Midnight Society: Slenderman, Creepypasta + Hollywood’s Embrace of Internet Folklore

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Slenderman
Slenderman

Three young friends walked into the Wisconsin woods in May 2014, but only two walked out. The third, crawled to safety through the brush, with over 19 stab wounds covering her body. The motive? Appeasing the fictional character Slenderman by bringing him a sacrifice. Three years on, this tragic event, inspired by an internet meme, will be the subject of an HBO documentary entitled Beware the Slenderman directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky. The highly anticipated doc will focus not only on the murder, but the darker corners of the internet and its potential impact on those with fragile mental health.

Internet Origins

Since the attack, Slender Man— and the community that created him— have been catapulted into the mainstream a far cry from his humble internet beginnings.

His first appearance was in 2010 on the Something Awful Internet Forum during a photoshop competition. Entrees were asked to photoshop normal photos to appear supernatural and unto the world, thus Slenderman was born. Victor Surge AKA, Eric Knudsen submitted a black and white photo of a tall and thin figure, wearing a suit, who stood faceless behind a group of oblivious children. Under the photo was an unsettling quote  “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…”— 1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.”

Two days after the initial submission, a second user, “LeechCode5,” created two additional photos based on the original. His submissions also included a shadowy figure, this time with tentacles, and a quote linking Slenderman to the disappearance and possible death of multiple children. Knudsen contributed further, by creating two further photographs providing even further background, including his presence in the woods, cementing Slenderman as a full-fledged CreepyPasta.

“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…”

A CreepyPasta is an internet tale written for fun and safe spooks born on forums and spreads like a meme. The term is internet slang, a twist on “Copy Paste” which is how these tales initially spread throughout the internet. These stories are designed to be brief and digested in one sitting but can vary in format from a short story to ritual instructions for the reader. They are fictional but rooted by enough truth that the reader may begin to question whether or not the origins were completely baseless.

In Slenderman’s early days he was tied to two very real mysteries, the Dyatlov Pass incident and a hiking tragedy that left nine dead in 1959. Since the mysteries were never solved, it was easy to fit Slenderman into their existing theories with some degree of plausibility which garnered intrigue and allowed the CreepyPasta to flourish.

Once a character is developed, anyone can become involved in the formation of the narrative. Like a meme, the story is created and destroyed countless times by the online community. They are never finished, their presence only grows, fed by the members, until the true origins are forgotten and the character becomes as familiar to you as Bloody Mary or the Clown in the Basement.

Morgan Geyser (right) and Anissa Weier
Morgan Geyser (right) and Anissa Weier

Waukesha, Wisconsin

The blurred origins of Slenderman and the perceived authenticity of the character lead to the events of May 2014. The two young girls, having read about Slenderman on the CreepyPasta Wiki, believed that a sacrifice was required to become “proxies” of the character and save their families. Their intended sacrifice was a mutual friend who they lured into the woods during a Birthday sleepover. Once isolated, the victim was stabbed 19 times by her friends before being abandoned and presumed dead. Miraculously, the victim was able to crawl out of the trees and onto a path where she was discovered by a cyclist. The two perpetrators, who allegedly suffer from mental illness, currently await trial.

In the aftermath of the incident, the CreepyPasta community was both blamed and admired. How could an internet story be misconstrued with such dire consequences? Who was to blame for this little girl’s attack, and were these internet ghost stories a bit too believable? Knudsen quickly released a brief statement and offered his condolences to all involved. Creepypasta.com released a further statement also offering condolences and imploring their readers to reach out to friends and family who may suffer from mental illness. They also reiterated their true goal, to provide entertainment to the horror fandom. The community agreed while the events of May 2014 were tragic, the importance of creating and imagining new myths and characters as a community is a healthy expression and is only intended for amusement.

Photoshopped image of the Slenderman
Photoshopped image of the Slenderman

Hollywood’s Interpretation 

Hollywood isn’t naive. Nothing is scarier (and more compelling) than a tale of horror entering reality. Once the events of 2014 transpired, studios and writers began scouring these grass root forums for information and inspiration. Bringing together true crime aficionados and horror fans alike, forums are redefining ghost stories and how they are told. The idea of turning to folklore and bringing common, anonymous tales to screen is certainly not new, but looking to the internet, specifically online message boards, is a recent development, having previously been largely ignored due to their unstructured format and amateur feel.

Independent filmmakers and smaller networks were some of the first to look to these forums for inspiration. Several shorts have been created based on the tales including Sonic.EXE by Jake Pound, one of the first shorts based on a CreepyPasta to gain traction. The Jeff the Killer myth will also be brought to screens by Purity Films in 2017, and in 2016 the first mainstream example released was Channel Zero on SyFy, based on the Candle Cove thread which first appeared on the NetNostalgia forum. The show currently has a 92% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes—a far cry from the network’s Sharknado programming of yore, proving that you cannot discount amateur storytelling.

As audiences tire of the same Sleepy Hollow and Chainsaw remakes, demand for new content is becoming louder. Ambien has killed Freddy and Michael Meyers is over the hill, and so studios and filmmakers will continue to turn to this modern source of folklore for fresh narratives. HBO’s acceptance of this new source has helped legitimize these forums and will propel the trend of bringing internet fiction to the mainstream. This previously untapped community rich in urban myth and horror will soon be seen as an established source of creativity and chronicle.

In the world of fake news and blurred realities, it’s important to not fall too far into the fantasy.

In the world of fake news and blurred realities, it’s important to not fall too far into the fantasy. Accessibility and ambiguity can pose a  challenge for even those with solid foundations and strong mental capacities, perhaps validating the genre will help define the boundaries and bring clarity to these internet myths before the next disastrous slumber party unfolds.

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