If you've spent any time on popular news sites over the past few days, you may have come across the bizarre story out of Wisconsin about a 12-year-old who was stabbed by her classmates. While this is one of those things that are shocking on their own, it's made weirder due to mentions of "Slenderman" by the attempted murderers.
Of course, this led to everyone and his mother racing to explain to a confused general population just what Slenderman is, even though he's had a Wikipedia page since August 2012, had a Fox cartoon made about him, was a monster of the week (kinda) on Supernatural three months back and you can find Slenderman costumes in all reputable costume shops.
Okay, so maybe those references are still a bit obscure -- Supernatural is still a CW show, after all -- but it's still kind of funny watching CNN and the like using the same bits of information from the same sources to pretend they're up to speed on the Slenderman phenomenon. While they can certainly rewrite the same three facts with the best of them, none of them have been able to speak to why the creature is so popular with the Internet.
"Creature" is a very deliberate choice of word on my part. I get why you might be inclined to refer to him as a character, but the reality is that Slenderman is no different from the vampires, werewolves and zombies of popular folklore. Yeah, he's a fictional creature, but unlike the Freddy Kruegers, Godzillas and Xenomorphs of cinema, he wasn't created to push a product. He was simply created, and then the Internet took him and made him their own.
As a creature of folklore, he came along at the right time and, even though Eric Knudsen didn't know it when he posted the first photos of Slenderman to Something Awful five years ago, was just what the Internet was waiting for.
I attribute his continuing success to three things.
1. He's got the look. Sure, he's got a popular costume because putting together a Slenderman outfit is only one difficulty step above that awful "Clark Kent in a suit with a Superman shirt on under his button-down" outfit that's become a thing, but it's more than just being a great lazy costume. Slenderman falls right in the middle of the familiar horror/unknowable horror scale.
I mean, there's definitely something weird about a creature with overlong limbs and, depending on the interpretation, tentacles. Those are not things you just look past. But they're not things that are so horrifying that they either look too silly to be scary or too weird to be irrational. You can look at Slenderman and know immediately that it's something horrifying, which means the terror is immediate. He's not going to break your brain the way a Lovecraftian horror will; he's just immediately going to make you panic. It's what makes the first Photoshop (above) a classic of photo manipulation: You don't have to struggle to find what's wrong because what's wrong is a slight break in reality, which is really among the scariest breaks there are.
2. Most of the stories involving Slenderman are told in the first person. For as long as stories have been told, people have used the first-person perspective to try to make them more immediate. From stories told through letters and diary entries on down to the found-footage horror boom, trying to make a story scarier by placing the audience inside of it is a technique that is incredibly effective when done right.
The bulk of the stories about Slenderman are told through blogs and found-footage video. As such, the tales about him have that extra-creepy vibe of "oh man, what if this happened to me?" We live in a society in which everyone has a camera with him or her at all times. Can you imagine how horrifying it would be to look back at your Instagram uploads one day and discover that something with overly long arms had been in your life for the past few months and you'd never even noticed it?
Hollywood may be ruining the found-footage genre, but there's a generation of storytellers on the Internet using modern technology to scare the hell out of people with next to nothing in terms of budget.
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3. There are no rules. When do werewolves become werewolves? Everyone knows that it's when there's a full moon. Except that in The Wolf Man (1941), that wasn't the case at all. That didn't happen until the sequel, which is when the idea really took root in our collective conscious.
Right now, only five years removed from creation, there are still no hard-and-fast rules about Slenderman other than that he wears a suit. Sometimes he has tentacles and sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he's only after children and sometimes he terrorizes guys making workout videos. My favorite ability of his is the power to shift people through time and space, as shown in the above episode of Marble Hornets.
Because he can be anything, people can make him into the creature they need to tell the story they want. Slenderman isn't saddled with hundreds of years of baggage like vampires or market oversaturation like zombies. At least not yet, anyway.
He is, after all, only five.