Beware the Slender Man

One of the features of urban legends is that they are basically modern folklore. It is an oral tradition that spreads as a story to from the point of view of a friend of a friend. They are often cautionary tales and will have a hint of the supernatural. Some are even outright ghost stories such as the vanishing hitchhiker.
And now we have the internet.
And our folklore is now known as memes.
One of the best came about on June 10th, 2009. This is the date of the first sighting of the Slender Man.
Who is the Slender Man? That is a good question, not a smart one to ask, but a good one none the less.
Take a look.
Did you see the odd figure in the back ground? This is the first known picture of the Slender Man.
Many followed.
They say that the more you think about him, the more likely you are to encounter him. Those that do start to obsess, often getting ill. Several people who have gotten pictures of him have disappeared.
Spooked yet?
Well that’s the point. The truth is that the Slender Man is a case of an intentionally created urban legend.
In the forums of the web site Something Awful a thread was created dedicated to taking normal photos and altering them to make them appear paranormal. On June 10th, 2009 Victor Surge posted the first couple of what would become many pictures featuring his creation, the Slender Man, a creature composed of aspects that he found creepy.
Unnaturally tall? Check.
Featureless face? Check.
Elongated limbs? Check.
Men in Black Suit? Check.
Never in focus? Check.
 Not content to just make creepy pictures Surge included “facts” surrounding each picture to enhance the story.
 Eventually the thread became dominated by the Slender Man as other people jumped on the band wagon. Those that could not create pictures started creating the mythos that surrounded the Slender Man. Yet he was always left vague enough for people to add their own interpretations. Conflicting accounts were made. In other words the perfect Urban Legend. It has grown to the point where some people have heard of the story in urban legend fashion and have no idea that it was made up on a forum.
The image and myth are so intriguing that several people have written stories are made online videos based on it. Examples include Marble Hornets and Everyman HYBRID. Do you self a favor and do not check these out after dark, unless of course you like to be creeped out when you go to bed.
One of the best parts of the Slender Man myth is how it takes advantage of both the internet and basic human behavior. The myth states that thinking too much about the Slender Man attracts his attention and at some point he will visit you in your dreams. Guess what has a good chance of happening if you start looking up information on something with as iconic a look as the Slender Man?
At some point I’m convinced a feature movie will be made. I hope it is an indie film, but not found footage as that has been done to death. When it does get made I hope Victor Surge gets some kind credit.
Until then there are great sites you can check out for more.
I think that is a good place to end.
Everything is fine.
That noise you heard, ignore it.
Just don’t look out the window for a while.  

His gentle caress.

Role-Playing and Urban Legends Part 2

In the last post, I said that urban legends have been a hobby of mine since I was 12. This has had its ups and downs.

When I was in my early twenties I worked as a clerk at a 7-11. A woman came in wanting to put up a flier warning about lick-on tattoos laced with LSD. It was a classic example of the Blue Star Tattoo legend. I took a flier and explained the legend.

Let’s just say that both she and my manager were less then pleased.

But the real fun with urban legends started when I was working as a customer service representative at Wizards of the Coast.

I was hired by WotC in July of 1993, the same month they released Magic: the Gathering. So I was there for its early rush of success.

My day-to-day job was answering questions about our games. The majority of these questions were based on the rules to Magic: the Gathering; and later, after we bought TSR, Dungeons and Dragons. However, this was a job based on taking incoming phone calls, so anything could happen. At some point my manager decided that one of us should be focused on any calls based on rumors about our games, like the ones based on the sources I cited in the last post.  Specifically he wanted a point person to deal with any question about our games being evil, satanic, or harmful. Basically, to deal with people who believed the urban legends.

In his wisdom, he decided I should be that person.  I guess my love of urban legends made me the ideal candidate.

Part of the fun of this new responsibility was that I got to have special training.

WotC flew out a Michael Stackpole to give me this training. You may remember Michael; as I mentioned him in the last post. If the industry had an expert in this field it was Michael.

I would like to believe that by the time I left WotC, thanks to Michael’s training and my own experiences, I was the industry’s second leading expert.

The method used to direct calls to me was pretty simple. The person who got the call would put the customer on hold and then yell out loud, “Jeff! Satan call!”

I ended up developing a lot of responses to that.

“Tell him I’m not here”

“Tell him it can never work out between us.”

“Tell them we’re not in league with Satan. We’re in a bowling league with Satan. And do you know how hard it is for him to rent shoes?”

“Why don’t I ever get Shiva calls?”

You get the idea.

After that I would take the call and get to work.

Most of the calls and letters fit into two basic categories.

The first would go like this: “What is this game based on?” I would be asked. “Math, basic arithmetic and a little algebra.” I would answer.

“What?” as I had clearly not given the expected answer.

“Well the game was developed by a math professor. If you take out all the art and flavor text what you are left with is a game mechanic that is based on mathematic principles.”

The other type would go like this

“Is this game based on the occult?”

“I’ll be honest with you; I doubt any of the game designers know anything about it. All the setting and art are based on western fantasy literature and most of that was derived from the work of a pair of English theologians who were writing Christian allegory,” I would answer. Of course, I was referring to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Between these two sets of stock answers, I was able to field a good majority of those calls.

Of course, there were some real winners.

My personal favorite was a woman who called and as soon as I answered she went off, “I am going to burn these cards my son bought.”

“No ma’am, you don’t want to burn them.”

“No, I am going to burn them.”

“No, please, shred them instead.”


“The cards are coated in plastic like poker cards; if you burn them the smoke will be toxic. Shredding them will be much safer.”

“Aren’t you upset that I am going to destroy them?”

“Why would that upset me? We already have your money. The rest is an issue between you and your son.”

My manager wanted to give me a stern talking to for that one, but he was laughing too hard.

Another one that always puzzled me was a bit of mail we received. It wasn’t a letter; it was a copy of the rule book found in Magic decks. Someone had written in Bible quotes on random pages. Well, not the quote – it would be Book, Chapter and Verse; it was up to me to look up the quotes. They were mostly from the Old Testament.  I could never really figure out what theme they were going for, since no two passages covered the same subject.

They did write one original thing on the back of the rulebook.

“I Pled the Blood of Christ on your company”

I still look at that and think that the word just seems off.

Then again it’s not like they took the time to write an actually letter.

The last one was a doozy that was still going on when I left WotC in 1997.

I got a call from the superintendent of a school district in upstate New York.

His story went like this. One of the schools in his district had allowed students to start up a Magic: The Gathering club. Everything was going fine until some parents had seen the cards and complained to the district. It was a fairly standard “These cards are Satanic” complaint. What was different was that one of the parents was a lawyer and she was preparing a t First Amendment law suit against the school.

I’m pretty sure you looked at that previous sentence and thought, “A First Amendment law suit? Why?”

This was her logic (so to speak): Since the game was so clearly Satanic in nature, allowing it to be played at school was promoting a religion, and thus violated the separation of church and state.

Honestly, if this was a work of fiction, I would have violated suspension of disbelief.

I spent time helping the superintendent understand the game, and even gave him examples of cards so that he could have the game looked at by a child psychologist. They found nothing wrong with the game, but the lawsuit went on. And from what I heard, it was going on as late as 2004.


Role-Playing and Urban Legends Part 1

With Halloween around the corner, it is time for ghost stories to make the rounds again. And in my opinion the best ghost stories are the ones that grow into urban legends. I love urban legends.
When I was about 12 years old, my mother heard that a woman at our local Kmart had been killed by a snake that had gotten into a shipment of clothes from overseas.  She became very concerned that this could happen at other stores, and wanted me to be careful when we were out shopping.
Two days later, our local newspaper ran a story on about this incident. More to the point: they ran a piece debunking it as an urban legend. It was a well-written piece that covered what an urban legend was, how they spread, and some of the most common ones.  It also cited a book by Jan Harold Brunvand called The Vanishing Hitchhiker: Urban Legends & their Meanings.
The next day I checked out this book from the school library.
I was hooked. I found other books, and from there, following urban legends became a small hobby of mine.
I suppose I should make sure you know what I am talking about before I go on. Of course the best way to educate yourself on this would be to check out Professor Brunvand’s books on the subject.
Basically, an urban legend is modern folklore. It takes the form of a story relayed as being true, usually happening to “a friend of a friend,” and that usually holds some kind of cautionary tale or supernatural element.
But why I am I bringing this up on a site devoted to geek culture?
It’s due to some doozy urban legends that have grown around role-playing games.
Since almost the time of their inception, fantasy role-playing games have attracted their own set of urban legends.
These grew out of three sources.
The first was simply that fact that some people would look at the fantasy elements in Dungeons and Dragons and assume it meant the game was Satanic. The idea that any role playing game will lead to devil worship come from this basic misunderstanding. I’ve always found this one funny since many of those fantasy elements were lifted from the writings J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, both of whom had Christian allegory in their stories.
The second source was an attempted suicide in the utility tunnels of Michigan State University that was erroneously linked to Dungeons and Dragons. A student at MSU went to the steam tunnels to commit suicide by overdose. He left a map on graph paper (left over from a D&D game) of his location so his body could be found. Instead of dying he wandered off. A detective hired by his family to find him idly speculated that he had gone to the tunnel to play a live action version of the game, and the press latched onto that as fact. This led to the myth of someone getting killed playing a live action Role playing game. This myth got leveraged in an incredibly bad book called Mazes and Monsters, which in turn got turned into a lousy TV movie starring Tom Hanks.
The third source was the suicide of a high school student in Richmond Virginia that is mother attributed to his involvement with a Dungeons and Dragons game he played at school. She tried to sue TSR, the publisher of Dungeons and Dragons at that time. All her lawsuits were dismissed. In response, she formed Bothered about Dungeons and Dragons (BADD) to combat the “evils” of roleplaying. It got to the point that game designer and future Star Wars author Michael A Stackpole wrote the article “Game Hysteria and the Truth” to debunk BADD’s claims. 
These stories have a life of their own now. Even though role-playing gamers now have an image of the loner geek in his mom’s basement, many of these stories still persist. Even now, there is probably a preacher somewhere firm in the belief that role-playing leads directly to Satan.
And in the next post I will discuss how all of this intersected directly with my life.
Here is a hint: I used to work for Wizards of the Coast

The Eighth Avenger

At New York Comic Con the big buzz was about next year’s Avengers movie. Several of the stars were there to promote the film.
During an interview Tom Hiddleston who plays Loki was talking about being the main villain against all the heroes. Specifically he talked about going up against all eight heroes.
All eight?
Wait a minute is that right? Let’s check.
First we have the heroes that have had their own movies. That gives us Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk. Ok that puts us at four.
Now let’s look at the heroes who appeared in other movies. Now we add Black Widow and Hawkeye. This brings us up to six.
If I leave Nick Fury off of this list Samuel L. Jackson will probably track me down and kick my ass. This brings us to seven.
So who is Avenger number eight?
I guess the first question is simply is there an eighth Avenger or did Hiddleston just count wrong. He says it a couple of times so for the sake of argument let’s assume he was right and there are eight.
So again who is number eight?
My first thought was that it would be someone we have already met. This led me directly to War Machine from Iron Man 2. A quick check of IMDB shot this down. Don Cheadle is not listed in the Avengers cast nor is anyone else listed as playing James Rhodes. You also have none of Thor’s fellow Asgardians listed so they are out.
Maybe he is counting someone in the cast who is not normally considered an Avenger. Maybe he is referring to Agent Coulson. Coulson has appeared in Both Iron Man movies and was a significant character in Thor. Marvel has also built him up by making short features featuring him. He has become a fan favorite. In fact since director Joss Whedon has a habit of killing fan favorite characters there is already a save Agent Coulson campaign going to ensure his survival for future marvel movies.
The problem with it being Coulson is while he is a cool character, he is not s superhero, and is not played in a way that suggests he is an Avenger.
There is one other possibility. Joss Whedon loves to sneak one over on fans. Do a misdirection to make fans think one thing and then spring a surprise. Maybe there is another character from the comics hidden in there that we have not seen yet.
Maybe there is a scientist working for shield named Hank Pym. Near the end of the movie he uses an experimental process to grow in size and become Giant Man.  Or Maybe they will sneak in the Wasp. Both were founding Avengers in the comics.
Or maybe I am just reading too much into this.
But isn’t the speculation fun?
So what do you think, who is the eighth Avenger?

Alternate Interpretations: Gilligan’s Island

Let’s do something a little different today. Let’s play the game of Alternate Interpretations.

To play the game you take a book, TV show, or movie that everyone knows. You then need to supply an underlying back story that is different from what is the usually accepted one. And to top it off it needs to work without changing what actually appeared in the original, acting as subtext.

So let’s use something everyone knows, Gilligan’s Island.

We all know the story of the seven castaways shipwrecked on the deserted tropical island. But what if there was more going on.

In 1964 the U.S. Government decided that it needed to make several people disappear for various reasons. However it did not want these people dead in case any of them were ever needed. An ambitious plan was hatched to strand them on an uncharted tropical island. The plan hinged on them not knowing that this was deliberate and if they did figure out that they were there on purpose they would not realize the others were as well.

But why did they need to vanish?

Captain Jonas Grumby aka Skipper: Grumby was a US Naval officer who had come across damaging information about the Kennedy family while serving under John F Kennedy during World War II. If what Grumby learned was ever made public it would end the Kennedy family political dynasty. After he retired from the Navy the government was able to arrange events so that he found himself the owner of a small boat charter company in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Professor Roy Hinkley: Hinkley was a genius botanist and chemist who worked on a project on mind altering chemicals that was funded by the CIA. It was part of larger project involving behavior control. Unfortunately for Hinkley he was smart enough to deduce the real purpose for the project. In disgust he quit, and took a job as a high school science teacher while he decided what he wanted to do about what he had learned. While this was going on he received an offer to join a botanical study in Hawaii. One of his fellow researchers suggested he might find it interesting to take a charter cruise out of Honolulu.

Thurston and Eunice Howell: Thurston Howell the 3rd was an old money robber baron. Major parts of his holding were in arms manufacturing. In the wake of the assassination of President Kennedy and the ongoing war in Vietnam Howell was having a change of heart about this part of his business. This would not do, but he was powerful enough that no one wanted to risk his death. He was brought to Honolulu by his government contacts to discuss what his plans were. After a particularly taxing meeting he was convince to take a break, perhaps a three hour boat tour.

Mrs. Howell was just what she seemed, an aging socialite who was accompanying her husband.

Ginger Grant: Grant was a well-known actress and singer. She was also having an affair with a high ranking Politian whose pillow talk let her know more than was good for her. In the wake of the death or Marilyn Monroe it was determined that adding her to the ill-fated boat tour was the best way to deal with her. A surprisingly well paying musical review in Honolulu was offered to her.

Mary Ann Summers: Mary Ann was a simple farm girl from Winfield, Texas, or so she would have had you believe. In reality Mary Ann was a deep cover KGB sleeper agent. The government learned of the Soviet Operation she was part of and knew they would be making their move soon. Realizing that taking out a key member of the KGB’s team would lead the operation to being aborted. However they wanted her alive in case they ever had need of a spy for a show trial. It was arranged for Mary Ann to win a trip to Honolulu complete with a three hour charter boat cruise. Mary Ann could not skip the trip without raising suspicion so she went. Of all the castaways she is the one that harbored some suspicion of what is really going on, but can’t reveal it for fear of breaking her cover.

William Gilligan: Gilligan was a highly trained intelligence operative for the US Military. When the government learned that Jonas Grumby had information that could topple the powerful Kennedy family Gilligan was assigned to get close to him and learn what he knew. Adopting a persona that was bumbling but sincere, Gilligan was able to make Grumby accept him as a friend and confidant. When Grumby retired Gilligan joined him and was able to manipulate him into buying a boat charter in Honolulu.

He was able to Sabotage the boat in such a way that it appeared out of control during the storm the government had made sure was not reported.

Once on the island it was Gilligan’s mission to make sure no one suspected why they were really on the island, and that no one ever left.


Now go watch some episodes of Gilligan’s Island and see how they play out now.

DC Comics Relaunch: the first month of the New 52 in review.

Over the last month we saw the release of the 1st issues for DC comics new 52, the relaunch of their universe.  It’s clear that it has been an initial success.  Many titles are already in reprint, DC is dominating the sales chart and Marvel is already showing signs of their attempt to rip it off.
But was it any good?
I guess the final answer is…..sort of.
There are certainly individual books that are good.  Originally I was not going to pick up Green Arrow or Swamp Thing on a regular basis, but both first issues were good enough to change my mind. Batwing and Justice League International were not as good, but good enough for me to give to want to read more.  Aquaman I bought on the strength that it was being written by Geoff Johns, and it paid off. The Superman books and Wonder Woman were well written and I enjoyed them. The Batman and Green Lantern books were continuing stories from prior to the relaunch and still enjoyable. Resurrection Man also seems to be jumping off from the old series from a few years back, but its nature makes it flow well into the new continuity and was a good relaunch of the character.
I have heard good things about Animal Man, Blue Beetle and Demon Knights, but as of yet I have not picked those up.
On the negative side were Catwoman, Red Hood and the Outlaws and Deathstroke. And each case it is an issue of bad or lazy writing. No second issues for these.
I’ve also heard bad buzz on Hawk and Dove, OMAC and Suicide Squad, but again I did not pick them up.
And on the meh side was the Flash, Justice League Dark. Both were passable individual stories, but didn’t fire me up. I’ll give them a few issues to see if they are worth keeping up with.
And then there is Justice League. The way it was written, I have no idea yet. I can’t help feel this one was paced for the trade edition. I’ll give it a few.
Overall I am happy with the books I am getting, but I see a major flaw developing. The source of this flaw is an issue with consistency of continuity.
When the relaunch happened you had some characters like Superman and Flash getting full on reboots. Others like Wonder Woman and Aquaman were more or less getting some retooling. Characters like Booster Gold and Resurrection Man are vague on what, if anything has been changed. And then you have Batman and the Green Lanterns, where they have not been changed and are in fact continuing their stories uninterrupted. 
Add to that there we have some books taking place today, and others five years ago.
This leads to confusion as knowing how characters relate becomes muddled.  The Kid Flash in teen titans, who if he? Barry Allen is not dating Iris West, so it is unlikely he is Wally West. Is he Bart Allen? Ok but again Barry and Iris are not together so saying he is their grandson from the future is still awkward at best. Is he option C, none of the above?
What about Superman? In Action comics, the book that takes place 5 years ago his costume is jeans, a t-shirt, and a cape that I suspect started life as a table cloth. In Superman which is set today his custom is some sort of Kryptonian armor. Ok fine, expect that Superman appears at the end of Justice League number 1. That issue was set five years ago and yet he was wearing the Kryptonian armor.
I’m sure the real answer was that the editors were not keeping up on what the creators were doing; this seems to be a problem at both DC and Marvel right now.
Once a few more issues are out I will probably start giving more in-depth opinions on the various titles.