by Julian Samohel
A Hans Holbein woodcut from around 1497 (right) next to a version edited to depict a variant of Slender Man (left) (in Emery, 2017).
In the early 18th century, in the area of the German Black Forest, a desperate mother writes a tragic report in her journal. Her son Lars disappeared from his bed, leaving nothing but a piece of thick black cloth behind. The day before, he had panicked about being followed by a monstrous creature, Der Großmann (the Tall Man). Now, she prepares to leave her home, for she believes that she would be the next one to be killed by him, along with her whole family (Creepypasta Wiki n.d.).
This story must have been recounted in countless communities by numerous storytellers who altered it little by little throughout the centuries. And it has to be significant and authentic to be translated into English. However, none of this is true and this story is nothing but a part of the Slenderman Mythos, an internet legend that deliberately blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality (Boyer 2016, 31). It came into world in 2009, in the exclusive Something Awful Forum in the course of a photoshop thread that asked users to create paranormal images. On June 10, Eric Knudson under the username of Victor Surge, uploaded two at first glance unsuspicious images that portrayed children in the foreground. He added a text that talks about the disappearance of fourteen children, a library blaze and “The Slender Man“ in the picture. When taking a closer look, one can see a blurry figure in the background, a tall man, probably wearing a suit, with a white face without any features. On the other picture, the man stands farther away and his arms have the shape of tentacles (Chess 2012, 376-380).
On June 19 user ce gars announced that he has received videotapes by a film school friend Alex who had become increasingly antisocial while they were filming their project Marble Hornets and who had asked him to burn the tapes before disappearing. Already in the first episode of what was to become a web-series, Slender Man appears. (Chess 2012, 380f.)
The play with fact and fiction not only motivated other users to contribute to the mythos, which resulted in a wide variety of backstories and diverse accounts for the creature‘s specific characteristics, it also lead to real world acts of violence in the name of, most notably the attempted murder of a twelve-year-old Wisconsin girl by two girls of the same age who stated that they committed their deed to become so-called proxies of Slender Man that are supposed to be in his favor (Tolbert 2018, 94). In this act, Boyer (2016, 35) writes “[t]he monster has become real, not only in the girls‘ minds but in the collective cultural consciousness as well.“
Overall, Jeffrey A. Tolbert’s (2018) description of the Slender Man Mythos within the framework of the “folkloresque“ as proposed by Michael Dylan Foster (2016) convinced me. Since this myth makes use of narrative structures and stylistics from folk tales, it can be described as folkloresque. The paper had me convinced that there could be little difference between the Slender Man mythos and traditional folk tales – besides its extraordinarily transparent origin story and its medium of origin – since the author concluded that the real world crimes committed in the name of the monster blur both the boundaries of fiction and reality, and of the folkloresque and folklore. The clarity of this conclusion made me wonder, whether this myth is really the result of a “hyper sped-up version of storytelling“ (Chess 2012, 390) that otherwise strictly follows the mechanisms of the development of folk tales, or if there are arguments that contradict this attribution in the case of Slender Man.
Notably, the use of fictional historical documents is fairly common in Gothic fiction (Zarka 2020). For instance, the first Gothic novel “The Castle of Otranto“ by Horace Walpole (1764) was described in the preface as rediscovered and translated medieval manuscript. Bram Stoker‘s “Dracula“ (1897) and Mark Z. Danielewski‘s “House of Leaves” (2000) use seemingly authentic reports and text excerpts to convey an authentic atmosphere. The true origin of the Slender Man myth is obscured by the release of Marble Hornets on YouTube, a platform far more accessible than the Something Awful forum, where no link can be drawn to the photo-editing thread and by the release of “creepypasta” – short scary stories that are meant to be shared online that are often written anonymously – about Slender Man, first on January 14, 2010 (Zarka 2020). Hence, a variety of new accounts of the story outside of the forum enhances the authenticity of the myth. These variants can be regarded as multiple traditions of the myth.
In a study of oral traditions of folklore, Otto Holzapfel notes that the identity of the author is practically irrelevant in folk tradition (Holzapfel 2002, 12). In the case of Slender Man, authorship makes the classification as a folk tale particularly difficult. Although the crimes that were committed in the name of Slender Man, were most likely performed by people who were neither aware of the myth‘s original author nor of its fictionality in general, the story‘s development can be traced almost perfectly. Also, Eric Knudson registered Slender Man as a trademark in 2010 and sold the rights to Sony who produced a big-budget movie in 2018 (Gardner 2018). Knudson (IMDb n.d. (b)), as well as the men who produced, directed and acted in Marble Hornets, Joseph DeLage (IMDb n.d. (a)) and Troy Wagner (IMDb n.d. (c)) were later involved in the production of several Slender Man games and movies. Therefore, the transparency of Slender Man‘s creation was related to claims of authorship. Holzapfel furthermore explains that there is no such thing as an “original” in folk tradition – yet, Victor Surge certainly produced an original depiction of Slender Man with his first edited photos. Still, variants of the Slender Man mythos which e.g. allow the woodcut above to be interpreted as a depiction of this monster, show that the apparent original one has become merely one of many possible portrayals. Therefore, Chess’s description of the debugging of the myth through the community of the Something Awful forum, makes the development of a folkloresque story appear teleological, even though several variants can easily coexist (Chess 2012, 375).
Overall, the Slender Man myth could only become a folk story by finding its way into creepypasta and thereby being linked to tragic real life events. While the creator of the character and the makers of Marble Hornets commercialized Slender Man, creepypasta and similar kinds of folkloresque storytelling keep the mythos alive. Although there are valid reasons to regard Slender Man as a media phenomenon, the myth went through a similar development as traditional folk tales. With the traceability of its original authors, it does not comply with the typical characteristics of folklore, however Slender Man’s history has shown that his origins can be obscured through deceptive means of online storytelling.
Boyer, Tina Marie. 2016. “Medieval Imaginations and Internet Role-Playing Games.” In American/Medieval. Nature and Mind in Cultural Transfer, edited by Gilian R. Overing and Ulrike Wiethaus, 27-46. Göttingen: V&R unipress.
Chess, Shira. 2012. “Open-Sourcing Horror: The Slender Man, Marble Hornets, and genre negotiations.” Information, Communication & Society 15, no. 3. 374-393. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2011.642889
Creepypasta Wiki. n.d. “The Slender Man.” Accessed November 16, 2022. https://creepypasta.fandom.com/wiki/The_Slender_Man.
Emery, David. 2017. “The Truth About Slenderman.” Snopes. January 20, 2017. https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/slenderman/
Gardner, Eriq. 2018. “Sony Taken to Court Over ‘Slender Man’ Threats.” The Hollywood Reporter. July 26, 2018. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/sony-taken-court-slender-man-threats-1130087/
Holzapfel, Otto. 2002. Mündliche Überlieferung und Literaturwissenschaft: Der Mythos von Volkslied und Volksballade. Münster: Aschendorff.
Internet Movie Database (IMDb). n.d. (a) “Joseph DeLage.” Accessed November 16, 2022. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4407693/?ref_=tt_cl_t_2
Internet Movie Database (IMDb). n.d. (b) “Victor Surge” Accessed November 16, 2022. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm6881486/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0
Internet Movie Database (IMDb). n.d. (c) “Troy Wagner.” Accessed November 16, 2022. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm4408257/?ref_=tt_cl_t_1
Tolbert, Jeffrey A. 2018. “”Dark and Wicked Things”: Slender Man, the Folkloresque, and the Implications of Belief.” In Slender Man Is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet, edited by Trevor J. Blank and Lynne S. McNeill. 91-112. Logan: Utah State University Press.
Zarka, Emily. 2020. “Slender Man: How The Internet Created a Monster | Monstrum.” Uploaded May 14, 2020. Video, 10:13. https://youtu.be/JBVn4SzvImo