Most of us love a good scary story. These days, with so much of our time spent gathered around the flickering glow and woody crackle of the internet, it's there our new monsters are rising from the shadows. And what better place than a dark room and a lit screen for scaring ourselves a little? Humans have been scared of the dark since our inception, when our poor night vision was up against the eyes of the large predators looking to eat us while we slept.
In this vein, Slender Man is a tall, underfed, black-suited gentleman who goes around stalking children and YouTubers, causing memory loss, paranoia, and sometimes even the unstoppable urge to make fan art. Doesn't sound too bad? Well to add to the freak-out factor: if you look too long, he snatches you with his tentacle arms and drags you back into the dark from whence he came.
Much like the urban legends of old, the Slender Man meme caught on in small communities, forums, and subreddits, and more specifically through a paranormal pictures Photoshop contest held by the Something Awful (SA) Forums in 2009. This wasn't just any contest; the participants had to not only create spooky images, but also pass them off as real on several pro-paranormal forums. Two photographs, which lead to the entire subsequent phenomenon of Slender Man, were posted by user Victor Surge with the following descriptions:
"'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."
"One of 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."
The popularity of these images and indeed just the idea of Slender Man grew online (mainly on 4chan). In 2009 the Marble Hornets YouTube channel was launched with a mysterious 'found footage' video claiming to be from a friend who had subsequently disappeared; sounds familiar right? Marble Hornets follows, both stylistically and with plot points, the cult 1999 horror film The Blair Witch Project and the more recent but still well-loved Paranormal Activity. The Marble Hornets style lends itself especially well to an audience already steeped in amateur video. Those watching have a willingness to believe in and experience the results of in-depth research, making Marble Hornets and the alternate reality game that goes along with it, lean-forward media in every way. This chronicling of "The Operator", as Marble Hornets refers to the creature, has, as of April 2013, over 290,000 subscribers.
This new stage of life for the old ghost stories is strange and interesting. The Slender Man meme spread virally and was far more successful than its older counterparts partially because of its well timed arrival. It's the first time the subcultures of the Internet have had an urban legend all their own. It used to be that stories spread through summer camps, camper to camper as an oral tradition, but the emotional high, the voluntary fear in a safe place, was highly dependent on who was telling the story. Get a dud and the legend fell flat, but in the right hands those stories scared the bejesus out of us. Now, online, scary stories take on an intensity beyond their childhood levels. The mythology doesn't just stop at the end of the Marble Hornets playlist. Fans, Slender Man 'believers', and conspiracy theorists alike contribute their own research and 'first hand accounts' to forum sites, adding to the layered mystery. Next time you're in need of a good fright, pull up a browser; the scary awaits.