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In Defense of Slenderman

He's internet folklore, and mirrors all of the online anxieties of our generation.

by Roisin Kiberd
Jun 5 2014, 2:10pm
Image: Superb Wallpapers

What’s tall and spindly and faceless, and lives on the margins of the internet? By now you probably know.

It’s callous to admit it, but hearing about the attempted murder of a classmate by two 12-year-old girls in tribute to the Slenderman, my first thought was that they’d ruined the fun for everyone. Creepypasta has been a guilty pleasure for me for years, and as ghouls go, Slendy is the most interesting.

To me he's internet folklore, and mirrors all of the online anxieties of my generation. Like many folkloric monsters, the Slenderman lives on the fringes of society, the edge of the daylight web. He is familiar enough to surface in jokes as a meme, but his natural environment is the niche underworld of Creepypasta wikis and subreddits. Surfacing in tribute art and fan fiction framed as truth, he is a triumph of crowd­sourced horror, the collaborative product of our fears.

Image: Wikimedia

The experience of reading about him (usually on Reddit) is twofold. There’s the story, written in white text on a black background so as not to hurt eyes reading it in the dark, and then there is the scroll to the comments below, offering reassurance that other readers were just as spooked.

Before I knew the Slenderman I knew about creepypasta, a subcategory of copypasta, short web fictions designed to be spread simply and quickly like chain letters (copy-paste). Creepypasta communities were refreshingly free from the trolling that put me off Reddit in general: Readers there wanted to contribute, wanted to believe, and most of all they wanted to be scared.

As an American lit student, I managed to work Slenderman into my coursework. There’s always been a sense of the Slenderman as internet folklore, as a canvas for the storyteller which changes in retellings. His origins are suitably democratic, beginning life as a Photoshop contest on Something Awful with the results meant to be passed off as real on paranormal forums. I have tried (and failed) repeatedly to teach myself Photoshop, with the end goal of adding the Slenderman into the background to childhood photos.

Original Slenderman photo. Image: Wikimedia

Up until now I assumed everyone reading the Slenderman stories was old enough to know better. His gaming debut, Slender: The Eight Pages, was a low-­fi affair engineered for cheap shocks, with the kind of charmingly limited graphics only a nineties child could love.

But it was scary, perhaps all the more so for the tinny sounds and the claustrophobic visual fuzz. Likewise his origins in altered vintage photos still creep me out to this day: a ghost from the internet age superimposed onto the past.

But could the Slenderman inspire violence? To hold him accountable would place the two would-­be murderers in Wisconsin alongside Elliott Rogers in their attempt to turn online fantasy into real life (surely this is what Rogers was dismissed as, before committing his crimes: a fantasist?). Fictional monsters reflect the anxieties of a culture: has the incident in Waukesha brought those fears to life?

Image: Creepypasta wiki

I’d imagine the feverish years of early adolescence would lure readers to the internet’s stranger territories, muddling fiction and truth before the reader has a foundation in either. Creepypasta texts leave a lot to the imagination, but the Slenderman is unique in his prevalence as a visual phenomenon too. We know what he looks like, breaking the unwritten rule that every bogeyman is unique in the mind of the person who fears him.

The Slenderman embodies the internet at its most sinister.

Possibly the most interesting element of his mythos is how his appearance reflects a very real set of anxieties in the digital age. The Slenderman embodies the internet at its most sinister.

The spidery extra limbs hint at a 'web' as his natural habitat, while the featureless face reflects the Wildean 'mask' alluded to in The Fifth Estate and in the Guy Fawkes face worn by protesters. Dressed in a suit, the Slenderman is the sinister mutated patriarchy, one with unfairly gangly legs designed to out­run his victims.

He is present in sepia and black and white photography, hinting at an eternal evil stretching into the past. And most ominous of all, his taste for children speaks of the last online taboo, the rings of child abuse we are told lurk just beyond Google’s crawlers, only a Tor encryption away.

The Slenderman’s power hinges on what we do not know, and do not dare to click on. He is depicted always in darkness, emerging suddenly in games or blending into the background in pictures. His anonymity turns him into a kind of universal Other, one that might hide behind anyone’s avatar, even your own, because you too are faceless and adrift in a dark, unpredictable online forest.

 

Image: Deviant Art

The eyeless foe can’t see us, but this doesn’t matter as his horror originates in your own inability to un­see him. "Slendysickness" ensues, like a banshee he keeps coming back, luring you into his native darkness, driving you increasingly mad.

Unlike genuine fan fiction, which departs from the original narrative to pair off Harry with Hermione or Malfoy or Snape, Slenderman never had the privilege of an ur­text. Anything goes, and what receives the most upvotes will prevail.

Does this turn him into proof of our latent love of violence? And does the stabbing indicate a female equivalent to the murders committed by Elliott Rogers, who managed to turn pick­up artist forums and weightlifting groups into murder fuel? Roughly three-quarters of Fanfiction.net members are female. Like in Heavenly Creatures, this case speaks of dreamy adolescent minds gone awry. As Creepypasta Wiki user sloshedrain wrote, “there is a line between fiction and reality,” and most readers can be depended on to see the difference.

Terrible, misguided things are born online everyday. Girls cut themselves for Justin Bieber on Twitter. Women are casually trafficked on listings pages owned by mainstream media outlets. The Slenderman represents a disturbing crossing­ over from online fantasy into grim real­ life incident, but before that he represented a triumph of collaborative creativity. Along with Smile.jpg, the Dionaea House and the Jejune Institute, he occupies a place among the folkloric experimentation of the web. The internet is so young, and yet already it’s haunted.