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Posted by Gina Freitag
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Creating New Folktales for Generations to Come

By David Demchuk

Writers and filmmakers around the world are using the tools and language of folktales to tell new stories to their audiences about the world we live in today. But how do you create new legends that have the reach and power of those that have been around for hundreds or thousands of years?

It’s good to look at the kinds of modern legends and folktales that have captured the imaginations of readers and viewers: Unsolved mysteries, urban legends, haunted locations, traumatic events. Every family, every neighbourhood, every generation has its own folklore. The creators of the Blair Witch drew on the true-life legend of the Bell Witch, a violent spirit that attacked the Bell family in 19th century Tennessee. The urban legend about a teenage girl babysitter who receives menacing calls coming from inside the house (inspiration for 1974’s Black Christmas and 1979’s When a Stranger Calls) is said to be based on the still-unsolved 1950 murder of teenage babysitter Janett Christman. With careful attention to the form that old folktales and legends take, the vulnerabilities of your protagonists, the distinctive characteristics of your villain, the setting and atmosphere of the story you want to tell, and ambiguity (“He’s still out there…”) of your ending, a skilled storyteller can create parallels between old stories and new ones, and chill an audience with a brand-new legend, fake or real, that is just as effective as the ones we’ve been telling for centuries. With Candyman, Clive Barker and Bernard Rose, and then Jordan Peele, Nia DaCosta and Win Rosenfeld have combined The Hook and Bloody Mary as well as the real-life horrors of African-American slavery to create a new terror that has captivated us for nearly 30 years and promises to haunt us for many more.

Creepypasta is a relatively new form of folklore, created for online forums like the nosleep forum on reddit. Creepypasta are eerie and unsettling tales presented plainly online as factual accounts. One of the most well-known examples is the invention of Slender Man, an exceptionally tall and skinny humanoid entity that appears in odd places and behaves in menacing ways. Created by Something Awful forums user Eric Knudsen in 2009, the character inspired hundreds of other related stories, mostly online, as well as a feature film, a documentary and a genuinely unsettling series of enigmatic YouTube videos under the title Marble Hornets. Be careful of what you create though: The Slender Man legend was so potent that in 2014, two 12-year-old girls lured their best friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times in an attempt to prove that Slender Man was real. Thankfully the child survived.

Other creepypasta adaptations include the unsettling series Channel Zero, which tackled a new creepypasta narrative each of its four seasons; the film Soviet Sleep Experiment; and Goedam, an intriguing collection of short Japanese creepypasta films. In time we’ll know if any of these legends has the kind of impact of The Hook, Bloody Mary and The Killer and The Babysitter, and becomes a scary story shared by our children, grandchildren and beyond.

Find out more: Marble Hornets remains a spooky YouTube rabbit hole. The Marble Hornets twitter account also holds some clues. The Magnus Archives is a horror fiction anthology podcast; the research files in the Magnus Institute include some folklore-inflected investigations. Limetown is an eerily effective mockumentary podcast about the disappearance of 300 people from a small town in Tennessee. The subsequent TV series, starring Jessica Biel, is not quite as effective. Of course, one of the truly great paranormal podcasts is Welcome to Nightvale, a twice-monthly satirical podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events. Do not approach the dog park.

Join me TONIGHT for my Black Museum lecture Mirror, Mirror: Folklore, Fairytale and Legend in Horror  and then head over to twitter after as I take over The Black Museum’s feed (@blackmuseumTO) to provide colour commentary on the Finnish slasher film Lake Bodom (2016) (available to stream on Shudder Canada or Shudder US). Friendly reminder that we’re aiming to press play at 8:30pm ET!

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