Slenderman: Nightmarish info-demon or misunderstood cultural icon?

No, a made-up monster didn’t cause a tragic crime. If anything, he represents Internet culture at its most creative

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published June 7, 2014 4:00PM (EDT)

    (<a href=''>Mopic</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(Mopic via Shutterstock)

Here’s the good news about the media panic surrounding “Slenderman,” the child-snatching, tentacle-armed Internet meme-demon who supposedly inspired a pair of 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin to stab a friend of theirs 19 times: It's been minimal. Before I get any further with that, let’s back up a second to clarify that the real good news in this upsetting story is that the victim of the assault will apparently recover, and one hopes that cooler heads in the Badger State’s judicial system will back away from the idea of trying these disturbed children as adults. (Several news accounts have already named the suspects, but I think that’s unbelievably sleazy and I’m not going to.)

No doubt we could find concern-trolls writing posts and comments about how the Internet is turning our children into killers, but that has not been the general reaction. There have been numerous articles about who or what Slenderman is, since it’s exactly the sort of phenomenon that’s virtually invisible to most adults over 35. In case you’re not caught up on all that, Slenderman (aka The Tall Man, Der Schlanker Mann, Fear Dubh, The Master, et al.) is an unnaturally tall, skinny and faceless entity, sometimes possessed with tentacles and generally depicted in a dark business suit with a white shirt and a red or black tie. Every era demands its own monsters, and I find it irresistible to observe that Slenderman looks like a child's drawing of a banker. As the absurdly detailed Slender Man Wiki explains, “it is uncertain if his suit is real cloth or some form of skin molded into such an appearance.” He induces paranoia and illness, interferes with electronic equipment, and sometimes abducts humans for unknown but unwholesome purposes. And no matter what “evidence” you may encounter on YouTube, he does not exist.

Slenderman was evidently created in June 2009 by a guy named Eric Knudsen, as part of a contest to concoct convincing-looking “paranormal” images that might be used to troll the gullible. Knudsen wrote a couple of fragmentary narratives about the atrocities caused or inspired by Slendy (as devotees call him), other users added theirs, and the race was on. Over the last five years, thousands of Slenderman-related videos, images and story snippets have appeared on the Internet, made by people all over the world. There have been several video games, at least one episodic series and a couple of actual or contemplated feature films (although those appear tangled in copyright issues). Most of that material is fan-created and essentially non-commercial – stuff people made for fun, in other words. (If they were also hoping to build a film-school reel or drive traffic to their site or attract interest from Showtime – hey, that’s the entrepreneurial spirit.) And absolutely none of the millions of kids, teenagers and young adults who have been thrilled or terrified or amused or bewildered by Slendy has tried to kill anyone. Until now.

As I say, even the hysterics of right-wing media, whose entire modus operandi is to scare the crap out of old people with conspiracy theories and racial panic, have so far avoided going fully off the deep end on this one. So far, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass seems to take the prize, crafting a rambling work of free-associative prose that reads something like David Brooks on Quaaludes: Our culture is to blame, because, um, it’s “a culture that has fallen in love with magic and fantasy … where dark magic is celebrated, but religion is considered bothersome.” Skipping over the obvious next question – gee, who has killed more people, Harry Potter fans or religious zealots? – Kass complains about “Twilight” for a while and then quotes a long passage from John Steinbeck about the dissociative character of childhood fantasy, which makes exactly the opposite point he thinks it does.

But at this moment Kass appears to be in the vanguard of a nonexistent movement, and while one should never ascribe motives of basic human decency to the giant outrage machine of the mainstream media, this may represent a rare outbreak of common sense. We’ve been down this road too many times before, with Judas Priest and rap music and violent video games and comic books – all while rates of real-world violent crime in America have fallen to near-historic lows. I’m not reentering that murky debate about violence and media right now, except to observe that most of us understand that something must be profoundly wrong in the home lives and/or psychic worlds of two children who would try to kill a schoolmate for no discernible reason, and that scary stories on the Internet probably didn’t have much to do with it.

Contradictory as this may sound in the current context, I want to argue not only that Slenderman is innocent of any involvement in this crime but that in a certain light he's an admirable invention. Although obviously shaped by generations of horror-movie fans and Stephen King readers, Slenderman is a genuinely democratic or at least crowd-sourced creation, a work of collective geeky intensity subject to endless mutation and reinvention. While the fact that these 12-year-olds evidently convinced themselves that he was real, or might be real, became associated with a pointless act of violence, it’s also a testament to Slenderman’s cultural potency. Sure, those girls should have had adults or peers or older kids around to tell them they were dangerously losing the plot. But let’s be clear about this: Even within the fictional universe of Slenderman, he did not tell the tweens of Waukesha County to kill anybody. They made that part up. The pathetic notion that those girls would prove their devotion to this imaginary evil god, or prove his existence to skeptics (as one suspect purportedly told the cops), by committing murder was, so to speak, their contribution to the Slenderman mythos.

I’ve heard some people express doubt that kids that age, in our supposedly media-savvy era, would believe in something so patently ridiculous. To which I say: Media-savvy, my ass. Such people need to visit America. Go to absolutely any homemade YouTube video that claims to prove the existence of Slenderman (some of which are highly entertaining) and scan the user comments. (Or start typing "Is Slenderman real" in a search bar.) Without even trying, you’ll encounter confused young people by the score, inquiring anxiously whether Slendy really exists or being successfully trolled by other people’s stories about a friend’s cousin’s classmate who read too much Internet Slendermania – ingeniously, that’s how he gets a fix on you -- and then disappeared. In a culture where people believe in angels and aliens, believe that 9/11 was an inside job and Sandy Hook a hoax, believe that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim socialist, why should 12-year-olds not believe in a rubber-faced, baby-eating monster who looks like a cross between Cthulhu and the villain of an Occupy Wall Street comic book? (When I was that age, my friends and I spent our lunch hours discussing what we would do after we found a portal into Narnia.)

Those sad and damaged girls who stabbed their friend may well believe in Slenderman; they probably believed in Santa Claus until two or three years ago. It's possible they were taught to believe that the account of Creation in the Old Testament is literally accurate, and more than likely they were taught to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin and rose from the dead. How many people have been killed in the name of those beliefs, and how does that compare to the body count of Slenderman? Folklorists and psychologists can go to town on the Slendy mythos, I do not doubt: He represents a residue of the ancient, unquelled belief in demons and evil spirits, and like most such things his home is in the woods, suggesting that he embodies the collective bad conscience of civilization in its conflict with nature. (In that reading, the Pale One is a nattily attired, land-based distant cousin to Godzilla.)

But my point is that most people do not believe in Slenderman, any more than they believe in Count Dracula or Bilbo Baggins. Somewhere in the pre-rational recesses of our brains, we may wonder whether such things reflect a level of reality we cannot quite apprehend, or a symbolic truth we can’t quite get at. We may use a totemic figure like Slendy to stand in for other kinds of anxieties and fears we cannot articulate as easily, whether that means child abuse or economic instability or the sense that modern life contains the seeds of its own destruction. But all that is quite different from the kind of psychotic disengagement from reality reflected in the Wisconsin case.

Slenderman stands out because he was not cooked up by Hollywood script doctors or advertising geniuses. Rather, he is exactly the sort of collective creative upsurge the Internet was supposed to deliver. He’s the hipster food cooperative of monsters: His proprietors and his customer base are identical. (One mock-scientific theory about Slenderman holds that he is a “Tulpa,” or a thought-form who now exists in reality because we made him up and have willed him into being.) In no more than a few minutes of searching, I found genuinely scary found-footage encounters with Slendy made by suburban teenagers, alongside endless amounts of Slenderspoof: Slendy busting out the parkour moves on a Florida college campus, or giving it up Gangnam Style on the streets of some Asian metropolis. As this helpful WikiHow explains, Slenderman isn't so scary, since he's most likely a quinoa-eating Obama voter who favors the aisle seat on airplanes. He represents both fear and the conquest of fear, and his existence – believe it or not – is a sign of health, not of sickness.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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