One of the biggest conceits in the horror genre is that the horror, no matter how fantastical and unrealistic it may be, could happen. Many stories even claim to be true – The Castle of Otranto, the first horror novel, begins with a short explanation about how the story was found as a manuscript within the (fictional) ruins of the titular castle. Frankenstein and Dracula are both written as though they were letters sent between people (people with impeccable memories that are practically supernatural themselves). Alien invasion movies became popular in the 50’s partly because people were actually seeing UFOs and claiming to be abducted by aliens in real life, and the various giant monster movies at the time were partly inspired by real life reports that radiation made things grow far larger than they normally do. Even in the 70’s, when you’d think we’d know better, people actively believed that demons and satanic cults actually existed, with movies like The Exorcist claiming to be based on true events. And of course there’s found footage, where shitty film making is propped up as an appealing thing since it provides “realism.”
One of the reasons I think horror has struggled as late is this perceived need for reality – a lot of people believe things can only be scary if they could really happen, and the number of things the average person believes can happen in the real world has been dwindling with each passing year. Giant monster movies died out when we found out radiation is more likely to give you cancer than gigantism. Vampires had to turn into romantic characters instead of monsters once they became too fantastical to be “real.” Aliens left horror to inhabit sci-fi action flicks fodder for their increasingly violent heroes. Reality – or rather our belief that realism in fiction is necessary – is killing our monsters.
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered that, in these monster unfriendly times, a new monster has not only sprung up, but become popular. In the 20th century we slowly killed every folkloric monster we had created, but now, in the 21st, we beat the odds and made a new one.
Slender Man’s roots began on Something Awful’s forums – specifically a post where people photoshopped normal pictures so they included creepy paranormal elements. While most people were making ghosts, a user named VictorSurge created a ghoul of his own: a creepy, impossibly thin monster with distorted facial features that was quickly dubbed “The Slender Man.” Slender Man took over the thread almost immediately after he was posted. It wasn’t just Victor who was posting pictures of him, either – others got in on the aciton, creating a slew of creepy fucking photos. Some people started writing stories to go along with them. Slender Man started getting powers – he could grow extra arms, turn his arms into tentacles, rise up on numerous legs to blend in with trees, make people sick with his presence, mess with recording technology, etc. The monster transcended his simple origins the minute one fan started making a series of found footage style videos called Marble Hornets, doing what vampires and werewolves had taken centuries to do in a few weeks.
A couple things worked in Slender Man’s favor here. The first is the design and concept of the monster. In many ways, Slender Man fits with many other gothic horror archetypes. Like werewolves, ghosts, zombies, and vampires, Slender Man is a perversion of the human form – a monster that plays on our fears of our own kind as well as the unknown. He can be the eerie scratching noise outside and the neighbor next door – a supernatural force mixed with a serial killer. His image soon solidified into something as iconic as the fangs of a vampire or the dead white eyes of a zombie – a faceless monster with too-long limbs in its most human form, that can turn into something even more monstrous when the story is needed. It’s at once simple and versatile – it’s a good monster design.
Yet unlike those Gothic Horror monsters, Slender Man’s backstory isn’t tied to the past. Slender Man’s origins, motives, and even his nature began as unknowns, and the people who started writing about him worked hard to keep him that way, and as a result he became Cosmic Horror monster. Whatever Slender Man is, he is supposed to be outside our understanding – something beyond the scope of human reason. He doesn’t work by the rules governing everything else in our universe, and it is implied he’s part of some greater and more dangerous plane of existence.
When the character began taking off, some of the people posting in the thread discussed how they could convince people to believe in the monster when they could find that forum post and prove he’s “fake.” The theory most people seemed to jump on was the “tulpa” theory – the idea that learning about Slender Man and believing in him was enough to make him real, and the more people learn about him, the more real he is – like some twisted version of Tinkerbell. While I have some qualms with that as an origin for the character, it does work within the cosmic horror aspects of him – he’s formed by some unknowable power that each and every human is tied to but unable to control, a part of our consciousness that affects reality without regard to our own will. It can be pretty horrifying to think about.
A huge mythos has spawned around Slender Man by this point, and, just like other monsters, there are a myriad of interpretations of the character you can find now. The best comparison you can make is between vampires – there are hundreds of different flavors of vampire out there in fiction and mythology, and there are likewise several different flavors of Slender Man. For both, there are some things that most people think are unanimous, even though there are exceptions to them out there. For vampires, most people think they’re killed by sunlight and stakes through the heart, drink blood, and screw 24/7. For Slender Man, most people think he has tentacles, forces people to become his proxies (killers who wear craft store masks), has some sort of sinister scheme, was made by tulpa/wishful thinking, and wants to be caught on film for some reason.
And, like vampires, I prefer the older stuff that predates a lot of things that are set in stone now. I don’t like proxies or schemes. I don’t even know if I like my Slender Man to be intelligent. I prefer him as some vast, unknowable thing whose relationship with humanity is impersonal at best – something that occasionally slips into our reality and fucks with it just by existing. We didn’t create it on that Something Awful thread – we just subconsciously remembered meeting it before, and it came out in our artwork like the image from a bad dream. Only now, in the age of the internet where the nightmares of people that are miles away from each other can be shared instantaneously, do we realize that we’ve all had the same dream – because it wasn’t a dream, it was real. Real and horrible.
Anyway, Slender Man is pretty frickin’ rad, as is the resurgence of Cosmic Horror in this day and age. While it’s not reflected well in our movies, I honestly think Cosmic Horror is getting popular enough to actually become the mainstream form of horror in this age. After playing third fiddle to Gothic, Atomic, and Slasher horror for decades, Cosmic Horror is finally stepping up to center stage. Look at any given creepypasta – the internet’s own special brand of horror fiction. I’d say about 90% of it is Cosmic Horror, and I understand why. In this day and age, what’s more horrifying than the idea that the world is this hideous, inherently terrifying and awful place for no knowable rhyme or reason, and that it has been designed to screw us over since long before we were born?
I mean, that’s kind of true, isn’t it?