Who is the Slender Man? – Naja Later

[Figure 1: Victor Surge’s Slender Man, 2009]

Figure 1. Victor Surge’s Slender Man, 2009.

The Slender Man is a monster that has crept into our frame of imagination in recent years. Invented on the Internet forum Something Awful in 2009, the Slender Man has developed into an entire multi-platformed transmedia mythos.[1] Defined by his liminality, he makes a difficult but valuable ‘text’ in the contemporary horror mediascape. I suggest that the Slender Man has the ability to challenge how we understand reality. I seek to situate the Slender Man in his political and technological era by illustrating his relationship with contemporary media theories. Slender Man mythology is communally developed, making it an example of the viewer/user/player relationship in new media ecologies, where one must be dynamically critical of realities and fictions. Using Jonathan Gray’s framework of paratexts and Alternative Reality Games, I discuss the Slender Man as a postmodern polycentric folklore phenomenon, displacing his fictionality. The challenges of studying a decentralised viral narrative illustrate how the Slender Man’s evolution can be understood in the context Slavoj Žižek’s post-9/11 ‘Desert of the Real.’[2] As the Slender Man slips through a mise-en-abyme of different media frames, he mirrors the cultural decentralisation of the ‘real.’ Those engaged in Slender Man’s world are using horror to challenge how and by whom media realities are presented, making a formidable critical monster. I contend that the Slender Man uses transmedia horror storytelling to destabilise our political and technological understanding of reality.

It is fundamental when seeking an understanding of the Slender Man that one takes into account his marginality and the communal nature of his canon. I cannot give a comprehensive understanding of his mythology, and attempting would curtail his significance: what merits study is that he is uncategoriseable and in a constant state of development. There is no authoritative version of the Slender Man, but an outline of his more popular incarnations follows. The Slender Man first appeared during a horror Photoshop competition on the Something Awful Internet forums in 2009.[3] Two black-and-white photographs, allegedly taken sometime in the late 20th century, display groups of children playing outdoors. Photoshopped in the background of each is a tall humanoid in a suit, with white tentacle-like arms emerging from its sleeves. Each photograph comes with a fictional caption, describing how these are theorised as appearances of the ‘Slender Man,’ who caused these children and many others to disappear.[4] From these photographs, three things are already apparent: that the Slender Man discourse is framed as ‘real’ urban legends, that he exists on the interlinked media of text and photograph, and that the Slender Man can transfer into other platforms or spaces, in this case being retroactively mythologised in the 20th century.

[Figure 2: Victor Surge’s Slender Man, 2009]

Figure 2.Victor Surge’s Slender Man, 2009.

From this ‘first’ appearance, the Slender Man canon has been expanded by many Internet users. His appearance and nature are open for interpretation, but usually contain a number of tropes: his height is between two and three metres; his face is featureless and white or obscured; he wears a black suit; he has either long skeletal fingers or tentacles for hands; his presence corrupts recording devices; and he hunts children or people in general. These attributes contribute to his readability as a monster of negotiated reality, as will be discussed.

Since the Something Awful phenomenon, many more photographs and written urban legends have circulated from different sources. Two of the most popular Slender Man stories are Marble Hornets, a film project hosted on Youtube, and Slender Game, a short horror video game, which I will use as case studies later in the paper.[5] Material such as this has has been collected and curated on a number of websites – literally sites in the polycentric sense – such as slendermanmythos and Villains Wiki.[6] The former discusses how various users contribute to the mythos, framing the activity as an ARG. The latter is one of the many examples in which the Slender Man is framed as real: like the Something Awful pictures, the Villains Wiki page uses a real-life ‘retrospective continuity,’ documenting appearances of the Slender Man in medieval mythology. This site alleges that Something Awful was not the myth’s genesis, and that the Slender Man has existed, either in reality or folklore, for centuries. A list like Villains Wiki suggests that there is no outward limit to what can be included in the Slender Man universe: he can comfortably infiltrate the ‘real’ world of history. These collections file Slender Man along with mythical and ‘real’ monsters alike, collapsing his exclusive categorisation in either.


Slender Man: MarbleHornets, entry #1

Slender Man is one of the more popular examples of an Internet trend of horror storytelling. Following the sensations of hyperlink storytelling and user-edited wiki pages, websites such as Villains Wiki, creepypasta, and SCP have become popular loci for horror narratives.[7] Such sites often have verisimilitudes that users obey or play with: SCP uses pseudo-institutional jargon, complete with fake censored omissions, to portray itself as the database for monsters and evil phenomena that must be Secured, Contained, and Protected. The Slender Man is one myth from this field that went ‘viral,’ I suggest in part because his transferability is endemic to his monstrosity.

As a multi-platform, multi-authored ‘text’, the Slender Man makes an excellent study for transmedia narratives. For the Slender Man, there is no workable medium from which he transitioned: all Slender Man media is transmedia. Multiple texts or canons must be considered to give a proper understanding of the Slender Man. There are edited photographs, games, videos, illustrations, short stories, costume role-play ‘cosplays’, and the aforementioned lists and wikis themselves. The Slender Man shifts with ease between these many platforms, without any ‘base’ necessary, transferring himself like a virus. To track the Slender Man, the spectator must make shifts in accordance with his: Stephen Dinehart’s viewer/user/player or VUP becomes a more workable term for those in the Slender Man’s world as they view photographs, use wikis, and play games with him.[8] These different approaches and platforms often compromise his fictionality. Levels of verisimilitude and realness, compounded by his appearance in a range of reputable-appearing sources, give the Slender Man an ‘edge’ of horror. If he can virally slip from a game to that story on Facebook about a disappeared friend-of-a-friend, can he slip into the real world?

Even the physicality of the Slender Man contributes to this fear. When he appears in a frame, whether fictional or ‘authentic’, he corrupts it. In his most terrifying incarnations, he is not immediately apparent: he defies centrism so much he cannot even appear central within his diegesis. He appears at the edges; in the background; and in the corner of one’s eye. In the Marble Hornets film series he makes random appearances stalking the film’s characters. When watching the short episodes of footage it can be a challenge to spot him outside a window or tucked in a corner. Later in the series he walks directly into the frame, causing the camera to malfunction badly. It is as though the medium itself cannot centralise him, with a horrific and aggressive adherence to his liminal territory.

One of the notes found in the Slender Man game.

Figure 3. One of the notes found in the Slender game.

In Slender Game, one must wander in first-person perspective through woods, collecting notes on the Slender Man. The notes urge the player away with messages such as ‘don’t look or it takes you.’[9] He gradually stalks a player, and if he is seen following you the only way to escape is to turn away and run. To stay and look at him causes him to approach rapidly, and one’s game quality deteriorates as he gets closer until the speakers are screeching and the screen has turned blank, at which point the game is lost. Put literally, the point of Slender Game is that you can never look directly at the Slender Man.

In still images, this defiance of visualisation is manifested by his facelessness: he has no facial features that can be seen, only a blank space. His physical slenderness enhances his ability to slip away and reappear. He defies visual capture as much as he defies narrative or medium capture. By literally occupying the margin of frames, he is poised to slip into the margins of other frames, whether that is another medium or the frame of the real.

The Slender Man’s intangibility gives him power as a contemporary horror monster. His name is only a basic descriptor, and without face, accurate imagery, or authoritative canon, he constantly evades what familiarity might reduce his frightfulness. The marginality that obscures him from this point of frame is complemented by the implication that he is always in a margin: he might appear in a game, or in a video, or in a picture, barely within the frame, and as his media slips closer to the real, he may be right behind you.

This transgression from the fictional spaces of screen media into the ‘real’ space is endemic to the media ecology of the 2010s. This is the age of media hybridity, viral marketing, and the Alternative Reality Game. As the various screens through which we frame and mediate the world proliferate, so do the ways in which we understand narrative as it moves through those spaces. The convergence of media collapses the ‘real’ space into another host for viral storytelling. According to Angela Ndalianis:

[…] in the fictional expansion that occurs across media the sensorium turns its attention to an intensive cognitive and sensorial immersion into fictions that are dispersed across multiple media environments, which also include the “spectator’s” actual geographical landscape.[10]

This actual geographical landscape becomes another medium amongst the multiple ones through which we view, use, and play with characters such as the Slender Man. The Slender Man makes a number of appearances – and disappearances – in the physical world. Due to his liminality, his seeming absence is as noticeable as his presence. The most obvious case of tangible Slender Men is in the activity of cosplay, where enthusiasts dress up in Slender Man costumes to role-play as the character in the real world; usually at pop culture conventions and the like. While cosplay is a common practice in fan subcultures, it is notable that the Slender Man canon does not exclude the possibility of running into him on the street. I use this example to illustrate how, as the ‘real’ becomes a medium, so does media become more ‘real.’

A Slender Man image found on the crappypasta site.

Figure 4. A Slender Man image found on the crappypasta site.

Žižek calls this symptomatic of the post-9/11 century, noting that ‘we begin to experience the ‘real reality’ itself as a virtual entity.’[11] This origin point, the anchor of reality, must be let go to understand the Slender Man: we have, as Žižek states, lost interest in the ‘hard kernel of the Real’ – ‘which we are able to sustain only if we fictionalize it.’[12] As the Slender Man slips between our margins of a realised fiction and  a fictionalised real, showing how quickly we follow from frame to frame, his greatest weapon is his verisimilitude.

As these central texts, media, or spaces become marginalised, the focus on the marginal centres gains significance. If one counts the ‘official’ genesis of Slender Man as the Something Awful pictures, then the incarnations that follow are, accordingly, paratexts. Jonathan Gray’s study of paratexts suggest that they are fundamental in understanding a contemporary text. How paratexts exist across media realities, unlike a contained ‘text’ such as a Hollywood film, is discussed by Gray:

[…] media growth and saturation can only be measured in small part by the number of films or television shows–or books, games, blogs, magazines, or songs for that matter–as each and every media text is accompanied by textual proliferation at the level of hype, synergy, promos, and peripherals. As film and television viewers, we are all part-time residents of the highly populated cities of Time Warner, DirecTV, AMC, Sky, Comcast, ABC, Odeon, and so forth, and yet not all of these cities’ architecture is televisual or cinematic by nature. Rather, these cities are also made up of all manner of ads, previews, trailers, interviews with creative personnel, Internet discussion, entertainment news, reviews, merchandising, guerrilla marketing campaigns, fan creations, posters, games, DVDs, CDs, and spinoffs.[13]

In the case of Slender Man, it is apparent that these interconnected paratexts are instrumental to understanding the monster and its social significance. From the pictures’ captions to the reaction videos of Slender Game players, the paratexts form what Gray calls a ‘city’ of narrative. Connected loosely and distributed socially online, these paratexts operate virally, as has become a popular promotional tool for horror texts in the 21st century.

As a viral collection of paratexts masquerading to some degree as reality, the Slender Man can be categorised as an Alternative Reality Game or ARG. Gray’s definition is as follows: ‘The ARG, a relatively new addition to the roster of games, is a multi-site, multimedia puzzle or game, often associated with a television program or film.’[14] Successful ARGs are often horror-oriented, such as those marketing campaigns devised by 42 entertainment for The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) and Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008). Ndalianis notes that the viral campaign has a natural partner in horror:

In fact, horror cinema is one of the most prolific in terms of adopting viral-marketing strategies, which isn’t surprising given that the most effective campaigns have played on the blurring of boundaries between reality and fiction – a key tactic favoured by horror.[15]

In anticipation of these ARG films, fans become players that collect material distributed virally with no apparent locus. The materials – the paratexts – masquerades within the narrative reality of the film being promoted. The hype, and the extended narrative world of the story, become fundamental when studying these texts: the paratexts subsume the importance of the text itself, as the case is often made by Gray. The same is argued by Gray for an early horror ARG promoting The Blair Witch Project, in which various paratexts suggested the actors were real people, and dead: ‘The Blair Witch Project has arguably remained as famous (if not more so) for its creative and masterful promotion as for the film itself, since in many ways, the horror began online and in front of the television, not simply in a movie theatre.’[16] For the Slender Man, we can take this hypothesis of the ARG subsuming the text a step further: in this case, there is no text.

The Slender Man is an outstanding example of the ARG, because it performs what campaigns such as 42 have only pretended to perform. Usually, an ARG is collected around a central text, the commodity being sold, with the paratexts being authored from this singular point for marketing purposes. While fans do engage on a more collaborative level for the average ARG, there is still a central text with one author distributing material. For Slender Man, fans take further what Daniel North describes in promotional ARGs:

[viral marketing] distributes the task of publicizing the film by urging spectators to become active participants, entering into the narrative space of the film, and drawing others in with them in order to collaboratively construct its meaning.[17]

The collaboratively constructed meaning of Slender Man is genuinely organic. It is polycentric in that there are no authoritative or comprehensive Slender Man sources. There is no product being promoted or sold, and no identifiable author or text. Every text is a paratext, and the narrative reality has no official canon. In this sense, the Slender Man steps up our former understanding of the viral Alternative Reality Game. The Slender Man’s mythological status is more authentic; it is more real.

The lack of an authoritative text or author is part of what makes Slender Man so fearsome. No media company owns him, and there is no ‘official’ Slender Man: a rare feat for a pop culture phenomenon. A lack of centrality is a lack of containment. I have been told rumours that the creators of the original pictures, Marble Hornets, and Slender Game are actually one person attempting to virally diffuse their idea. This insistence suggests a fundamental struggle with – even a fear of – a monster that has not been sanctioned by a definable source. That a single author only exists as a rumour exemplifies the Slender Man’s inability to be contained. This echoes the claim by Rick Altman: ‘[…] critics have never taken seriously the ability of audiences to generate their own texts and thus to become intenders, mappers and owners in their own right.’[18] As the only ARG of its size to be organically generated, this makes Slender Man a groundbreaking text. This enhances and undermines the horror of Slender Man: without an author, he has no anchor in the world of fiction.

The malleable and collaborative monster is hardly a new phenomenon, excepting its new media technologies. Approaching the Slender Man requires a similar framework to those used to study fairy tale and other premodern movements, which I suggest contort and confuse his fictional containment. There are distinctly contemporary aspects to the Slender Man which develop from these earlier frameworks: what makes this monster so curious is that while being symptomatic of the 21st-century mediascape, he also draws upon trends developed outside the dominant 20th-century Western storytelling model of Hollywood and its ilk. The polycentric collections of fairy tale; the disturbance of the frame in the baroque and neo-baroque; and the mise-en-abyme of the ARG are all applicable to the Slender Man. Each of these underpin his horror, as they break Slender mythology’s temporality and associate him with formidably long storytelling traditions.

As in fairy tale, there is no way to accurately capture or replicate an authoritative version of the Slender Man. These are stories, often horror stories, which develop organically and through communal retelling. Their subjects often concern uncanny monsters snatching children, retold in recent generations as aliens and child predators. These creatures shift in their guises, adapting to new stories, but their monstrous function is timeless. Just as there is no essential big bad wolf, we cannot distill Slender Man. The viral nature of ARGs, like fairy tales, are deliberately decentralised, as discussed by North:

Viral campaigns […] depend on relinquishing control: releasing key pieces of information in carefully chosen places, in the hope and expectation that it will spread organically by through [sic] the target audience, as a virus spreads from person to person within a population. A viral campaign is thus, by nature, difficult to study. It is too diffuse to be comprehensively catalogued, and too dependent on ephemeral forms of communication that leave few traces and no official documentation.[19]

North’s work suggests something uncannily primal about the Slender Man’s effectiveness. The monsters of folklore have a timeless ability to frighten, in part because they are so diffused within social spheres. I suggest that the Slender Man operates much as a contemporary fairy tale would: a child-eating monster that exists only in transient narratives, with an echo of realism to underpin his horror.

The placement of the viral campaign and the ARG in the history of storytelling is also theorised by Henry Jenkins. Jenkins observes the following resonance:

Alternative reality gaming could be seen as a 21st century equivalent of a much older literary form – epistolary fiction. Many early novels, including Pamela (1740) Les Liaisons Dangereuse (1782) or The Sorrows of Young Werther (1815), consisted of fictional letters, journals, diaries, and newspaper accounts, which were presented by the authors with little acknowledgement of their fictional status. The authors often claimed to have found the materials in an old trunk or to have received them anonymously in the mail.[20]

Most interesting here is how the author, and thus the fiction, is deliberately misdirected. In the case of the epistolary work, it enhances authenticity and worth: for the Slender Man, it also brings the element of fear.

The liminality that enables Slender Man’s transmedia nature can be likened to a baroque and neo-baroque style. Researched in detail by Ndalianis, the neo-baroque has a history with horror, especially horror which exceeds confinement in a single platform or frame. Ndalianis illustrates the significance of this neo-baroque trend in her work:

It is specifically neo-baroque spatial logic that is embedded within the postmodern that remains the primary point of reference. This central characteristic of the neo-baroque that informs the analysis that follows is the lack of respect for the limits of the frame.[21]

This characteristic is also what allows the Slender Man to be fearsome, and to be real: he does not only disrespect the frame but at times damages it. In Marble Hornets and Slender Game, the Slender Man’s presence actively corrupts the footage, and in less literal cases he does not remain framed within one author, narrative, or platform. One of the grossest violations of the frame occurs in a way that contextualises these historical movements within the realm of the Slender Man is continued from his ‘original’ incarnation: the violation of time, and with it truth.

From the ‘first’ Something Awful pictures, the Slender Man has been retroactively inserted in our cultural history. The captions for the pictures claim that the photographs are taken in the 1980s, rather than created in 2009. Reaching further back, the Villains Wiki page displays a woodcut supposedly from 1540 depicting the Slender Man.[22] Written ‘in-universe’ style, the Villains Wiki page suggests that the Slender Man is to be feared because he is known across cultures and histories in a number of guises. To participate in this kind of narrative indicates a recognition that the Slender Man has an element of timelessness, and is ‘real’ folklore, while situating the transmedia format of Internet storytelling in a long cultural tradition.

[Figure 3: ‘Der Ritter,’ 2011]

Figure 5. ‘Der Ritter,’ 2011.

What situates the Slender Man in the contemporary age is a confluence of genre and technology. The Internet forum; the ARG; the ability to ‘Photoshop’; the video game; the online video; the wiki; and the found footage film. Horror has taken great advantage of these media, using their newness to manipulate a fear of the unknown. What often comes forth in the media Slender Man spans across is authenticity: the Internet is an illustration of the space Žižek describes where virtualisation overpowers reality. The VUP of Web 2.0 uses stories such as the Slender Man to play with the collision of truth and fiction occurring on the Internet and across new media technology. The horror element of Slender Man operates by trapping a VUP in constantly mediated and reframed realities in which we must admit that either monsters are real, or we are not.

Two cases will be discussed in this paper in relation to the media slips of the Slender Man that generate his authenticity: the Marble Hornets film and Slender Game. Both employ popular 21st-century horror tropes to generate for the VUP a mise-en-abyme. The mise-en-abyme is an apt metaphor for the virtualised real and polycentric story. Its literal translation is an abyss, in this case an abyss that operates as the antithesis of the ‘kernel.’ The functional translation is the phrase used for two mirrors aligned: in this case, everything is a frame of endless reflections. When we observe the medium inside another medium, we cannot but notice that our own world, reflected endlessly, might likewise be contained in a larger frame: thus, we must consider reality as a medium. Cinematically speaking, the mise-en-abyme refers to a story-within-a-story, a common technique used in horror. In the case of the Slender Man, the narratives framing the various media – the photographs already discussed, and forthcoming the film and video game – operate under the verisimilitude of the ‘real’ world. When trapped between these many frames of reference, centres of narrative, and different media platforms, following a monster that deals in border territories, the ‘real’ slips away.

Marble Hornets is a film series made by a group of students that popularised the Slender Man to a wider audience, attracting millions of views. Uploaded as ten-minute episodes on Youtube, the film is recorded in the ‘found footage’ style that gained popularity in 21st-century horror cinema. The trend began with The Blair Witch Project, and experienced a boom in the mid 2000s as handheld recording technology and media distribution channels made this narrative style familiar. The Paranormal Activity films (Peli, 2007) are a flagship series, with Cloverfield (Reeves, 2008) and [rec] (Balagueró and Plaza, 2008) in the same vein. Like Marble Hornets, these films are presented as ‘real’ footage, found usually after the character/filmmakers’ demise. They have all the tics and flaws of homemade footage, with a diegetic acknowledgement of the camera in the story. Found footage has a particular verisimilitude, being scary because it seems ‘real.’ When these films have cinematic release, audiences approach on a dual level: one in which the paratexts such as cinema tickets and studio logos present it as narrative cinema, and one in which the format, and often supplementary material online in the form of ARGs, claim that the story is true and that monsters actually killed the characters/filmmakers. North explains that the nesting of the authentic footage within a fictional context: ‘This creates the pretext of an alternative ownership, and thus, creates a framework within which all subsequent images will be interpreted as a chronicle of actual events – testimony from an eyewitness.’[23] This entertainment of the subsequent images as authentic is substantiated often by ARGs and by the technology itself. Peg Aloi claims of The Blair Witch Project: ‘The accompanying web-based publicity campaign generated rumors of the film’s ‘authenticity’ (i.e. that the ‘found footage’ was indeed real), prompting some audience members to visit the film’s location in search of ‘what really happened.’’[24]

Within the films, Amy West discusses how the use of handheld cinematography mimics the real frame of reference we recognise for the lack of fictional ‘slickness’:

The hand-held handycam is the embodiment of human point-of-view image capture, resonating as it so often does with the physiological responses of the operator. In contrast, the unblinking, mechanical eye of the wall-mounted surveillance camera betrays no investment in the recorded scene. The construction of reality necessarily occurs differently within these contrasting modes of image production. The first ‘feels real’ because it fulfils a ‘powerful urge for a sense of contact with the real’, as it ‘inscribes’ this physiological contact on the recorded text (Fetveit 2002: 130).

This is a kind of real which is heightened by evidence of human error – the swoops and slips of a running, dancing, laughing, crying camera – which testifies to the amateur authenticity of the production. On the other hand, the second model ‘feels real’ because its inflexible recording position signifies its infallible and impartial omniscience, recording whatever occurs within its range 24/7 without preference or participation.’[25]

This is taken further with Marble Hornets, a film possessing all that handheld realness and engaging in a particular narrative that confuses reality and fiction. This is actual amateur film, with no cinematic affectations – it has no official distribution. Its effectiveness is in its ability to make a VUP forget that the footage is fictional. There are at least three levels to Marble Hornets: the first being the Youtube user marblehornets, who uploads clips between one and ten minutes long of ‘raw footage excerpts from [the fictionalised] Alex Kralie. A college friend of mine.’[26] The user marblehornets claims that Kralie’s footage is for a student film – also titled “Marble Hornets” – that marblehornets uploads unedited after Kralie disappeared ‘in 2006.’[27] The subsequent level of fiction, the one purporting to be Kralie’s real raw footage, is the one in which the Slender Man appears: ‘Kralie’ and his ‘cast’ and ‘crew’ have their shooting interrupted as they are stalked by the monster. The third level is the actual Marble Hornets movie, the aborted film that we see being created. The Marble Hornets” movie is a fiction made by the fictional Kralie uploaded by the fictional marblehornets user. That all three levels are referred to by the same name – typeset here as marblehornets, Marble Hornets, and “Marble Hornets” – creates quite a mise-en-abyme.

[Figure 4: Marble Hornets, 2009]

Figure 6. Marble Hornets, 2009.

The student film component of “Marble Hornets” serves as a misdirection, in which the verisimilitude of filmmaking footage and raw-looking Youtube uploads make the Slender Man seem authentic and unstaged. The middle level of Marble Hornets, the Slender Man’s level, uses his key horror tropes to craft a completely homemade horror movie. It establishes a framework of realism through the raw cinematography, depending on paratexts such as the uploader’s comments and the film-within-a-film making-of verisimilitude. It backdates the footage to 2006, before the 2010 Something Awful origin, again disturbing the timeline and building a fake history for the monster. It plays on the Slender Man’s liminality by never centering him in the frame and damaging the footage whenever he comes too close, as though he has the supernatural ability to not only see but violate his framing media. The paratexts that combine to form the Marble Hornets aspect of the Slender Man mythology illustrate the horrific problem of 21st-century media: it’s not just that the Slender Man might be real, but as we lose grip on what real means, he might as well be.

As a creature of liminality and obscurity, the Slender Man’s real-world presence is defined in ways by absence. Alex Kralie is such an absence. It is no exaggeration to say that after marblehornets claimed that Kralie disappeared, indeed no trace of Alex Kralie can be found. It is almost beside the point that Kralie was invented as a character for Marble Hornets. User marblehornets claims, with no indication that this is fiction, that Kralie is gone, and this is true. Whether he was taken by the Slender Man or never existed in the first place, the absence of an Alex Kralie falls within our working definition of ‘real.’

The VUP role becomes particularly salient when applied to Slender Game. Slender Game, also called Slender or Slendergame, is a short horror video game for computer platforms. In it, the player must wander through the woods, only able to control the direction, the running speed, and the use of a flashlight. The objective is to collect eight pieces of paper stuck to various landmarks, each with a written note warning the player about the Slender Man’s approach. At some point, he appears in the distance behind the player. One may escape if one runs away, but to look at him only quickens his advance. The game ends when he comes close enough that the graphic and sound quality deteriorates completely into white noise, and he attacks.

[Figure 5: Slender Game, 2012]

Figure 7. Slender Game, 2012.

The game’s bid for realism is subtler than in many other media. It uses techniques of immersion, such as the first-person perspective and control of the avatar’s movement. This level of activity – a level of playing – means engaging in a fictional reality beyond the role of a passive spectator. Rather than enter our world, we enter the Slender Man’s. The VUP becomes a character and the player’s world is another medium in the many levels of frames that constitute the Slender Man’s abyss. By entertaining multiple realities through playing not just the ARG but a first-person video game, the horror has greater weight and the Slender Man becomes more powerful. Gray notes this when discussing the work of Tanya Krzywinska: ‘She […] sees [a] game’s ability to give us a first-person perspective (only truly matched by The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield in film) as further placing the player inside the horror […].’[28] As the player aspect of the VUP, the transference of reality in a particular medium occurs slightly differently, where the player becomes part of the game medium.

A complementary part of Slender Man gaming culture also makes the Slender Game players into a medium of their own. As always, it is not only the text of the game itself that is of significance: it is the game’s paratexts that create the Slender Man’s mise-en-abyme. On the Slender Game’s most popular fansite is a banner with a number of pertinent links, amongst which one may navigate to ‘The Legend’ and ‘Reaction Videos.’[29] The former engages in the usual folkloric style, giving a brief biography that is often confusingly semi-fictional: ‘[…] created at the Something Awful forums […] no specific information has been found about his origins […].’[30] The latter is of great interest for my discussion of Slender Man and mise-en-abyme. Almost as popular as the game itself are the recordings of other players playing, from which one can draw great schadenfreude watching players become terrified when the Slender Man catches them. In these videos, one becomes a viewer, as other users upload webcam or game footage with sound recordings of their reactions as they play: a solid example of the interchangeability of the VUP relationship. It suggests that by entertaining levels of realism, collating information from a cohort of paratexts, and taking on multiple spectatorial and participatory roles, fans have an astonishingly complex approach to the new media environment.

On the one hand, the reaction videos create a level of distance between the viewer and the Slender Man himself. On the other, it exacerbates the mise-en-abyme and plays into his world of mediated realities. This is some of the rawest, most realistic media pertaining to the Slender Man. Players feeling the need to record their games echoes the popular discourse that everything must be mediated and recorded for social media before it is truly ‘real.’ Chuck Tryon’s discussion of The Blair Witch Project suggests that the ploy for realism read with flaunting of unrealism should be seen in the context of the transmedia narrative:

Because of these two potential readings I see the film as inseparable from the promotional materials that framed its reception arguing that the film appeared as simultaneously hypermediated and unmediated. Thus, instead of merely returning to or contributing to an unmediated imagination of real horror, the film actually became a complex, if somewhat ambivalent, critique of electronic media.[31]

In Tryon’s example, the unrealism of The Blair Witch Project is the noticeably bad film quality. For the Slender Game reaction videos, the removal from the ‘real’ takes place watching other players playing the game. The reaction videos could be considered their own transmedia articulation, or they could exist as an extra framing paratext to the game: in either case, the issue of mediation and multiple framing echoes through the Slender Man lore. What gives the Slender Game its realist edge is that unlike the other texts, in this instance are we watching real people being afraid of the Slender Man. It is a case in which, as we viewers gaze into the abyss, those players recording their gameplay know that the abyss gazes back.

Now I will turn to a slightly harder kernel of the Real. From this paper’s discussion of how we approach a ‘real’ Slender Man, we may step forward to understand how the contentious role of the ‘real’ is a politicised, post-9/11 issue. It may seem abstract to connect the Slender Man to an event as catastrophic as 9/11, but the Slender Man is an excellent articulation of concerns that have plagued cultural theorists and demonstrates that a decade on, these are still deeply relevant. These questions – of mediated realities and the function of fear – are political questions that cannot be avoided in the 21st century. The ways in which we view, use, and play with transmedia horror suggests that we are equipped, philosophically and politically, to navigate the dangers of our contemporary mediascape.

To Žižek, the concept of a core ‘real’ in the world – the hard kernel – is marginalised by 9/11.[32] A few suggestions as to why are put forth, and echoed in post-9/11 discourse; whether because to most the event was experienced not in the real world but through a screen media; or because the era became defined by the absence of towers and the fear of an omnipresent but invisible terror; or perhaps, according to Žižek, what is ‘real’ simply is not as relevant.[33] When so much of our world is perceived through screen media, and all reality can only be understood when it is framed, the pursuit of a hard kernel falls to the wayside. Reality as an intangible, refracted medium is directly related to how 9/11 comes to shape the 21st-century West, as discussed by Žižek in the following:

We should therefore invert the standard reading according to which the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real which shattered our illusory Sphere: quite the reverse – it was before the WTC collapse that we lived in our reality, […] – and what happened on September 11 was that this fantasmatic screen apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e. the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality).’[34]

This idea of shattering is absolutely key to understanding the Slender Man. Slender Man is a shattered text: there is no ‘hard kernel’ of the Slender Man, only the prolific media through which we might follow his story. Underpinned by fear of terror, or fear of monsters, the real world becomes another medium. The way in which we navigate the Slender Man demands that we negotiate the realistic and fictional fears that are presented to us through media.

The Slender Man is a monster of terror. As an emblem of the shattered, decentralised realities that we live in, and as a monster that haunts our media. We can take this literally, and discuss his resemblance to the never-quite-identifiable ‘suits’ or ‘men in black’ that are often alluded to in 9/11 discourse. We might claim that his facelessness is also the facelessness of terrorism, always threatening but never quite identifiable. We might note that he is a scary story presented as real to us through news media, an issue that has fallen under heavy criticism in post-9/11 political media. The Slender Man truly belongs in this time and this place, where politics and technology have converged to create a culture deeply responsive to a monster that is a media fractal, one that demands we challenge how we think about reality.

As the politics of 9/11 ebb away with time, its impact on media becomes the event’s great legacy. Much has been written on the development of 21st-century media technology as complementary to terror. Web 2.0; handheld recording devices; and media convergence all have a symbiotic relationship with the politics of the real. Rather than interrogate deeply in this paper the background of these developments, I will succinctly suggest that smart technology require smart users. We are a society that has become accustomed to watching the news framed by the same device upon which we can play games. As a result, we have learned to transition between viewer, user, and player, maintaining an active and dynamic relationship with the media use daily. As news journalism relies more heavily on citizen-recorded data, we learn to unpack the fabrications and authenticities of particular frames – whether sourced through a blog or through NewsCorp. We learn to recognise the multiple fictional frames through a story like Marble Hornets. The problems of being recorded, whether as a monster, an actor playing an actor, a victim of violence, or a player of a video game, are demonstrated to us. We learn to search for a broader understanding of a phenomenon like Slender Man by collaboratively collecting information. We can watch layers and levels of storytelling, engaging in them as simultaneously realistic and fictional. We begin to focus on a world that exists through endless margins, frames, fragments, and liminal realities. If we were not capable of doing this, the Slender Man would simply be ineffective.

The Slender Man is a slippery creature, but he has a slippery following. To be a part of the Slender Man’s world, one must be an adept viewer, user, and player. A working knowledge of media, and there is the requisite ability to follow a narrative as it fragments through frames more and less fictional. The Slender Man is created by a generation that understands liminality and knows that the most dangerous monsters are those that can’t quite be seen. Even to have followed the Slender Man through this paper is to understand the abyssal nature of contemporary media and the malleability of time and space for a horror narrative. The Slender Man demonstrates how transmedia horror promotes a critical understanding of the real. What is terrifying, then, is not that the Slender Man might be real, but that the world is not.

 

References:

Aloi, Peg. ‘Beyond the Blair Witch: A New Horror Aesthetic?’ In The Spectacle of the Real: from Hollywood to reality TV and beyond, edited by Geoff King, 187-200. Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2005.

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI, 1999.

Goddard, Drew. Cloverfield. DVD. Directed by Matt Reeves. [Australia]: Paramount, 2008.

‘CREEPYPASTA.COM – Scary Paranormal Stories & Short Horror Microfiction.’ creepypasta. Accessed 20 October, 2013. http://www.creepypasta.com/.

Gray, Jonathan. Show sold separately: promos, spoilers, and other media paratexts. New York: New York University Press, c2009.

Jenkins, Henry. ‘Chasing Bees, Without The Hive Mind.’ MIT Technology Review. 3 December, 2004. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/403444/chasing-bees-without-the-hive-mind/.

‘Introduction.’ Youtube video, 2:00. Posted by ‘marblehornets,’ 20th June 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wmhfn3mgWUI.

Ndalianis, Angela. ‘Television and the neo-baroque.’ In The contemporary television serial, ed. Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon, 83-101. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.

North, Daniel. ‘Evidence of Things Not Quite Seen: Cloverfield’s Obstructed Spectacle.’ Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 40.1 (2010): 75-92.

Paranormal Activity. DVD. Directed by Oren Peli. [Australia]: Icon Film Distribution Pty Ltd, 2007.

 [rec]. DVD. Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. [Australia]: Asylum, 2007.

‘The SCP Foundation.’ SCP. Accessed 20 October, 2013. http://www.scp-wiki.net/.

‘Slender Fansite.’ slendergame. Accessed 20 October, 2013. http://slendergame.com/.

‘Slender Man.’ Villains Wiki. Accessed 20 October, 2013. http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Slender_Man.

‘The Slender Man Mythos.’ slendermanmythos Accessed 20 October, 2013.. http://www.slendermanmythos.com/.

The Dark Knight. DVD. Directed by Christopher Nolan. [Australia]: Warner Home Video, 2008.

Tryon, Chuck. ‘Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures, and Contemporary Horror Film.’ Journal of Film and Video 61.3 (2009): 40-51.

Victor Surge. ‘Create Paranormal Images.’ Something Awful. 10 June, 2009. http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3150591&userid=0&perpage=40&pagenumber=3.

West, Amy. ‘Caught on Tape: A Legacy of Low-tech Reality.’ In The Spectacle of the Real: from Hollywood to reality TV and beyond, ed. Geoff King, 83-92. Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2005.

Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates. London, New York: Verso, 2002.

Notes:


[1] Victor Surge, ‘Create Paranormal Images,’ Something Awful, 10 June, 2009. http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3150591&userid=0&perpage=40&pagenumber=3.

[2] Žižek, Slavoj, Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (London, New York: Verso, 2002).

[3] Victor Surge.

[4] Victor Surge.

[5] ‘Introduction,’ Youtube video, 2:00, posted by ‘marblehornets,’ 20th June, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wmhfn3mgWUI.

‘Slender Fansite,’ slendergame, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://slendergame.com/.

[6] ‘The Slender Man Mythos,’ slendermanmythos, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://www.slendermanmythos.com/.

‘Slender Man,’ Villains Wiki, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://villains.wikia.com/wiki/Slender_Man.

[7] ‘The SCP Foundation,’ SCP, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://www.scp-wiki.net/.

Villains Wiki.

‘CREEPYPASTA.COM – Scary Paranormal Stories & Short Horror Microfiction,’ creepypasta, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://www.creepypasta.com/.

[8] Dinehart quoted in Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012), 173.

[9] ‘Slender Fansite,’ slendergame, accessed 20 October, 2013, http://slendergame.com/.

[10] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 165.

[11] Žižek, 11.

[12] Žižek, 19.

[13] Jonathan Gray, Show sold separately: promos, spoilers, and other media paratexts (New York: New York University Press, c2009), 1.

[14] Gray, 200.

[15] Ndalianis, 164-165.

[16] Gray, 57.

[17] Daniel North, ‘Evidence of Things Not Quite Seen: Cloverfield’s Obstructed Spectacle,’ Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 40.1 (2010): 84.

[18] Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI, 1999), 212.

[19] North, 80.

[20] Henry Jenkins, ‘Chasing Bees, Without The Hive Mind,’ MIT Technology Review, 3 December, 2004, http://www.technologyreview.com/news/403444/chasing-bees-without-the-hive-mind/.

[21] Ndalianis, Angela, ‘Television and the neo-baroque,’ in The contemporary television serial, ed. M. Hammond and L. Mazdon, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 83-101.

[22] Villains Wiki.

[23] North, 77.

[24] Peg Aloi, ‘Beyond the Blair Witch: A New Horror Aesthetic?’ in The Spectacle of the Real: from Hollywood to ‘reality’ TV and beyond, ed. Geoff King (Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2005), 193.

[25] Amy West, ‘Caught on Tape: A Legacy of Low-tech Reality,’ in The Spectacle of the Real: from Hollywood to ‘reality’ TV and beyond, ed. Geoff King (Bristol, UK; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2005), 85.

[26] marblehornets.

[27] marblehornets

[28] Gray, 189-90.

[29] ‘Slender Game.’

[30] ‘Slender Game.’

[31] Chuck Tryon,‘Video from the Void: Video Spectatorship, Domestic Film Cultures, and Contemporary Horror Film,’ Journal of Film and Video 61.3 (2009): 42.

[32] Žižek, 19.

[33] Žižek, 11.

[34] Žižek, 16.

 

Bio: Naja Later is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. She is currently researching the relationship between New Horror, terror and screen technology. Her work draws together elements of journalism, marketing, new media, alternative reality, spectatorship, war, and political philosophy as they apply to cannibals, werewolves, aliens, poltergeists, zombies, serial killers, and other monsters. She is also a public speaker and guest co-editor of Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, showcasing the rise of transmedia horror narratives.