deep dives

Slender Man Is Still Making People Uneasy — But Now for New Reasons

Photo: Sony Pictures Entertainment

In June 2009, Eric Knudsen uploaded two Photoshopped pictures to a web forum called Something Awful. The pictures were his entries in a contest called “Create Paranormal Images,” held in part to see who could come up with the the most evocative and disturbing fake photo. In the first, he added a blurry, ominous figure, tall and sticklike, behind a group of children. In a bit of morbid flair, he captioned it, “We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified us and comforted us at the same time…” (He added “1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.”) The second showed the same distant figure behind a playground, captioned, “One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as ‘The Slender Man.’” One poster marveled, “This is going to give me nightmares.”

The Slender Man’s appeal was so fascinatingly ambiguous that message-board members piled on eagerly, elaborating on his backstory. Who was he? What did he want? He preyed on children, or he kidnapped them or lured them away. Perhaps he influenced them to do terrible things on his behalf.

At first, making up Slender Man stories was the exclusive pastime of the paywall-protected Something Awful message board. But good stories have a way of breaking their imprisonments, and soon Slender Man stepped a long, mantis leg over the border and began spreading his tentacles into nearly every corner of the internet imagination. He became become the subject of e-books, web series, YouTube clips, video games, fan art. Someone introduced him as a character in Minecraft. Creepypasta, the fanfiction horror website, published countless stories about Slender Man. As the stories snowballed, his character became more ominous. Posters Photoshopped images of Slender Man onto ancient German woodcuts. In one Creepypasta story, a German boy named Lars from the 18th century is taken from his home. The idea was to suggest that Slender Man wasn’t just one message-board poster’s great idea, but was in fact the latest manifestation of a ghoulish fairy tale dating from antiquity. The Slender Man, maybe, had always been with us.

What grew out of all this feverish creative energy was a sort of Slender Man canon. (The term the posters use is “The Mythos,” with a capital M.) The stories, the fan art, the YouTube clips — they all serve to enrich or attach themselves to The Mythos. Like any good and properly bustling canon, it has agreed-upon classics and lesser works: The Marble Hornets YouTube series, uploaded only a few weeks after the original Something Awful post, furnished the Slender Mythos with a few of its most enduring tropes, including the idea that Slender Man creates distortion in electronic equipment wherever he appears. The 2012 video game The Eight Pages cemented Slender Man’s natural habitat as a deep, dark forest, straight out of the Brothers Grimm. Kids played the game and posted reaction videos as they screamed — like any kid who walked into the bathroom and chanted “Candyman” or “Bloody Mary” into the mirror, they were practicing scaring the shit out of themselves. Slender Man was just another meme then — a dark one, maybe, but seemingly benign.

And then in 2014 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, two 12-year-old girls named Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier lured their best friend Payton Leutner into the woods, stabbed her 19 times with a kitchen knife, and left her to die. (Against all odds, Leutner survived.) When Geyser and Weier were picked up five hours later by a pair of sheriff’s deputies, covered in blood and walking alongside Interstate 94, they explained that they did it to appease the Slender Man. They were headed to Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest, 200 miles north, to join him in Slender Mansion. “He can be anywhere from six to fourteen feet tall,” Anissa earnestly told investigators. “He can read minds and has teleportation skills.” She and Morgan decided to stab Payton, Anissa explained, because she wanted to “prove the skeptics wrong.”

The girls were put in juvenile detention to await sentencing. The case made national news. Morgan was diagnosed with early-onset schizophrenia; Anissa was given the slightly more vague diagnosis of a “shared delusion” that nonetheless absolved her of criminal responsibility. In January, Anissa was sentenced to 25 years in a psychiatric facility, the maximum possible penalty. Morgan was sentenced to 40 years in a mental institution in February. Leutner, according to her mother, sleeps with scissors under her pillow to feel safe. A town was scarred forever; three families were torn apart. The Slender Man myth had lurched horribly into reality, and a moral panic, similar in tone to previous uprisings about Marilyn Manson or Ozzy Osbourne, shrieked its way across national media. Slender Man was the dark force incarnate, the Thing that arrives unbidden and unseen from the outside world to march our children away — the cult leader, the stranger with candy. As far as millions of Americans were concerned, this was the beginning, middle, and end of the Slender Man story.

Except it’s not: This weekend, Screen Gems, a division of Sony Pictures, is slated to release a Slender Man horror film, directed by Sylvain White (Stomp the Yard). The movie does not tell the story of the crimes committed by Anissa and Morgan; in the trailer, however, young girls are motivated to do horrible things by their connection to Slender Man. “He gets in your head,” a young female voice-over whispers. “Like a virus.” Another girl is shown screaming and strapped to a cot, presumably institutionalized. Another, hollow-eyed, covered in blood, wanders numbly out of a forest, greeted by swirling cop cars. The camera pans down to her hands before fading to black: It is heavily implied she is carrying a knife.

You could imagine how someone, somewhere, might recoil.

Anissa’s father, Bill Weier, spoke out against the film swiftly, accusing the studio of profiteering off tragedy: “It’s absurd they want to make a movie like this,” he said. “All we’re doing is extending the pain all three of these families have gone through.” A petition circulated, demanding that Sony not release the film. “This is crass commercialism at its worst,” the petition announced. “It’s a naked cash grab built on the exploitation of a deeply traumatic event and the people who lived it.” To date, the petition has garnered just over 19,000 signatures.

The petition was started on a progressive social advocacy platform called Care2 by a woman named Alison Perris. Perris works for Care2, whose “goal really is to make the world a better place,” she tells me. Normally, Perris’s job title is senior brand marketer and PR, which means she is responsible for promoting the petitions of others, but she started the Slender Man petition on her own — a first. “I was aware of the case,” she says. “I saw the documentary that came out after the tragedy” — she’s referring to the 2017 HBO documentary Beware the Slender Man, which extensively interviewed Morgan and Anissa’s parents — but what really moved Perris, she says, was reading Weier’s comments about the film.

Perris has no connection to the Weiers, the Leutners, or the Geysers, and hasn’t been in contact with Bill Weier, she says. “This petition is really about corporate accountability on Sony’s behalf,” Perris says. “Where are your morals in this, you know? Because right now it looks like a blatant money grab around a story that’s really affected people’s lives.”

Screen Gems, the division of Sony responsible for Slender Man, seems a little queasy about its investment. When reached for comment about the controversy around their Slender Man film, the company offered only this on the record: “The Slender Man film is based on an original fictional character that became a viral internet sensation. The film is in no way a dramatization of any real life individuals or events.” The film has been delayed, however, from May to August, and even more tellingly, a report surfaced around the time of the delay that the producers were quietly shopping it to other studios.

A source with knowledge of the situation insists that audiences are making the distinction between the film and real events, pointing the Slender Man trailer’s 90 million views as evidence that the film is resonating strongly with traditional horror audiences.

“In my understanding of the Slender Man concept, there’s a lot of kids that really believe this is true,” says Perris. She alludes to “incidents outside of the incident in 2014 where kids are, you know, harming each other, and things are happening.” When I ask her to name these incidents, she says she found them yesterday in preparation for our interview. She also alludes to comments on the petition from parents, “things like, ‘My kids really believes in this.’ Even just seeing posters around town for this movie could be a trigger for their child.”

I wondered about this, so I decided to reach out to Waukesha, the town directly affected by the tragedy. Did they think the movie should be halted from release? Shawn Reilly, the mayor, declined to comment on the record, and numerous requests for comment went unanswered from the city council and the office of the DA. I was left with the question: Is Screen Gems, in fact, exploiting a tragedy, seeking box office returns from the blood of a real preteen girl? Is the movie dangerous? Or are they simply five years too late on a meme?

And the real question: Do kids even care about Slender Man anymore?

“Certainly not at the rate they used to, six or seven years ago,” says Trevor J. Blank, associate  professor of English and communications at SUNY Potsdam. Blank focuses on what is called “digital folklore,” and alongside Lynn McNeill, assistant professor of folklore at Utah State University, he is the co-editor of the upcoming anthology “Slender Man Is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet.”

“I think the stabbings made some people step back a bit from Slender Man and his popularity,” Blank adds. “I think it has waned since then. It’s much more something associated with childhood and adolescence nowadays.”

As for the triggering possibilities of this movie, Blanks seems doubtful. “It’s kind of funny, because a lot of the comments I’ve seen about this movie online have been been like ‘2010 called, it wants its meme back,’ ” he says.

McNeill agrees. “He’s much less an internet monster now,” she tells me. “The time for the idea of this frightening monster in the woods has passed, at least on the folk level.” The Slender Man meme is often used in parody and mockery: Put a fedora on a blank-faced mannequin and you’ve got yourself a Trenderman. There is another jokey offshoot, a well-dressed ghoul, called Splendorman. Kids play tag and say “Slender Man got you.”

“He’s lost his fangs, a little bit,” admits McNeill. “We see this happen a lot with online folklore that is initially believed.” Think of the giggles that sometimes break out in a theater after a good jump scare, except with a longer half-life. People still make fan art and new stories about Slender Man, but activity has gradually tapered off.

Still, the spectre of the Waukesha stabbings haunts The Mythos in ugly and unsettling ways. Poke around in the right places and fan art deifying Anissa and Morgan as “successful proxie,” — i.e., successful bids for the attention and favor of the Slender Man — isn’t that hard to find. It’s a troublingly similar phenomenon to the online communities celebrating school shooters, one McNeill minimizes as “one of those little dark corners of the internet that’s a little bit distressing.” She concedes that the Slender Man myth “reads so poorly” when your introduction to the character is through the stabbing. She also entirely understands the town of Waukesha’s visceral aversion to it. “Definitely in that town, that movie means something very different than it does anywhere else.”

But, she insists, Slender Man has been such a valuable creative outlet for so many that she refuses to vilify or condemn it. “I’m hesitant to blame the internet, because if we blame it, it makes it seem like a problem we can deal with by dealing with the internet, and that’s not true. We can’t fight this with anything but the tools we’ve already had, which are open discussions and conversation.”

“We had all of this before the internet,” McNeill observes, referring to things like Bloody Mary, babysitter legends, “the call is coming from inside the house.” “It was just a lot slower.” But speed is its own kind of danger. Guns, after all, are deadlier when they shoot faster; cars more dangerous at higher speeds. Saying “Bloody Mary” or “Candy Man” into a mirror is a quick way to test the border of fantasy and reality, and you come away from the experiment with a racing heart and a renewed sense of its impermeability. Seen through a message-board glass, darkly, though, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself that Candy Man and Bloody Mary are behind you, staring back.

There is something about the Slender Man figure that makes him a bogeyman uniquely suited to internet life. He watches, usually in the background, aims unclear. He is faceless, omnipresent, with tentacles that can reach into unexpected places. For anyone afraid of an all-seeing eye, whether it’s the surveillance state or the cruel fishbowl of middle school in the social-media age, there is something here to feel disturbed by. “When I search for a purple backpack one day and the next day my feed is filled with ads for purple backpacks — that’s Slender Man, right?” McNeill says, laughing. “Someone is watching me, trying to lure me with stuff it knows I want.”

For children, Slender Man often reflects their concerns about the world of adults. “We see a lot of confusion and conflict in the way he’s depicted by kids,” McNeill notes. “He’s an aggressor; he can come get you. But increasingly, he’s becoming a sort of savior, an anti-hero who helps kids who are being bullied, dealing with social pressures, or an unfortunate home life.” Slender Man fan art and fanfiction from recent years overwhelmingly depicts Slender Man as a protector, often show kneeling down gently, gracefully, to take a child’s hand. In some offshoots of The Mythos, he even has a daughter now, a young girl named Skinny Sally covered in scratches and bruises. Slender Man carries her often on his shoulders; the implication is that the world has given Sally these injuries, not her father.

This version of Slender Man is something of a spirit animal, a protector for children who feel they have none. Interestingly, the symptoms of Slender Sickness, supposedly one of the ways children can tell if Slender Man is near, are markedly similar to the body’s stress response to bullying. The mass psychology of memes is hard to plumb, but McNeill says the turn in Slender Man’s meaning happened shortly after the stabbing. She declines to guess why, but notes that the tone of Slender Man stories has grown increasingly ambiguous. She singles out a recent story in which a female protagonist “watches horrified” as Slender Man vivisects her tormentors. “A lot of the recent stories have more to do with debating the value of having a monster on your side,” she observes.

This sort of ambiguity is important to the life force of legends. Legends, in some ways, are how we debate the nature of reality. And that ambiguity, ultimately, is what will never come through in a mass-marketed genre horror film. “The principle of folklore is that it if doesn’t speak to us, it goes away,” McNeill says. “Bad movies still get made; they still have funding. They might tank, but they will make it to the theater. Bad folklore disappears. If we don’t like a story, we just stop telling it. The folklorist in me isn’t sure that a movie production company can beat the folk when it comes to telling a good Slender Man story. I think we’re swimming in good Slender Man stories. They can’t beat what we’ve already got.”

Slender Man Is Making People Uneasy — But for New Reasons