The Slender Man
“Create paranormal images.” That was the message in June 2009 on a new forum thread at Something Awful, a humor site for people who joke about Dungeons & Dragons, porn, 3-D printers, etc. Victor Surge, whose real name is Erik Knudsen, described a tall man in a dark suit, with red or black tie, no hair, no eyes, mouth, or clearly defined features. Over the next few years, others got involved in a collaborative effort, and Slender Man was “born.” He sometimes has multiple upper arms or tentacles. His popularity inspired a web series called Marble Hornets. Then people began reporting sightings of him, and an urban legend gained momentum. We should never underestimate the power of the human imagination.
This past June things took a darker turn. In Wisconsin, two young girls stabbed a 12-year-old classmate 19 times, saying later they were trying to win favor with “Slendy.” A couple weeks later in Ohio, a mother was stabbed in the arms and neck by her daughter. The mom admitted the daughter had mental health issues and was interested in the occult. Mentions of the Slender Man were found in the girl’s diary, and she had also involved the character in an online game of Minecraft.
Did I say urban legend? One of the defining elements of an urban legend is the absence of a historic or mythological background. The tale just appears, like those alligators in the sewers, or that crazy guy with the metal hook hanging on the car door handle, remember that one? But tales of a being eerily similar to this can be found in folk tales from around the world, going back hundreds of years. In 19th Century Germany der Schlanker Mann (Thin Man), sometimes called “The Pale One,” had extremely long arms, hands, and legs, and sometimes tentacles springing from his back. Der Grossmann (Tall Man) lived in the Black Forest and preyed on disobedient children who wandered into the forest alone (bogeymen taking naughty children being a recurrent theme in these tales). Seen only at night, he would peer into windows (BOO!) and seemed to enjoy frightening folks. Often he seems to float or drift around, rather than being solidly grounded. In one account from 1702 a child was taken from his bed the day after he ran to his mother, screaming “The angel is outside!” In most of these stories the figure wears a black hat, seemingly obligatory for bad guys everywhere. The floating, drifting motion has been noted in other sightings as well.
In Romania, Babau or l’uomo (the Black Man, the reference is to darkness, not skin color) was tall, with a heavy black coat, in a hood or hat. In this version of an old Romanian tale, “The Tall Man stood in a doorway, dressed as a nobleman, all in black. Shadows lay over him, dark as a cloudy midnight. He had many arms, all long and boneless as snakes, all sharp as swords, and they writhed like worms on nails. He did not speak, but made his intentions known . . .” He also took away bad children. In the Netherlands the Boeman resembled a tall man dressed completely in black, with sharp claws and fangs. He hid in dark places and took runaway children. And here’s a line from a Welsh fairy tale: “Hush, thy childe, do not stray from the path, or the Faceless One shall steal you away to Fairieland.” Goethe wrote a story about the Erl King, who lived in the forest. He frightened, and eventually killed, a young boy who was the only one who could see him. In early 20th Century Russia a tall, slender man in the role of a “collector” would harm bad children or those born without a father. In Scotland the Fear Dubh (the Black Man) haunted footpaths and forests by night, his sole purpose apparently to frighten children.
In Northern England “The Clutchbone” of the early 1800s was black or dark, with leathery skin, its head a lit metal lantern within a large, raised collar. He was blamed for destruction by fire, disappearances, or dismemberment of his victims. Violent events featuring him were often reported after sightings of ball lightning. England also had tales of “The Tree Man,” who had a slim body with appendages looking like tree branches, and was only seen in the woods, also sometimes connected with the disappearance of children. I’m not sure these two variants fit into the Slender Man mythos, although they do display some common characteristics. I found the connection to ball lightning intriguing in itself.
A similar creature can be found in North America and elsewhere, sometimes called “The Hat Man,” whose common element is a black, broad-brimmed hat. Southwest Native American lore tells of “The Shadow Man,” a tall, thin being who stalked the night, and was blamed for unexplained deaths. He was often seen in a tall black hat. In the American Midwest and up into Canada, “Bundle” was described as a “shadowy humanoid” in the early 1900s. He was able to propagate, meaning in this case to grow in strength, through people’s awareness of him. Hmmm. Tibetan tradition has something called a ‘tulpa,’ or thought being. It’s a product of concentrated energy (or belief?), and may offer a clue to our study.
I’ll give a few examples from the rest of the world. In Caribbean Taino legend, Hupia or op’a was a nocturnal humanoid without a face that stalked and paralyzed its victims and drove them insane. In Japan Yokai is a faceless ghost who scares people. Sometimes he appears as someone the person knows. Some sources mention the hundun legend in China, but that’s more of a primordial chaos entity. But going way back to ancient Babylonian lore, we find the ain, a faceless half-man, half-demon, who crept into bedrooms at night to . . . yes, scare the crap out of people.
So, did Erik Knudsen create his Slender Man after consulting world fairy and folklore? Or was he unconsciously tapping into our ancestral memory of some tall, dark, menacing figure? In the end it doesn’t matter either way, because that image is one of the many bogeys from the dark depths of the human psyche, lost the “monsters of the Id” in the classic film “Forbidden Planet.” And it has gained strength perhaps by our global belief in it. I was blessed to grow up at the end of the golden age of the old radio dramas, and I especially remember “The Shadow,” who was this really dark crime fighter type. Radio being a non-visual medium, the imagination fills in the details, and I always pictured him as tall, thin, with a black hat and clothing. Gee, that’s very like the Jack Skellington character in the 1993 animated film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” isn’t it?
People have been encountering strange beings throughout history, and our belief in them may be what gives them staying power. Belief put into a religious context is faith, and reports of angels, demons, and the Blessed Virgin are also numerous. I’m not talking about images of Jesus in tree bark or grilled cheese sandwiches. My point is that we know more about the surface of Mars than what lies beneath the surface of human consciousness. The fact that these appearances seem to be archetypical — for example our tall, dark man — tells us one of two things: either they are part of our collective unconscious, or they exist independently of our belief structure. Either way it’s pretty creepy, and yet somehow undeniably fascinating. And it’s something to think about this Halloween week.
I hope you enjoyed my version of hiding in the shadows, then jumping out suddenly and yelling “Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha!” What’s the truth? “The Shadow knows . . .”