ICHF: Slender Man

Slender Man

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?

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Cryptid File 003: The Jersey Devil

File 003 Jersey Devil.png

Official Spooks Cryptid Designation: The Jersey Devil

Folkloric Names: The Leeds Devil, The 13th Child

Distribution and Habitat: New Jersey Pine Barrens

Average Height: 16 Feet

Average Length: 24 Feet

Average Wingspan: 30 Feet

Native (?) Fauna

Reason for Cryptid Status: Aberrant physiology, immortality, connection to supernatural phenomena

Observation History: The legend of the Jersey Devil supposedly began in 1735, when a woman named Deborah Leeds proclaimed her thirteenth child would be the devil, and, sure enough, that is exactly what it ended up being.  Though the Spooks Organization doubts the veracity of this legend, it is sadly as good an explanation as any for the existence of this particular creature, and more than one researcher has suggested the Jersey Devil should be handled by a different department than the Cryptid branch.  Though the organization first encountered it in 1909, the beast has consistently evaded capture, even finding a way to escape from a sealed metal box with only one exit/entrance.  For whatever reason, the Jersey Devil remains in the Pine Barrens, and any attempt to relocate the creature has failed.

Ecology and Behavior: Genetic research has found that, despite appearances, the Jersey Devil is technically a human being.  Given its chimeric physiology, this revelation is a hard pill for the scientists at the Spooks Organization to swallow, and there are many hypotheses as to how this creature was created, ranging from alien tampering to things that border on the Occult.  If indeed the creature is “human,” it is an absolutely extraordinary one, and not just for its looks.

Despite its wings being too small to generate enough lift, the Jersey Devil is capable of flying at great speeds, and can likewise perch on branches that should buckle under its weight.  On the rare occasion where a shot meant for the Devil manages to hit it, the creature will only bleed for a few short seconds before the wound closes up.  Poison, electricity, and other means of pest control have also failed to fell the beast, as its threshold for pain and ability to heal are both beyond that of normal fauna.

Though legends describe the monster as exceedingly cruel, observation of the Jersey Devil is nowhere near as dangerous as one might think.  In the several decades it has been under Spooks surveillance, the creature has not been responsible for a single casualty, even during the many failed attempts to capture it.  Whether it has mellowed with age or its cruelty was simply exaggerated, as it stands the Jersey Devil is a mostly harmless creature, spending its time observing its territory and occasionally investigating the few humans who enter the Pine Barrens.  Unlike other fauna, the Jersey Devil doesn’t seem to need sustenance, and has never been spotted eating or drinking.

There is something disquieting about the creature.  The Pine Barrens are filled with supernatural phenomena, being a Ley Lines intersection and home to several EPIs (Ectoplasmic Psychic Imprints).  Like many creatures, the Jersey Devil is aware of these phenomena, but unlike traditional fauna it actively seeks them out rather than trying to avoid them.  One can often see the beast hovering during Ectoplasmic Manifestations and other Psychic Anomalies.  Combining this with the creature’s freakish durability and extreme luck at evading capture, one has to wonder just what this strange animal knows that we don’t.

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ICHF: Nyarlathotep

Nyarlathotep

Perhaps the second most famous eldritch abomination in Lovecraft’s pantheon, Nyarlathotep is something of an oddity among oddities.  If entities like Azathoth and Yog Sothoth are gods, then Nyarlathotep is sort of a dark angel, working as their messenger. Nyarlathotep appears in many Lovecraft stories and is mentioned in others, and, of all the major players in Lovecraft’s mythology, he has the most human-ish personality. While Azathoth, Yog Sothoth, and the other various “gods” of the mythos seem distant and removed from humanity, Nyarlathotep actively works amongst us as a cruel trickster and devil-like figure, manipulating mortals with apparent glee. When Yog Sothoth or Cthulhu destroy you, it’s basically an accident (albeit one he could care less about). When Nyarlathotep destroys you, it was probably planned.

 

I think Lovecraft created Nyarlathotep to sort of have his cake and eat it too.  While monsters like Cthulhu are terrifying because of their incomprehensibility, stories need plots that can be comprehended by the audience to, well, appeal to an audience, which is pretty important if you want to live off your writing.  So Nyarlathotep presents a sort of middle ground, acting as a somewhat flawed translator of the untranslatable.  He literally puts on a human face (and a black one more often than not because, well, Lovecraft was a racist) and pretends to have simple motives, tricking human beings into sabotaging their own species by forming cults to bring the various cosmic monsters back to life and power.

 

However, the key aspect of Nyarlathotep is that his human persona is a façade.  While he acts cruel and devilish, his goals aren’t as simple as destroying humanity – like all of Lovecraft’s cosmic beings, he ultimately wants to facilitate some grand, abstract design of the universe that just happens to be catastrophic for human civilization.  The goals Nyarlathotep works for are no more inherently malevolent than, say, the eventual heat death of the universe – the fact that we would be destroyed by them is a mostly irrelevant detail as far as the laws of physics are concerned.

 

Nyarlathotep shows up in a lot of stories outside of Lovecraft’s canon, even being used as a pseudonym for Stephen King’s multi-dimensional agent of evil, Randall Flagg.  The semi-comprehensibility of his motives and methods may be the key to his popularity, as it’s a lot easier to write Nyarlathotep’s standard characterization than it is to write inscrutable beasties like Cthulhu.  Yet sometimes he slips a bit too far, becoming JUST a squid-shaped Mephistopheles when, like all of Lovecraft’s beasties, he should be something just a bit more peculiar than a simple tempter.

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ICHF: Cthulhu

Cthulhu

Perhaps the most famous Cosmic Horror character of all time, Cthulhu has only grown in infamy with age, being far more popular now than he was when he debuted way back in the twenties.  Despite technically being only one of a vast pantheon of eldritch abominations (and far from the most powerful at that), his name is practically synonymous with H. P. Lovecraft’s work, and the Cthulhu Mythos is for many people the definitive work of Cosmic Horror, just as Dracula and Frankenstein are for the Gothic.

Yet despite his fame, I think Cthulhu, like many aspects of Lovecraft’s work, is poorly understood.  Many modern works portray Cthulhu as sort of an intergalactic Satan or God of Evil, always working on a nefarious scheme to destroy the world in an apocalyptic spree of destruction straight out of the book of Revelations, except seafood themed.  You’d be forgiven if you thought Cthulhu was a card carrying villain, essentially an expy of Lord Sauron who’s simply waiting for the stars to align in favor of his dark and wicked reign.

However, it should be noted that this isn’t how Lovecraft intended the monster to be taken.  While Lovecraft himself was an extreme xenophobe, he rarely settled for monsters that could be mundanely defined as “evil.”  Instead, Lovecraft’s mythos revolves around a world where “good” and “evil” are simply human concepts – and, like all human concepts in that universe, they are deeply flawed and bear little meaning on the truth of reality, which is so far beyond humanity in scope that it can’t be arsed to care about “morals.”

In Lovecraft’s writing, Cthulhu is an utterly alien and immeasurably powerful being, to the point that he scarcely seems to understand what humanity even is.  Sure, it’s true that Cthulhu could destroy this world with a mere flex of his tentacle and literally without a thought.  Yes, the cults that worship Cthulhu are vicious and cruel, often being led by genocidal monsters or wicked humans that want to sell out their own species for the chance of winning Cthulhu’s favor.  And yes, many humans go mad just at the sight of Cthulhu.  However, none of these things are Cthulhu’s goal – the monster has no particular ill will towards humanity, and whatever harm he causes is just a byproduct at best.  We aren’t Cthulhu’s target – we’re collateral damage.  What Cthulhu wants, what his motives are, and what his role in the universe is are questions we cannot and should not be able to answer. He’s not evil – he’s amoral, which means without morals. That doesn’t make him bad – it makes it impossible for him to be bad or good. He just is.

This is one of the many reasons eldritch abominations are hard to write for – they inherently rebel against traditional motivations, and far too often horror writers get lazy and reduce them to cackling villains.  Done right, Cthulhu shouldn’t be some architect of humanity’s doom, but an indifferent force of calamity.  He harms us with the same apathy that leads humans to harm the creatures beneath their notice.  His attacks aren’t done out of malice, but irritation, like a human swatting a mosquito.  The indifference of him, and the implication that he understands the universe far more than we do, and the possibility that he may even be justified in his indifference, is what makes Cthulhu so unique compared to other monsters.

Honestly, modern Cthulhu stories would be more compelling if they showed the monster doing things completely unrelated to humanity’s destruction, and explored the idea that this being, vast, powerful, and devastating as he is, has more on its plate than world domination.  There’s something to be said for the terror of seeing a tornado heading your way, only for it to stop at the last moment and, for no reason you can understand, move in the opposite direction.  Cthulhu needs his incomprehensibility to be at his best.

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Cryptid File 002: The Common Sasquatch

File 002 Common Sasquatch.png

Official Spooks Cryptid Designation: Common Sasquatch

Folkloric Names: Sasquatch, Big Foot, Skookum

Distribution and Habitat: Temperate forests in the Pacific Northwest

Average Height: 10 feet

Native Fauna

Member of Wood Ape Subgroup

Reason for Cryptid Status: Psychic Powers (telepathy)

Observation History: Though sightings of large, bipedal apes have been common folkloric phenomena in North America for ages, they were only gathered under the name “Sasquatch” in the 1920’s by a man namd J.W. Burns, who proposed that the many different legends and tall tales of tall, hairy hominids may all belong to the same creature.  The Spooks Organization had been looking into the myth by that point, but it took an additional decade for a specimen to be captured alive.  It has since been discovered that there are many subspecies of Sasquatch throughout North America, as well as related species on other continents.  Thankfully, the innate psychic powers of the Sasquatch aid in covering up its existence, and subsequent encounters by private citizens are easily passed off as hallucinations or hoaxes.

Ecology and Behavior: Omnivorous and surprisingly calm for primates their size, the Common Sasquatch is content to live and let live, rarely posing a threat to anything bigger than a raccoon.  The few specimens known to be man-eaters were always abnormal cases, often being in ill health and thus desperate for anything they could get.  Indeed, most encounters with the Common Sasquatch are positively benign, as the highly intelligent apes seem more curious about humanity than antagonistic.  The same cannot be said for some of their subspecies, or indeed for their relatives on other continents.  In many ways, the Common Sasquatch’s temperament is one of its oddest qualities.

Sasquatches tend to live in solitude, though pairs and small family groups have been seen on occasion.  Interestingly, it is more common to see the Sasquatches interact with other species than it is to see them with their own kind, and the wood apes have a particular fondness for deer.  When a Sasquatch family is encountered, care must be taken not to distress the children, as Sasquatches are violently protective of their offspring.

The Sasquatch’s most unique trait is its innate telepathic powers.  Observing a Sasquatch without protection will often result in disorientation and memory loss, making it hard for the observer to maintain their balance or remember where exactly the ape was when the encounter took place.  This makes tracking the apes incredibly difficult, and likewise is responsible for most photos and videos of the primates being blurry and out of focus.  Researchers are not sure yet whether this is a conscious or unconscious action on the Sasquatch’s part, and there have been incidents of creatures and people not being affected by this psychic power, either because of some unknown resistance or, perhaps, because the ape wished to be remembered.

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ICHF: The Thing

 

The Thing.pngSay hello to the Thing, sometimes called the Thing from Another World.  I’m generally against giving monsters vague pronouns instead of actual names, but man, the Thing makes it work.  For those who have not seen the 1980 classic The Thing, do yourself a favor and watch it now.  No, seriously, stop reading this article and watch it.  Go into it untainted and pure, ready to experience something marvelous and horrifying.

Back?  Cool.  Let’s continue.

Brief synopsis time: In The Thing, a group of researchers in Antartica discover an alien monster trapped in the ice.  This monster is able to shapeshift into a perfect replica of other species, even retaining their memories and personality when it does so – granted, to do this is also has to eat them.  Hilarity ensues when it starts assimilating the researchers, and no one knows who is still themselves and who has become… the thing.

(That’s an incredibly simplified synopsis that leaves out some key details, which you’d know if you followed my directions and watched this amazing movie before reading this ICHF article.)

I’ve talked before in this series about how monsters aren’t always treated as characters, and how horror has to strike a balance between the unknown and the known.  Sometimes writers try reduce a monster to just an extension of the conflict in an effort to keep up the mystery, which in turn makes it easier to play things for horror (in theory).  After all, it’s a lot easier to keep the audience on their toes if the monster has no motives or personality quirks that could help them predict its behavior, right?

Yet the Thing does something special: it develops a character entirely around being strange and inhuman.  Unlike the Alien, which took human traits and perverted them to the point of making them seem strange and unnatural, the Thing is just completely bizarre.  It has no true form as far as we know, taking on a strange hybrid of human, dog, and alien body parts every time it’s exposed.  Every cell of the creature can function autonomously, rapidly mutating whenever it is harmed so that some part of it lives in some way, shape, or form.  While the creature’s motive is clear – assimilate everyone, fix spaceship, and take over the earth – its capacity for thought and feeling is left up in the air, though by the end of the movie we can’t help but realize it is a clever fucking bastard.

And by clever, I mean it has a million different shapes to kill you with, and a million more schemes to trap you so it can use them.  We don’t need to strip it of motive to make it terrifying – the simple fact that you can’t know which humans are the Thing and which aren’t is mystery enough to keep the suspense going, and no one can truly be ruled out – even corpses can turn out to just be a dormant Thing in wait.  It’s capacity for expression is as great as our own, if not greater – the Thing snarls in fury when it is found, screams in agony when it is burned, and lets us know that it definitely does not appreciate the humans foiling its plan.  It gets to be a character AND the unknown, which is such a hard balance to strike.  Hell, technically it’s several characters.

There’s a fan fic for this movie that (I think?) is semi-canonical called The Things that tells the story from the Thing’s perspective, letting us feel its horror are the humans’ inability to fuse together like it and every other species it has met in its interstellar travels.  It is so repulsed by our inability to “take communion,” and our desire to destroy it, that it decides to forcefully convert us into itself.  It’s a marvelous example of how to write a nonhuman in a way that is both authentically not-human, and yet perfectly understandable to humans – and it’s a testament to the strength of the original film’s writing, as the film totally supports this unique characterization – again, I’m fairly sure one of the creators gave it honorary canon status.

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ICHF: Audrey II

Audrey II

Audrey II is the monstrous star of Little Shop of Horrors, one of the few horror musicals in existence.  If you haven’t seen her (him?  Audrey II is given its name by a human before it develops the capacity for speech, and its voice is distinctly masculine, so pronouns might be tricky here – especially since Audrey II reproduces asexually) in action, then you have still almost certainly seen the countless monsters inspired by this mean green mother from outer space.  Audrey II wasn’t the first plant monster to exist, but she is by far the most famous and influential – the archetype most plant monsters follow.

Yet in many ways she’s a spin on a much older archetype.  Little Shop of Horrors is essentially a retelling of the story of Dr. Faust, where a talented person makes a deal with an otherworldly entity to gain more knowledge, power, and fame at the expense of their soul.  Audrey II is basically a science fiction take on Mephistopheles – rather than being a demon from the pits of hell, she(?) is an alien from Outer Space, albeit one just as cunning, devious, and manipulative as any devil.

The plant travels to Earth in a meek and unassuming shape as a young seedling, appearing right before young botanist/plant store errand boy Seymour Krelbourne after a total eclipse of the sun.  Seymour discovers that Audrey II draws a lot of attention, as people are almost magically drawn to fawn over this strange and unusual plant the moment they see it.  While the plant draws a lot of attention to the story Seymour works at, it also has a rather unfortunate need to consume human blood to survive – and the larger it grows, the more blood it needs.  Eventually the plant grows so big that Seymour needs to kill a human being to feed it – which Audrey II convinces him to do with a catchy song.  The body count rises higher and higher as Seymour continues to revel in fame and success, all while the plant gets bigger and bigger…

Weirdly, and perhaps a little sadly, this movie is the closest I’ve ever seen a film come to telling the Faust story in its entirety.  Out of all the devil movies we have, none really have a Mephistopheles figure that is as charming, cunning, and insidious as the folkloric take on the character – none save Audrey II here.  Few manage to show how easily and thoroughly the Faust figure is able to succumb to his own faults and descend into wickedness despite originally being a fairly decent person – except poor Seymour Krelbourne, who begins the story as a loveable underdog and ends it as a murderer who has ultimately caused the deaths of everyone he’s ever cared about in the pursuit of success.  The Faust legend is one of the most retold stories in Western culture for a reason, and Little Shop of Horrors manages to play it as straight as it possibly can despite giving it a sci-fi/Atomic Horror themed update.

Audrey II is also one of the few monsters in history who gets to win at the end of her story – although you’d either have to watch the stage show version of her story or the Director’s Cut blu-ray version of the 87 film to see that victory in action.  There are many, many monsters that have tried to conquer the world, but Audrey II is one of the few alien invaders who unquestionably manages to do so.   She doesn’t conquer man through technology or disease, but by simply playing on our desires to succeed at any cost – those secret kernels of greed and pride that lie deep in our hearts.  And she did it all while singing some truly jaunty tunes.

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