When the internet created the Slender Man, it did not realize it had made manifest the fears of a whole generation adrift in the digital age.
Faceless, amorphous, and boundless, the tall black-suited figure sprang from the crowdsourced anxieties of our online hivemind. Countless internet urban legends existed before and after him. But Slender rose above all, his empty face an uncanny reflection of the virtual void we summoned him from.
Recently Hollywood tried to capitalize on his internet phenomenon with a movie that received a resounding “meh.” Unsurprisingly, movie execs fail to grasp exactly what makes the legend of a nefarious man in a business suit so terrifying to millennials.
But understanding Slender Man and the psychology behind his permanent virality is about understanding who we’ve become as people raised online.
It’s a portrait that’s as seductive as it is terrifying — as familiar as it is unknowable.
The birth of an internet legend
University of Georgia media studies professor Shira Chess literally co-wrote the book on Slender Man’s significance as internet folklore, analyzing his myth as a marriage of primordial traditions and modern uncertainties.
“We’ve always told scary stories to convey our neuroses about the zeitgeist of the moment,” she said. “The scary stories that stick — the ones that matter, the ones that mean something — are the ones that really tap into larger cultural anxieties.”
Slender Man is no different from vampires or werewolves: a mythic monster who speaks to something universally haunting, or what Jungian psychologists call the collective unconscious. On the other side, folklore can almost be seen as an ancient form of memes, transforming with every retelling to fit the community and what it needs that story to represent.
“We’ve always told scary stories to convey our neuroses about the zeitgeist of the moment.”
To recap Slender’s history: he originated from a single post in a 2009 Something Awful forum, where Eric Knudsen (under the username “Victor Surge”) contributed to a photoshop contest of paranormal images.
With just two photos and two brief captions, Knudsen birthed the now iconic long-limbed, faceless tentacle man who made children disappear. Like a spirit possessed, the forum quickly diverted into exclusively building on the lore around this so-called Slender Man with a frenzy of their own art and stories.
In the years that followed, an intense but relatively niche fandom sprung around the legend. Countless reinterpretations and fanfictions negotiated the parameters of Slender’s mythos. He solidified into the patron saint of the internet after the rise of the found-footage web series Marble Hornets, spreading to even younger audiences through popular online games like Slender: The Eight Pages.
But he only became a household name in 2014, when two twelve-year-old girls in Wisconsin brutally stabbed a schoolmate in the woods, and claimed it was to appease the internet boogie man.
Thankfully, the young victim survived. And as explored in both Chess’ book and the 2016 HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman, a moral panic ensued over the internet’s corruption of children.
But the sensationalized coverage that clamored to blame the internet for this horrific incident missed the point entirely
Slender Man did not give the perpetrator of that violence a mental illness which made her vulnerable to breaks from reality. Slender Man fandom was never an “online cult,” as some publications claimed.
Slender Man remains a manifestation of a generation that feels forgotten, unheard, uncertain, and consumed by something both horrifying and seductive.
The Man behind a millennial monster
Some of the internet legend’s virality comes down to age-old mainstays of horror. Like his facelessness, for example, which Chess said lets “readers and writers impose whatever anxieties or desires they have onto him.”
But Chess also draws strong parallels between Slender’s characteristics and three other specific phenomenons that shook online culture at around the same time.
Its no accident that the real-world horror of the 2008 housing market crash happened only a year before Slender Man’s inception.
Suddenly, young people were faced with the economic instability of their futures. The recession shaped pop culture for years to come. To this day mainstream media expresses a millennial distrust in the government and technology (Mr. Robot, Black Mirror), as well as the perma-adolescence (New Girl, every Judd Apatow comedy, Girls) of our struggle for independence during a recession.
Slender Man almost literally embodies The Man that millennials were fighting
According to Chess, the Slender Man represents these anxieties in two major ways.
For one his face (or lack thereof) mimics the early images of Anonymous. The masked hacktivist group gained notoriety at the same time as Slender Man, positioning itself as a champion of the people fighting back against a corrupt and greedy capitalist system trying to infringe on our privacy and freedoms online.
That mounting millennial outrage then manifested offline in the form of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street, largely organized and spread by millennials on social media.
The design of Slender Man almost literally embodies The Man that millennials distrust.
“There is no shortage of cultural fear for creepy men in suits,” Chess said, pointing to similar urban legends like the Men in Black. “The faceless man is at the core of how we envision business, the Hollow Man of T.S. Eliot.”
An omnipresent, inhuman, ever-shifting evil, Slender Man is an extension of late-stage capitalism from the millennial perspective.
Both the monster and capitalist system he represents appear to prey upon young millennials — while giving baby boomer adults a pass. A Big Brother-esque fear of always being watched is embedded in his legend, too. Like the internet, we’re terrified of the Slender Man because we’re not sure how his magic works, how far it reaches, and how much he’s tracking our every move.
What we do know, though, is that we cannot escape him.
In contrast, this kind of horror figure could not be more different from 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was the product of a society consumed with fear of uniformity and communist takeover.
Chess also noted how the evidence for this psychological interpretation of Slender Man can be found in the evolution of his preferred victims.
Originally on the Something Awful forums, he was depicted as solely interested in prepubescent children. The canon focuses on vanished elementary school kids, lured by the promise of comfort and protection offered by Slender’s unnaturally outstretched arms.
But then Marble Hornets came along, and Chess said “suddenly his modus operandi shifted to young white men who were amateur filmmakers and didn’t seem to have day jobs.”
This (hilariously) specific and personal trope established by the web series and its knock offs is telling. As Chess said, it’s weird that these jobless young men always assume a guy in a suit showing up at their house is trying kill them rather than, say, offer them a job.
“He couldn’t represent a patriarchal figure more poignantly. He’s the vision of what a twenty-something or late teen shivers at the thought of becoming,” she said. “Young people keep telling themselves, ‘No, I won’t ever be like my parents.’ Then here’s this man, in a full on suit and no face.”
Marble Hornets also brought in lore that linked Slender directly to technology. Because while he may represent the anxieties of the internet, sightings of the Slender Man are often associated with glitches and digital interference.
He’s both a symptom of our collective digital unconscious, while also a signal blocker — forcing us to relinquish even the semblance of control young people gain through their cellphones.
The lost kids of a digital age
But we cannot be too quick to dismiss what Slender Man represents to his original, much younger target audience, who also made up a huge chunk of the fandom who established his lore.
People often resist the later characterizations of Slender Man as a romantic seducer, a trend popularized by the young girls who fantasized about being seduced by him.
Chess explained that this addition to his lore rose alongside his new following of middle schoolers who repurposed his symbolic meaning. “We started seeing the Slender Man as less of a horror character, and more of a patriarchal figure or even a boyfriend.”
Yes, folks, Slenderotica does exist — in droves
Yes, folks, Slenderotica does exist — in droves, actually. And to Chess, that’s not hard to understand or even all that odd.
“These are stories being written by young people working through their own stuff. And for tween girls, a faceless human is the perfect mate,” she said. “Of course that’s who they would be drawn to, because they can imprint whatever they need onto him.”
It’s impossible to divorce this evolution of Slender’s mythos from the horrific 2014 stabbing. But it’s also important to understand the nuances of the connection, without the clouded judgement of outrage.
“There are parallels between what the moral panic became, and what was conveyed in the earliest Slender Man story,” Chess said.
But the moral question that the incident raises is not whether or not the internet is teaching kids to kill each other. Like the Satanic Panic of the ’80s, this scapegoat covers up much realer social issues at play that are harder to address.
The much more productive question to ask is: What makes Slender Man so attractive to young girls who are true-born digital natives? And what can we learn from his significance to them?
Chess points to the similarities between Slender Man and two popular folktale traditions. As a seducer of children, he’s like a digital mashup of both the Pied Piper and fairy changelings.
Disney-fied versions of the Pied Piper depict a man luring rats away from a village. But historical records reveal that the tragic event that actually inspired this Hamelin legend was the village’s sudden, mysterious loss of 130 children.
Meanwhile, the changelings of Celtic folklore characterize sickly or deformed babies as the result of nefarious fairy spirits switching places with them. The need for this rationalization starts to make sense in light of the devastating infant mortality rates of the time. It comforted grieving mothers or, worse still, justified leaving newborn mouths you couldn’t feed in the woods to die.
It’s not hard to see Slender Man’s tendency to prey on the of innocence children as a way for the internet to work through the effect this technology has had on the world at large. We are a society both seduced and horrified by the abnormally long reach of the web’s connecting tendrils, which threaten to swallow us whole if we’re not careful.
Or from a parent’s perspective, Slender can be seen as a corrupting force that doesn’t take kids away from them violently. Instead, he steals them away with promises of a world of wonders that mere mortals can neither understand nor compete with.
All of this is to say: Slender Man isn’t new. But what we need from him is.
Why Hollywood will always fail the Slender Man
Slender Man is a creation that’s so undeniably of its time that it’s shocking Hollywood didn’t try to cash in on him earlier.
“Bless Hollywood’s heart for trying, but Slender Man doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to the internet,” said Chess. “I predict that there could never possibly be a successful Slender Man film, because that goes against everything the Slender Man represents.”
As crowdsourced digital myth, he is a creature too ephemeral to be captured by traditional, linear media.
The web series managed to maintain the most internet-y qualities of Slender Man by emphasizing the found footage element, releasing the story through “entries” that were mismatched and out of order. It deliberately avoided the linearity of film, even adding an alternate-reality game for super fans to find hidden clues that help unravel its cryptic, glitching video library.
“Part of the joy of the Slender Man is the detective work,” Chess said.”If somebody else is doing that detective work for you, then it’s just another spooky character.”
Slender Man doesn’t just represent the anxieties of our online existence. The medium is his message too, adding to his creeping relevance. To truly know the Slender Man you must lose yourself to several internet K-holes: A decade-old forum with broken images, years of backlogged from a web series, endless fan wikis, and even the erotic e-books about sleeping with him.
Like the internet, Slender Man is both everything and nothing. A nonsense collection of immaterial pixels, but also the single most all-encompassing force looming over our modern lives.
Is the Slender Man real? Well, I guess you can say he’s only as real as the internet.