The Surprising Online Life of Legends

Now, from the you-can-learn-something-new-every-day files, comes Michael Kinsella’s Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat.

Just out from the University Press of Mississippi, Kinsella’s book describes an intriguing Internet phenomenon: the dissemination online of versions of a well-established folk ritual, “legend-tripping.”

Dating from centuries before an Internet became available, the “legend trip” is a ritualized quest in which participants explore legends of supernatural events and test their truth by trying to make them come alive in the here and now.

How? By rehearsing the rituals by, for example, visiting sites of legends of the supernatural, and engaging there in the incantations, invocations, or other hocus-pocus that will supposedly conjure up some esoteric spirit or force.

Legend trips are, then, collective dares—trips to haunted houses, barns, or abandoned asylums, say—that often frighten the daylights out of participants, who usually are teenagers eager for the thrill, and thus prone to credulity.

Early in his book, Kinsella, now a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, describes one such event. While a master’s student in folklore at Western Kentucky University—his book is a revision of his impressively ambitious master’s thesis—he accompanied a group at midnight to the shuttered and “haunted” Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Louisville. There, he was duly spooked; but unlike his hosts, who heard, saw, and claimed to photograph specters, Kinsella came away impressed by how well the excursion served to thrill his companions and to confirm their beliefs. He observed, he writes, that the legend trip seemed to exert the same force as spiritualists of the early 20th century had marshaled, often aided by emerging technologies—the telegraph, the phonograph, and then the camera. All of those could capture something—squeaks, squiggles—sufficient to convince believers that some ghostly presence was abroad.

For Kinsella, the propagation of the hauntedness of the sanatorium exemplified the way behaviors, beliefs, narratives, and other elements of supernatural legends propagate. That, and how they “creatively express and address the worldviews of individuals and groups,” as he evenhandedly puts it in his book.

In Legend-Tripping Online, he describes how his observations led him to a bizarre Internet phenomenon, the main focus of his book: an “immersive” online experience—part mystery, part game, part who knows what—known as both the Incunabula Papers and Ong’s Hat. Those were the abbreviated titles of documents that someone—probably a group of four provocateurs—posted on The Well, a pioneering Internet social site in the late 1980s.

The Incunabula Papers/Ong’s Hat was, or is, a “many-threaded, open-ended interactive narrative” that ”weds an alternate history of chaos science and consciousness studies to conspiracy theories, parallel dimensions, and claims that computer-mediated environments can serve as magical tools,” Kinsella explains.

Fortunately, he elaborates: After sitting largely dormant on the social Web site for a decade, the documents provoked a widespread “immersive legend-trip” in the late 1990s. Via Web forums, participants investigated the documents—manifestos—which spun up descriptions of brilliant but suppressed discoveries relating to paths that certain scientists had forged into alternate realities. Soon, those haunted dimensions existed in the minds and fantasies of Ong’s Hat’s many participants. That was evident as they responded to the original postings by uploading their own—all manner of reflections and artifacts: personal anecdotes, audio recordings, and videos—to augment what became “a really immersive world, and it was vast,” says Kinsella.

The Incunabula documents actually existed—Kinsella reproduces them in his book. Part esoteric knowledge relating to cutting-edge theories resonant with (pseudo) chaos and string theory, part rococo hooey, among their many tantalizing references were several to legends and rumors pertaining to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Some participants actually embarked on pilgrimages there, to the Pine Barrens’ American Indian gateways to other worlds, to investigate such claims as that residents of a “Moorish Science Ashram” were hard at the work of necromancy and sorcery in Ong’s Hat, a New Jersey “ghost town.”

Most, however, lived out its strange dimensions—and expanded them—via the Internet. The Incunabula Papers was, Kinsella writes in his book, “one of the earliest Internet-based legends, a mythmaking system, an ARG [alternate reality game], and/or an elaborate hoax.” Whatever its claim on truth, it induced extraordinary responses from, and experiences for, participants—many were “transported,” somewhere, if only on a thrilling fantasy ride.

The trip peaked in 2001; then, one of its known originators, Joseph Matheny, an American artist who creates works using alternate-reality gaming and “transmedia” storytelling methods, called a halt.

That the experiences of participants in the computer-mediated legend trip will strike many readers as far-fetched does not perturb Kinsella so much as delight the folklorist in him. It “demonstrates how supernatural legend complexes and occult philosophies may generate supernatural experiences…through game-like performances of belief,” he writes.

He holds the original Incunabula documents, in all their oddness, in high esteem, he adds: “People inserted themselves into the story; the story seemed to take on a life all its own; and it had this far-reaching narrative. I thought it was absolutely brilliant, but I didn’t know what exactly was going on,” he says. Unmistakable, however, was that the writings and their Satan’s spawn were suspending acolytes’ disbelief, and feeding their fantasies.

Few if any other books address legend-tripping, and Kinsella’s appears to be the very first to address online versions of them. Thanks to such scholarly groups as the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, others will likely follow. At that group’s conference in May of this year, Diane E. Goldstein, an associate professor of folklore at Memorial University (Newfoundland), presented a paper titled “Crying Babies, Tiny Handprints, and Terror on the Web: Virtual Legend Tripping.” She and two colleagues, Sylvia Anne Grider and Jeannie Banks Thomas, won the association’s 2008 book award for their Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore (Utah State University Press).

The University Press of Mississippi was glad to get Kinsella’s manuscript, says Craig W. Gill, its editor-in-chief and acquiring editor for its extensive folklore series.  And why not? Gill asks, via email. Folklore studies has long studied emerging folkloric phenomena—office folklore, Xerox folklore, “faxlore,” and now email and user-board folklore. “Now the entire Internet is one big collection of humor, stories, folklore, and folk art,” he says. “We will be doing more books like this…and so will any publisher with a large folklore program.”

Kinsella’s qualifications for writing on such topics extend well beyond his academic training. Reports of the paranormal and supernatural are “pretty much a lifelong interest,” he says by phone while visiting his hometown, Sidney, Ohio. When he was a youth, he dragged friends along to such locations as a “cry-baby bridge” where, given appropriate encouragement or lubrication, nighttime visitors hear the cry of a baby that its mother had, long ago, tossed over the side.

Admits Kinsella: “I was the one who really promoted us going out there.”

From such Midwest Friday-night divertissements, he took to exploring psychic circles, ghost hunting, Peruvian shamanic ceremonies, UFO sightings, and other purportedly paranormal activities. Then, while Kinsella was an undergraduate at the University of California at Los Angeles, a folklorist on the faculty alerted him that it was possible to study such phenomena, for a living. “That opened up a whole new world for me,” says Kinsella. “I said to myself, ‘Oh my god, I can study these supernatural stories and beliefs?’”

From such experiences as his trip to the Waverly Hills Sanatorium, he learned that “many supernatural traditions operate in such an ingenious fashion as to motivate people to generate the very supernatural worlds these traditions portray,” as he writes in his book. With such dynamics in mind, he is now at UC Santa Barbara’s doctoral program in religious studies expanding the scope of his inquiries to take in cognitive-science perspectives on belief. But he says no amount of academic abstraction will blind him to the qualities that make folklore so fascinating. He says he also wishes, in the case of the Incunabula Papers, to celebrate their frequent playful tricksterism.

The response of Joseph Matheny to Legend-Tripping Online suggests the success of Kinsella’s read on the Incunabula Papers. On his Web site, Matheny wrote that Kinsella “did an excellent job and only missed the mark with two or three of his conclusions,” which Matheny said he would clear up by writing a complementary account.

In the context of the Incunabula Papers and Ong’s Hat, something about that statement echoes beguilingly. Is Matheny offering to perpetuate the project, despite closing it down?

Or perhaps he never did shutter it. In 2001, his announcement of the termination of the project said that he and a colleague “decided today to publicly announce in the near future that the Ong’s Hat Project has now concluded.” Not only do the tenses in his statement appear slippery, but he also tantalizingly mused that he did think the Incunabula Papers “would still make a good book from a cultural anthropology perspective.”

Is Kinsella’s Legend-Tripping Online not only that book, but also, unwittingly, another phase in the whole, crazy Incunabula Papers caper?

Kinsella allows: “When you’re dealing with this…this thing, there are trickster qualities and pranks and hoaxes, and fact and fiction are so blurred that it’s really hard to make sense out of it.”

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