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What's so alluring about incest fic?
thought digest, 10.29.2023
I keep seeing memes featuring this, well, extremely meme-able goth chick:
So, I asked what I can only assume were a bunch of random Zoomers who, for whatever reason, added me to a Discord server, what it was all about. They informed me she was Ashley from “The Coffin of Andy and Leyley,” which they described as “a cannibal incest visual novel with RPG elements.”
I’m not totally convinced I know the score yet, so please fill me in if I’m missing anything.
I also haven’t played for myself because I either need to find and dust off my old Dell or convince my SO to play and let me watch. The jury’s still out on which one of those will happen first, but what I’ve seen gave me Tumblr flashbacks. And even further back than that, DeviantArt flashbacks. And fanfiction.net.
When I first started writing fan fiction and text-based roleplaying, I was extremely disturbed by the ubiquity of incest as a theme. Here were 10, 11, 12, and often 13-year-olds at the oldest, shipping brothers and sisters, brothers and brothers, mothers and daughters. Up until this point, to me, incest was confined to particularly unnerving Oprah or Law & Order: SVU episodes. It wasn’t something I wanted in my fan fiction. Even as a pre-teen immersed in the same subculture and environments, I couldn’t understand how my peers hadn’t immediately marked this off as off-limits. And I never really understood it. (Sirius/Remus…that I grokked immediately. But slash fic is another story.)
Decades later, I’d start seeing headlines reporting that incest is one of the most popular genres of porn. Sometimes, people would even ask me what I made of that. I didn’t have a good answer. It’s taboo, I guess? It’s like the emotional equivalent of anal sex? I don’t know. But tonight, it dawned on me: incest ships were probably appealing in fandom because they represent a level of intimacy that to a lonely pre-teen or teen is at once unfathomable and extremely desirable.
Even though, in reality, it’s abuse, in the shipper’s mind’s eye, it is a distillation of closeness that only a terminally lonely person could long for. These ships are appealing for the same reason yaoi and slash are often appealing. It’s symbolic of the closeness only a person who’s never experienced intimacy could want.
I’ve long believed that before you experience in-person, physical-world sex, your imagination runs wild. You don’t have fetishes before you’ve had physical-world sex; it’s unfettered horniness that expresses itself in all sorts of confusing ways that you mistake as a fetish. Your sexuality becomes warped under the weight of your own curiosity about the nature of desire. Things you wouldn’t be interested if you knew yourself or your sexuality start looking appealing because all you have is the sandbox of your imagination. And fetishes don’t have the same weight in your imagination as in the real world. (This is also why I believe that sometimes role-play IS just role-play, even if that doesn’t always hold up in every situation.)
So, back to fandom and incest: What if the growing popularity of incest is not only about novelty and taboo-seeking, as is often suggested? What if it’s a proxy for a longing for emotional intimacy and intensity, filtered through limp plot lines and suggestive porn video titles? And furthermore, what if it reveals a sort of naivete about one’s real-world sexual tastes? Really, a society-wide lack of sexual experience?
“Social Munchausen’s.” I was talking to a friend today about playing the victim, and I think the Internet inspires “social Munchausen’s”1 in some people. They become so accustomed to being the victim that they ensure they always are, either by exaggerating the way people treat them or by purposefully interpreting everything as a slight. That being said, I imagine that is rarer than one might expect.
I think the reality for the perpetual online victim is a bit sadder. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that high-profile people who appear to have a persecution complex might actually be… somewhat right about their experience?
The problem isn’t so much that they’re “playing the victim.” It’s that they’re stuck in a system—one that their livelihood often depends on—that isn’t working for them. When it comes to writers, that’s the real benefit of working for a major publication instead of working for yourself. You get fact-checking, health insurance, and reliable pay, and you also share that publication’s audience instead of constantly worrying about curating your own.
The longer I’m online, the more I believe that many people who look like they’re overreacting online are actually reacting appropriately to an insane amount of pressure. I’ve argued what I think are the two key elements of this before 1) small-scale rejection accumulates into a larger feeling of doom, and larger-scale but “meaningless” (from strangers, for example) rejection compounds even faster, and 2) on a long enough timeline, everyone hawking a product—including journalists or public intellectuals—becomes a lolcow, whether they like it or not.
Most frustratingly, once people online have decided you’re a joke or a threat, you can’t defend yourself; you can only hope that your tribe drowns out the opposing force. Cultivating your own army of stans becomes a necessary evil. But there's no getting the “desired results” by standing up for yourself online. You can either lean into the criticism and make it part of your brand or refuse to amplify it.
You can’t apologize even though that might make sense in the physical world, because like many things online, the natural, appropriate social response is punished. The context is all wonky. Who are you apologizing to, really? When you’re in this position, you haven’t pissed off just one person. It’s some nebulous complaint swarm against you. There is no apologizing to a faceless mob of people chiming in from different perspectives and for different reasons.
You either weaponize it or ignore it and hope one of those works. Sometimes neither works, and you're out of luck.
Another part of the “we all become lolcows” theory is this: once other people know you’re in this position, they use it against you. It’s like swimming with an open-wound in crocodile-infested waters. Acting as an intermediary between the mob and the lolcow is an easy way for someone powerless to feel powerful—it is never going to come from a place of “good faith.” It exposes you to all sorts of insidious manipulation if you’re not careful. Think about it, as the “one nice guy” to the lolcow, you can speak for them, get close to them, manipulate them...it’s a lot of power.
All this to say: yes, people make fools of themselves online, but it’s not as easy to avoid or to handle as you might think.
What does it mean to be dangerous? I don’t think people fear being labeled dangerous, a favorite descriptor of us amateur internet culture reporters and anthropologists. So long as nobody is doxing and debanking them, dangerous is fine, even desirable. It creates allure. What you don’t want to be called is insincere, though.
Accusing somebody of insincere is a hair different from accusing them of LARPing, which at least implies some sort of action, just ineffectual action. Insincere says, “You’re not even reading the book,” whereas a LARPer is getting lost in the book.
To LARP is to play-act: you are away in a fantasy world. But there’s a level just below that that often gets wrapped up in LARPing. A LARPer ends up at a Renaissance festival, while an insincere person merely speaks of the Renaissance festival.
“Insincere” is even more dismissive and delegitimizing than LARPing.
Let’s use two concrete examples here so nobody imagines I’m talking about them.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of witches. There are witches who are witches, there are LARPers, and there are people who talk about magic but don’t really do magic.
Witches who are witches know their shit. It doesn’t matter their tradition; there’s always more to learn. There’s something “occult” to penetrate. These are the most rare kind. I’ve been circling these spaces for about twenty years and met three. If your mind is in a really nefarious place, I’d say this is the category that is actually drinking blood, not just gesturing at it. But for what it’s worth, that kind of stuff doesn’t really happen.
LARPers have a more shallow knowledge but they’re still doing something. It’s just not interesting. There’s something about it that is missing the magic. There might be a feeling of enchantment if you keep them at arm’s length, but you can tell that something is off. Something’s not quite real about it. For these people, it’s not about being a witch; the imaginative play serves another purpose. But they are still playing, and that play is essential in whatever the ‘act’ is. Back to the child-eating Satanist motif, which I cannot stress enough, isn’t a real thing, these people would still do some kind of black mass, and maybe they’re sacrificing a chicken instead of a baby.
And finally, there are people who talk about magic, who may buy trinkets that suggest magic, who watch videos about magic but who do not do magic. Who knows some of the language of magic, but they are not even really “playing” at magical. It’s surface level in a whole new way. It’s always about the book you haven’t read yet—the book that, when you read it, says nothing. The less you know, the better it works. Mystery is their best friend. What they’re doing is “dangerous,” but it’s only dangerous because they are ignorant of the forces they’re pretending to play with. In child-eating Satanist world, this is the guy who might listen to Marilyn Manson, but doesn’t go as far as dancing naked in the woods to kill the chicken.
Here’s one other way the same principle used to manifest online.
Maybe ten years ago, you would hear all sorts of stories about the “dark web” (encrypted, anonymous sections of the internet that can only be accessed using specialized browsers, like TOR), sometimes mistakenly called the deep web (anything not indexed by a search engine, like a private Facebook profile).
Even though you CAN find some spooky shit on the dark web, and indeed back in my day, many people would use it to purchase drogas, its cultural real power was in the urban legend-like nature of creepypastas and /r/nosleep stories like this one.
It wasn’t something you could really verify for yourself. People would try and be met with graveyards of broken links, pages that never loaded, whatever.
So, if you wanted to borrow an air of dark web danger, it was easier to make stuff up or say you couldn’t talk about it. In a sense, people benefited from the stigma and lack of information. These people weren’t “LARPing,” though—they used the cultural baggage of the misunderstood Dark Web and its associated ambiance to set a mood and even say something about themselves.
I’m writing my own little DSM on how the Internet shapes our mental health, aren't I? Internet-induced BPD, autism, schizophrenia, Internet overexposure syndrome, social Munchausen’s, Munchausen’s-by-Internet…