A warning: if you are possessed of a faint heart or tremulous spirit, you should probably skip this discussion of the Slender Man and his mythos. Nothing that I discuss is real, gruesome or gory, but the reason that it’s worthy of discussion is its ability to get under your skin and quietly disturb you. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in the ways in which myths and cultural artifacts are created in the digital age — and why this one in particular is so striking — then read on!
The Slender Man is a modern myth: a silent, faceless observer who watches from the darkness; an angular, tentacled mockery of human form; a harbinger of paranoia and violent death. He generally travels the world unseen, unless he is captured on film; if you have seen him, you have already drawn his attention, and it is too late. Even thinking about him is dangerous.
Back in June 2009, users on the Something Awful forum gathered together to make fake paranormal images with which to perpetrate hoaxes. Their spirit was playful, and several of the images they created have indeed leaked out across the internet, presented as proof of the supernatural. When a user named Victor Surge posted two photographs of a mysterious figure in the company of children, however, something special was created. Surge posted two text snippets along with the photographs, which would, in the months and years which followed, act as the seeds of the Slender Man myth.
“we didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time…”
1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.
One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as “The Slender Man”. Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence.
1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.
From its humble beginnings, the Slender Man has come to occupy a potent place in digital culture. Versions of his story have been posted on every public space on the internet, part of the cut-and-paste sharing of spooky or disturbing stories called creepypasta. Perhaps due to the iconic imagery of the Slender Man, he has found a particular niche in video series; there are dozens of YouTube channels dedicated to unfolding narratives involving the Slender Man and his helpless victims. Most attention, however, is focused on the so-called Big Three series: Marble Hornets, EveryMan HYBRID and TribeTwelve. Each is inventive and sophisticated, though they take very different approaches to the Slender Man himself, and to his place in a wider mythos. There are commonalities between the three universities, of course, including the distortion the presence of the Slender Man causes in recording equipment, cryptic messages from interested observers, and death. In Marble Hornets, he seems to be a solitary agent of insanity and death; in EveryMan HYBRID, he is a more ambiguous figure, who may offer peace and finality; in TribeTwelve, he is merely one vengeful part of a chilling collective.
Whether one is caught up in an unfolding narrative, chilled by a text piece, or simply shocked by a creepy picture, it’s difficult to travel too far on the internet without catching an enigmatic glimpse of the Slender Man.
There are two reasons, I believe, that the Slender Man has been so successful: the first is his evocation of a particular kind of horror iconography, similar to the Gentlemen from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Silence from Doctor Who, the Observers from Fringe, Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas, Lovecraft’s Nightgaunts and vampires. The facelessness of the Slender Man — a later addition to the myth, replacing the idea that the Slender Man could change his appearance — is also a common image, referencing even the Noppera-bō of Japanese myth. There are overtones of Munsch’s The Scream in the elongated limbs and smooth, bald head; in action, many of the referenced creatures share the same penchant for tilting their heads slowly, oftentimes as a precursor to some terrible occurrence.
I am not enough of a psychologist to offer an opinion on why that particular form seems to resonate through the popular culture. What’s interesting is the way it sustains itself: the mere suspicion that there is a deeper psychological meaning that this form is so subtly disturbing is, in itself, reason enough to fear it. After all, if everyone finds this image frightening, perhaps it’s because we all harbor a subconscious awareness of the Slender Man himself.
There’s probably a great deal to be made of his connection to forests, and the disconnection of modern humans from their natural surroundings; his connection with — and implied subversion of — the innocence of childhood is common in horror fiction; there’s certainly something significant about the way the Slender Man can be captured on camera when most witnesses — at least, those who remain untouched by his influence — see nothing.
The second reason that the Slender Man is so popular, it seems to me, can be found within the bounds of the rules of his existence. We live in an age in which any myth can be dissected and analyzed; information is our constant ally in the battle against superstition and fear. But knowing about the Slender Man — within any universe he inhabits — draws his attention to you. Thinking about him makes him real. Thus, our reliance on the comfort blanket of our own intelligence is subverted and made to serve the creeping horror. This is rewarded — if that’s the right word — by the mythos itself; the Slender Man isn’t about gore or violence, but about creeping paranoia and our human fear of the implacable, the inevitable. He is no Bloody Mary, no Candyman, who visits immediate violence upon those who know the right word, the right spell — instead, there is the waiting. The watching. The ever-growing fear.
The myth takes root in the smallest crack of doubt or fear, and is perpetuated by our own desire to no longer feel afraid; we don’t want to think about the Slender Man any more, because if I think about him he will know. If we don’t think about him, he’ll wait with infinite patience until we do. Exposure to the mythos is rather like gazing into the Nietschean abyss, except that the abyss, in this case, knows where you live.
And is waiting.
The profound way in which the Slender Man has taken root in digital culture can also be attributed, I think, to the open-source nature of his creation. Writers took what they wanted from the original material, discarded the rest, and created their own versions of the myth; those, in turn, inspired ever more disparate reinterpretations. The Slender Man underwent the same memetic mutation as any other urban legend, but it happened in an enormously compressed time period. One day, no-one had ever heard of him; the next day, he was already everywhere, in a thousand different variations — a fact which only emphasizes his supernatural abilities to corrupt minds, twist awareness, and move unseen. Thus empowered and validated, the myth continued to spread in the same anarchic, organic way, picking up a detail here, shedding backstory there. Every vision of the Slender Man is different, and that only makes him more disturbing.
For me, the Slender Man is more than an interesting myth, and the stories set in the ever-expanding Slenderverse are more than compelling fictions; I’m fascinated by the way the mythos has so rapidly evolved and expanded, and exemplified what is possible when creative projects are opened up to all comers.
And if I only had the time, I’d be working on a Slender Man story myself.
Edit: While I don’t have time to work on a story, I’ve begun to take an in-depth look at my favorite of the Big Three Slender Man series, Marble Hornets. I look at each and every video, analyzing it for juicy plot details and glimpses of the Slender Man himself. Take a look, why don’t you?
Unfiction Slenderman Mythos forum
TVTropes The Slender Man Mythos
Something Awful (original post by Victor Surge)
Marble Hornets wiki and YouTube channel
EveryMan HYBRID wiki and YouTube channel
TribeTwelve wiki and YouTube channel