What the Slenderman Urban Legend Can Teach Us About Our Innermost Fears

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Featured Horror Mystery and Lore

Urban Legends

There’s something tantalising about an Urban Legend. They crop up wherever people gather, offering insight into that culture’s fears and beliefs. They spread across regions and across generations, twisting and evolving. Centuries ago, they might have all been considered real, with no way of proving otherwise. Decades ago, they would have been told over campfires, with flashlights dramatically clutched beneath chins and shared imaginations conjuring demons in the darkness. Today, the internet has given humanity its largest canvas yet to paint whatever terrors our collective minds can conjure.

Connecting up the planet has allowed for ideas to spread further and faster than ever before. It has allowed for a mingling of cultures and concepts, and even caused global phenomenon. In 2016, for example, the world was awash with ‘killer clowns’. Appearing after midnight, individuals dressed as clowns began to appear in any country that sold clown costumes. Sometimes they clutched helium balloons, sometimes they wore masks or full face-paint, sometimes they would even chase passersby. Each new clown helped inspire the next, like some deranged circus-oriented virus. One moment it was some creepy video on our phones, the next we were getting alerts from the local neighbourhood groups of nearby sightings. Then began the counter movement – people who were so agitated by these Pennywise-wannabes that gangs of grown men would patrol the streets, looking for clowns to beat up. Even governments began to warn its citizens of the dangers, with Russian and Fiji authorities both issuing guidance about the so-called ‘Killer Clowns’.

The sceptic in me still thinks the whole endeavour was some sly marketing plot – IT Chapter One was in production at the time and released the following year, but it seems it was just a completely random viral moment. A photograph from 2014 seems to have been the culprit, showing just how explosive and unpredictable the internet can be. A two year old photo from the United Kingdom, gaining traction in America, then spreading across the planet.

The Goat Man of Pope Lick

I’m no stranger to American influence on my horror tastes, or the internet for that matter. Growing up in nineties Britain, there was a vast smorgasbord of terrors from across the pond, and just as I was blossoming into my teens, urban legends and creepypastas were finding their way online. Quicker than you can say ‘Candyman’ into a mirror, me and my friends were hooked. We’d share the worst offenders, stories that only exist as intangible shapes in my memory now – serial killers hiding under cars, a hand being licked by a dog-killer, goatmen infiltrating a group of teenage campers. But in my early twenties, something happened to morph this shared interest into an obsession.

The Urban Legend of Slenderman

If there’s a greater poster child for the era of internet urban legends and ‘fakelore’, I’ve yet to hear about it. Most fascinating of all, we can trace his entire origin. Each shift in his evolution, every strand of his existence; logged and recorded for all to see. Demonstrably false. And yet somehow, he gripped the world in his elongated fingers. Such was the power of the Slenderman (or Slender Man) myth, two twelve year old girls were prepared to kill their friend, stabbing her nineteen times and leaving her for dead. Mercifully, she survived, and the two girls received 25 and 40 years sentences in psychiatric institutes.

But what is it about this digital boogeyman that captured the global consciousness so intensely? What can he teach us about horror, and our innermost fears? Unlike his more mysterious ancestors – Bigfoot, Chupacabra, Skinwalkers or the Loch Ness Monster – we know exactly where he started. With his entire lifespan so well documented, he is the perfect sample to dissect.

Let’s start at the beginning, and at the obvious. From the outset, the Slenderman mythos was designed to be a contagious paranormal concept. On the ‘Something Awful’ forum, Slenderman was part of a contest to create paranormal images. Eric Knudsen made two such images of a tall, mysterious figure surrounded by children, and accompanied by text that read like an archival document. One image showed a blurry faced man with hands outstretched, dressed in a black suit. The other showed a shadowy silhouette of a tall figure, tentacles flitting out and extending towards the children gathered around him.

The black and white format and accompanying text made these images feel as though they were cut out of an old library book, and gave the images an authentic, yester-year feel. The two figures, although slightly different, both played around with ancient fears that are embedded in our human psyche. We are afraid of the uncanny. We like to spot patterns and label things. If something is large, hairy, hunched on all fours, we can think of it as some sort of animal, or even a monster. The label gives us some small comfort. Although witnessing Cthulhu with your own eyes may drive you insane with incomprehension, seeing a painted or rendered image of him isn’t nearly so unsettling. No more so than say, Godzilla, or King Kong. For most, the Ancient One fits neatly into the label of ‘really f**king big monster’. But I personally think there are few labels that leave humans more unsettled than ‘almost human’. 

Faceless. Unnaturally tall with elongated limbs. Wearing clothes. Somehow, I feel as though it was the third element that truly sent shivers down the forum’s collective spine. We have always been scared of faceless things, and that’s no surprise – so much of our communication is delivered by facial features. Without eyes or a mouth, we cannot read a thing’s intent, empathise with it, or even know if it has seen us. Likewise, we have always been scared of things that are larger than us, or things that possess unpredictable (potentially dangerous) appendages. These are primal fears, seared deep into our subconscious from the time when such fears helped our ancestors survive. But something tells me those same ancestors would not be scared by suits and ties. That is a new fear; one of control, greed and ruthlessness. Whether we recognise it or not, we fear the suited man. He represents a sterile, uncaring world. Finally, there was a fourth, implied element; possibly the most natural and powerful fear we have. Slenderman was targeting children. 

Perhaps it was this fusion of fears – old and new, natural and artificial – that so potently enraptured the forum. Suggestions and contributions came quickly, with new images and new opinions taking the partially completed form and solidifying it. Within a thread of forum posts, Slenderman was born, and moulded by committee. 

He was ancient. His motives were unclear, but many believed he abducted children and deaths wouldn’t be far behind. He was around eight foot tall, and his skin was pale. His tentacles were downplayed by some, enhanced by others. He was often seen around wooded areas, and in the darkness would be difficult to distinguish from swaying branches or thin, pale tree trunks. Part of his appeal was the lack of ownership. He belonged to the internet. The community could cherry pick their favourite and most unsettling aspects, with the creepiest surviving and becoming lore.

Perhaps it is this aspect of Slenderman that made him so contagious in those early days. A brand new boogeyman; adjustable to each person’s individual nightmares. What did he want? You decide. What happened if he ‘got you’? You decide. How did he eat, or see? Where did he come from? What WAS he? You decide. 

For me, I didn’t like the way he almost seemed to be pretending to be human. As if he was a spider, but in a vaguely human shape. I never found the tentacles creepy. Slenderman was at his most sinister just standing there, in the distance, watching. His true power was our own imagination. He left an intriguing blank that our minds were all too willing to fill. It was a collective story the internet was telling in a way most of us had never seen before. There was always another image finding its way online, a new fan-made creation. The lame ones were ignored. The good ones made your skin crawl. But at the peak of my own fascination with the character, along came something that took slenderman to a whole other level. Marble Hornets.

Low budget. Blair Witch-esque. Episodic. I’m not sure which of us found it first, but my entire friend group became obsessed. By the time we stumbled across it, there were only a handful of episodes, but it was precisely this feeling of finding something new and ongoing that really sucked us all in. As well as the videos themselves, the creators would also upload messages, images, and even other in-world youtube channels that would lead to all sorts of speculation and theories amongst our circle. The video series revolved around found-footage that someone had discovered in a chaotic jumbled order but might hold the key to finding an old friend. Prior to disappearing, this friend (Alex) had been shooting a student film called ‘Marble Hornets’, but had shut down filming after apparently suffering some sort of nervous episode. Several clips within this bundle of footage were strange and intriguing; both the paranoia displayed by Alex and the silent, handheld glimpses at Slenderman himself.

Whilst these were always goosepimple-inducingly creepy, what really left an impression on me was the fact that there were new and intriguing aspects on display. Effects I’d never seen attributed to Slenderman. Audio distortion. Visual tearing. As we slowly pieced together a larger picture from sporadic video clips, it was clear that there were rules here. We just didn’t know them. Whilst I watched, we never truly learned them. They were always consistent, but it was left to the viewer to discover what the rules were, and most significantly, what they meant.

Whenever Slenderman was sighted, a visual tear in the lower part of the screen always came first. Was he causing it, and was it on purpose, or just a passive effect? Whenever Slenderman was on screen, the audio was always removed. Had Alex done this, was this another ability of Slenderman, or had someone else removed it? Alex was always filming himself. Was this to protect himself? To act as an early warning system when Slenderman was near? 

These questions that came to mind made the story and the mythos akin to a puzzle. The audience was no longer a mere observer, they were made to feel like a participant. There were forums and fandoms set up to solve the mysteries, figure out the secret rules and even communicate with the ‘characters’. I talked earlier about campfire stories. This can often feel like a part of humanity that has been lost – we’re more connected than ever, yet most of us can feel alone and isolated. I think these types of shared storytellings, much like roleplaying tabletop games, appeal to outsiders and introverts because it gives us back that campfire feel. It gives us all some part to play. And when it comes to horror, what could be scarier than inserting yourself into the story?

Ever since those early days, the Slenderman mythos and the experiences I had on that journey have inspired my own horror writing. Any boogeymen or strange objects I can conjure up must follow a set of rules, even if the protagonist and the audience do not know them at first. Once the rules are known, it doesn’t make the horror any less scary. Look at ‘It Follows’ or ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’. If anything, having the threat be consistent and tangible makes it feel more real. Too many horror films rely on characters making bad decisions, with ‘Scream’ even going as far to riff on that trope. But watching characters do things that make sense given everything you know – doing the exact thing that you would do – and still having it fail? That’s terror.

A mix of natural and unnatural. A combination of the recognisable and the uncanny. Vague motivations mixed with rules of engagement. I think it is precisely these contrasts that made Slenderman such a fascinating concept. He allowed the audience to insert themselves into his stories, yet wasn’t so vague as to be all things to all people. During a time where a lot of horror relied on shock, jumpscares and gore, here was a silent figure who just… watched. And got closer. And closer. And closer.

Drive anywhere you want. He’d still be there.

Tell your friends or the police. They wouldn’t believe you.

Flee. Fight. Negotiate. Surrender. None of it will matter.

Your only choice? What you believed he’d do when he finally reached you. Towering above you. Limbs slowly raising. Close enough to touch…

***

Author Bio

Ryan Hunt was born in the gutter and raised by wolves. A freak accident involving harps helped him discover a love for music and danger. He is a certified rascal and is often suspected of telling fibs on his author bios. 

His billions of adoring fans have eventually deduced his true identity – an Engineer from Derbyshire, England. When he’s not openly lying to the general public, he can be found with a pint in his hand, and his Border Collie, Pepper, at his side. 

His love of horror, science-fiction and fantasy have swirled together into the world of Floor Fifty-Four; an underground government facility that locks away paranormal artifacts too strange and too dangerous to allow roaming freely in our world. His first book, ‘Tales from Floor Fifty-Four’ is available now. 

Website Links

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