An artificially created urban legend.

The Slender Man got its start where many amazing, wonderful, bizarre things get their starts -- on the Something Awful Forums, where a thread was started on June 8, 2009, encouraging users to "Create Paranormal Images."

The idea was to take a normal photograph and use Photoshop or another photo editing program to insert an eerie image, with many participants creating faked photos of ghosts or monsters in the backgrounds of seemingly mundane pictures.

On June 10, a user named Victor Surge posted an image of children playing on a playground -- in the background, under the deeply-shaded branches of a tree, was a very tall, thin man who seemed to have multiple boneless arms. He was surrounded by young children. The second photo featured children walking/fleeing/being herded past the photographer. Accompanying the kids is the blurry figure of a man, possibly wearing a black jacket. His face is not visible and in fact, appears to have been somehow smudged into a blank space.

Surge included short, ominously vague text descriptions implying that the images were closely associated with a massacre or mass tragedy. Surge later added other images and a raving, blood-spattered police report.

The Something Awful Goons were quite enthusiastically impressed, adding their own images and backstory for the character. His appearance was soon loosely defined by all of the similar images -- a very tall and thin man, wearing black pants and jacket, a white shirt, and a thin black tie, with inhumanly long arms, and no visible face. He was often pictured in shadow, in fog, or among trees, making it difficult to see what he really looked like.

The character was soon picked up by other websites, particularly 4chan. Writers and artists created their own mythology of the character, spotlighting him in creepy, faux-true stories ranging from modern times clear back to centuries past, impaling bodies on trees and performing impossible but fatal surgeries on entire families. Though he'd been initially conceived as a child predator and arsonist, his malign attentions began to expand to allow him to focus on anyone, no matter what age or location. In fact, just reading about him meant he might pay you a visit.

At this point, Slender Man was a great example of a consensually-created meme, but beyond that, he wasn't really that interesting. He was well-designed, weird, and creepy, but you can see weird, creepy stuff all over the Internet.

What really started to make Slender Man interesting was a YouTube web series called "Marble Hornets." It takes the form of a series of snippets from a student film project called, surprise surprise, "Marble Hornets," created by a young filmmaker named Alex Kralie. Alex abandoned the project and told a friend of his named Jay that he intended to destroy his tapes. Jay asked Alex to let him keep the tapes, and when he finally got around to watching them, he began to notice odd things going on. Strange and startling defects in the audio and video, things he didn't remember, odd behavior exhibited by Alex and other people on the tapes. And ominous appearances by a faceless man in a black suit, not to mention bizarre space-time contortions and a masked stalker called "totheark."

"Marble Hornets" shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of other mockumentary horror films like "The Blair Witch Project." Shaky, hand-held camera work, eerie audio or video defects, nonprofessional actors, horrors that make only brief appearances, and a high level of paranoia are all elements that keep the series moving.

"Marble Hornets" has actually inspired plenty of similar projects -- "Tribe Twelve," "Just Another Fool," "Seeking Truth," and "Everyman HYBRID," which starts off as a series of homemade health-and-fitness videos that eventually veer into nightmare territory when "Slendy" starts stalking the filmmakers.

Fans of the character have reacted very strongly to the stories and images. Many of them say they've had nightmares about Slender Man and can work themselves into a state of nervous fear by imagining him stalking around their homes at night. Yes, even though none of them actually believe he's real. Many speculate that the best way to attract Slendy's attention is just to spend too much time thinking about him -- in the "Everyman HYBRID" series, for example, the videomakers start out having a friend dress up as Slender Man as an inside joke for their video series, before the real Slender Man actually starts stalking them. Clearly, something here is resonating with a lot of people. So what seems to make it so scary?

There's a certain Lovecraftian element to the character -- he does seem to leave a great deal of madness in his wake, and "Marble Hornets" features some significant non-Euclidian geometries in places strongly associated with Slendy. His facelessness and tentacular limbs also suggest some kinship with the creatures of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.

There are also some odd similarities with stories about the Mothman and even old-school psychotic faeries. In all of them, we're talking about antagonists who are capricious and seemingly all-powerful, who are skilled at staying off of the public radar, and who are attracted by people thinking or talking about them. And there also seems to be some relationship with classic UFO stories, with the implication that Slender Man can affect people's memories and health, and can cause ominous defects and malfunctions with human technology.

An online reviewer called Lutonaut has another interesting insight into Slender Man. In an Information Age when any information can be Googled up in seconds, more horror fiction is embracing the idea that some things cannot ever be known.

"Marble Hornets" and its imitators -- as well as more well-known films like "The Blair Witch Project," "Cloverfield," and "Paranormal Activity" -- specialize in hand-held camera footage that always just barely misses giving us a full, clear view of the antagonist. Slender Man artwork and stories offer glimpses in the distance or in shadow, and witnesses who refuse to tell anything explicit or useful.

Slender Man is a terror for the modern, information-and-media-obsessed age. Cameras can't keep him in frame. Knowledge about him is spotty and unreliable. Even Wikipedia is, at the present time, strangely hostile to including any information about him.

All you'll ever see of him is glimpses out of the corner of your eye. And he haunts your memories forever after.

Know Your Meme
Blog of Lutonaut


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