Of the many urban myths stalking the internet, there is one which has persisted above all others, inspiring a documentary, a feature film, and sinister acts in real life.
The Slender Man was initially formed in 2009 by teacher Eric Knudsen (aka ‘Victor Surge’) who edited photos to include an impossibly tall and gangly man wearing a black suit as part of a photoshop contest.
Sharing the images along with creepy text on the forum Something Awful, Knudsen intended to ‘formulate something whose motivations can barely be comprehended, and [which caused] unease and terror in a general population’.
He had no inkling about the fully-realised monster his creation would become, shaped and fleshed out by a collective online imagination.
Although originating with Knudsen – who interestingly doesn’t spend too much time on the internet – Slender Man took on the projected fears and anxieties of countless internet users.
People online fed and expanded upon the myth with their own ‘testimonies’, fan fiction, drawings and YouTube videos, with influences ranging from Stephen King novels to video games such as Silent Hill.
Slender Man’s backstory became evermore embellished and elaborate, also becoming intertwined with Der Grossman, a 16th century character from Germany. Even his appearance shifted, with contributors adding elongated tentacle arms to grab children with.
Whereas Knudsen left the faceless monster’s motivations vague, contributors now claim the tall, pale creature could drive a person to commit horrific acts in his name. They said he could turn young people insane.
This phenomena has been referred to as ‘open-sourcing horror’ in the book Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man, by Shira Chess and Eric Newsom, academics in the field of journalism and communications.
According to Chess and Newsom:
Carolyn Miller refers to genre as a form of ‘social action’ where individuals communally negotiate generic expectations, themes and styles.
These genre negotiations resonate even more in online spaces where content and form are constantly shifting with new technologies.
Horror, as a genre, is particularly well established and robust, and the history and past traditions of horror helped those involved in the open-sourcing process to understand and establish both known and new conventions.
The Something Awful forum maintained both traditional mass media (citing references to the film Phantasm as well as to the written works of H.P. Lovecraft), while simultaneously debugging and reforming the creation of the most horrific and terrifying monster they could collectively conceive.
Chess and Newsom explained how collaborators admitted to being scared by the fiction they themselves had dreamt up during this ‘process of collective construction’.
It was in this online realm two troubled 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin – Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser – encountered the myth of the Slender Man.
In May 2014, Anissa and Morgan attempted to murder their friend, Payton ‘Bella’ Leutner, stabbing her 19 times in a show of loyalty to the Slender Man.
Anissa and Morgan believed this sacrifice would allow them into the Slender Man’s inner circle.
Payton fortunately survived the attack after she was left to die in woodland close to a suburban Milwaukee park.
Police caught them walking along the interstate to Nicolet National Forest in the hope of finding Slender Man’s mansion and becoming his servants.
They later told officers they needed to kill Payton so the sinister figure wouldn’t come for their families.
Both girls were sentenced to lengthy periods in psychiatric units. Morgan was sentenced to 40 years while Anissa was given 25 years.
Vulnerable or isolated young people becoming so wrapped up in fantasy and mythology that they are able to disconnect themselves from terrible acts is nothing new.
Indeed, this case has been compared the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder, in Christchurch, New Zealand where two exceptionally close teenage friends, Pauline Parker (16) and Juliet Hulme (15), murdered Pauline’s mother, Honorah Rieper.
Pauline and Juliet’s parents had become worried about their daughters, who believed they were able to enter ‘the Fourth World’ – a fantastical realm only a few chosen people could see.
The mystical world they had concocted together was threatened when Juliet’s parents wanted to move her overseas, and Honorah forbade Pauline from following. The girls believed her death would allow them to pursue exciting lives as famous writers in Hollywood.
[Hello there…..it seems that you're tired up in chains….]
— Hisashi Enma and Slender Man (@SlenderHisashi) August 21, 2018
However, in our modern era there is a more varied, accessible range of spaces for children and teenagers to form alternative prisms of reality.
The power of internet memes over a person’s sense of reality, perhaps to the point where they are willing to commit murder, caused alarm after the figure of digital folklore crept to mainstream attention.
At the time of the Slender Man stabbing, Retired FBI agent John Egelhof made the following comments, according to the Star Tribune ominously described the internet as being a ‘black hole that kids can fall into for a variety of reasons’:
Kids have a secret world that we don’t know about. That secret world is far more sinister than ours when we were young. It’s a problem we as a society have to face.
Senior criminology lecturer from Birmingham City University, Dr Adam Lynes, told UNILAD:
In our post-fact age, and given the sheer number of sites and competing and not always factual perspectives it is becoming increasingly more difficult for people (and young people in particular) to discern what information is based on factual information and what has simply been conjured up (either for entertainment or political purposes).
With this in mind, and given the increasingly younger ages people are being introduced to the Internet, the ability to discern what is real from what is fictional may be much more difficult.
Dr Lynes believes this is ‘further compounded’ when considering the tendencies of Internet users to soak up information which reinforces their existing understanding of the world:
If we consider confirmation biases – a well-known psychological tendency in which individuals unconsciously misinterpret or distort new information to support their current beliefs on a particular topic or issue – we may gain a better understanding how these young girls may have come to the conclusion that the Slender man is indeed real.
It is clear our new internet formed bogeymen are a different breed from the ‘word of mouth’ monsters which came before – the Vanishing Hitchhikers and the Bloody Marys of sleepover lore – despite sharing many similar characteristics.
Dr. Lynes explained how pre-internet bogeymen differed because they were ultimately restricted by geographical boundaries:
Stories of these traditional boogeymen may have moved beyond their region of birth through word of mouth and gradually evolved as their story was retold in new regions/countries with significant and/or slight changes to fit this new context.
Now, with the internet, information exchange is not only much faster than the traditional word of mouth, but many more individuals are able to use this platform to create content that, when we consider the production value of some fan films and YouTube videos, are almost discernible from real-life events (a quick search on YouTube found numerous slender man sightings videos).
This commodification of Internet myths (otherwise known as creepy pastas) not only results in a faster information exchange but also a level of authenticity to the stories and videos that makes it more difficult for susceptible individuals to discern what is real from what is fictional.
Human beings have been sharing scary stories ever since we could communicate.
However, the tales once whispered around the campfire now take on a much more organic life online: malleable, shapeshifting and frighteningly difficult to contain.
The film Slender Man can be viewed in UK cinemas from August 24 onwards.
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