Sometime last week, I was curled up with my beloved watching the 1992 horror film Candyman. The plot itself is a retelling of a story older than you might think, that of an evil presence which can be conjured by saying its name into a mirror, in this case five times. We’ve all heard the urban legend of Bloody Mary, who can be summoned by repeating her name in the same way. Since she doesn’t appear with benevolent intentions (it’s like 2am in Finsbury Park, screaming and covered in blood, sometimes trying to kill you), why any non-sceptic would want to do this is beyond me. Divining things in mirrors (or catoptromancy – there’s your word of the day) is not a new thing – indeed many objects with reflective surfaces, as I’m sure you’re all aware, can be used for scrying and have been as far back as Ancient Egypt.
The aspect of the film which I found so evocative was that of modern folklore, specifically how it is formed, develops and then takes on a life of its own, through storytelling. Words are powerful swords. In this case, a suspiciously thirtysomething-looking university student studying urban legends, drags her token friend to a dangerous housing project to investigate the enigmatic, purportedly supernatural killer known as the Candyman. Sure enough, she fucks things up, summons him and realises that the legends are true and she’s in a heap of trouble. Like any sword, if the word is misused, you can fall on it or at least nick yourself quite badly and perhaps take down a lampshade or two.
When Candyman appears, he rasps to her, “I am the writing on the wall, the whispers in the classroom. Without these things, I am nothing.” It’s made pretty clear to us, that although the disturbingly corporeal spirit has a traceable, if apocryphal, history of a plantation slave who was gruesomely lynched, he is a supernatural force using the legend as a channel, a walking, stalking avatar for the fear of a whole community. He cannot exist without the energy imbued by the stories told about him. With each murder, the myth divides and conquers, the word maintaining his strength, continuing the cycle. The word made flesh. The flesh lacerated.
We can see another example of this in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the continuation of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the main difference being that the New Nightmare is set in the ‘real’ world, the actors playing themselves, a meta-comment on the film industry and a fourth-wall-smashing self-conscious nod to the production of the Nightmare series itself. Wes Craven playing Wes Craven explains to the main character that the fictional antagonist Freddy Krueger is a vessel for an evil entity, a perfect template to play host to a malevolent energy, trapped like a Jinn, captured in the words of the script. The kick in the balls for everyone is that the ending of the film series was an eviction notice for this spirit, who is now free to roam the real world.
A factual precedent was set in real life in 2014. Two teenage girls lured one of their peers into a forest in Wisconsin. USA, stabbed and left her for dead. Their motive? They claimed they were making a sacrifice to the mythical being known as the Slenderman. That this was a disturbing incident is not lost on me, but I was fascinated and unnerved when I read about this, because Slenderman has a history only dating back back to 2009 where it was created as an internet meme, from the fertile imagination of a guy on a forum.
Though there exist folkloric archetypes for the tall, shadowy being in a black suit, Slenderman was simply put out there as a non-canon character for people to interpret, re-interpet and misinterpret. For the most part, it has been responsible for hilarious examples of gullibility and some damn cool scary stories. But in Wisconsin, it took an undeniably tragic turn and someone nearly died. And all that started it were some words.
I truly believe that words are vessels, conduits for energy and objective.
The Slenderman incident is an extreme example, so let’s look at something we can relate to. Imagine that one day, I’ve woken up in a grumpy mood. I didn’t get a lot of sleep the before, I have an early start, haven’t got any coffee and I’m having a bad hair day. I’ve not had enough to even shave my balls before I need to run out of the door and rub shoulderpads with hoards of commuters. On my way to the bus, I realise that if I don’t have a coffee inside me, I am likely to push a toddler under a bus, so I go into some awful coffee chain and when I order the barrel full of caffeine required to prevent homicide, I’m needlessly rude to the barista. I’m in a shit mood – did I mention that? I’m tired and busy and I’ve been a dick to someone who’s only trying to earn living. I have now set in motion a causal effect. The guy queuing behind me may now think it’s appropriate to be an asshole to people because it gets you want you want or looks cool. If the guy behind me is nice, he’s still going to frown at me for being so rude. Either way, I have coloured his day and he will be one of the first links in this cycle.
Of course, he may not care at all. But then we have the barista, who is now visualising what would happen if he scalded me with a cappuccino. At best, he’ll be judgemental of customers for the rest of the day and at worst, if I’’m the latest in a long line of assholes, he’ll finally quit and leave the cafe short-staffed and a stressful place for everyone.
And that’s just one encounter. I have yet to get on the tube, go about my day, buy tobacco, strop past slow-moving tourists. You get the idea.
This is not me proselytising (and neither am I trying to paint a picture of my being a moody git every day). I’m not about to tell you we should all make an effort to be a flowery beam of sparkling joy. The sun shines out of nobody’s ass and we all have shit days. But it is important for me to acknowledge how we form daily mythologies and subconscious communities with the people we interact with and the choices we make through simple words. Similarly, the internet is our campfire around which we can tell stories. Transient these passing lores may be, there is a cumulative effect on the environment and the beings which inhabit it. It’s like a virus. Read Burroughs and watch a film called Pontypool. Visit two neighbourhoods with opposite social and economical backgrounds and you’ll taste it in your mind.
The word comes from our breath, our life-force and subsequently it is our power. We cast spells with words, we show love with our words, we enact vengeance with words, we make or break promises with words. So if it is possible to accidentally influence and shape our universe, for those in the know, a grounded and meditative intention manifested through our words can very literally change the world.
How do you handle your (s)word? Are you conscious of it, maintaining it skilfully? Do you strike people out of the way with it in a clumsy manner? Or does it drag, sheathed and heavy behind you through the dust?