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Slenderman: Nightmarish Info-demon or Misunderstood Cultural Icon?

No, a made-up monster didn’t cause a tragic crime.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / Mopic

 
 
 
 

Here’s the good news about the media panic surrounding  “Slenderman,” the child-snatching, tentacle-armed Internet meme-demon who supposedly inspired a pair of 12-year-old girls in Wisconsin to stab a friend of theirs 19 times: It’s been minimal. Before I get any further with that, let’s back up a second to clarify that the  real good news in this upsetting story is that the victim of the assault will apparently recover, and one hopes that cooler heads in the Badger State’s judicial system will back away from the idea of trying these disturbed children as adults. (Several news accounts have already named the suspects, but I think that’s unbelievably sleazy and I’m not going to.)

No doubt we could find concern-trolls writing posts and comments about how the Internet is turning our children into killers, but that has not been the general reaction. There have been numerous articles about who or what Slenderman is, since it’s exactly the sort of phenomenon that’s virtually invisible to most adults over 35. In case you’re not caught up on all that, Slenderman (aka The Tall Man, Der Schlanker Mann, Fear Dubh, The Master, et al.) is an unnaturally tall, skinny and faceless entity, sometimes possessed with tentacles and generally depicted in a dark business suit with a white shirt and a red or black tie. Every era demands its own monsters, and I find it irresistible to observe that Slenderman looks like a child’s drawing of a banker. As the absurdly detailed  Slender Man Wiki explains, “it is uncertain if his suit is real cloth or some form of skin molded into such an appearance.” He induces paranoia and illness, interferes with electronic equipment, and sometimes abducts humans for unknown but unwholesome purposes. And no matter what “evidence” you may encounter on YouTube, he does not exist.

Slenderman was evidently created in June 2009 by a guy named Eric Knudsen, as part of a contest to concoct convincing-looking “paranormal” images that might be used to troll the gullible. Knudsen wrote a couple of fragmentary narratives about the atrocities caused or inspired by Slendy (as devotees call him), other users added theirs, and the race was on. Over the last five years, thousands of Slenderman-related videos, images and story snippets have appeared on the Internet, made by people all over the world. There have been several video games, at least one episodic series and a couple of actual or contemplated feature films (although those appear tangled in copyright issues). Most of that material is fan-created and essentially non-commercial – stuff people made for fun, in other words. (If they were also hoping to build a film-school reel or drive traffic to their site or attract interest from Showtime – hey, that’s the entrepreneurial spirit.) And absolutely none of the millions of kids, teenagers and young adults who have been thrilled or terrified or amused or bewildered by Slendy has tried to kill anyone. Until now.

As I say, even the hysterics of right-wing media, whose entire modus operandi is to scare the crap out of old people with conspiracy theories and racial panic, have so far avoided going fully off the deep end on this one. So far, Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass seems to take the prize, crafting a  rambling work of free-associative prose that reads something like David Brooks on Quaaludes: Our culture is to blame, because, um, it’s “a culture that has fallen in love with magic and fantasy … where dark magic is celebrated, but religion is considered bothersome.” Skipping over the obvious next question – gee, who has killed more people, Harry Potter fans or religious zealots? – Kass complains about “Twilight” for a while and then quotes a long passage from John Steinbeck about the dissociative character of childhood fantasy, which makes exactly the opposite point he thinks it does.