Of all the creepypastas and internet urban legends of the last couple of decades, Slender Man is probably the most well-known of them all, to the point where it's probably considered mainstream at this point. This creation has been in memes, creepypastas, YouTube web series, video games, and movies... and, unfortunately, an attempted murder case.
Slender Man, or sometimes "Slenderman"'s origins were really quite modest and unassuming. On June 9, 2009, the Something Awful website's forum held one of their regular Photoshop contests. The theme of this particular contest was to "create paranormal images". On page 3 of the thread, a forum user going by the name "Victor Surge" posted two black-and-white photos to the thread. The first photo showed a group of children walking along a path, roughly in the direction of the camera. In the background of the photo is a tall, very thin, and faceless humanoid figure.
The second photo showed several children playing at a playground. Again, in the background, a tall, shadowy figure with outstretched arms and what appear to be tentacles or tendrils extending from its body. Several children, also in shadow, are standing or sitting close to the figure.
Now, Victor Surge's post on that thread was just one of many (the thread ended up at 46 pages), and while quite well done and suitably creepy, the pictures might have been just another footnote in Something Awful history... except that something about these two photos ignited something in the imaginations of the other forumites (or Goons, as Something Awful members are sometimes known). One user, "Thoreau-Up", added to the mythology with the character of Der Großmann, a 16th-century German folklore tale of a "tall, disfigured man with white spheres where his eyes should be". Der Großmann was said to abduct bad children and stalk them until they confessed their wrongdoings. (This story has since taken on a life of its own, with many people believing that the story of Der Großmann actually does predate that Something Awful thread by about 300 years). Shortly thereafter, the first video on the Marble Hornets webseries was posted on YouTube. Marble Hornets was one part episodic found-footage horror series and one part ARG (alternate reality game), and it played a large part in introducing the Slender Man to the wider internet outside the Something Awful forums.
Marble Hornets refers to Slender Man as "the Operator" rather than "Slender Man", even though many of its fans continued to call him that. It also introduced several of the key points of the lore that are widely known and accepted now, such as his ability to teleport and the negative effects he/it has on people and electronic equipment when around them. People suffer from paranoia, nightmares, and delusions when in Slender Man's proximity, as well as nosebleeds and coughing fits (depending on the "universe"); this is sometimes known as "Slender sickness". Marble Hornets also introduced the concept of "proxies", which were people who had been exposed to Slender Man/the Operator for so long that they had become insane, developed alternate personalities, or acted as Slender Man's "puppets". This particular detail is (sadly) important, and we'll come back to it later.
As of July 2023, the primary Marble Hornets channel has 636,000 subscribers, even though the webseries concluded nine years ago, and approximately 114,300,000 views in total, which I think says a lot about just how much this captured people's attention. And it wasn't long before others started adding to the Slender Man mythos as well, with probably the (other) two biggest entries being EverymanHYBRID and TribeTwelve.
Slender Man soon got his metaphorical tentacles into other forms of media as well. A video game, Slender: The Eight Pages, was released in 2012, and its sequel Slender: The Arrival came out in 2013. There were several variations/knock-offs of these games as well, and Slender Man has made "easter egg" appearances in games like Minecraft (as the "Enderman") and Phasmophobia. Films were being made too - first short independent films, then feature-length ones, still primarily on YouTube. The big studios soon got involved as well, and it wasn't long before deals were being made with Eric Knudsen, the user behind the "Victor Surge" account on Something Awful, and the Marble Hornets crew for the rights for big-budget Slender Man movies, the first of which was announced in 2013.
And then things went badly wrong.
On May 31, 2014, two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin lured a classmate, also 12, to an isolated spot in the woods and attacked her, stabbing her 19 times. They did this because they wanted to become "proxies" for Slender Man, and believed that murdering someone was the first step towards that. After stabbing their classmate and leaving her for dead, the two girls intended to (somehow) walk to Nicolet National Forest, approximately 200 miles away, where they believed Slender Man had a mansion (appropriately named Slender Mansion).
Thankfully, their intended victim - Payton Leutner - survived the attack. One stab wound had pierced her diaphragm and gone into her liver and stomach, and another had missed a major artery in her heart by less than one millimeter; despite this, Leutner managed to drag herself to a nearby road, where she was found by a cyclist who called 911 and administered first aid. Leutner spent seven days in hospital and has since made a full recovery, stating in an interview in 2019 that she would like to have a career in medicine.
The two girls who committed the attack, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, were arrested and charged with attempted homicide; first-degree for Geyser and second-degree for Weier. They were tried as adults rather than juveniles, but both were found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. Geyser was also diagnosed with schizophrenia; her father had also been diagnosed with this condition previously. Geyser was sentenced to 40 years to life, to be served in a state psychiatric hospital "until complete resolution of symptoms or until age 53, whichever may happen first". Weier was sentenced to 25 years to life with similar provisions; however, she was released from the Winnebago Mental Health Institute on September 13, 2021. Per the conditions of her parole, she must live with her father, is required to take medication and attend regular counseling sessions, not use any form of social media, have her internet usage monitored, be subject to GPS monitoring and not leave Waukesha County without permission.
In the aftermath of this incident, there were many who looked for something to blame, and some eyes turned of course to the internet and creepypastas. Retired FBI agent John Egelhof referred to certain parts of the internet - as Geyser and Weier had frequented the Creepypasta Wiki - as "Garbage" and "A portal to the dark side." He also advised parents to "educate [kids] to know right from wrong." (So that's what we've been doing wrong before now...) There were also several other alleged incidents involving children reportedly attacking family members and setting their houses on fire, reportedly because of obsessions with Slender Man. In 2015, Slender Man was also cited as an influence in an epidemic of suicide attempts by young people aged between 12-24 on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, linking him to a "suicide spirit" from some traditional Native American beliefs.
In response to the stabbing and the backlash, original creator Eric Knudsen said:
I am deeply saddened by the tragedy in Wisconsin and my heart goes out to the families of those affected by this terrible act.
The Something Awful website also published an article, "Please Do Not Kill Anyone Because of Slenderman", pointing out the entirely fictitious origins of the creepypasta, stating:
Photoshops of people with socks on their head standing in the woods should not be fooling anyone.
This also segues us quite nicely into our next point: just why did Slender Man in particular become the internet and pop culture phenomenon that he did, out of all the other creepypastas and memes being created around the same time?
The Slender Man sparked imagination in people, in a way that other creepypasta memes and creations had not. Part of this was down to his appearance, which evoked such horror characters as the Tall Man from the Phantasm series (which you can clearly see in the second of the two original photoshops) and the Gentlemen from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, as well as the works of HP Lovecraft (albeit without the racism). He wasn't created to be "just" a meme like something like Jeff the Killer, and he wasn't described down to the last minute detail as many other contemporary creepypastas were. In their book, Folklore, Horror Stories and the Slender Man: The Development of an Internet Mythology, S Chess and E Newsom cite the internet, as a sort of "digital campfire", as being key to the way the Slender Man mythos spread and grew as it did. The internet allows stories like the Slender Man to spread globally at a speed and manner that the old folklore stories couldn't even dream of. The lack of explicit detail also worked in its favour - as Chess notes:
It is important to note that few of the retellings identify exactly what kind of monster the Slender Man might be, and what his specific intentions are - these points all remain mysteriously and usefully vague.
Because the original story did not nail down, so to speak, every last detail of the Slender Man, it appealed to people who took the story and added their own spin or details to it, almost like a mix of Madlibs and Telephone. Somewhere along the way as well, the lines between suspension of disbelief and actual belief began to become a little blurred as well, to the point where people were calling into George Noory's Coast to Coast AM to talk about Slender Man as though he were a real entity.
Troy Wagner, who created the Marble Hornets webseries, believes that Slender Man's popularity (or infamy?) is because of its vagueness and malleability, which allows people to shape it/him into whatever frightens them most. As the years have gone on, this has been somewhat illustrated as stories of Slender Man have evolved in an odd way - the entity started to be portrayed by some tellers as being actually benevolent, or at least benevolent towards certain groups of people. In the stories, he began to protect bullied children from their tormentors, and in some cases he even gained a daughter, "Skinny Sally". Most of these stories happened after the Waukesha stabbing as well, something that Lynn McNeill, assistant professor of folklore at Utah State University, believes might have been a reaction to the stabbing by Slender Man's fans, attempting to distance him and his mythos from the real-life events. Of course, there is also the tendency of people to romanticise fictional (and real) monsters for whatever reason (there is, for example, a surprising amount of Slender Man/Reader stories on AO3).
Today, Slender Man is less of an internet phenomenon than he had been in previous years. At least some of this may be because the two long-awaited Slender Man movies - 2015's Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story, which featured Doug Jones as Slender Man, and 2018's Slender Man, which featured Javier Boeted as the titular entity - were not received well at all (I've only seen the 2018 film myself, but can confirm it was really bad). There was also some controversy over the 2018 film, as some of its key themes involved teenage girls going into the woods to apparently summon Slender Man, with at least one of them going missing - this led some to feel that the filmmakers were exploiting and profiting off the Waukesha stabbing. But even so, he still pops up semi-regularly, on the internet, in video games, and in TV shows, and his impact on internet folklore and culture alone has made sure that he will never be forgotten. It could even be said that he's still out there, watching... and waiting.