How Slender Man Works


With all of the creepy elements that make up his mythology, it's little wonder Slender Man has attracted such a following.
With all of the creepy elements that make up his mythology, it's little wonder Slender Man has attracted such a following.
CottonValent/DeviantArt/CC BY 3.0

The woods. Long before Little Red Riding Hood set off for her grandmother's house, we loaded that dark, damp place with our fears. Full of brambles and beasts, the woods are where we get lost, where we stumble upon gingerbread houses, witches, werewolves, vampires and child-snatchers.

So, start with some woods and add a bogeyman. Everybody loves to fear a bogeyman. Let's make him faceless for universality and added creepiness. Make him tall and weirdly skinny and give him long, tentaclelike arms to up the ante. So, somewhere in the fearful woods there's a thin, faceless bogeyman with long, long limbs who lures children to him. Once he gets them, they're gone forever.

So far, so good. The plot is familiar. Now add two more crucial ingredients: Photoshop and the Internet. Mix all these elements together and you've got a cultural phenomenon — a nightmare figure appearing in multiplying stories by multiple authors. "Authentic" vintage photographs document his existence somewhere on the blurry border between fiction and manufactured reality. And that border blurs so much, the bogeyman begins to creep into the real world. This is Slender Man.

Slender Man Begins

Photoshop is the Slender Man folklorist's friend.
Photoshop is the Slender Man folklorist's friend.
Bob Mical/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Far back in the mists of time, in 2009 to be precise, a Photoshop wiz named Eric Knudsen, using the nom de guerre Victor Surge, decided to post some of his work on the comedy website Something Awful. On a thread titled "create paranormal images," he uploaded vintage photos doctored to include a tall, skinny, faceless figure with long tentaclelike arms lurking in the background near children at play [source: Stampler]. The invention became a meme.

As a meme, Slender Man has had a robust life on the website Creepypasta, a forum where people post spooky stories. He also appears in YouTube videos, alternate reality games, blogs, fan art, cosplay and wiki pages.

As Slender Man's presence grows, we've learned that not only does he abduct children, but he's also capable of causing something called "slender sickness," with symptoms that include nausea and vomiting blood. He can induce madness and an affliction known as "scribbling in," which causes people to draw and write nonstop. In many cases, work devoted to Slender Man claims not to be fiction but, rather, documentary material recording his existence. An encyclopedia-style entry on the Creepypasta Wiki speculates on his long history, even suggesting that certain ancient cave paintings include depictions of him. Egyptian hieroglyphs from 5,000 years ago and 19th-century German woodcuts are also included in his origin story [source: Creepypasta].

This "evidence" of his existence seems to have made Slender Man strangely real for some people. And this confusion between fact and fiction is what brought Slender Man out of the shadowy corners of the Internet and into the harsh glare of mainstream media. It wouldn't be the first time that a faux-documentary fiction would have real-world consequences. Think of Orson Welles' infamous broadcast of "The War of the Worlds," during which some listeners were convinced that a real Martian invasion was underway. In the case of Slender Man, however, the people who became dangerously confused were 12-year-old girls.

Slender Man in the Real World

Morgan Geyser was brought into court by a sheriff's deputy during the August 2015 arraignment of the Slender Man stabbing trial in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Morgan Geyser was brought into court by a sheriff's deputy during the August 2015 arraignment of the Slender Man stabbing trial in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

It's Saturday, May 31, 2014, in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Three girls wake up from a sleepover, eat doughnuts and strawberries for breakfast, play dress-up for a bit and then head to a nearby park. Bella, the most sociable of the three, walks in front. Morgan, the dreamer, walks behind with the third girl, Anissa. As they stroll, Morgan shows Anissa a steak knife she's hidden under her jacket. It's a signal that a long-planned event is about to take place.

At a public restroom, Anissa and Morgan half-heartedly rough Bella up. But Morgan, who is prone to somewhat erratic behavior, breaks off and starts singing and pacing back and forth. A short time later, the three girls play hide-and-seek. Urged on by Anissa, Morgan jumps on top of Bella and stabs her 19 times in the arms, legs, pancreas, liver and stomach, narrowly missing an artery. Anissa guides the wobbly, screaming Bella deeper into the woods and tells her to lie down. Morgan tries to stanch Bella's bleeding with a leaf, and then she and Anissa wander through the woods to the nearest Walmart where they wash off the blood in the restroom.

Bella survives, dragging herself to a road where a passing cyclist stops to help her. When the cops interview Anissa and Morgan, the girls explain that by killing Bella they hoped to be initiated into Slender Man's circle. The blood sacrifice would earn their entry so they could be numbered among his minions and live with him in his forest mansion.

During the press conference that follows, the police draw attention to the Slender Man myth's influence on the attack and urge parents to be aware of the danger. Children must be taught the difference between fiction and reality. Suddenly, Slender Man is international news. Who he is and what he means for the culture at large become hotly debated issues [source: Miller].

But blaming Slender Man misses the mark. Many people who commit acts of violence cite figures from pop culture as their inspirations. In 1981, after seeing the film "Taxi Driver" at least 15 times and driven by a desire to get the attention of actress Jodi Foster, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. James Holmes, the young man who killed 12 people and injured 70 at a screening of a Batman film in 2014, claimed to be Batman's nemesis, the Joker. In 2009, Anthony Conley strangled his brother to death with his bare hands, later saying that he identified with the character of Dexter, the serial killer from the TV show of the same name. The list goes on and on [source: Lifshitz].

When questioned, Anissa renounced her belief in Slender Man. After all, she wasn't the one who actually carried out the stabbing. Morgan, the girl who did, professes to still believe that Slender Man is real. She's been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset schizophrenia [source: Vielmetti]. Mental illness, and how we as a society deal with it, could be the real issue at the heart of the Slender Man stabbing and possibly some of the violent acts cited above.

Slender Man as Digital Folklore

Not even your sidewalks are safe.
Not even your sidewalks are safe.
mdl70/flickr/CC BY 2.0

What are folktales? They're the stories a culture tells itself collectively. In telling and retelling, adding and subtracting, diverging and returning, we create narratives that gain ever-increasing meaning and power. To use the academic jargon of the day, folktales articulate the anxieties that preoccupy us. Slender Man taps into a thread that's a near constant in folktales from Rumpelstiltskin to Hansel and Gretel: the fear of losing children.

In recent years, more than one scholar has argued that Slender Man is a manifestation of a new kind of myth-making gaining traction in the Internet age. Seen in this light, Slender Man's proliferating storylines on the Creepypasta site are a kind of hyper-folklore, where the old modes of collectively building a set of stories around a given character have been sped up and amplified by 21st-century technology [source: Singal].

And while folktales have always hovered in the half-light between fantasy and reality, this quality has been ratcheted up in the digital age. Photographs altered to appear real and proffered as further documentary evidence of Slender Man's existence add a dimension of authenticity beyond anything an old-school storyteller could conjure when trying to convince listeners that werewolves or other monsters really exist. Of course, suspension of disbelief is still necessary, but for those already predisposed to engage, at least temporarily, in magical thinking, Photoshop helps.

But despite these new elements, it seems that Slender Man, along with other digital folktales, fulfills a function in people's lives similar to that of the old-fashioned stories. He's like a post-modern mashup of the Headless Horseman, the Hansel-and-Gretel witch and the Grim Reaper. In other words, he's a new and creepy manifestation of Death.

That so many kids are drawn to the tales despite the fact that they make up the bulk of his victims speaks to children's preoccupation with mortality as they grow into adolescence. For adolescents especially, who are tasked with learning to face some of the grimmer realities of adulthood, a figure like Slender Man can provide a "symbolic vessel" through which to play out some of their newfound fears [source: Singal].

Slender Man Lives

The Marble Hornets guys were no strangers to the effectiveness of creepy footage.
The Marble Hornets guys were no strangers to the effectiveness of creepy footage.
Screen capture by HowStuffWorks.com

Back in 2006, a film student named Alex Kralie began filming a project he titled "Marble Hornets." As filming progressed, his crew began complaining of their director's increasingly bad temper. Then, a few months into the project, Alex suspended filming indefinitely. Dismayed by the thought of so much work going to waste, his friend and fellow film student, Jason, asked to see the footage. Alex agreed on the condition that they never talk about it. Unnerved, Jason put the footage aside and forgot about it. A short time later, Alex transferred to another school, and the two friends fell out of touch. Jason unpacked the footage from the "Marble Hornets" project and began watching, uploading it to YouTube as he went [source: Nolfi].

This is the opening premise of the Web series "Marble Hornets" by Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage. While the Slender Man mythos grows in multiple genres and on various websites, nowhere has he gained more popularity than in the YouTube series "Marble Hornets." As the series unfolds, it becomes apparent that the reason Alex abandoned his project was because of a mysterious, faceless villain referred to as The Operator — Slender Man by another name [source: Nolfi].

Though Wagner and DeLage created the series, it's been referred to as an ARG, an alternate (or augmented) reality game. In essence, this refers to the fact that the story has multiple authors and uses various devices to give the impression that it's non-fiction. Fans create and upload additions or side stories in the form of text, film and animation. For instance, a YouTube channel called "totheark" has dozens of supplementary videos, and in August 2015 an outfit called THAC started uploading a spinoff series called "Clear Lakes 44" to the "Marble Hornets" channel, since renamed "Clear Lakes 44/Marble Hornets" [source: TV Tropes].

With nearly half a million subscribers, the "Clear Lakes 44/Marble Hornets" series has proved enormously popular. The introductory clip alone has been viewed nearly 4 million times. Even the late, legendary Roger Ebert gave the series his approval. Given all this, it was inevitable that the film industry would come knocking. A feature-length film version came out in 2015, but it was poorly received, earning less than three stars on Rotten Tomatoes. Another "Slender Man" movie was released in 2018, also to terrible reviews.

It's hardly surprising that the silver screen didn't match up with this myth successfully. Slender Man's real home, the environment in which he thrives, is the seething, fecund swamp from whence he sprang: the Internet.

Last editorial update on Aug 17, 2018 01:43:19 pm.

Author's Note: How Slender Man Works

It seems inevitable that Creepypasta received a great deal of negative attention in the wake of the Wisconsin stabbing. The site's deliberate effort to blur fact and fiction was dangerous, some felt. But of course, that blur is what makes it popular. The administrator of Creepypasta has been quoted urging parents to teach their children how to differentiate fantasy from reality. Not bad advice, but the truth is most kids can do that from a relatively early age. Those who can't might have deeper issues. It seems to me that what lies behind the fascination with stories like the Slender Man stabbing is a societal unwillingness to deal compassionately with mental illness. Strange stabbings and school shootings might sell the news, but at some point we have to stop sensationalizing random violence while stigmatizing the mental health issues that might be contributing factors.

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