This month, I’ve noticed an interesting concurrence. My social media feed has been increasingly populated with pictures of elves while my supernatural news has dwindled to next to nothing. I’m willing to dismiss it as coincidence, but not without some consideration.
First, although it’s not in my nature to be a killjoy, but I don’t get Elf on the Shelf. In fact, I never got the Santa thing either. While my children were still young and I was still stolidly religious, I didn’t pretend with them about Santa, not out of a perceived interference with the sacred character of the holiday, but because I didn’t want to ask my children to believe in invisible things that I knew to be imaginary when I knew I was also asking them to believe in invisible things I thought to be real.
Mind you, my girls both believed ardently in fairies. Whenever they asked me to weigh in on whether or not they might “really be real,” I would answer vaguely that the world was a big place and nature was a wonderful thing and what did they think. I made a space for their belief to flourish, because it had grown organically out of their own hearts and minds. I didn’t plant it myself. If my children had come to me with a belief in Santa, I would have supplied their requests for milk and cookies just like I filled their orders for fairy tea parties.
I don’t find provoking belief in your child to be anything like playing pretend together. When you are playing pirates and sailing the couch across the living room only to be attacked by octopedes (one of my girls’ favorite words btw), you are participating together in the suspension of disbelief. The Christmas Elf get-up is orchestrated by adults to initiate and sustain belief. I’m not judging anyone who finds these games charming and fun. I’m only pointing out that as someone who treats ineffable experiences seriously, I can’t in good conscience counterfeit one to my kids. The tradition seems especially out of place in a culture where a scientific worldview predominates.
However, one of the things that I find endlessly fascinating about our most recent obsession with the paranormal is its quasi-scientific character. We are not merely giving social credence to experiences with the invisible, but we are attempting to document them with a sophisticated range of technological equipment. On the surface, this might just seem like a preference for evidence based verification. We prefer objective truth to subjective stories. However, watching how these stories play out, I think the technological investigation, which, although conducted carefully, still remains on the fringes of accepted science, has become a replacement ritual. When watching shows like Paranormal State or Ghost Hunters, it is clear that, completely aside from the quality of the evidence collected and whether it is judged to confirm or disconfirm the presence of paranormal activity, the participants find the process comforting. I don’t think it’s unlike leaving a bowl of milk out for the brownies. And this is not to demean superstition and superstitious practices, but rather to put them culturally in their place regardless of their technological trappings.
In fact, some years ago, I read an article (anyone remember Omni Magazine?) asserting that accounts of alien abductions filled the same cultural space as stories of elves, brownies, and fairies. There were similarities not only in the descriptions of the creatures involved (small, androgynous, green and glittering), but also in the accounts of interactions (time lost, directional confusion, imprisonment). Stories of alien abductions might be technologically current adaptation of stories we have been telling for centuries.
So I just wonder, looking at my newsfeed, if some of the cultural energy we usually direct at bumps in the night and shadowy visages isn’t suddenly and seasonally being channelled into staging holiday hauntings for our children’s delight. As human beings, I feel we will always have a need to frame culturally our experiences of the invisible, regardless or even because of our technological savvy. More importantly, the things that we choose to believe together remain a potent source of community no matter what the time of year.