The Slenderman sounds like the sort of enduring myth you might recall from your childhood, but unless you were a kid in 2009—when the character was created as part of a Photoshop contest on SomethingAwful.com—it isn't. But in the ensuing seven years, the folkloric monster has had a surprisingly wide reach. Hollywood would have killed to find an all-new, original franchise as capable of capturing imaginations around the world as the Slenderman has in that same time frame. Not to mention the shocking incident where two 12-year-old girls actually tried to kill a third in order to impress the mythical ghoul.
Those two facets of the Slenderman—both the wide reach of a myth that feels timeless, but which is only seven years old, and the 2014 attempted murder of 12-year-old Payton Leutner by two of her classmates—are at the heart of Irene Taylor Brodsky's new documentary, Beware the Slenderman, which premiered at SXSW.
In the film, Brodsky tells both stories, blending a true crime narrative that's not too far off from the Serial and Making A Murderer format of following people through a troubling justice system with an exploration of Internet culture, creativity, and the idea of memes. Both are compelling, and both are important to understanding the role that the Slenderman pays in our contemporary culture.
"None of us would know about this story if it had happened in most other states in America," Brodsky says shortly after the premiere of Beware the Slenderman, chatting in a hotel lobby in downtown Austin. "The reason is because Wisconsin has this state law that, if you are 10 or older and you attempt to murder someone, you are automatically tried as an adult—and when you're put into the adult system, your crime is public."
Brodsky's documentary follows the two girls—who confess to the attack almost immediately, explaining that they wanted to impress the Slenderman to become his apprentices—and their families in the months following the attack. They're both in custody, while their families struggle. And inevitably, the father of one of the girls blames the Internet for what happened. (He gets particularly incensed when his younger son is assigned an iPad at school.)
But blaming the Internet for creating the Slenderman misses a lot of the point, too, because the Slenderman is the sort of myth that's always existed. In the film, Brodsky speaks to folklorists who connect the character to the Pied Piper of Hamlin and other traditional tales out of Grimm. "There is something very familiar about this, and that familiarity is really horrifying," Brodsky says. "He's the guy in the white van, the man who's hiding in my closet, the man who's under my bed—whatever your worst fear is, that's who he is."
The Slenderman was created by Eric Knudsen on Something Awful in 2009, and the iconography is definitely both familiar and immediately captivating. The original images were simply a tall, gaunt figure with no face in a black suit, in the background of scenes of children playing. He looks a little bit like Voldemort, a little bit like the Gentlemen from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Knudsen—who doesn't appear in the film, and whose lone statement to the media in the wake of the attack on Leutner seem to reveal someone who's struggling with what happened—cited the Tall Man from the b-horror classic Phantasm as an inspiration, and his Something Awful screenname, "Victor Surge," is an alias used by the similarly faceless and besuited DC superhero The Question.
That familiarity is probably part of why the Slenderman took off immediately as a character that others latched onto. Knudsen may have created the name and the look, but the myth immediately spread like any other Internet meme—users created their own takes on it, in a variety of media. There's Slenderman fiction, Slenderman films of varying production values, Slenderman fan art, Slenderman Photoshop images, Slenderman audio narratives, Slenderman video games, and more. Because nobody owns it, everybody has it.
"Myths grow in the online age in a very visceral and experiential way," Brodsky says. "In the case of Slenderman, when you look at all the media, and you combine that with a character who is faceless and so can be whatever you want to project on to him, the possibilities are infinite. I think that it's a very new kind of boogeyman that could really only exist with the 24/7 digital platform that's connecting all of us."
What happened in Wisconsin is undeniably horrible, and Brodsky's film doesn't shy away from any of that. It's hard to come away from the film blaming the Internet for creating the Slenderman, or blaming the parents of the girls, who only saw their daughters fascinated by a story on their iPads. It's hard even to fully blame the girls themselves, given their age and the mental health challenges they faced. For her part, Brodsky says that "it would be irresponsible of us to just isolate one element."
As close as Beware the Slenderman comes to having a villain is the Wisconsin court system that treats young kids like adults. "That's part of what makes this story so outrageous—two 12-year-old girls would be tried in the same system that tries people who have fully developed frontal cortexes, much more life experience, much more of a solid sense of what's fake and what's real, what's online that's true, and what's not," Brodsky says. "These girls, while I do believe they understood the difference between right and wrong, I think that their inclination to be impressed by Slenderman was very strong partly because of their personalities, partly because of something psychologists call 'fantasy orientation.'"
Some people, in other words, are inclined to buy into stories like the Slenderman because they want them to be real. That's always been the case for certain kinds of people and certain kinds of stories, and the fact that the character has spread on a peer-to-peer level like folklore, rather than through more traditional means like a Hollywood production, gives people a chance to view it that way.
The Slenderman isn't in the public domain—Knudsen owns the copyright, while an unnamed third-party holds the license for television and film—and as a result, much of the storytelling around Slenderman is decidedly low-rent. The better fan-made videos look more like The Blair Witch Project; the worse ones look like somebody in a baggy suit with a stocking over his head. But even that helps spread the myth—and Brodsky wonders what might happen if, say, rumors that the next season of American Horror Story will feature the character turn out to be true.
"The downside to having too much high-production work done on Slenderman is that it might co-opt or start to own a more singular identity of what Slenderman is," Brodsky says. "I think what's delightful about Slenderman, if you could use that word, is that he's so many different things to different people. In that way he's truly authentic, because he reflects all of us. Once someone starts to own that image and really perpetuate it, and they have the big megaphone or they have the high-production value, that may be the only image of him that people remember. In our film we tried to include the high-production value, the low-production value. We're trying to show that he's a whole bunch of ways, and he can be a whole different bunch of ways, because I'm not interested in trying to singularly define him."