Creepypasta sounds like a bad dining experience at an Italian restaurant, but it’s actually a genre of internet folklore — a field of study that is of great interest to SUNY Potsdam Assistant Professor of English and Communication Dr. Trevor Blank.
“Creepypasta is like a genre of Internet folklore where people share these short, scary stories that have ominous conclusions and characters,” Blank explained.
Blank, who started teaching at SUNY Potsdam in the fall of 2012, has either authored or edited nine books. His most recent book, “Slender Man is Coming,” was published in September 2018. “It’s about Slender Man and Creepypasta in digital culture, particularly the story of Slender Man, the faceless Photoshopped image that was made famous in 2014 when two girls in Wisconsin stabbed their peer,” Blank said.
Blank had been doing research on Slender Man since even before the notoriety of the Slender Man stabbing — a tragic event in which two 12-year-old girls lured another girl of the same age into the woods and stabbed her 19 times in an attempt to appease the fictional creature Slender Man. As an expert on the subject, Blank was also interviewed for the 2016 HBO documentary, “Beware the Slenderman,” which examines the story surrounding the stabbing.
“One of the defining characteristics of folklore is what we call repetition and variation, the idea that something appears multiple times, but it evolves as new people interpret it and share it themselves. In that regard, Slender Man was kind of a perfect test case for that. Because what people saw was the image, and the general rough backstory that he kidnapped kids…and used that as an imprint to create literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of different stories,” Blank explained.
Slender Man is just one example of how Internet folklore can spread like a virus and take on a life of its own — the study of which was not always taken seriously. In 2009, Blank’s first book really helped to establish Internet folklore as a more serious field of study, a book that he edited featuring the work of eight different authors who wrote about the ways in which folklore intersects with online environments and communities. “That book, fortunately, helped to get the discipline to start paying more attention to internet studies as an area for folklore,” Blank said.
“One of the unique things about taking a communication class at SUNY Potsdam is that you’re getting a communication class, but with a folklorist’s eye attached to it. The beauty of it is that it’s totally applicable to students’ lives, because everybody is a purveyor of folklore. We all have our own traditions and beliefs.”
This semester, Blank is teaching two sections of “Introduction to Mass Communication,” where students study the cultural history of mass media in the U.S., from the printing press to the Internet age. He is also teaching “Ethnography in the Digital Age,” “Visual Communication” and “Mass Communication in the Digital Age.”
“Being able to have the freedom to develop courses that align with my research interests, while also fulfilling the needs of our department and students’ interests, has been something that I really enjoy about my job a great deal. I get to use the research that I’m doing right now and incorporate it into my classes,” Blank said.
Blank’s extensive folklore research has examined everything from online humor, to Creepypasta like The Russian Sleep Experiment, one of his favorite examples of Internet folklore. Blank will often spend days on a project, like his research surrounding a Tim Tebow article on ESPN.com in 2011, when hundreds of people started making fun of the former NFL player under the comments section. “Someone brought that to my attention and I ended up staying awake for almost four days, screen capturing all the different kinds of jokes people were making about Tim Tebow. I still have probably about 95 pages worth of jokes…It can be exhausting sometimes to keep up with it because everything can be so fast and ephemeral,” he said.
His interest in studying folklore first developed as an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he embarked on a senior project to examine the history and folklore surrounding the Hillcrest Building — a structure on campus that had previously housed a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane.
“No one really liked to talk about it because of its negative connotation with being associated with the criminally insane. In fact, there was campus folklore that UMBC stood for ‘you must be crazy’…My first real folklore project was trying to find out the backstory and history of that building, as well as campus community beliefs about the building,” he said.
The building, built in 1921 and used as a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane until 1966, was purchased by the state and then sold to the University of Maryland where it served as the first administration building for the college. Later it served as a space for residential life and fraternities before being closed down in 2000. Blank set out to learn more about the vacant structure by interviewing students, alumni and an employee who worked in the hospital. “Really, that work is what inspired me to pursue folklore as a career,” Blank said.
After getting his bachelor’s degree from UMBC, Blank went on to get his master’s degree in folklore from Indiana University. He then enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Penn State Harrisburg under the tutelage of Dr. Simon Bronner. “He had a profound influence on me. He continues to have a profound influence on me…he’s really helped to shape the trajectory of my career,” Blank recalled. In 2011, Blank was the first person to matriculate through the Ph.D. program in American studies at Penn State Harrisburg.
Now at SUNY Potsdam, Blank has provided a unique opportunity for his students to study a less traditional form of folklore as part of his communication classes. He said his students have been intellectually curious about making connections to mass media. “When students take my class, they’re not only getting historical context, they’re getting very recent research done by me, that’s being infused into the classes,” he said.
For more information about the Department of English and Communication, visit www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/Engl