Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong's Hat

By Michael Kinsella. 2011. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 208 pages. ISBN: 978-1604739831 (hard cover).

Reviewed by David J. Puglia, The Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg

[Review length: 1035 words • Review posted on November 23, 2011]

In a day and age when legends are as likely to be transmitted online as they are face-to-face, folklorists have begun assessing how our established concepts apply to the digital realm. The convergence of different forms of media has increasingly diminished the traditional boundaries between folk and popular culture and the digital and analog world. If the legend continues to thrive under these new conditions, folklorists will want to determine how the closely related legend-trip has similarly transitioned to the online environment.

In Legend-Tripping Online: The Search for Ong’s Hat, Michael Kinsella seeks to answer this question using the example of the Incunabula Papers—a conspiracy theory, an alternative reality game, and a mystical experience all wrapped into one. The “Incunabula Papers” refers to two documents, Ong’s Hat: Gateway to the Dimensions! A Full Color Brochure for the Institute of Chaos Studies and the Moorish Science Ashram in Ong’s Hat, New Jersey and Incunabula: A Catalogue of Rare Books, Manuscripts & Curiosa—Conspiracy Theory, Frontier Science & Alternative Worlds. Allegedly produced by banished Princeton faculty studying chaos theory at the Moorish Science Ashram in Ong’s Hat, New Jersey, these rogue professors perfected a device known as The EGG, which made possible interdimensional travel. The group then “embedded within [the Incunabula Papers] enough clues for its intended readers” to join the quest “but not enough for those with little faith to follow.” For folklorists this legend complex provides new challenges capable of expanding the body of legend scholarship. Legend-tripping online will not replace legend-tripping in the “real world,” as folklorists have found with some other forms, but rather exists in addition to and follows the same principles as the classic legend-trip.

Building gradually to the Incunabula Papers, Kinsella first attempts to understand how supernatural legends today are different than those of centuries ago. He finds that today’s supernatural legends “instigate interpretive dilemmas” instead of providing clear messages for their audience (7). Not only do these complex supernatural legends have a life on the Internet, they also continue the familiar teenage ritual of “legend-tripping”—a quest to test the veracity of a legend. Kinsella assures us supernatural legend-telling and legend-tripping are alive and well on the Internet but occur in new ways that require new modes of analysis.

In an attempt to get a handle on this phenomenon, Kinsella goes beyond examining modern supernatural traditions in an effort to look at entire legend ecologies, hoping to move beyond texts and look at how people use supernatural traditions to generate supernatural experiences. The play permitted from this vantage point allows for the manipulation of belief constructs. When fully immersed in computer-mediated legend complexes like the Incunabula Papers, participants embark on a form of online legend-tripping. Kinsella is particularly interested in highlighting the magical way legend-tellers “perform into being” these modern legends (145).

Although not formally designated as such, the book is essentially divided into two parts. In the first half Kinsella focuses on supernatural legends and legend-trips in the modern, analog world. He emphasizes how technology in no way replaces folklore, but rather is seen as a new form of magic. Here, through participant-observation of a legend-trip to Waverly Hills Sanitarium by the Louisville Ghost Hunters, we see the first example of a group performing a legend into being. These chapters, the first four, serve as a prelude to chapters 5 through 9, the culminating half that is the book’s namesake. After finishing the first half but before moving on to the second, the reader, unless intimately familiar with the Incunabula Papers and Ong’s Hat, should read the appendices, which include a standard variant of the legend. Thus prepared, the reader is ready to move on to the heart of the book. Using Kenneth Thigpen’s classic four-part legend-trip model from “Adolescent Legends in Brown County: A Survey” to structure each of the four remaining chapters (“Accounts of Past Happenings and the Challenge to Investigate,” “Journey into Uncanny Territory,” “Contact with the Supernatural,” “Intense Discussion and the Processing of Events”) the author leads the reader through an online-legend trip of the Incunabula Papers legend complex.

Kinsella does a nice job writing ethnography of an entire legend-telling scene, both at Waverly Hills Sanitarium and in the online environment, including important details, contextual information, and the reincorporation of validating experiences back into the larger legend complex. Legend-tellers are always cast as active performers rather than static bearers of tradition. Through this lens, Kinsella is able to show the legendry performance that occurs around a constructed legend, both from the point of view of those who understand the Ong’s Hat narrative as literal and those who see it as a metaphor. We see how the legend here is indeed in the telling. In fact, in the case of Incunabula Papers, the tellers are the legend.

The book is not without its faults. The interested reader can get quite deep into the book without finding much about legend-tripping online, ostensibly the focus of the study. In fact, one of my biggest qualms with the book is its somewhat misleading title. The book does little general theorizing about legend-tripping online that might interest digital folklore scholars and mostly stays away from today’s debates surrounding folklore and the Internet. The focus is on the “legend-tripping” not the “online,” and the book places itself squarely in the dialogue of legend scholars. This is a book specifically about the Incunabula Papers and Ong’s Hat. Simply switching the title and subtitle would have made for a more appropriate title: Supernatural Folklore and the Search for Ong’s Hat: Legend Tripping-Online.

Legend-Tripping Online is a timely undertaking that applies the tools of a discipline often devoted to antiques and relics to the questioning of a relatively new and highly technological phenomenon. It succeeds in highlighting one strong example of an old folkloristic concept playing out in an exciting new arena but falls far short of fully exploring the place of legend-tripping in the online environment. Digital folklore scholars hoping for a general study of legend-tripping online will be less than satisfied. Graduate students and faculty interested in folkloric discourse under new technological conditions or in the Incunabula Papers generally, on the other hand, should keep this book in mind.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.