The Internet's Own Boogeyman: How the Slender Man Meme Became a Legend
Academic: Visual Rhetoric/Popular Culture Research
It was a mid-summer Sunday morning. Elementary school friends Maria, Susan, and Dottie had ventured into the park to play a game of hide and go seek. Dottie was new to the group, as she’d recently moved from out of town. Maria and Susan had gone out of their way to befriend her, and aside from Dottie, they had no other friends.
Just two turns into the game, Dottie realized her friends’ intentions were not-so playful. On a count of three, both pulled knives out of their knapsacks. Most of the townspeople were in church, so no one heard the screams. Receiving more stabs than she could count, Dottie was left for dead. Against the odds, she survived and later that evening hailed a lone jogger to her aide.
After the attempted murder, Maria and Susan journeyed far into the woods and were never seen again. Days later investigators found the girls’ journals, referencing a “Spector” who had visited their dreams, urging them to sacrifice their young friend and, in exchange for the act, promising them immortality as his proxies.
Townspeople claim to have seen a ghostly inhuman figure in the woods in which the girls disappeared. To date, five missing persons cases involving young girls last seen in those woods remain unsolved. It is said the Spector continues to prey on those who dare look for him there.
This sounds like the type of story a group of campers might share around a fire—the type of story that has startled countless captive audiences with its “true to life” quality (as it is said to have involved the storyteller’s neighbor’s friend’s cousin just a generation ago, somewhere in a town nearby). This is the kind of story often referred to as an urban myth, or legend. Because of the authentic feel of such stories, it’s generally impossible to trace them to an origin, and this lends to their credibility.
The preceding story was a truth—or, at least, a spinoff of the truth (with embellishments, as is often the case with urban legends).
All legends exist through communal contributions and (often unverifiable) collaborations, but those born after the digital revolution are unique in that they leave a trail. The Slender Man is perhaps the most compelling (or at the very least, the most newsworthy) urban legend to have originated on the Internet. An examination of the Slender Man phenomenon provides for some utterly modern insights into the nature of a visual rhetoric artifact’s evolution over time: Slender Man’s genesis is relatively easy to trace—and his numerous transfigurations indelibly recorded and readily available to the public via the worldwide web—yet, his mythology crosses Internetwork lines to take residence in our culture’s collective conscience, where it looms ominously in that dark psychological terrain somewhere between, “it can’t be real” and “but what if it is?” This begs the question: With the truth of its origins so easily accessible to anyone with a curiosity and an Internet connection, how does a relatively young, man-made creation like the Slender Man become “real”? In answer, this paper examines the vital force of an article of visual rhetoric (in this case, the Slender Man meme) in the Information Age.
The Vital Force of Image
The analysis herein is grounded in Gries’ (2013) concept of visual rhetoric, which accounts for the life force (or “thing power”) of inanimate objects. For Gries (2013), images embody traditionally human qualities (potentialities)—becoming, transforming, acting as agents, possessing vitality, and enacting consequences, for example. Similarly, Hahner (2013) endows a photograph with the power of persuasion, drawing upon frame theory to establish a basis for assessing its argumentative influence: an article of visual rhetoric may mean different things to different people, depending on their “frame” (of reference), and because a multitude of frames—some complementary and some contrasting/competing—may apply for every image, and furthermore for every person, it holds that any image can provoke argument. Argument incites action, which holds true in the case of the Slender Man to a shocking extent.
According to Gelfan (2014), information theory accounts for the Slender Man affect once the visual artifact infiltrates human consciousness to make its argument. Foundational to the study of communication, information theory defines the roles of sender, receiver, and signal in the transmission of any instance of communication; this applies to human senders and receivers, as well as (and, within this paper’s scope, most importantly) technological senders and receivers. The Slender Man myth holds that across the variety of mediums through which it travels—including photographs, video recordings, and Internet streams—the Slender Man interferes with transmittal signals, causing technological static. Gelfan (2014) explains that, psychologically, the innate, subconsciously held association between technological static and human decomposition could trigger a primal fear that subconsciously enamors the viewer to the Slender Man, gelling his affective force.
However, Gelfan’s (2014) analysis of the Slender Man’s life force derives from more than postmodern concerns over the technological order of things, implicating thermodynamic entropy, the Grim Reaper, Nazi fascism, and even extraterrestrials in the Slender Man’s power to persuade. Tolbert (2013) characterizes the Slender Man feeling as uncanny—a term signifying an unsettling, unnamable sort of familiarity with the Other—and brands the Slender Man as the embodiment of every pop culture variation of “monster” currently embedded in the social conscience. Moreover, given the range of historically derivative contributions to the Slenderman lore cited by Gelfan (2014), Tolbert (2013), and Tomberry (2016) it might be said that the Slender Man has existed in some form or another since long before his first official appearance on the web.
From Vital to Viral
Kinsella (2011) provides an extensive history of legend and legend scholarship that culminates in a revision of the concept of “legend tripping” (visiting the site of a legend—a graveyard or haunted house, for example—to assess its validity first-hand) to accommodate modern day legend tripping to virtual (web-based) locations attributed with the spawning of a legend (websites or online chat rooms, for example). Tolbert (2013) points to modern day (i.e. virtual) legend tripping as a “performance” of legend—a practice that not only established the Slender Man myth, but ensured its widespread dissemination and enabled its collaborative fortification. Chess (2011), Tomberry (2016), and Yarish (2013) examine the co-created nature of the Slender Man, following the development of the Slender Man mythos from its origin through its subsequent incarnations. Coining the term “Slenderlore,” Yarish (2013) follows the chronology of legend in general, distinguishing between the established classifications of folklore (lore that arises organically from collective values and fears) and “fakelore” (lore that is created with the conscious intention of shaping and/or reflecting collective values and fears) and concluding that neither the folklore nor fakelore classification applies to the Slender Man, as neither accounts for Internet-generated lore such as his. Gries (2013) echoes the importance of this distinction in two ways, pointing out that human intent does not make a thing rhetorical (rather, it’s the thing’s interactions with other things that makes it rhetorical), and that the web’s capacity for rapid-fire information sharing is what enabled (and continues to enable) the Slender Man’s phenomenal success as an article of visual rhetoric. Gries (2013), Hahner (2013), and Tolbert (2016) point to Richard Dawkins’ (1989) “meme theory” as an explanation for how this works: memes (e.g. the Slender Man images) are “units of cultural transmission” that spread like viruses—the image being the viral vehicle and the idea (for example, the possibility of being stalked by the Slender Man) being the DNA transmitted through the viral vehicle.
Narrative of a Legend
But there is more to the Slender Man success than rapid and widespread transmission of a provocative image; storytelling might just as significantly be an enabling force. Tolbert (2013) characterizes the Slender Man as a composition of all the classic elements of legend, but in a thoroughly modern way: the Slender Man creative community simultaneously (and self-consciously) develops a new legend and revises the existing legend archetype. Paradoxically, the Slender Man legend would not exist without the collage of classically legendary stories stemming from it, and legend, itself, would be something altogether different without the Slender Man contributions. In this way, the Slender Man legend, predicated on two vague images, is dually vital—both creation and creator—in regards to storytelling as we know it today.
Less abstractly, narrative contributes to the Slender Man’s popularity in that people love a good story. Referring specifically to the captions of the original Slender Man images, Chess (2012) illustrates how the Slender man’s initial positive reception, and subsequent development into a legend, can be credited to the creative, and uniquely modern (i.e. self-referential and collaborative), use of fictitious narrative, while Tolbert (2013) examines, specifically, how the Slender Man’s narrative draw owes to the communal nature of web-based storytelling. To account for the Slender Man’s persistence as a real-life possibility, Kinsella (2011) examines fictional texts (like the Slender Man photo captions and contributor accounts of encounters with the Slender Man) in terms of legend performance, attributing such texts with the power to make fictionalized stories “real.”
Assessing from a different angle the role of story in the Slender Man’s evolution, Yarish (2013) claims the Slender Man lacks a unifying narrative and illustrates how this ambiguity—reflective of the Internet’s innate lack of authorial hierarchy—contributes to the proliferation of, and enriches, Slenderlore in a uniquely modern way. Conversely, Gelfand (2014) points to a specific narrative pattern that underscores and unifies the Slender Man chronology—based on the unique appeal of the Slender Man as watcher of the watching—and illustrates how this quality lends to the Slender Man’s mass appeal. Drawing on semiotic theory, Tolbert (2016) is not concerned with the narrative arc (or storyline) of the Slender Man mythos as much as with the self-referential and formulaic nature of the narrative: the Slender Man is a new breed of urban legend, one that self-consciously mimics its predecessors while at the same time daring its viewers to deny (or affirm) its existence. The following case study examines this new concept of legend, from its origins to its (sometimes dangerous) outgrowths, illustrating how an artifact of visual rhetoric can, in essence, become real.
Evolution of The Slender Man: A Case Study
How the Slender Man Came to Be
Something Awful is a paid-membership humor website frequented by Internet “griefers” (i.e. people who gather to mock elements of mainstream, pop culture in a virtual safe space; also often referred to as “nerds”) (Chess, 2011) with such a documented impact on digital culture that the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center maintains an archive of the site. The Slender Man was conceived of, and communally crafted, in 2009 in a Something Awful forum, as part of a “Photoshop Phriday” thread challenging members to “Create Paranormal Images” using Photoshop (Create Paranormal, 2009). Eric Knudsen (using the screen name “Victor Surge”) contrived the two black-and-white images that set the Slender Man lifespan into motion: In one, children play in a park as a dark figure with tentacled arms lurks in the background (see Appendix A); in the other, a group of children face the camera unnoticing as an inhumanly tall and lean, pale and faceless being in a black suit approaches from behind (see Appendix B). Cryptic captions add to the images’ rhetorical power: They read (respectively), “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” and,
One of the two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as “The Slender Man.” Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence. -1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986. (Surge, 2009)
Focusing in on fear. It’s the captions that draw the viewer in, at least initially, for in both images, the Slender Man is blurry (and/or out of focus) and virtually camouflaged by his surroundings, forcing the viewer into an uncomfortably close examination of the photo and leading to the “startle” of finding him. Gelfand (2014) suggests this visceral element of the Slender Man discovery experience engenders him to the human psyche in a way that is organic and primal—generating an unnamable fear that endures long past the cognition of his mundane origins. For, as irrational as fear can be (and often is), its reality is undeniable.
A backstory fit for a legend. Fears that elude easy interpretation compel people to classification, as if putting a name and context to the fears might render them more palatable—or, at least tolerable. Given the human impulse to this type of sense making, it logically follows that soon after his emergence onto the digital scene, the Slender Man acquired a full backstory, courtesy of Something Awful forum members whose contributions included everything from doctored Photographs to “real-life” accounts of coming into contact with the Slender Man. In semiotic (and folkloric) terms, the creation of “facts” to explain an existing artifact, or proof, of performance (in this case, the Slender Man photographs) is referred to as “reverse ostension” (Tolbert, 2011). The Slender man mythos exists almost entirely through this practice. In rapid succession following the original somethingawful.com postings, the Slender Man forum community created a monster derivative of all monsters (Chess, 2012), with ties to sixteenth century Germany (see Appendices C and D) and ancient Egypt (Dewey, 2014), and dating back to 5000 BC (Biggs, 2014).
The Slender Man leaves home. In addition to doctored images, early user contributions to the Slender Man story include fake news articles, first-person encounter stories, crayon drawings (supposedly produced by children who’d seen the Slender Man), and police reports, each iteration adding new layers of variation to the Slender Man lore, deepening its ambiguous mystery, and arguably, lending to its credibility (Chess, 2012). Eventually, the Slender Man moved on from its virtual birthplace of somethingawful.com (of course, leaving roots there, which remain to this day), cultivating followings on 4chan forums, prompting pages on Wikipedia and Creepypasta (an online wiki for web-based paranormal content), and inspiring namesake websites like slendernation.com (Dewey, 2014; Tomberry, n.d.).
The Slender Man mythos has also translated well to other forms of media, including video. In the web-based horror series Marble Hornets (for a screenshot, see Appendix E), the Slender Man (under the moniker, “The Operator”) figures as a prominent character, responsible for driving the series’ subject insane and leading the film crew on a harrowing investigative journey into the supernatural (Chapin, n.d.). With its own Youtube channel, IMDB entry, wiki pages, and a “fan” following of nearly half a million people, the “found footage” style Marble Hornets series appears to be fiction but presents itself as fact, thereby embodying the same ambiguous quality of the Slender Man and inspiring a number of spinoffs and knockoffs in a case of reverse ostension that not only lends to the series’ success but also reinforces the Slender Man mythos.
The Slender Man, Commoditized
Gries (2013) implicates commodification in the proliferation of memes like the Slender Man, the rationale being this: If there’s money to be made on a meme, the masses will adopt it, reproduce it (in a varietal infinitude of mediums and derivatives), and put a price tag on it. Soon after his legend infiltrated mainstream consciousness, opportunists far and wide adapted it to their capitalistic ambitions, making the Slender Man a commodity and further embedding it in the human ethos. The Slender Man wiki (theslenderman.wikia.com) is a collaborative and comprehensive database of everything related to the Slender Man mythos and its offshoots. The site accounts for a body of the Slender Man merchandise that encompasses at least nine video games, five films, and four books. However, an Internet search reveals even more marketable media based on the Slender Man, including an HBO documentary (see Appendix F) set for release in January of 2017 (“Beware the Slenderman,” 2016). Of course, the web also offers all the product generally associated with iconic figures: t-shirts, hats, bags, posters, stickers, mugs, plush toys, key chains, necklaces, and Halloween costumes are some examples (see Appendix G).
The Slender Man Betrays Boundaries
However much effort went into corralling and packaging the Slender Man, the Slender Man legend could not be contained. Less ordered and cohesive (and monetarily valuable) vehicles of the Slender Man mythos include fan art (often curated on Deviantart.com), fan fiction, music, and cosplay. And because of the relative ease with which this material may be developed and distributed on the web, it’s literally impossible to follow a linear chronology of the Slender Man collective. Instead, as Gries (2013) explains, any scholarship into an article of visual rhetoric such as the Slender Man must account for infinitesimal synchronicity and futurity.
Still intact, the original site of the Slender Man’s genesis (on somethingawful.com)—now nearly two hundred pages long (Dewey, 2014)—is far removed from the Slender Man legend we know today. It’s no wonder laypeople—and especially young people—might easily be swayed by the seeming plausibility of the Slender Man mythos. This comment in a Yahoo Answers forum, posted by a user with the screen name “Slenderman cultist,” demonstrates the sweeping ambiguity that laid the framework for the Slender Man legend’s later interpretation as a call to murder:
The Slender Man is a supernatural creature that is described as appearing as a normal human being but he is described as being 8 feet tall [sic] and he has vectors or extra appendeges [sic] that are described to be as sharp as swords. The creature is known to stalk humans and cause many dissapearences. [sic] He is described as a shadow creature that has missing a face. The creature fits into many mythologies in legends from nations such as germany and celts whitch [sic] brings up the possibility that he could be real. A man named victor Surge found this legend and made his own version of it whitch [sic] he called slender man. The slender man is not exactly evil according to mythology but victor Surge's version shows him as an evil creature that stalks humans to kill. In mythology he was actually trying to save you from a painful death by taking you to the under world early. Personally I believe he is real but not victor Surge's version. The problem is figuring out what came from mythology and what was made up for entertainment . . . . The slender man has become an internet Meme and there have been many sightings of him watching people outside of their house . . . The photoshopped [sic] images of the slender man kind of turn it into a game like can you see him because he is hidden in the background of every picture . . . . I believe in him but you have to remember that slender man is victor surge's fake version but the one I believe in is the one from mythologies in history. Hope this helped and don't dissmiss [sic] this as fake because he could be real. (Slenderman cultist, 2010)
The Making of Murderers
As the Yahoo Answers post demonstrates, as innocently as the Slender Man mythos began, it eventually came to embody something more palpable—more of, for, and about the flesh—capable of affecting human belief (and ultimately behavior) in terrifying ways. In 2014, a feature news story on the Slender Man characterizing the legend’s beginnings as “difficult to pinpoint” (in spite of its traceable origins) testified to the stronghold of the Slender Man narrative (Dewey, 2014). Later that same year, this ambiguity proved to be nearly fatal, leading to a real life occurrence worthy of the campfire.
On the morning of May 30, 2014, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, two twelve-year old girls, Morgan Geyser and Anyssa Weier, lured a female friend of the same age into a wooded area near the site of a slumber party they’d had the night before. They’d promised to show their friend a new game, but instead stabbed the girl a combined total of nineteen times. The explanation for their actions catapulted the Slender Man mythos into the mainstream media spotlight for all the worst reasons: “legend” has it that the Slender Man often lurks in the woods, waiting to snatch the children he relies on for sustenance, and the May stabbing was intended as a sacrificial gift for the Slender Man. Geyser and Weier believed that, through their horrible act, they would prove the Slender Man’s existence to nonbelievers and thereby earn the honor of becoming his proxies. Left for dead, the girls’ victim was later discovered by a bicyclist. Both Geyser and Weier regret their victim’s survival, as the Slender Man has effectually been denied his gift, and them their salvation (Bever, 2014).
Citing mental illness, Geyser has entered a plea of not guilty. She claims to have been visited by the Slender Man multiple times in her sleep, and says he can read her mind (“Slender Man case,” 2016). Chillingly, Geyser and Weier encountered the proxy-by-murder ritual they enacted on that momentous May day on the Creepypasta website frequented by so many children their age (Bever, 2014). Scholar Joanne Cantor explains that children are especially vulnerable to Internet lore like the Slender Man because of the multi-media, communal nature of its narrative: by interacting with the story (i.e. collaborating with other users’ experiences) and viewing multiple videos and images, children may easily become confused as to where real testimony ends and invention begins (Associated Press, 2014). Chess (2012) concludes that the Slender Man resonates so strongly with youth because he metaphorically represents the uncertainty, vulnerability, and power differential frustrations inherent to adolescence.
As if to quantify the Slender Man’s effect on impressionable young minds (and further solidify the Slender Man mythos in the pop culture conscience), another violent incident in the name of the Slender Man occurred just days after that in Wisconsin—and, perhaps not coincidentally, eerily near the Slender Man’s date of origin—this time pitting a teenaged girl against her own mother. The Cincinnati, Ohio case involved a thirteen-year old who ambushed her mother with a knife while wearing a white mask and, her mother asserts, seemingly “playing a role.” Although the girl is reported to have preexisting “mental health issues,” her mother believes her “obsession” with the Slender Man led to the attack (“Mother says daughter,” 2014).
The Slender Man in Meta
Fortunately, the Slender Man’s propensity for murderous bodily possession leaves off there (at least for now). Self-reflection is the quintessential resting place for memes that have run the circuit of cultural influence and arrived back at themselves for a harsh reexamination, vis-à-vis themselves, and the most current iterations of the Slender Man are, by and large, self-referential. And often, they’re humorous.
Take Trender Man—the Slender Man’s “sassy” brother (or by some accounts, his cousin)—whose photographically documented flair for fashion betrays his sinister family history (see Appendix F). A common department store mannequin with a penchant for V-neck sweaters, Trender Man spends his time at the mall, frequently appears on Tumblr, has a designated page on memegenerator.net, and is known for fashion pun memes (which also sometimes feature his brother the Slender Man) (Tomberry, n.d.). In a similar vein, Splendorman, who is often portrayed as the Slender Man’s “older, nicer, brother,” exists to make people happy (Cicierega, 2010); although his appearance—impossible height, pale skin, and black suit—hearkens to his grim family ties, Splendorman has a smiling face, is kind to children, and makes joyful appearances in video and fan art (see Appendix I).
Although there are numerous examples of parody, satire, and otherwise self-aware media centered on the Slender Man mythos, Trender Man and Splendorman are two of the most widely proliferated, and therefore suitable exemplars for the staying (and acting) power of the Slender Man. True to memetic form, both have inspired a body of fan art and resultant mythos, and have as well provoked what Gries (2013) would call “metacultural activities” (p. 223)—classification of, and commentary on, memes of a meme, for example. Far removed from their menacing predecessor and in no way conceived of or intended by the Slender Man’s originator Eric Knudsen, Trender Man and Splendorman are “living” proofs of visual rhetoric’s vital force and as well are uniquely modern manifestations of legend as a phenomenon both of and unto itself.
From inception to self-conscious reflection, the Slender Man lifespan exhibits the vitality of visual rhetoric while at the same time demonstrating the Internet’s potentiality for the spawning, nurturing, and immortalizing of legends. As memes like the Slender Man continue to transform (and to experience transformation), they will likely provide more questions than answers—a veritable hotbed of study opportunities. Ideally, this paper will be an impetus for more in-depth research into the similarities between memes and legends; how both operate as acts of visual rhetoric; how life force transfers from person to object (and vice versa); and the inextricable mechanisms that compel humans to belief in fiction.
Where can, or will, the Slender Man go from here? The possibilities are, literally, endless. In a recent interview, Knudsen revealed he’d stopped contributing to the Slender Man mythos years ago, as he has “a lot of real-life stuff going on” (Biggs, 2014). But that won’t slow this legend down because, apparently, so does the Slender Man.
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Bever, L. (2014, June 3). Pre-teen girls accused of stabbing friend 19 times to honor mythological creature. The Washington Post, LLC. Retrieved from creature/?tid=pm_pop&utm_term=.171549c82439
Beware the Slenderman. (2016). Home Box Office. Retrieved from
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Chapin, A. (n.d.). Marble Hornets. The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved from
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Gelfand, L. (2014, April). They are watching you: The Slender Man and the terrors of 21st century technologies. Paper presented at Popular Culture Association Conference, Chicago, IL, 2014.
Kinsella, M. (2011). Legend-tripping online: Supernatural folklore and the search for Ong’s hat. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Mother says daughter attacked her because of Slender Man [Video file]. (2014, June 6). WLWT. Retrieved from
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Tomberry. (n.d.). Know your meme: Slender man. Know Your Meme. Retrieved December 04, 2016, from
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One of Two Original Images of the Slender Man (Surge, 2009)
One of Two Original Images of the Slender Man (Surge, 2009)
Doctored 16th Century German Wood Cutting Portraying the Slender Man (Tomberry, n.d.)
Doctored 16th Century German Wood Cutting Portraying the Slender Man (Biggs, 2014)
Marble Hornets Screenshot (Chapin, n.d.)
Screenshot of HBO Documentary, “Beware the Slenderman” (2016)
The Slender Man Merchandise
Trender Man Meme (Tomberry, n.d.)
Screenshot of Original Splendorman Video (Cicierega, 2010)