Do you know about Slender Man? If not, you may want to stop reading now for your own safety. In a media environment ruled by what can get the most clicks, that’s a pretty counterintuitive opener, I know. But that’s what’s so great about the Slender Man mythos.
For those of you who both don’t know Slender Man and are bad at following directions, he is an urban legend (allegedly) created on the Something Awful forums in 2009. Universally described as a tall, thin, featureless man in a black-and-white suit and often sporting black tendrils, Slender Man has found his way into quite a few web series, alternate reality games (ARGs), hyperfiction, and at least one video game. All of them are free and available online. All of them made – and I mean this with utmost respect – by amateurs.
As such, there have been quite a few takes on just who and what he is, but most everyone agrees: the more you try to learn about him, the more likely he is to come for you. What he’ll do to you once he finds you varies. Maybe he’ll kill you. Maybe he’ll absorb you, and no one’s quite clear on what that means. Maybe he’ll take you to a burned-out schoolhouse’s doorless basement. Maybe he’ll snatch you up and drop you in an inescapable pocket dimension. No one knows.
And that’s where his greatest asset lies. At its heart, dread is doubt we cannot ignore. And at his best, Slender Man plays on this in ways no one has since Lovecraft. Poorly lit, grainy, shaky YouTube videos where any shadow could be him. Sometimes he’s right there, clearly visible, inches away, staring, but somehow unseen by the people close enough to feel his breath – if he breathes.
Videos from separate accounts, blog posts from the videos’ creators or “others,” tweets from those affected, months-long hiatuses after particularly chilling encounters that scared our intrepid documentarians into silence – all of these work together to bring an immersive experience you just can’t get any other way.
The makers of this year’s forthcoming Marble Hornets movie are hoping that’s untrue. Marble Hornets, originally, was one of the first in-depth YouTube series founded on the Slender Man mythos. The movie is slated to take place in the same universe as the series, but employing a different plot and set of characters.
I am very interested to see how this plays out. In a lot of ways, Slender Man is best served by the culture and interactive elements of the internet.
For example, a key tenet of the form – if the Slender Man tale can presume to be a form – is painfully slow buildup, with lots of chaff to be sorted through, long stretches of “normal” moments that leave you peering intently at every corner, every tree, on alert for the next sighting.
One of the most famous series, EverymanHYBRID, bills itself as a nutrition vlog for six episodes.
Slender Man makes very rare appearances during this run and isn’t directly addressed as an entity until the turning point in episode 7, two months into the project, wherein the creators admit they don’t know what’s going on in the background of their videos, but they’re scared. It will take a particularly bold filmmaker to pull something like that off.
Another asset the serial-via-social-media format has going for it is … its being serialized via social media. Real people use this medium to tell their real stories all the time. The same can’t be said for movies found in theaters. The unknown actors, the banal status updates, the bad camera work, the wonky pacing, the general lack of polish all work together to counteract the voice of reason in your head saying it’s all fake, that some bored film students are messing with you. It is The Blair Witch Project fully realized.
That is not to say I’m writing off Marble Hornets entirely. For one thing, Slender Man – or The Operator, as he’s known in MH – is played by none other than Doug frickin’ Jones. With Pan’s Labyrinth’s Pale Man, Buffy’s Gentleman, and Hellboy’s Abe Sapien among his credits, Jones is by far the most qualified entity to haunt our dreams as a tall, gaunt, pale figure this side of Slendy.
Professional horror movies have been scaring people for almost as long as we’ve known how to make pictures move. Despite what some cynical critics would have you believe, Hollywood horrors are still capable of creating suspense, of drawing out tense moments – which is, after all, the aim of the “slow” portions of Slender Man stories. Actors’ entire profession comes from their ability to make you forget that they are not their characters. They exist to make you believe in them, and they’re good enough at it to be paid millions of dollars to do so, which is a lot more than the enthusiastic teenagers with a couple handheld cameras can say. I can’t wait to see a big (or at least “existent”) budget take on my favorite contemporary creeping terror, and I hope with all my heart that it is fantastic and deeply discomforting.
But Slender Man is of the Internet. He was born there, and he has grown there. Slender Man’s tentacles have been unfolding, insinuating themselves into in-universe Twitter accounts and blogs and dark, threatening YouTube videos that the EverymanHYBRID gang claims they cannot see. Varied, pervasive and realistically intermittent dispatches from seemingly scared and confused strangers do things that any movie watched in one sitting, without supporting evidence, no matter its effects budget, cannot. That sprawling web, so carefully interwoven with your “usual” online experience, is the unseen mouthless face just over your shoulder that impossibly manages to whisper, “Maybe…” And you have to ask yourself … did you hear that?
Deadshirt contributor Cameron DeOrdio writes fiction, journalism, essays, PR and comic book scripts that no human dare illustrate — largely because no one who draws will read them. You can follow him on Twitter if you’d like, but if you’d rather not, that’s OK, as he’s a Mets fan and has therefore exceeded his lifetime disappointment quota.