Earlier this month, the Slender Man film hit theaters with little fanfare. Based on the long-running Creepypasta, the movie tells the story of four friends who summon Slender Man, a tall, tentacled creature with no face and a dark suit who lingers in the background of Photoshopped images online. One theme pervaded its mediocre reviews: critics were utterly bored, not only by the movie but by the concept. David Ehrlich at Indiewire called it the “internet’s stalest Creepypasta,” while Andrew Whalen at Newsweek called the movie’s eponymous creature as “used up as any years-old meme.” Its Rotten Tomatoes rating currently sits at 9 percent.
Had the studio and filmmakers simply been paying attention to their subject’s origins, they might have spared themselves the humiliation. After nearly a decade and a smattering of very public ups and downs — including a widely publicized stabbing case in 2014 that left a teenage girl seriously injured, plus some other allegations — both Slender Man and the online community that grew up around him are all but dead, barreled over by other Creepypasta fandoms and the mainstreaming of what was once a popular, albeit niche, piece of horror. A few prolific Slender Man fiction creators are still active, but overall, the consensus is clear: people have moved on.
“the community is mostly dead in the water.”
“The community is ... mostly dead in the water,” Reddit user and longtime Slender Man fan Xoxeyos recently told The Verge via Reddit. “Either the people are hanging on by a few threads, totally obsessed, or have grown up.”
Once upon a time, Slender Man was new and terrifying. In 2009, Eric Knudsen, aka Victor Surge, posted the first Phantasm-inspired images on the Something Awful forums. They were simple black-and-white photos of children playing. But in the background, something was something off: there was a long figure in a black suit. In some, you could see tentacles. Each was paired with a vague caption: “‘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.”
Almost immediately, the idea of what was called the Slender Man took on a life of its own. People began creating images and stories. At first, it was just anecdotes about children disappearing and creepy black-and-white photos. Then, the meme exploded. Others began contributing stories, making up historical and sometimes ancient sightings, and attempting their own photos. Launched in a thread about creepy Photoshops, Slender Man quickly became the star of the thread.
if you want to study the life cycle of a meme, you can’t get much better than Slender Man
His popularity soon grew too big for the one forum, so fans moved to YouTube. Marble Hornets, a web series and the most well-known of early Slender Man fan contributions, posted its first video 10 days after Knudsen posted the first Slender Man images on Something Awful, and it ran for the next five years on YouTube. To this day, the channel still has almost 500,000 subscribers, up from the roughly 100,000 it had in 2011.
Other creators followed suit. More web series and alternate reality games (or ARGs) followed, from TribeTwelve and EverymanHYBRID to DarkHarvest00, and each added another layer to the Slender Man mythos.
If you want to study the life cycle of a meme from a random internet post to a fully realized, culturally known concept — like watching an urban legend that might once have spread through generations of word of mouth, now punched into hyperdrive — you can’t get much better than Slender Man. Plenty of memes and Creepypastas have survived past the initial obsession phase — the SCP Foundation, Search and Rescue Woods, and Candle Cove, to name a few — capturing the imaginations of readers in a major way. Even Slender Man fans who weren’t adding to the legend engaged deeply with it; new videos or blog posts became subject to intense scrutiny by people who wanted to look for clues about the ghoul or what was to come in these stories.
It’s hard to quantify just how large the Slender Man fandom was at its peak. Its existence spanned multiple websites, many of which don’t exist anymore. Each of the largest ARGs had over 10,000 subscribers on YouTube. At its peak, Slender Man was popular enough that anyone on the internet and under a certain age probably had some clue who the character was. Those who were around during the height of the Slender Man fandom, around 2012, describe waiting on new ARG entries or blog posts like they were presents on Christmas morning.
“On Tumblr, we were a great big family. All the content-producers were well-known; in a sense, everyone was a big-name fan,” Robyn Stillings, who was a big fan of Marble Hornets and the Slender Man fandom during that era, tells The Verge via email. “There were group view-alongs set up on TinyChat, [analyses of each new creation] were thorough, and since they were often announced on Twitter day-of, new-entry nights were like waiting for midnight on New Year’s Eve.”
“new-entry nights were like waiting for midnight on New Year’s Eve.”
Because of Slender Man’s community-driven origins, his lore and mythos continued to be a loosely collaborative group project. Back on the original Something Awful thread, Slender Man was new and familiar but vague. Where did he come from? What were his motivations? What happened to the people in the photos who disappeared? Why did he wear a suit? What’s with the tentacles? There were so many questions, so any contribution, narrative or visual, had the potential to expand the myth. The ideas fans spitballed in a forum were becoming part of the story, and people could watch it happen in real time.
“That thread was a maelstrom of creativity and innovative ideas — to read it even now, to watch it evolve … is remarkable,” says Cat Vincent, who’s been writing about the Slender Man community since its early days on websites like The Daily Grail. “The ‘open source’ nature of it — a wide-ranging canon with lots of gaps to fill in around a fairly well-defined spine — helped a lot, I think.”
As a result of the story’s skeletal origins, many fan creations were quickly absorbed to become official parts of the Slender Man myth. Marble Hornets features one of the first mentions of the “proxy,” the name that would be adopted to describe Slender Man’s coterie of servants. Other series, like TribeTwelve, created canonically established proxies like The Observer, who became one of Slender Man’s most powerful servants and a main villain. Each subsequent fan creator could use and build on what was already there.
“the ‘open source’ nature of it — a wide-ranging canon with lots of gaps to fill in”
The Slender Man myth — his history, customs, most recent deeds, proxies — was quickly established. He began as a couple Photoshopped images and a handful of sentences. Less than two weeks later, he had his first YouTube series. A couple of years later, there would be homemade video games, like Slender: The Eight Pages, and then bigger-budget titles, like Slender: The Arrival.
“We used to travel around the country attending conventions, and were constantly told how we were the introduction to the community for a lot of people,” Troy Wagner, co-creator of Marble Hornets, tells The Verge in an email. “Originally, we thought it would just be a fun thing to do over the summer that a few dozen people on the Something Awful forums would see… Now Entry #1 has over six million views!”
“It was a whirlwind of a time for the fan community,” agreed Stillings, who attended GMX, a convention in Nashville, where the creators of Hornets spoke on a panel. “Marble Hornets was an international draw to a small convention, which was quite a thing in 2012. It was like one big, very dysfunctional family reunion.”
Like anything, though, the Slender Man community eventually began to lose steam. Even before the 2014 stabbing case, the community was dying of natural causes; series were petering out and fans were scattering. It was also splitting along ideological lines. One blog in particular, White Elephants, presented the Core Theory, which was this idea that Slender Man was a tulpa, or a being brought to life by the imaginations of different people. Some weren’t too keen on this interpretation, saying it took away the mystery of the creature. Others didn’t appreciate the release of Slender: The Arrival, which was essentially a commercially remade, fuller version of the DIY Eight Pages — one of several mainstream (or extra-community) attempts to mass-market him that didn’t sit well with those who thought the cult-like, homebrew appeal of Slender Man was lost with his commodification.
“It was like one big, very dysfunctional family reunion.”
Vincent remembers how “the initial enthusiasm had faded away after the gamification had made it more mainstream.” “The Slender game and the Enderman character in Minecraft seemed to take away a lot of the intensity of it all,” he says.
But the real turning point for Slender Nation was the stabbing. In 2014, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser — both 12 years old — lured 12-year-old Payton Leutner into the woods near their homes in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where they stabbed her 19 times with a kitchen knife. Later, they told investigators that they did it to appease Slender Man in order to become his “proxies.” One stab wound missed her heart by a millimeter, but Leutner survived the attack. Weier and Geyser, meanwhile, both pled guilty in 2017 by reason of mental disease or defect, and each was sentenced to lengthy stays in mental institutions.
The case was highly publicized, first when the stabbing happened, then again when the girls were sentenced three years later. It left an indelible stain on the Slender Man community and anyone who put any amount of effort into keeping the myth alive. The Creepypasta Wiki issued a statement clarifying that Slender Man was fiction and even organized a fundraiser for Leutner, but the community couldn’t really come back from the shock. From then on, it was impossible to define themselves as a community without acknowledging the tragedy.
“The news from Wisconsin, almost exactly on the fifth anniversary [of the original thread], changed it all,” recalls Vincent. “The few remaining blogs either shut down or severely restricted posting on the topic, and writing on the subject could not ignore the event.”
Even now, the stabbing is something of a taboo subject among the Slender Man splinter communities that remain. When I asked to speak with a moderator of the Slender Man Wiki for this article, they responded with the following:
“We don’t condone violence, we don’t want people hurt, we don’t approve of hate, we feel awful for the families from the tragedy in wisconsin and try to our best to keep it from happening again with what little power we have. We just want to enjoy a good horror story. We just want to be left alone.”
Other fans I reached out to were more willing to discuss the stabbing and the effect it had on Slender Nation. Most agreed that while it was a tragedy and shouldn’t be condoned in any way, it had a perception effect.
The stabbing was explicitly tied to Slender Man, although other incidents were alleged to have those connections. People outside the internet knew who he was, and what they knew was that he was dangerous. While the Waukesha incident was very real, Slender Man became another bogeyman for a generation of parents who were worried about the latest fad corrupting youth.
At the time of the stabbing, Waukesha Police Chief Russell Jack said that the attack “should be a wake-up call for all parents,” because “the internet is full of dark and wicked things.” That became the mantra for the media frenzy, one that would ultimately cripple the fandom for good.
The community still exists today, though it’s not the same. A couple ARGs are still running, albeit with far fewer releases. Wagner, the Marble Hornets co-creator, is still working on Slender Man-related projects, such as a graphic novel continuation of Hornets and a new series called ECKVA Network. He believes the myth still has a future, even though he admits it’s a lot smaller.
“Whatever I do from here may not end up being as big as Marble Hornets was,” he says, “but that’s totally fine with me.”
The pitiful reception of Slender Man, the movie, seems like the final nail in the coffin in a lot of ways. People outside the community, those who likely have little knowledge of the creature beyond what’s crossed over into the mainstream, are no longer interested in what they see as a years-old meme, something that feels even duller now that it’s been blown up for the big screen. Those who had a hand in creating the creature online, meanwhile, saw the film as derivative and not doing justice to their story and what made it special. The film was just a story about a group of people who encounter Slender Man in the woods. It included nothing of their history or any of the details about their lore. Nothing about it suggested the Slender Man story was any different from the standard Hollywood horror formula.
Hollywood has had little success with this model of adapting fads too late. Angry Birds made money, but it was released long after the game ceased to be a mega-success. (It also came out after the studio that created it cut 38 percent of its staff.) The Darkest Minds, a recent YA dystopia release, has yet to make its budget back due in part to how it missed the YA apocalypse trend by a few years (not to mention it borrowed relentlessly from its predecessors). Movies that are behind the curve tend to fail as it is — it’s just that this time, the magic of Slender Man was dying even before Hollywood managed to get hold of it.
Like any meme they’re based on, online fan communities have a limited life cycle. After a while, the source material becomes stale when its creators lose interest and their numbers dwindle. Slender Nation faltered when the myth got too big, then shrunk again when companies that failed to understand the nature of the material tried to profit off of the community’s organic, collaborative efforts. And unlike so many cases where a fandom takes over a property and claims ownership of it, Slender Man was always a fan creation. As a Creepypasta with a thriving, dedicated fandom, he was one of the internet’s most pervasive horror images because they kept him alive. Without them, he becomes another fading piece of lore.