The Two Slender Mans

SlendermanMany might recall that this past summer there was a bit of moral panic over the Internet meme “The Slender Man.” The panic began when two Wisconsin twelve-year-old girls stabbed a third twelve-year-old girl 19 times to gain favor with an Internet horror character. While the girl survived the attack, this led to public outcry and similar, seemingly related stories: the mother of a teen girl in Ohio claimed that her daughter stabbed her because of an obsession with the Slender Man, and the perpetrator of a killing spree in Las Vegas was said to sometimes dress as the Slender Man. News media seemed to be quickly confounded by these horrific tales and began to issue warnings to parents about the fictions found online.  Warnings were issued about the web site “creepypasta” (not where the Slender Man was originally invented) and commentators suggested that online horror is corrupting the youth of America.

The story has a new life now that a Florida teen has been accused of attempting to burn down her house (with family inside) because of her obsession with the Slender Man.  It has been pointed out by blogger Paul Fidalgo that this story has pretty dubious origins – while the accused arsonist was certainly a fan of the Slender Man (her Facebook presence was full of creepypasta images), the girl has not claimed that she did this specifically as a result of the stories she read. This, of course, has not stopped news media from jumping back on the Slender-wagon. A New York post article referred to creepypasta as a “violent website.” On Call with Dr. Drew guest Leean Tweeden remarked of the incident:  “My son is turning one tomorrow, so I’m thinking of these things as a parent now, through those lenses.” The urgency underlying this statement is clear: apparently, the Slender Man is so pernicious that he can seep through the screens of the Internet to even affect the toddler set – whose kid watches Sesame Street anymore, anyhow?

Of course, myself, and many other scholars who have been studying the Slender Man, his origins, and his growth since the first iterations in 2009 on the web site Something Awful have been unnerved by this panic.  The original story was not much more than creepy – certainly not violent storytelling. It resembled more of a fairy tale than an Eli Roth film. The original stories primarily had the Slender Man targeting children, though this quickly shifted to young adults – the most common online storytellers. The Slender Man stories often feature characters that fall down rabbit holes and discover an otherworldly presence is now stalking them, and whose very existence exudes malevolence. While his presence sometimes encourages human violence (depending on the version of the story) it is the inhuman unknown that makes his story so terrifying.

For those who are unaware of the basic premise: the Slender Man is a non-human presence who stalks victims. He is faceless, thin, and grotesquely tall. Depending on versions of the story he may have tentacular arms, is bald, and almost always wears a suit. He is often hidden in or disguised by trees. He may be able to teleport and may cause physical illness and/or insanity in those he is around. He is the textbook definition of the uncanny – his similarities to human form yet otherworldly features and appendages make him almost human, but not quite.  His blank face makes him both familiar and mutable. If the stories teach us nothing else, they teach us there is nothing more horrifying than an anonymous white male with ominous intentions wearing a business suit.

This is not to say that all of the Slender Man stories stayed away from explicit violence. While many early versions were more creepy than violent, some did take a violent turn (to varying degrees). Other online authors, though, interpreted the Slender Man in other ways: patriarchal father figure, comedic character, and erotic character (slenderotica). There are wonderful parodies, including Slender siblings such as “Trender Man” and “Splendorman.” While some fans might invalidate the more romantic interpretations of the character, in online spaces all versions are (in some way) valid. I may not be a fan of slenderotica, but it meets a need for a certain demographic to tell a kind of story that is meaningful to them. The power of the Slender Man is that his blank face allows an infinite amount of projection, interpretation, and mutability. The character has encouraged a plethora of fan-based creativity: short stories, novels and novellas, web series, films, art work, web comics, and poetry are only a few of the ways fans have written and read about the Slender Man.

Despite the large corpus of co-created fan works, many reporters and pundits have suggested that the web sites where horror fiction is posted, co-created, read, and commented on is somehow to blame for the events that have occurs. In continuation of her previous remarks, Tweeden waxes nostalgic:

“When I was a kid we went out and played we played in the dirt. We played in the earth. […] They don’t even read books anymore. This girl’s reading this online. You’re reading digital stuff. You can easily go down the rabbit hole when you are online and you start watching videos and start going to these creepypasta sites … It’s like the girl didn’t even know what is reality anymore.”

There is a deep irony in the implication that is being made here – that youth do not “read” because what they read (and write) is found online. Somehow, the technology seems to create a barrier in the minds of those implicating the Slender Man. The fiction is apparently so deeply dangerous it can alter the very soul of readers. Of course, media scholars are not strangers to moral panics in emerging media, but there is an absurdity to implying that (somehow) interests in the Slender Man are neither literary nor encouraging of creative endeavors. This couldn’t be any further from reality.  It is almost as though there are two Slender Mans – one haunting stories of the Internet and another haunting the adults who seem fairly certain that the character is harming the youth of America.

Of the many debates about the origins of the Slender Man in online forums, my favorite theory is the “Tulpa Effect.” A tulpa is an esoteric concept – a magically created thought-form appropriated from Tibetan traditions by turn of the century Western author, Alexandra David-Néel. The basic premise is that a person can breath life into an imaginary thought-form, giving it a will of its own through the right ritual practices. It is like an imaginary friend, brought to life. The tulpa, once created, is no longer controlled by its architect and often invites havoc. In some interpretations of tulpas, it can be created simply from a large enough group of people believing in its existence.  The Tulpa Theory of the Slender Man suggests that the Slender Man himself, has been willed into existence simply because enough people believe in him.

The Tulpa Effect theory works neatly with the existing mythos of the Slender Man. It allows for readers to acknowledge that the character was fictionally constructed yet leaves the possibility for the fact that – even with fictional origins – he still might exist in the real world. It’s a clever way to make the character both fictional and non-fictional at once.

Yet, if the Slender Man has become a tulpa and has been willed into existence by the Internet, then it is entirely possibly that those creating moral panic of the Slender Man have created a secondary tulpa. While the original tulpa is a fictional character based on the amalgam of existing fictions and works of art, co-created by storytellers and their audiences, the second tulpa is the one that haunts parents, journalists, and pundits. The second Slender Man tulpa promises that if your child engages in creative work online they will somehow be sucked into a world where they cannot tell fiction from reality – where they are bound to commit violent acts against themselves or others. They have brought to life a far more violent version of the Slender Man that is able to seep into reality via cable modem or DSL. This secondary tulpa has been brought to life by a mass media that seems determined to believe in the power of the Slender Man more than many of the authors of Slender Man fiction.

Without speculating on or blaming mental illness of those accused of Slender Man crimes, I feel confident in saying that it was not the Slender Man, himself, that led them to their crimes. In this, it seems possible that the second tulpa of the Slender Man suggested by news media, haunting our children online, is the more dangerous tulpa. The real Slender Man, after all, is only a creepy stalker. The news media version of the Slender Man tells parents and teens that any misunderstood teen and any violent act can be blamed on an Internet character.