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Terrified Together: The Online Cult of Slender Man

Some of the early depictions are the most horrifying. Medieval German woodcuts show a figure, skeletal but many-limbed, whose long, lance-like arm impales a struggling knight. The knight, in agony, brings down his raised sword on the head of his foe. But the creature's face is muddled, featureless, and appears to experience no pain.

Legend tells that these drawings were made by the German artist Hans Freckenberg during the 16th Century, but only discovered at Halstberg Castle in 1883. Crude representations of the Slender Man among Brazilian cave paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphs have also been reported.

But the legend is nothing more than elaborate myth; a 21st Century myth birthed online, and the product of forums, Photoshop and YouTube. In this essay I will explore the online cult which continues to insist on the existence of Slender Man, in an effort to understand what this ghoulish figure reveals about contemporary culture and our desire to be afraid.

The unsettling woodcut image at the head of this article, despite having been widely distributed online as evidence of Slender Man, is not entirely trustworthy. It has been digitally manipulated so that the original enemy of the knight, simply a skeletal personification of Death, looks like an odd-faced half-skeleton half-spider crab adversary. The artist was not Hans Freckenberg but Hans Holbein (the elder) and you can see his original here.

This supposed medieval evidence for Slender Man did not appear in the original descriptions of the figure which, as I will explain, can be traced back to a very specific place. The woodcut representations were cited later, as the myth grew in popularity. The name "Freckenberg" was probably chosen because of its harsher, more consonant phonetic quality and also as a screen to make tracing the original artwork, thus spoiling the fantasy of the myth, more difficult.

Although it has been rather crudely altered in Photoshop or a similar program, the Slender Man woodcut is my favourite Slender Man image because it seeks to ground the idea of this walking terror in historical fact. It is a sophisticated attempt to make the legend irrefutable. The edited print plays on both our natural inclination to treat old documents with uncritical gravity as well as the gruesome impact of medieval representations which depict death.

Origins of the Myth

Even before the woodcut evidence was introduced to the living myth, Slender Man had been made ineluctable by the existence of several pieces of photographic evidence which appeared to show him hovering near to unwitting children or standing, menacingly, in wooded areas.

Some of the most well-known and popular images appeared right at the beginning of the myth's history - because they were part of a somethingawful.com competition to create fake photographs of paranormal activity. The thread still exists and, if you take the time to trawl through its many, many posts, you will find several contributions by the user "Victor Surge", who is credited with creating Slender Man.

Interestingly, Surge didn't just patch a couple of images together and drop them into the thread. He actually went so far as to fictionalise a backstory for each image, supporting his claim that the Slender Man had carried out a series of poorly documented attacks or abductions at certain locations in America during the 1990s.

Others, captivated by Surge's take on the ghost story format, produced images of their own, immediately sending proposed evidence of Slender Man back into the past. In this case, the author cites his appearance at an elementary school fire in 1978. A shadowy, frankly comical figure is seen in the smoke on the roof of the building. Despite the poor quality of the mock-up, it frequently appears in YouTube "documentaries" about the creature.

Slender Man always looked different. That corroborating evidence left much to be desired, either in terms of quality or credibility, was irrelevant.

As more and more pictures were made, by other aficionados of the myth, a veritable (and comprehensive) library of Slender Man photography grew. Tellingly, no two images were alike. Slender Man always looked different. The idea, not the actual figure, was what seemed to exist everywhere. That corroborating evidence left much to be desired, either in terms of quality or credibility, was irrelevant.

If Slender Man appeared in a new picture, even though he would invariably look different from all the previous pictures you'd seen of him, you'd know instantly what you were looking at. The cult was about recognising him, whatever modified form he took. Inconsistency wasn't detrimental to the myth, it was a constituent part of the whole story because Slender Man was a collaborative terror.

Slender Man Anatomy

More important, in a way, than these visual representations, was Surge's description of Slender Man's physical and (anti)-social attributes. The monster's chief distinguishing features are its tallness, its long and/or many arms, its pale, featureless visage and its strangely formal attire: a suit and necktie.

But what's especially sinister is the way in which Slender Man terrorises. He is a stalker, a relentless follower, often watching his victims from a distance. Most unsettlingly of all, he habitually targets children and it is suggested that he is behind a string of unsolved child abductions.

There are two things to say about all of this. First of all, consider Slender Man's bodily identity. He is a humanoid monster who hovers among us waiting to strike. He is in the category of vampires and shapeshifters; monsters who benefit from camouflage and who take us by surprise in domestic settings.

Popular belief in bestial monsters such as dragons has subsided alongside mankind's obsessive exploration of the earth. Generally speaking, the dragons and giants common to medieval folklore such as Beowulf have been replaced by creatures like the alien battled by Ripley in Ridley Scott's sci-fi horror classic. The more "outlandish" the monster, as that word suggests, the further it has to travel to encounter us. Our dragons have been relegated to the appropriate frontier, outer space.

Slender Man is not part of the dragon class of monsters. Instead, he is harrowingly almost human in appearance. Slender Man as an uncanny man appropriates features of modern human beings in his strategy to disturb and torment. The suit and tie are particularly troubling, presenting to us a terrifyingly literal reinterpretation of the cliché that businessmen are "faceless" and ultimately malignant forces in society.

That hint of corporate style is surely a key element in Slender Man's currency as a contemporary urban myth. Popularised largely by teenagers on Internet forums, Slender Man (a suited figure promising destruction) and his victims (often young children) captures opposite ends of the teenage life cycle: experience and innocence respectively.

This brings me to the second point I want to make about who Slender Man is and what he does. His restless abduction of children makes it difficult to take him lightly but it also plays on the fact that unsolved child abductions are extremely disturbing to organised society. As ever, monsters are a symptom of the inexplicable or unexplored, and Slender Man is no different since he is a folkloric response to human violence, but violence which is nonetheless impossible to fully understand.

Therefore, Slender Man is the perfect monster for a society which largely does not believe in monsters. This is because he carries out despicable actions which human beings already carry out upon themselves; and he is able to blend in to our environments, aping us in the process of tormenting us.

Authoring is Empowering

I have already described how the Slender Man myth grew rapidly in popularity and was almost instantly the subject of a collective effort to expand upon the myth through the citation of Slender Man sightings and attacks. There is a very large number of YouTube "testimonies" in which users claim that the Slender Man stalked them or their friend(s) for a significant period of time.

Often, new photographic "evidence" of Slender Man forms part of these testimonies. Sometimes, existing photographs are re-appropriated into new stories within the myth. The compulsion to participate in, rather than simply spectate, the Slender Man legend, is clearly revealing of the fact that to author elements of that legend is to feel empowered.

The survivor's tale demonstrates not just that the monster is real, but that it was unable to destroy or completely disturb the message-sender. Perhaps some supposedly inescapable adversaries such as Slender Man gain popularity by virtue of the fact that individuals may suggest they did, against the odds, escape.

It's important to note that, given the myth's origins on a forum thread asking for faked images of the supernatural, there has probably always been a considerable amount of doubt around any suggestion that there is truth at the heart of the Slender Man legend. And yet, online artefacts suggest that many have found enjoyment in cultivating the myth as well as satirising or debunking it.

"The compulsion to participate in the Slender Man legend is clearly revealing of the fact that to author elements of that legend is to feel empowered"

This Yahoo! Answers question about Slender Man provoked a detailed reply (voted as the best answer) from a user called "Slenderman cultist". He acknowledges that there exists a large amount of fake Slender Man paraphernalia, but insists that an equivalent paranormal being of some kind does really exist: "Personally I believe he is real but not [V]ictor Surge's version. The problem is figuring out what came from mythology and what was made up for entertainment."

The user goes on to dismiss the Hans Holbein woodcut and other iterations of the meme as evidence for Slender Man but seeks to perpetuate faith in the myth divorced from these now deprecated representations. "I believe in him," he reiterates.

The older brother who told you ghost stories had a narrating power over you which is evident in online re-tellings or re-interpretations of the Slender Man myth. The basic form and character of the monster remain, as I suggested above, compelling and topical.

Play Along

A turning point in the history of Slender Man came with the release of a video game based on the stories. Although relatively crude in terms of visuals and gameplay dynamic, the game is an indie classic and is successful precisely because of its naked simplicity as a horror title.

The player finds him or herself alone in a night-time woodland area. There are no weapons to find in the game or advanced actions to learn. Unable even to jump, the player is limited to moving and looking around in three dimensions. They carry with them only a flashlight, which may be switched on or off at will.

The eerily quiet darkness of the woods plays on common beliefs that forest areas harbour paranormal beings (such as the Blair witch). One finds oneself wandering through this wilderness past the occasional abandoned vehicle or small building.

The soundtrack is particularly effective, consisting only of the occasional cricket's chirp and the sound of the player's footsteps on the ground. The tension, created by that absence of sound, is palpable. However as minutes elapse the soundtrack eventually changes to incorporate anxious, deep-toned music. This is a sign that Slender Man is now stalking you.

The game is programmed so that in most cases you will first catch a glimpse of him between some distant trees, perhaps do a double-take, and then run for your life in the opposite direction. As a sense of security tentatively returns, you begin exploring again, but just as you do so Slender Man will appear right in front of you, staring directly at you, and the screen will flood with white noise as you realise you have become another of his many victims.

This simple, three-step assault on your psychology within the game borrows a basic formula for narrative tension from Hollywood. First there is the suggestion that something bad might happen, then an uncertain hint that it is about to and, finally, as one feels almost ready to dismiss the idea, it does, indeed, happen.

Kotaku.com pointed out that watching other people play the game was just as unnerving as playing it oneself. They link to the example below and it's true that there is something strangely unsettling about hearing someone talk themselves through the process, insisting that they aren't scared by the game, only to find themselves screaming aloud in terror moments later when Slender Man appears.

The videogame marks the graduation of Slender Man from an online urban myth to a culturally familiar component of the horror genre. In researching this essay I found myself investigating the psychological reasons for our culture's fascination with horror. Curiously, scientific explanations for the popularity of horror are sketchy at best.

Many have suggested that there is evolutionary logic behind some people's love of horror films and games. But Science Daily, as recently as 2007, reported that recent investigations into what makes horror "enjoyable" produced novel results. Researchers discovered there was evidence to suggest that people didn't just like horror because it taught them to avoid danger, or because they felt relief once the film was over. Instead, there seemed to be a mixture of negative and positive emotions during the watching of a horror feature.

The authors recognised that there were people who sought out horror entertainment and people who didn't. They took a group of people who didn't enjoy horror and asked them to watch a horror film, but, crucially, "in a protective frame of mind, such that there was sufficient psychological disengagement or detachment." The result was that these individuals "experienced positive feelings while still experiencing fearfulness."

As Science Daily concluded, this would mean that the other group of people, those who enjoy horror films, could be described as "happy to be unhappy" since they could also experience contrasting emotions at once but in their case actively seek out opportunities to do so.

Clearly there is more research to be done. But for the purposes of exploring the popularity of Slender Man and other similar myths, this does at least give weight to the idea that for some there is a desire not just to protect oneself from the Slender Man, but experience his gaze. Hence the video game within which one can do just that.

Terrified Together

While researching theories on the popularity of horror films, I came across this additional explanation. In it the author, Jeffrey Goldstein, focuses on the fact that horror films are rarely watched alone. Instead, it's often groups of friends, in a comfortable domestic setting, who decide to watch a horror film together. Goldstein stops short of suggesting that this allows for a shared experience in which something frightening can be conquered collaboratively, but I think it could easily be argued that that is often the case.

Extrapolating such an experience to the online world produces interesting results. Devouring aspects of the Slender Man myth via the World Wide Web, individuals are able to discover the legend in isolation, alone in their rooms. But they are simultaneously able to reinforce a sense of shared exposure to the myth by curating new Slender Man stories, asking questions, commenting on videos and attempting to get to the bottom of what has become a sprawling, powerful meme.

But for me this leads to the most interesting observation of all about Slender Man. And that is that the myth, like the character, is persistent. Although it does not take long to discover the truth behind the doctored images, a casual Google search for "Slender Man" reveals first and foremost results which attempt to corroborate the existence of the monster rather than debunk it. The Google bubble has decided to lend some credibility to Slender Man presumably because the most successful and most shared search results are those which contribute to the mythology rather than those which defuse it.

These findings alone help to demonstrate that people want to believe in Slender Man and that the Slender Man myth itself is indebted to the way the Internet works. Without Photoshop, social media and Google's algorithms, one would encounter and develop the myth in completely different ways. Spookily, as if to counter the very suggestion that this is the case, Slender Man mythology has evolved a considerable backstory for the creature and positioned him as a long-term foe of mankind, not just a recent creation.

And while the internet has made it easy to debunk the Slender Man myth, it's telling that so many people continue to toy with the idea that he is in fact real or that, even via a videogame, the experience of his stalking may be felt.

"It took the Internet for us to uncover the idea of Slender Man. And the Internet itself is paradoxically our only weapon against him."

The Slender Man persona is an innovation of our contemporary age but in order to suggest authenticity, proponents have shrouded him in very traditional mythological tropes. He is a fascinating character since he blends modern and very traditional methods of storytelling; and because he has provoked irrational curiosity in a self-proclaimed rational age.

Most of all, his relentlessness, his facelessness and his choice of highly vulnerable victims make him both impossible to ignore and easy to develop as a character. He is the perfect terror for a connected world since he is impervious to technology, has supposedly existed for thousands of years and frightens us most when we are most at home: (physically) alone and online.

As soon as one walks away from the web, the Slender Man myth seems to lose its impact. Indebted to doctored images of the physical world, the myth is the property of a series of webpages and online videos.

It's as if it took the Internet for us to uncover the idea of Slender Man. And the Internet itself is paradoxically our only weapon against him. It's a way of staying one step ahead, of learning the facts, of being scared by and then, eventually, dismissing the myth. Otherwise, the suggestion seems to be, he would just be out there stalking us; silently lurking, waiting, watching.

 

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