‘Slender Man’ will finally bring the internet’s favorite boogeyman to life, but is it missing the bigger (and better) picture?
Here’s a prediction for you: Slender Man is going to make eleventy bazillion dollars at the box office. The first trailer, which dropped earlier this week, seems to offer just that right balance of generic – but effective – scares and young, talented actors ready to take their onscreen work to the next level. Throw in the title character’s internet mystique and a real-life murder attempt done in Slender Man’s name and you have all the makings for a mindless alternative to your third Avengers: Infinity War screening this May.
Oh yes, you’ve heard of the Slender Man. By now you’ve probably read a few articles on the internet origins of the character or even watched the 2016 HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman, which dug into the circumstances surrounding a 2014 attempted murder by two Wisconsin teenagers who claimed to be invoking the fictitious monster itself. Above and beyond the lackluster first trailer, the Wisconsin events have led some to openly criticize the project, with people questioning whether the entire affair has been done in bad taste. This has led to a sort-of split in my own thinking about the movie. While the film looks like an utterly generic spin on late-’90s horror movie tropes, I cannot help but see a horror film that might’ve confronted a real terrifying issue in the world today. Simply put, we need more horror films that deal with the psychology – not just the aesthetics – of the internet and social media.
For the most part, the current wave of horror films about the internet has focused on the mechanics of digital communication, the tools and technologies we use and the relationships we form with people online. Unfriended, an unfortunate name for one of the smartest horror films of the decade, broke new ground with how we explored our relationship to screens; in a 2015 piece for The Verge, for example, Emily Yoshida noted that the film cleverly undercut the “fictional, cinematic world” where interactions still take place away from our screens. If we dig even farther, we can look at Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s now-classic Pulse, which manifested a literal ghost in the machine for a generation of Japanese moviegoers migrating online. And, of course, there’s this past year’s Tragedy Girls, which updated the Natural Born Killers template as a story of social media popularity and female empowerment.
All of these are impressive films that had something to say about a generation raised online, but none of them are prepared to deal with the biggest challenges we face with digital communities. While horror may be increasingly interested in the aesthetic of online spaces, it has yet to fully explore the psychological and cultural ramifications of our digital lives. Just this past week, those who had previously been lucky enough to live Logan Paul-free lives were confronted firsthand with the media personality’s callous attempt to use suicide as a clickbait. Paul’s video in Japan’s Aokigahara forest – where he cracked jokes next to a suicide victim before playing it off as part of his coping mechanism – inspired countless pieces on the broken morality of these online communities, with Vox‘s Aja Romano noting that stars like Paul tend to exist in an “insular, often accountability-proof bubble.” While the stakes are slightly different, the conclusion is similar to other explorations of ISIS recruitment and the rise of the alt-right: many of these social media communities establish new norms that make unthinkable acts of violence or hatred commonplace.
In horror film terms, this creates a bit of a disconnect between the monster and the thing that gave the monster its power. Films that frame their characters as chasing convenience or popularity miss out on the more subtle indoctrination that occurs with some of the more hate-filled corners of the online space. A generic take on the Slender Man, if artfully done, may entertain its audiences. It may even prove its detractors right and make the character even more of a cult icon in online spaces. But it also points to a symptom and not the underlying cause. We live in an era where hate groups find their agendas advanced through the clever use of cartoons; as perhaps the most well-known piece of digital folklore, Slender Man offers the perfect vehicle to dramatize the way people use memes and original creations to prey on those at-risk for such machinations.
This, then, is the internet that needs to be exploited in horror films: not simply a space where digital ghosts stalk computer screens, but a diseased place capable of true poison. And while people may question the taste of fictionalizing the events of the Wisconsin attack, I can’t help but think that movie is the horror film we need right now. There will always be some form of online bogeyman for people to rally around – the eponymous Slender Man just happens to be the most aesthetically pleasing and, cough cough, least political of the bunch – and a film like Slender Man could provide a context to explore our new understanding of how online communities can radicalize their participants. Even if director Sylvain White and screenwriter David Birke are not up to the task, we’re in a moment where the power of online communities is solidly in the spotlight. Here’s hoping some filmmaker steps up to take their best shot.