Beware the Slender Man: From Cyberlore to Conspiracy Theory

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

The moral panic surrounding Slender Man—a figure of Internet folklore—erupted in 2014 after two young girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, stabbed a female friend and left her for dead in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Though the girls were quickly apprehended en route to Nicolet State Park and the victim, Payton (Bella) Leutner, was rushed to the hospital, the violent episode made national news as an eerie, uncanny figure emerged in Geyser and Weier’s stories—that of Slender Man, a fictional creature first spawned on Something Awful by Eric Knudsen/Victor Surge as a part of a paranormal photo competition. Both girls have been incarcerated since 2014 and their trial as adults is set to take place this year. The Slender Man stabbing, as it has come to be known, is the subject of HBO’s latest documentary Beware The Slenderman, a film as concerned with the psychological conditions of Geyser and Weier as it is with the mimetic production and circulation of the faceless horror figure, a creature many have referred to as a digitally crowd-sourced monster. The documentary manages to incorporate the digital corpus and community that made Slender Man into a mythic creation capable of inciting violence, but the preoccupation with Internet surveillance among children and psychology of the girls fails to account for the digital ecology within which Slender Man was produced, or the connections between the mimetic monster and the digital affordances that have also given rise to phenomena like Pepe the Frog, Pizzagate, and Anonymous.

Though Slender Man began as a clever bit of photoshopping and flashfiction, the collective authorship and reinterpretation of the character through digital channels buoyed his popularity and seeming veracity. While Victor Surge copyrighted Slender Man in 2010, he also encouraged fans of his original Something Awful posts to embellish the story and use their technological skills to craft a historical and folkloric tradition that would lend to the immortality and realism of the figure. Fans adjusted old Germanic woodcuts and petroglyphs to illustrate Slender Man’s existence beyond the digital realm, inventing “proof” that Slender Man, or at least the Slender Man archetype, has existed since time immemorial. Quoting Shifman, Shira Chess and Eric Newsom comment that as an Internet meme, Slender Man “can be treated as (post)modern folklore, in which shared norms and values are constructed through cultural artifacts such as Photoshopped images or urban legends.’ In other words, memes crowdsource cultural values, fetishes, fears, and anxieties” (2015: 19). The word meme was originally coined by Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, who is also featured on Beware the Slenderman. He compares memes to viruses, ones that can be passed through horizontal transmission, or from person to person. This epidemiological metaphor speaks to the fact that, apart from Surge’s original post, there is no distinctive Slender Man authoritative text. Fan participation and circulation of Slender Man through stories, photographs, You Tube video encounters, web series like Marble Hornets, and games like Slender: The Eight Pages have built a transmedia figure now paradigmatic of digital folklore.

Slender Man has often been referred to as a modern boogeyman, and yet, as the documentary points out, Slendy aligns with established folkloric archetypes. Jack Zipes, author of Breaking the Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales (1979), compares Slender Man to the Pied Piper. Both are mysterious male figures with a certain affinity for children. As Chess and Newsom indicate, Slender Man’s “motives are generally left to mystery, although many of the early stories have him specifically targeting children or young adults […] In general, the Slender Man is a stalker character whose primary interest is in taking children,” although, “few of the retellings identify exactly what kind of monster the Slender Man might be, and what his specific intentions are” (30). Many academic studies on fairy tales, particularly those published by Bruno Bettelheim, employ the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to apply a psychoanalytic lens to the stories. It’s not surprising, therefore, that while Beware the Slenderman provides some context to the digital creature, the second part of the documentary primarily focuses on the psychological conditions of Geyser and Weier as a potential explanatory model for their decision to sacrifice Bella to Slender Man.

Geyser and Weier told Waukesha officials that they wanted to become “proxies” for Slendy. In some versions of Slender Man lore, his abduction of children is paternal and protective. There are stories, such as “Cold and Dark,” that even cast Slender Man in a romantic role, although fans tend to dismiss these non-horror Slendy narratives. The girls expressed concern about the welfare of their families, since, like talk of witchcraft in Favret-Saada’s ethnography Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage (1981), the very acknowledgement of Slender Man draws his attention and establishes his existence. Yet, countervailing this fear, Geyser and Weir also wanted to form a more intimate relationship with the cthulhu-esque creature. For both girls, however, Slender Man was undeniably real. This epistemological claim seems to be explained in the documentary, in part, by Geyser’s diagnosis with schizophrenia. The medicalization of her belief in Slender Man ignores the fact that for some fans, Slender Man is a tulpa, or a creature that is brought into physical being through assiduous mental concentration. Chess and Newsom go on to note, “While everyone is able to acknowledge that the character, itself, was born fictionally, the tulpa theory allows a space where the Slender Man is able to both exist and not exist” (119). Although Creepypasta and Slender Man fans condemned Geyser and Weier’s actions, there remains a contingent of believers emboldened by the seeming size and verisimilitude of Slender Man lore that made the creature such a convincing and compelling transmedia figure. The diagnostic pronouncement of schizophrenia sidesteps the subtleties of slippage between reality and mediation experienced by many Internet users.

Here is where Beware the Slenderman missed a crucial opportunity to draw connections between the mimetic monster and broader digital ecology within which he (or it) was produced. Slender Man fans largely got to decide which stories were legitimate enough to be enshrined in the “canon” or Slenderverse—the role of fans was so critical to Slendy’s rise that his scope has expanded beyond the original premise of the character. By nature of their circulation and dislocation from their original point of creation, memes evolve, often in unintended and unexpected ways. We witnessed this first-hand in the appropriation of Pepe the Frog by the alt-right during the 2016 Presidential Election. Matt Furie, Pepe’s creator, was horrified as he watched his baked, irreverent, though relatively benign cartoon become a symbol for white nationalism, particularly among the contingent of Donald Trump supporters mobilized on the r/The_Donald reddit thread. Although Furie strived to cultivate a collection of positive Pepe the Frog cartoons, the amphibian’s memeability was such that control over the image and what it represented no longer belonged to him. All your base are belong to us, so to speak. But the reddit thread where Trump supporters coalesced is not so dissimilar from the Creepypasta forums where Slender Man is also discussed.

The alt right affiliated with Pepe the Frog and Donald Trump is also culpable for circulating fake news stories. The intent behind these fake news stories was essentially to troll the Democratic Party and its candidate, thereby disrupting Clinton’s bid for presidency with stories that were factually inaccurate but shared so many times on social media, with all the right trappings of truth, that they seemed true. Fake news not only played a role in undermining Clinton’s seeming legitimacy for president, but also demonstrated the increasingly slippery continuum between fact and fiction among public readership. The disastrous consequences of fake news even after the elections resulted in the Pizzagate conspiracy.

The conspiracy theory claimed that a popular music venue and pizza parlor in Washington D.C., Comet Ping Pong, was actually a covert child sex trafficking hub. Pizzagate was incited by “close-readings” of Podesta’s emails released through Wikileaks, which claimed to identify food-related code words connecting Clinton and Comet Ping Pong with pedophilia and satanic rituals. Those who incited Pizzagate essentially fabricated a story out of ambiguous triangle-shaped imagery and covert discourse that fit within a set of ideological principles, a lore that aligned with the urban legends already propagated in a particular public.  Conspiracy theorists who believed the rumor used the r/pizzagate subreddit to the make the story go viral. The allegations put forth by Pizzagate truthers resulted in Edgar Welch’s decision to enter Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle in November of 2016 with the express purpose of “saving” the abused children believed to be harbored in the restaurant’s non-existent basement. What makes Welch’s vigilante actions, which endangered patrons at Comet Ping Pong, different from the Slender Man violence?

Evidence and empiricism, in these phenomena, veer towards a Latourian bent of social constructivism, which posits that knowledge is constructed through social interaction and affirmation. While science depends on empirical research, clinical trials and modes of objective critical authentification, the controversy incited by Andrew Wakefield’s publication on vaccines and autism also demonstrates the social contingencies of science and technology studies. The point being that while psychologists and social workers in Beware the Slenderman are called upon to explain how children may have difficulty delineating fantasy from reality, the digital literacy of the wider American public is just as culpable of deception and subterfuge.

I’ve already argued about Donald Trump’s tulpa effect. It should be noted that, like Slender Man, Trump is also very much a transmedia figure, one that acts upon a series of unverified, but digitally crowd-sourced legends as a sort of political ostension. Chess and Newsom identify the publicity around The Dark Knight (2008) as one of the first compelling manifestations of transmedia storytelling, which included political ads for Harvey Dent’s bid for District Attorney. Over the past several days since Trump’s inauguration, we’ve witnessed the President employ a sort of transmedia political bricolage in his speeches and press briefings. His inauguration speech included vaguely plagiarized lines from Bane of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), his campaign tagline was eerily similar to a slogan used by Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret in Octavia Butler’s novel Parable of the Talents (1998), and his platform of “Keep America Great” is quite literally stolen from The Purge: Election Year (2016). In his refusal to receive briefings from the CIA or engage with scientists on climate change, Trump seems to receive most of his “news” from sources of illegitimate or partial journalism, news he then treats as “alternative facts.” He believes that his inauguration was attended by millions of people, and then asked the National Parks Service to find, or rather fabricate data to prove these imagined numbers. He continues to assert that millions of individuals voted illegally in the 2016 election, despite all evidence to the contrary. His investment in conspiracy theories has now devolved from symbolic violence into the prohibition of certain bodies into the country, and the endorsement of torture and military interventions against others. He is acting upon a lore he helped to create with the aid of digital platforms and participatory publics.

Finally, the Slender Man moral panic also articulates with concerns about cybersecurity. Weier’s father, interviewed in Beware the Slenderman, blames the iPad for Morgan’s interest in Creepypasta and culpability in the Slender Man stabbing. This technological panic—which contends that devices like cellphones or tablets are contributing to the moral and social decay of the youth—is hardly new, but nonetheless reinstantiates the impression of a generational moral hierarchy. It assumes that adolescents aren’t capable of navigating the digital affordances of 21st century connectivity despite their status as “digital natives,” while at the same time positing that older generations are digitally literate, savvy and responsible. Slender Man emerged around the same time that a group known as Anonymous also began to consolidate online. Indeed, one of the group’s first identifying images was that of a faceless man in a dark suit. Anonymous gained international notoriety and acclaim for taking on the Church of Scientology and creating digital forums in Egypt during the Arab Spring. The hacktivist contingent has pledged to “take down” Donald Trump by finding and releasing his tax returns, as well as other damning documentation of his business dealings. The Internet and our modern digital affordances present multifarious and polysemic potentialities for communication and collaboration. But we cannot fetishize this same technology by blaming it as the sole cause of these tragedies, imbuing digital forums with an almost supernatural capacity for harm.

If we are to return to Dawkins’ original concept of the meme, we can consider how conspiracy theories are viral—transmitted from person to person, spreading and infecting those who have not properly inoculated themselves to their “truthiness.” These controversies are catching. If we insist on pathologizing incidents like Slender Man, but disallow any psychological assessment of our president from being published, then we are presented with what might be considered to be an incipient public health crisis, one with diagnostic categories that have only begun to crystallize. As medical anthropologists remind us, illness is somatic as well as social, emerging within a nexus of contributing factors beyond the biological. If Slender Man is a refraction and manifestation of our contemporary fears, he also represents the darker interstices of the imagination, the collapse of rational boundaries between the preternatural and the possible. Slender Man is not an isolated outbreak, but rather an incident on a broader epidemiologic continuum, one we are all willing or unwitting participants of.

 

Works Cited

Header Image from Slender: The Eight Pages

Chess, Shira and Eric Newsom. Folklore, Horror Stories, and the Slender Man. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Favret-Saada, Jeanne. Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

 

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About Emma Louise Backe

MA in Medical Anthropology and Global Gender Policy from George Washington University, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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