Slenderman was uniquely suited to create a moral panic because its imagery and lore played into tropes associated with moral panics and worked well on creepypasta forums. Slenderman first appeared on the Something Awful forum in 2009 with only two photos and a very bare description. Both photos are just specific enough to inspire fear specifically surrounding the safety of children but vague enough to allow the reader’s imagination to run wild with the possible meanings of the threat. The first caption showing a crowd reads “We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time…”. A lot of work is done in this sentence. The first half suggests that slenderman is capable of causing innocent adults to commit violence against other humans. This is a very tangible threat, but leaves the specifics of who was murdered and how they were killed up to the reader’s imagination. The second half of the sentence is what makes this quote so effective. It does not attribute any action to slenderman. Slenderman’s presence alone is the source of corruption of innocence into committing violence. The second photo posted adds validity to this threat. It ties slenderman to the disappearance of children, citing false sources to add credibility. When combined, these two images and a few sentences become a very effective fear tactic. There is just enough specificity for parents to be afraid of their children being corrupted by slenderman , but leaving the details of this process vague enough to excite their imagination. This vagueness also allows it to inspire other creepypasta writers to contribute to the mythos.
Slenderman isn’t real to parents in the sense that they believe that there is a supernatural creature that is going to find and corrupt their children. However, there are parents that believe in the corruptive force of the slenderman myth. There is an ever-present societal fear of new media, particularly with the internet. Parents were afraid of what their children might see and how it would affect them if they were left unsupervised on the internet. Slenderman made this abstract fear tangible. Parents no longer needed to be afraid of what the internet would do to their children. They are afraid of what seeing slenderman would do to their children. In this way, slenderman was very real. Its lore as a mysterious figure that corrupts the youth was able to scare parents about their kids’ saftey, even if the parents knew slenderman was fictional.
Where other stories that had the potential to terrify parents died out, slenderman was uniquely suited to take advantage of the structure of creepypasta subreddits and become viral. Notably, slenderman’s character design is easily recognizable and easily inserted into images. Slenderman is simply a tall, long limbed figure with a white, blank face and a suit. All it takes to create a slenderman image is rudimentary photoshop skills or a friend in a white, nylon mask. This character design allows photographs and videos of slenderman to be easily recognizable, even when the figure is in the distance or only seen briefly as well as when the image is blurry, grainy, or otherwise distorted. These characteristics made it very easy for slenderman to spread as a copypasta. Each contributor was easily able to add their own photograph, video, or story of an encounter to expand upon the myth. This allowed slenderman to quickly go viral and develop an ever-expanding lore generated by the readers.
Slenderman’s proxies is also a key component of both slenderman’s virality and the following moral panic. A proxy is someone who has been chosen by slenderman to perform actions on its behalf. This premise is the base inspiration for a lot of slenderman stories and supposed encounters. It also allows the line between reality and myth to be blurred. Creepypastas often function as a place for roleplay in which online users pretend to believe in the stories they are writing in order to make their posts seem more authentic. This means that a child who comes across slenderman has the potential to engage in roleplay around slenderman, not realizing that it is only roleplay. This makes the potential for moral panic even greater. Children are not only at risk of encountering slenderman posts specifically designed to scare or trick them. They can also fall victim to roleplay channels where users scare or trick the child, not knowing that the child believes it is real.
In essence, slenderman was uniquely suited to create a widespread moral panic. The initial story was just the right level of frightening and vague in order to inspire others to want to contribute. The character design and the few key components of its lore made it easy for the idea to go viral across the internet. This combined with parents’ preexisting fear of the internet scaring, tricking, or corrupting their children, generated a widespread moral panic that few other stories would have been capable of.