is to at least hear them out. When they have completely black eyes and start getting weirdly insistent that you let them in, you may change your mind. This is the classic wolf in sheep’s clothing, the monster that uses your own humanity against you. That’s why horror movies love the creepy child motif. Again, this is extremely common historically in mythological monsters, from the Aztec Ahuizotl that cries like a baby to lure you into the water and nibble on your tasty parts to the Filipino Tiyanak (a baby that lures you into the juggle, morphs into a monstrosity, and eats you). It is related to our fear that our own kindness and concern can be used against us.
Healthy skepticism espoused by an anomalist is a cultural stance, essentially code for “I’m not crazy like those other guys”, and gosh darn it I want to be taken seriously. Wrapping yourself in the warm blanket of skepticism is putting the cart before the horse. Epistemology is derived from a commitment to a particular ontology. Skepticism is a mental epistemology, and a fairly lackadaisical one at that. Not to mention tautological since it amounts to “I’m willing to believe in what I already believe”. Anomalistics is about examining and interpreting things that don’t make sense, that frighten us, and that most people would rather not think about. If you want to reduce the universe to discrete grains of sand that will ultimately tell you conclusively about themselves, seek the intellectual safety of accounting. If you are interested in examining how humans interact with a puzzling world, your options are far more exciting than the binary juxtaposition of proven and unproven. That’s why whenever someone tells me they are investigating the anomalous, but that they retain a healthy scientific skepticism, I tell them that I’m skeptical about their ability to do any such thing. If you’re going to walk with the crazies, it’s disingenuous to maintain that you indulge in a saner form of insanity.
Harris, Marvin. Cultural Materialism. New York, NY: Random House, 1979.