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Slender Man: the first open source urban legend

Investigating the origins of the internet's creepiest meme

In the lead-up to Halloween, Dazed Digital is running a Dark Arts season inspired by our November Dark Arts issue. Among other things, we've walked the path of darkness via the Hollywood Walk of Death and talked to Don Mancini, the creator of Chucky. Check our Dark Arts section for a journey to hell and back. 

What do you see in the picture above? A bunch of kids, who look as if they're walking very quickly away from something, or someone. Their haircuts and clothes look mid to late 80s. They appear scared, or tense, unsure of themselves. And what's that odd, white smear in the background. Is that a head? A skull? 

Say hello to Slender Man. (Slendy, for short.) A tall, faceless man with spidery limbs in a black suit, he's a big fan of kids – and he's one of the most popular urban legends of the 21st century. 

Slender Man is as ubiquitous as Bloody Mary was for sleepovers in the 90s: there’s a popular video game called Slender, a dedicated wiki site, and countless Youtube mockumentaries. This year, there’s even a Slender Man live action experience in Louisville, Kentucky. But he also represents something absolutely contemporary: the first crowdsourced ghoul of our modern age.

Slender Man first appeared on 10 June, 2009, in a thread on legendary Web forum SomethingAwful. Members were invited to submit their own DIY paranormal images. A user calling himself Victor Surge entered two images (above and below), with this tantalising postscript:

“Recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as ‘The Slender Man.’ Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence. 1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.”

Surge had taken inspiration from the mysterious Men In Black who appear in UFO mythology as well as The Gentleman, the villains of Hush, an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a later interview with a Slender Man fansite, he admits: “I didn’t expect it to move beyong the SA forums. And when it did, I found it interesting to watch as sort of an accelerated version of an urban legend. “

And that’s exactly what happened: it accelerated. SomethingAwful fans loved Slender Man (“this is going to give me nightmares” one user proclaimed). They created more Slender Man photoshops, writing accounts of their own “personal encounters” with Slender Man, and even penning fake news stories describing Slender Man appearances.

Unsurprisingly, folklore teems with stories of thin, faceless spirits bringing death: these tales were promptly co-opted by so-called Slenderfans into the growing mythology. As the phenomenon snowballed, Slender Man hopped from SomethingAwful to other thriving communities like 4chan and DeviantArt, trailing fanart and online fiction in its wake.

The myth even went meta: some fan sites alleged that Slender Man exists IRL – and he was literally invoked into existence by the collective thoughts of the internet. As the BBC puts it, the ‘first great myth of the web’ was born.

“It can be said that Slender Man is the first open-source monster - and that's a very specifically internet-related concept,” explains Fortean Times writer Ian Vincent, who gives talks on the Slender Man phenomenon. “Slenderfans have the advantage there that Slendy came from the internet in the first place: no copyright, no single canonical universe rules over their creative urges… Anyone who cares to can add to the mythos at any time.”

Slender Man acquired new powers of mind control and forced memory loss, collecting nicknames like Mr Slim, Tall Man, and The Operator. He went from kidnapping children to stalking adults and driving them mad. He gained bony tentacles. He even spawned his own comedy parody – Splendorman

But it was in the guise of the Operator that Slender Man really gained mainstream appeal, when amateur filmmakers Troy Wagner and Joseph Delage cast him as the Operator, the faceless antagonist of their documentary-style YouTube series Marble Hornets.

Over four years, the two have produced 77 terrifying videos and racked up over 65 million views. There’s even a thriving YouTube video spin-off of people reacting to Marble Hornets. In fact, some people still don’t know if Marble Hornets is real or not. Just look at this earnest Yahoo! Answers post

Most film academics hold that horror movies don’t just reflect individual fears – the most successful ones often tap into the anxieties and repressed fears of society itself. So, Frankenstein and King Kong can be read as parables for the moral chaos and uncertainty of the Depression. More recently, Eli Roth has interpreted his Hostel series as a reaction to Abu Ghraib

In this context, Slender Man makes perfect sense. He’s a perfect storm of 21st century culture. He’s not only a product of modern anxieties about pedophilia (remember, Slendy snatches children), he also plays into fears about the digital age.

“Slender Man is a pseudo-documentary, played out on a collective”

Presented in the form of newspaper articles of unknown origin, found footage, altered ‘vintage’ photos, Slender Man questions the fundamental reliability of online information. In an age where everything we do is recorded for posterity online, he’s proof that some things remain fundamentally, scarily unknowable.

He’s a pseudo-documentary, played out on a collective scale. And since the bar for contributing is so low (all you require is some imagination and an internet connection), anyone can pitch in with their own creepy take on Slender Man.

Humans used to trade tales around the campfire; these days, it's our computer screens. It's no surprise that our networked age demanded its own ghastly urban legends, specifically tailored to our times. After all, we get the monsters that we deserve.