How a spooky internet meme became a chilling cultural phenomenon.
Scary stories are no longer saved for campfires whenever someone wants to give other folks the willies. Thanks to the digital age we’re living in, new urban legends are born every day from original horror stories and Creepypastas that can be found on forums like Reddit’s r/nosleep. However, every once in a while, one of these creepy creations transcends the realms of online folklore to capture the social imagination.
In June 2009, Eric Knudsen posted Photoshopped images depicting a specter stalking children to the Something Awful internet forum. At the time, the forum was hosting a contest that challenged artists to create their own paranormal images. Knudsen’s submission, Slender Man, quickly became a viral sensation, which inspired countless writers and artists to give the character his own history.
Slender Man is a tall, thin, featureless creature that wears a black suit and tie and preys on children. Like most urban legends, though, there’s no canonized or definitive version of his mythos. As the character was developed collaboratively over time by thousands of storytellers and artists, various ideas and interpretations about who he is have been brought to the table throughout the years.
In some stories, Slender Man has multiple tentacle-like arms. In others, he’s fairly basic in appearance and boasts no extra limbs. Sometimes he makes his victims disappear without a trace never to be found again. Other times he brutally slaughters them and leaves the gory remains at the scene of the crime. More disturbingly — as we’ll discover later — he sometimes inspires people to murder on his behalf.
Sometimes he has the ability to teleport and his presence is undetectable unless he decides to make himself known. He often finds victims in dark forests and abandoned buildings and curses them with psychological nightmares, visions, and psychological traumas before he goes in for the kill. Elsewhere, other tall tales have showcased him more like a creature that’s reminiscent of the Big Bad Wolf.
The character’s origins have also been traced throughout history to different corners of the world. One iteration of the character portrays him as a medieval German fairy known as “Der Großmann”, who resides in a dark forest and punishes naughty children who sneak into the woods at night. Additionally, he’s been traced him back to cave paintings from 900 B.C. These are just a couple of examples of attempts creators have made to give him a backstory.
In addition to giving people a good old fashioned fright, part of the appeal of Creepypastas is their roleplaying aspect. Many writers present these stories as personal anecdotes, and fans who wish to join in on the fun will suspend their disbelief and interact with each other as if they were real. Because of this element, it’s easy to believe that Slender Man is a “real” urban legend. The fact that he has attained this level of mythical standing is impressive to say the least, considering that he started life as a manipulated photo.
Unfortunately, this blurred intersection between fantasy and reality has borne sinister effects as well. In 2014, two 12-year-old girls in Milwaukee stabbed their classmate 19 times in a bid to impress Slender Man. The girls were self-proclaimed “proxies” of the character and believed that they had to commit a murder in order to gain his approval and prove his existence to non-believers. Thankfully, the victim managed to crawl to a nearby road and get help before it was too late.
Much like violent movies, video games, and Marilyn Manson before it, the Slender Man stabbing incident caused a moral panic that called for websites hosting stories featuring the fictional character to be shut down. The case has incited debate over the type of content children should be allowed to read on the internet, as well as the age-old argument about the correlation between entertainment and real-life horrors.
Overall, though, the Slender Man legacy is a positive one. What started as a meme on a prank site has since inspired people to be creative and foster communities with like-minded peers. Maybe he’s not everyone’s idea of entertainment, but who’s to say that the next Stephen King or Anne Rice isn’t out there right now practicing their craft on Creepypasta forums?