Richard Dawkins, Slenderman and the Terrible Power of Fantasy

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Not too long ago, Richard Dawkins asked parents: “Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of  childhood, magical as they are?” Dawkins’ genius for publicity rivals Katie Hopkins’ and Miley Cyrus’s. When Richard wants a headline he shall have a headline: he uses preposterous statements and ludicrous questions to generate absurd amounts of free-advertising on Twitter and in newspaper columns. Usually, a sensible person would roll his eyes and move on to consider a story with a little more substance. But that same week Dawkins’ sound-bite should have touched a few of more nerves than usual.

In Waukesha, Wisconsin, two 12-year-old girls attempted to murder a classmate so that they could earn the approval of the Slender-man. Many teachers will have heard of this “Slender”; who wears a suit but has no face; who has tentacles where his arms should be. You might catch him following you out of the corner of your eye; but when you try to fix your gaze on him he vanishes. Slender is too terrifying to be seen, and if you meet him face to face, you will die.  He is the “bogey man” of the internet age. But the bogey man does not live under the bed or in the cupboard: he is everywhere and nowhere.

We know who invented the story of Slender and can trace the precise date of his online origins. Insofar as the story goes, its clever enough. Slender just ridiculous enough for most children to know he isn’t really real; and he is just frightening enough to pleasantly chill their bones. If he was just a camp-fire story, little harm would follow. It is true that children can escape into fictional worlds, and the boundaries between reality and imagination can become blurred in their games. But the results are usually harmless; good parenting will normally stop the games from going too far.

But teens (and adults who should seek a more meaningful use of their leisure time) have adopted Slender. They have produced short-films, video games and web-sites, all dedicated to tales of child abduction, madness and death. In many ways, the fantasy world they have created is worse than Dante’s hell; Slender does not even pretend to recognise rational or moral laws. The undeserving souls hunted by the Slender-Man are doomed to madness and death. The tragedy in Waukesha is that two daughters were captivated by a world that was not made for them. That two girls will knife a third is an axiom for those children who have never heard of better worlds; whose only fairy-world is ruled by a pitiless and irrational nightmare.

My only point here is merely that fantastic tales are powerful things; so powerful, in fact, that adults are reluctant to leave them behind. I personally despise the very idea of Game of Thrones; yet I can’t avoid it. Newspapers and Twitter feeds continually update me with bulletins from the pornocracy of Westeros. The real world has enough incest, rape and homicide for me to contemplate; wallowing in pornography, gore and nihilism does not strike me as a healthy response. All the same, I’d rather not leave fantasy stories behind. Reflecting on the depravity and corruption of this world makes me wish for another. A little escapism is salubrious; imagining a world a little more like Eden is a sign of good mental health.

But Dawkins was not responding to the events in Waukesha or complaining about the nature of adult fiction. Rather, because so many children go on to become religious, he was wondering if we shouldn’t ban childhood:

Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?….I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.”

Fairy tales speak of magic; Christians speak of miracles; atheists believe that the Bible is pure fiction; fairy tales are fictional; therefore religion is a fairy tale. This argument, which does not even reach the lofty heights of word association, is typical of Dawkins. In fact, children are not inculcated in any sort of world when they hear a fairy tale; they do not enter into a system of customs, traditions, beliefs and values. Children find fairy tales are more entertaining because religious stories have a weightier purpose; they have a gravity that fairy tales lack.

It seems to have escaped Dawkins attention that the fantasies of childhood are magical because children recognise that the world is a magical place. We forget that everything in this world is new for a child; a cow is as wonderful and as strange as a dragon. Everything is surprising; the patterns of autumn leaves and the clouds and the rain are as enchanting as any magic spell. There are no hags or trolls or magic wands; but there are stars and birds and lightning bolts. Fairy tales capture and preserve the sense of wonder we experienced when we first explored the world.

Dawkins spectacularly misses this point when he opines:

There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

Although they might not express it in quite those terms, children are aware of the improbability of the event. In fact, the attentive child might point out that the story is about the impossible, not the improbable. The laws of physics might allow for all sorts of improbable transformations, but the prince did not spontaneously turn into a frog. It was the witches curse, and then the Princesses kiss, that transformed him. It is impossible – not improbable – for hags to turn people into frogs, and for kisses to turn frogs into people, because there are no hags in our world. The point of fairy stories is that it would be wonderful if there were.

As events at Waukesha have illustrated, stories can be deadly and must be used wisely. Our best fantasies appeal to a yearning to live in a better place and time; our stories should confront evil, then lead us in a better direction. Fantastic tales should remind us of childlike wonder; that this world has a magical quality all of its own: we should marvel when nature, which cannot read, obeys rules, which have never been written. My quarrel with Dawkins and the blood soaked fantasies of HBO is not that they take fairy tales and fantasies too seriously. It is that they take themselves too seriously and that they don’t take fairy stories seriously enough.

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