Slenderman: Internet Fiction with Murderous Implications?
Is the Slenderman phenomenon symptomatic of secular soul-searching in a culture robbed of religion, or a byproduct of bad religion? Or perhaps, as the author suggests, the Internet creation is one in a long line of legends filling our craving for a life imbued with mystery.
In late May, Slenderman, a faceless and enigmatic character born on the internet, shifted from invention to real-world menace when two 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin stabbed another girl, claiming they did so in order to impress him. Parents understandably wondered about Slenderman’s influence on their children as news of the stabbing spiked in newspapers across the U.S.
Slenderman generally manifests as a tall man in a black suit, white shirt, and tie with no clearly defined facial features. He is said to stalk victims over many years, torturing them mentally for unknown reasons, sometimes lashing out violently.
The Slenderman sensation began in 2009 when he was created on June 8 by Eric Knudsen as a horror hoax, a digital practical joke. However, this fictional character has developed into a 21st-century urban legend propagated by YouTube videos, photoshopped images, and websites like Creepypasta Wiki, an online short fiction site.
There are hardcore believers who decry profane descriptions of Slenderman. For them, he is a bona fide supernatural entity — a modern-day golem, or tulpa — "'a living thought form’ brought to life by sheer concentration or belief.”
From the start, there were religious accents to Slenderman. His initial lore included accounts of cults connected to him, of disciples who did his bidding and worshipped him in the dark. The cult rumors have since subsided but the religious overtones persist.
Some wonder if the Slenderman phenomenon is symptomatic of some sort of secular soul-searching in a culture fascinated with fantasy but robbed of religion. Others blame religion, arguing that a Christian heritage has robbed Americans of the ability to distinguish between illusion and reality.
Perhaps Slenderman is a manifestation of our culture’s drive to turn mutants into idols — a legacy of 20th-century theosophy, Eastern religious influence, and pseudo-scientific spiritualities. In the words of Jeffrey Kripal, we humans possess an uncanny belief in the “the Human as Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.”
Joseph Laycock, writing in Religion Dispatches, notes that stories of adolescents driven mad by Ouija boards brought to the public’s attention by perverted media are nothing new. Just look at the recent reports of three teens in Mexico who were purportedly possessed while experimenting with a Ouija board. Our fascination with demon possession, especially of children and women, may also be at play in the Slenderman hubbub.
Rather than spinning stories to young and old around a fire at night on the savannah or telling tales in the village meetinghouse, we now share our cultural folklore via YouTube, blogs, and the internet. Indeed, with modern forms of digital communication, folklore is more global than local, able to spread rapidly and containing various strands rather than one monolithic narrative. What is clear is that, whether or not they are factual, stories can have real effects on the world; this is the case with Slenderman, with or without violent teenagers.
But why has he captured the popular imagination? Is Slenderman, Carl Jung might say, a reflection of our culture’s deepest fears and motivations? Or, is he, Claude Lévi-Strauss might diagnose, evidence of our culture’s underlying psychological binaries of good/evil, empathetic/apathetic, etc.?
Other theories abound — spiritual and sacred — about the why, what, and how of this du jour mania. If anything is evident, it is that the appeal of Slenderman is hard to pin down. This ambiguity undermines claims that he is simply a product of the modern ethos.
In the end, Slenderman, and any other urban legend for that matter, highlight our natural, eternal, craving to live in a world imbued with mystery, spectacle, and archetypal heroes — whether they are magnificent, malevolent, or murderous.