The story of Slenderman has been cited everywhere from internet message boards to the courtroom. But how did it take hold—and what does it tell us about horror in the digital age?by James McMahon / July 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Despite describing behaviour that spans the entirety of human existence, the word ‘folklore’ is a relatively new one. Its creation is credited to the English writer William Thoms, who in an 1846 missive to The Athenaeum replaced more cumbersome descriptives of the age—“popular antiquities” being the most prominent—with this new term.
Loosely speaking, “folklore” is an umbrella term for stories that are transmitted from one person to another. Examples include conspiracy theories, fairy tales and ghost stories.
The word is a literal admission that to be human is to tell stories. The years pass and technology changes. The urge, however, has not.
Take, for instance, Creepypasta: the term given to the phenomenon of telling horror stories online. Creepypasta is a portmanteau of the words “creepy” and “copypasta,” itself an internet-era term coined on the ever creative, often controversial 4chan messageboard to describe the copy-and-pasting of text around the internet.
Creepypasta has existed for well over a decade now, but its most significant foray into mainstream culture came in 2014 when tragedy intersected with creativity and brought Creepypasta’s Big Bad, Slenderman, to an audience beyond online communities like Reddit (and the imaginations of internet-savvy teenagers).
Slenderman was born on June 10, 2009, on the forum of a website known for its dark humour, named, prophetically, Something Awful. That day, the website was hosting a paranormal-themed Photoshop competition, encouraging users to create digitally altered creepy images. Using the pseudonym Victor Surge, user Eric Knudsen uploaded his contribution, in which a gaunt, spectral figure in a suit—Slenderman—was added to two weathered photographs of children playing.
Knudsen included a couple of snatches of text, presenting the photos as a historical artefact in the tradition of the 1967 Patterson-Grimlin Bigfoot footage or Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson’s grainy 1934 photo proclaiming evidence of the Loch Ness Monster. Knudsen wrote that the mysterious figure stalked children. His contribution was well-received by other users. So far, so creative.
Yet just under five years later, two 12-year-olds from Waukesha, Wisconsin named Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, lured their friend Payton Leutner into the woods and stabbed her nineteen times. The teens later claimed that the murder had been demanded by Knudsen’s Slenderman. Earlier this year, Geyser was sentenced to spend 40 years in a mental hospital. Weier will spend 25 years in a similar institution.