Tulpas and the Agency of Storytellers

Sorry.” I shook my head, trying to clear it of her course phrasing. “I don’t quite follow you. Remind me of what I said.”
“Ye said all the gods are alive. All the monsters too.”
“Oh, right. They’re all alive, except for the ones that are dead.”
“And the impression I got was they’re alive because we believe in them, right?”
“Um, With lots of fine print, right.”
“So in a sense it’s we with faith who create gods, not the gods who create us. And, if that’s the case, then it’s we who created the universe.” 

One main side-effect of studying popular culture is that the case studies I spend the better part of a week analyzing and researching tend to coincide with the things I enjoy on a Friday night, mostly when I least expect it. The above passage was read to me in audio book form through my phone’s speakers while I hunted for collectibles in Hyper Light Drifter. The passage is from my recent foray into urban fantasy with the Iron Druid Chronicles, and was so taken with the first book that I settled into listening to book two while I hunted gearbits and attempted to finally get a high chain dash score.

Conversations like the one detailed above is bound to happen in some sense when reading urban fantasy. Stories which involve everything from vampires to druids will bring in pantheons of gods quite readily – but there tends to not be preference to any particular pantheon. In the Iron Druid Chronicles, the main character Atticus talks to the corporeal form of the Morrigan and the Virgin Mary equally. The constant physical representation of religious figures is enough to make this religious studies scholar giddy.

But the specific discussion detailed above, as well as the scene which followed, made me stop and consider the proceedings a bit closer. After the exchange on the power of the faithful, our main character convinces the widow, the other speaker who stated the power of the faithful, to pray hard on what she imagined the Virgin Mary to be like – resulting in Mary taking physical form, which looked exactly like how the widow imagined her. Although the term was never directly used, the manifestation of the Virgin Mary based on the intense faith focus of the widow is essentially a Tulpa – something that the Iron Druid Chronicles shares with the PhD focused Slender Man.

First things first: what is a Tulpa? Good question, person in the back! A Tulpa is a physical manifestation which is brought into being simply through spiritual or mental discipline. The term arose in more mystical Buddhist traditions, but grew to great popularity when mystics and new religious movements brought these traditions from the “East” to the “West,” often with small variations. Theosophy’s Annie Besant has an entire book devoted to Tulpas, which are often called “thoughtforms” in Western esoteric beliefs.

Little Slendy’s connection to Tulpas began on its genesis forum thread on Something Awful. User Soakie broached the idea that the Something Awful thread was creating a Tulpa through the communal act of storytelling and story re-creation. The concept of Slender Man as Tulpa allowed for the online storytelling to thrive as a true urban legend. While most urban legends have an obscured and questionable lineage, and storytellers and audience members rarely know the origin of the narrative, online narratives can be traced much easier. The users of the Something Awful forum back in 2009 were busy creating an urban legend, but a simple Google search of “Slender Man” leads to the forum thread itself. This creates an issue: can one be scared of something that one knows is wholly created by a group of people. The connection to a Tulpa is probably obvious now: even though Slender Man may have started as a fiction level of fun storytelling on Something Awful, the combined emotional and mental focus on creating these narratives and this character can lead to the character coming into physical existence.

Imagine: you’ve just finished writing your first Slender Man narrative or creating an image and have shared it with the storytelling group you’re starting to get fond of. You begin reading one of the narratives that describe someone alone in their home hearing Slender Man tapping at their window. And you hear tapping – the same kind of tapping. Perhaps it’s just the tree being shaken by wind. But you don’t remember the tree being that close to the window. And it’s not windy tonight.

Image of Slender Man from Something Awful user cloudy

Image of Slender Man from Something Awful user cloudy

Attaching the idea of Tulpa to Slender Man does much more than add another avenue of horror though. The notion of Slender Man as Tulpa reveals some of the fundamental themes of online storytelling: that of communal and storyteller agency. It’s not the story, or the character, or the monster at the heart of the story that has the ultimate authority, but the community in which the story is being told to. In the same way as telling stories around a campfire is determined by the flow, connection, and authority of the community around the campfire, the online forum provides a digital local for a digital campfire – the community is still central and provides ultimate authority. The Tulpa, therefore, works perfectly in this environment – the character and story becomes real and manifest through the effort and emotional power of the community. The community holds great power as a collective whole, which gives emotional intention to the stories they are creating. This is recognized in the effect of the Tulpa, whether truly believed to be true or referred to as such to increase the effect of the story being told.

So once again, we’re brought to the physical manifestation of supernatural beings in the Iron Druid Chronicles: the physical creation of gods and other immortal beings through the sheer will of the faithful gives an essential level of agency to the believer. As the widow says in her conversation with Atticus: sense it’s we with faith who create gods, not the gods who create us.

The approach shifts the typical flow of conversation to something the anthropologist in me can more easily grab a hold of: the emotional experience of creating for the individual and the community. The connection between the faithful in the Iron Druid Chronicles and the Slender Man are not just similar in the fact that they are both Tulpas, in a sense. Rather, the importance of these two popular culture references are that they reveal something important about the community sharing and reading these stories: the community and the individual is the ultimate source of power.

We, as people who tell stories and listen to stories, hold the true power of creation. This power does not rest with gods, for the gods are only thoughtforms – given a reality based on the stories we have created for them. Slender Man’s great supernatural power, which is horrifying and gives its readers a small startled jump whenever a tree brushes against their window, is only given true form and shape due to the narrative power of Victor Surge and all those that have come after. This social focus brings great attention to not only the creative power of the individual, but also the relationship the individual has to the others around their digital campfire. It’s not about whether the physical form, the Tulpa manifest, of the Slender Man is fictional or real – it’s about the simple idea of this thoughtform existing and how this proves the power and importance of the community.

And that, as academically as I can put it, is pretty cool.