For as long as humans have been interacting with new media technologies, they have also created monsters to haunt them. When photography became mainstream in the late 19th century, for example, it wasn’t long before entertainers and spiritualists were using the technology to “capture spirits” through the process of double exposure.
Similarly, the radio, the telegraph, the cinema and video have all become, at various points, “haunted” as their presence in modern life became more ubiquitous.
It is therefore unsurprising that the internet gave birth to its own boogieman: a supernatural creature called the Slenderman. The preternaturally tall and faceless man in a black suit is the subject of the HBO documentary Beware The Slenderman, released today.
The documentary will examine the mythology of the Slenderman and the horrific 2014 “Slenderman stabbing”, involving two US 12 year-olds who attempted to murder their friend in order to prove their loyalty to him.
The Slenderman came to life in June of 2009 in a post on the website Something Awful called Create Paranormal Images.
Credited to Victor Surge, an alias for artist Eric Knudsen, the Slenderman began simply as two photoshopped pictures. In each they revealed an unusually tall, faceless man with tentacles growing from his back, watching over a group of children.
These two simple photos instigated a communal act of creating the Slenderman’s mythology, an early example of what has come to be known as creepypasta: short form horror stories, often in the form of fake eyewitness accounts, that were easily shared via the internet.
These creepypastas became “digital campfires”, a virtual location that in some manner replicates the old act of telling scary stories around a campfire.
It could be argued that in a sense the Slenderman is a tulpa: a Buddhist term used to describe a being brought into creation through collective thought. Victor Surge described Slenderman’s proliferation as an “accelerated urban legend”. It differs from earlier urban legends in that, despite the audience’s awareness of its origins, it still managed to spread.
Key to the dispersal of the Slenderman legend is the manner in which he transcended the medium that created him. He quickly moved from photoshopped pictures, to web stories, and then into the various other forms of media, from the webseries Marble Hornets and TribeTwelve, to video games such as Slender: The Arrival and even into the cinema (in a poorly received low budget horror film).
In an age of scepticism and increasing access to information, how do we account for this growth of a mythological monster? Horror scholar Isabel Pinedo poses one possible explanation, in that horror narratives can be an “exercise in recreational terror… not unlike a roller coaster ride.” In the case of the Slenderman, the communal participation in his creation is a way to bring about the pleasurable aspects of scaring ourselves, with the safety of knowing he is just a fictional construct.
However, even the participants of the original forum identified the risks in doing so. A user named Soakie was one of the first to identify the Slenderman as a potential tulpa, writing:
Even if we don’t really believe in supernatural, even if our rational minds laugh at such an absurdity … we are cutting [the Slender Man] out and sewing him together. We’re stuffing him with nightmares and unspoken fears. And what happens when the pictures are no longer photoshops?
One terrifying answer to this question emerged in May of 2014 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, when two 12 year-old girls allegedly enticed a third 12 year-old girl to follow them into the woods (a location which figures prominently in the Slenderman mythology). After doing so, they allegedly stabbed her 19 times in an attempt to prove their worth as Slenderman proxies.
The victim survived, having crawled to a nearby roadside where she was discovered by a passing cyclist. She has since recovered. It is this act, and the origins of the delusions of the two perpetrators, that is the subject of the HBO documentary.
What is clear from this event, and the Slenderman’s still evolving presence as an internet boogieman, is that unlike the urban legends of the pre-internet world, these new monsters may become untethered to their fictional origins. Despite a general awareness of his artificial creation, the Slenderman has, like Frankenstein’s monster, been stitched together by communal storytelling and escaped the bounds of his creator’s intentions to simply scare the members of the original forum.
Part of the Slenderman mythology is the Slender Sickness, a fictional illness that affects those who have been in the presence of the monster. Its symptoms include coughing fits, memory loss and, ironically, irrational acts of violence.
While it is highly likely that mental illness contributed to the actions of the perpetrators of the Slenderman stabbing, it’s also worth examining the effects of the new monsters of the internet and how effortlessly they can escape the bounds of “recreational terror”.
Beware the Slenderman premieres on HBO Go on January 24, Australia time.
For more on the Slenderman and the genre of YouTube horror, you can read Adam Daniel’s article ‘Always Watching’: The Interface of Horror and Digital Cinema in Marble Hornets.