Dark God Rising: The Slender Man
In late spring of 2014, police arrested two twelve-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin for allegedly holding down and stabbing a classmate over a dozen times. Child-on-child violence is terrible enough, but this crime had another, surreal feature. It lies in the motive for the attack. The girls told the investigating authorities that they intended their victim (who thankfully survived) to be an offering to the Slender Man. They claimed that the Slender Man watches over them and speaks to one of them telepathically. Their victim would have been only the first part of a process whereby the girls became human agents of the Slender Man.
A complication. The Slender Man is an invented monster, created in 2009 by Eric Knudsen on the Internet humor forum Something Awful. The particular thread showcased photographs digitally altered to include supernatural entities, but Knudsen also included snippets of text, creating the beginnings of a story. The idea went viral, with an unknown number of people contributing to the Slender Man mythos. There are Slender Man memes, Slender Man stories, Slender Man cosplayers, Slender Man video games, and several Slender Man YouTube channels, the most famous being Marble Hornets.
The Slender Man is usually described as thin and unnaturally tall, wearing a black suit and with a blank face devoid of any features. He stalks and traumatizes or even abducts his victims, which most often are children. Sometimes he abducts multiple victims at a single moment. His motivations for doing so are unclear and possibly unknowable.
And he is completely made up.
I don't think that fact can be stressed enough. The Slender Man is—or at least began as—a kind of game, the Internet equivalent of telling ghost stories around the campfire. The storytellers give the basic idea their own twists, suiting their own unique quirks and the needs of their audience. The stories of the Slender Man have circulated and mutated over time like traditional folklore or like an urban legend. It is a meme. It's taken on a life of its own.
Nor is the Slender Man the only such monster spawned by the Internet. The Japanese have the Kunekune, a modern-day yōkai said to resemble a slender paper manikin or a slender piece of fabric. The limbs are said to writhe or wriggle constantly, the name of the creature coming from this feature. If a person comes too close, the Kunekune will kill the observer. Stories about the Kunekune started circulating on the Internet in 2003, at first on websites dedicated to stories of Japanese preternatural creatures (yōkai) and later on sites just about the Kunekune. The stories are usually told in the first person, as if they actually happened to the narrator. There are no reported cases of the Kunekune linked to any crimes. Yet.
It is a common belief of many fantasy stories that the power of the gods derives from their worshippers. When belief in a particular god is strong, the god is powerful. When belief in the god wanes, its power wanes. In the introduction to his collection, Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison posits that the same principle holds true with the gods you and I know from history. The Norse gods. The Aztec gods. Allah and Jehovah. "When puny mortals no longer worship at their altars, the gods die. To be replaced by newer, more relevant gods."
Those who worship a particular god generally do so because they feel they benefit somehow from their belief. The god forgives their sins, gives an hierarchical order to their existence, makes their business successful, helps them predict the winning lottery numbers. The gods make sense of our existence. If existence no longer makes sense, if we endure misfortune or suffering, if the ears of our gods are closed to our cries, we find ourselves at a crisis of belief. Our relationship to our god changes, perhaps grows, as a human relationship can grow through difficulties. Or perhaps we change our system of belief.
We live in a time of great unease. Forces beyond ourselves control much more of our destiny than we would like. For many people, the answers of the past are no longer valid for the questions of today and tomorrow. The creator of the Slender Man intended him as a reflection of those sorts of fears: the fear that the universe is controlled by beings whose motivations we cannot understand, that there is a single, featureless face behind the unease and moments of terror that haunt us. We give this unease a name and form, and thereby gain some control over it.
Which brings us back to Wisconsin. If a god exists to the extent that it is believed in, does the Slender Man exist? Most people know the Slender Man to be a fictional creation. It speaks to their fears and to the stories that they want to tell. The Slender Man, at least to the extent that they find it a useful character constructing their narratives, helps them make sense of the world. It is not real.
But for those twelve-year-old girls, the Slender Man was real enough that they were going to commit murder for him. One could argue that the girls have lost (or never acquired) the critical faculties which enable most of us to discriminate between fact and fiction. Or in layman's terms, they're batshit crazy. (As of this writing, the courts have disagreed. The girls are scheduled to stand trial as adults for attempted first-degree murder.)
There is another, more disturbing possibility. Perhaps we have the dubious privilege of being witnesses to the birth of a new god. Perhaps belief in Jupiter and Thor began by our primitive ancestors telling stories in their caves about the figure they saw hurling lightning bolts into the forest. The all-seeing eye of Amon-Re began as the desert sun blazing down upon the Egyptian people. Belief in the Slender Man began with two prepubescent girls in Midwestern America trying to take control over their own lives. From Internet meme to psychological support system to system of belief. The progression is frighteningly plausible.
Fiction writers on occasion experience writing a story so compelling that it seems to come from somewhere outside of the writers themselves. They speak of muses, or of stories telling themselves. The writer only has to get out of the way. Our national and social identity, our places within the hierarchies of families and other groups, our self-identity—to an extent, one could say that we are our stories. But do we tell our stories, or do our stories tell us? Which is the master?
Does the Slender Man exist? He's as real as any story. And perhaps the stories we tell have the power to call the gods down upon us...