Over the winter holidays of 2014/2015, I was asked to do some research for one of my professors, Dr. John Bodner, a folklorist who studies some pretty sweet things (treeplanters, 4chan, and internet culture, among other things). He asked me to conduct some research on the frightening Internet boogieman—Slenderman. It was a lot of data collection, historical mapping, and taking screenshots of everything. Throughout my research I got to pour over an uncomfortable amount of short stories and YouTube videos, forum boards and blogs—that both contributed to Slenderman’s mythos but also engaged in meta-discussion about the creation of Slenderman (there are some pretty impressive wikis on the topic). I was also home alone at the time, as my roomies all went home for the Christmas break. My research became apt nightmare fuel that had me checking over my shoulders every now and then while engaged in my readings. While I was thinking about the scary features of Slenderman, I made a connection—the story and mythos of Slenderman, the generator of fear and loathing that gave so many people nightmares, is a particularly great metaphor for surveillance in our culture.
Before I delve any further into that thread of ideas, let’s explore the short form of who Slenderman is. It is an interesting instance of folklore because its exact genesis is traceable to the (in)famous Something Awful forum board on the Internet. In 2006, Eric Knudson (known online as Victor Surge), posted the first post about Slenderman. It can be found in this forum discussion here. He posted a series of photos, with an accompanying narrative, to a paranormal photo contest. Not only did he win, but the contest was derailed by users creating alternative stories to Slenderman. From the original creation, Victor Surge lost control over the mythos of Slenderman which was drawn into the pastiche of Internet folklore and culture. It was literally claimed by the Internet. At some point Victor Surge had tried to patent and copyright Slenderman. This was thankfully an attempt that failed terribly. Eventually, Slenderman hit 4chan (which was later deleted and was never archived) and became viral. Slenderman now has an uncountable amount of stories, histories, characters, and characteristics which are feed into the overall mythos through countless forms of media (youtube, blogs, ARGs, Twitter, Tumblr, etc). There are seemingly infinite pictures floating around on the Internet with Slenderman subtly lurking and watching in the background. And furthermore, Slenderman has been parodied many times (search Slenderman or Slendy on Tumblr and see for yourself).
Slenderman became especially popular after a YouTube group founded Marble Hornets in 2009—this was a low budget short film series that followed the narrator who while he filmed an amateur movie that captured the haunting images of Slenderman. This was later followed by two more video series on YouTube called EverymanHYBRID and Tribe Twelve in 2010. The phenomenal thing about these vlogs is that they became interconnected in developing a narrative of Slenderman—often working off each other’s various plot lines. They also worked with dozens of independent blogs who role played stories of Slenderman. All of this role playing and story generation was connected to a large scale alternative reality game (ARG) in which all the players used a combination of real life and a slurry of media forms to act out a story live with thousands of other participants. I was blown away as I mapped out and explored this development. I was also particularly jealous that it was now by and large over—because I really wanted to get involved and play a role.
As I researched Slenderman’s development, exploring the mess of blogs, vlogs, twitter and tumblr accounts, and wikis floating around in cyberspace, I realized that in most cases Slenderman doesn’t actually do much. There are some narratives in the mythos where Slenderman brutally murders his victims. But mostly, he watches. He watches from afar. He watches from windows. He watches his victims as they sleep. Creepy eh? Most of the time a when a character spots it is when they are reviewing film footage (the film usually becomes quite distorted when Slenderman is about) or photos in which it is lurking obscurely in the background. It becomes very clear that Slenderman spends a lot of its time watching. Slenderman surveils its victims. A slow punishment which eventually drives his victims to lose their sanity. Many of its victims simply disappear. And those who try to investigate often become victims of Slender surveillance themselves.
We live by and large in a surveillance society. Much of our social engagement with other individuals and groups has subtle (and not so subtle) forms of surveillance embedded in the interactions. This could be data collection for advertisements, NSA spying for national security and the reproduction of power, or ‘creeping’ friends on Facebook and Instagram. Everywhere around us there is surveillance. And we co-participate in surveilling others through social media. There are already terrifying metaphors, such as Big Brother and the Panopticon, that people use to understand and interpret the mass surveillance ongoing in our culture. David Lyons (2007) writes, “Concepts such as ‘surveillance society’ draw our attention to the ways in which our whole way of life in the contemporary world is suffused with surveillance. In this perspective, the gaze is ubiquitous, constant, inescapable” (25). With this in mind, the constant barrage of surveillance, it is not surprising that the boogie man of the 21st century is a monster that engages us through surveillance.
Slenderman as the boogie man of the information age. The man in the suit watching from afar, barely visible. The faceless NSA and CSIS agents watching you through lines of code and metadata. Haunting your every digital move. It is the unseen horror. Worse than the monster under your bed because it watches you even when you hide under your covers. Slenderman was created by thousands of people writing amateur stories about the hidden surveiller. Surveillance is a theme that underscores the entire mythos. I feel like we can deduce that the reason so many people conceive of the boogie man in this way is because they (we) are trying to understand a very complex fear of constantly being watched in our everyday life. It is also interesting to note that the other name that Slenderman is known by is The Operator. This alternative name carries the ring of Intelligence agencies and spies. It wouldn’t be surprising that other similar folktales begin to emerge from the internet hive mind as we become more and more enmeshed in the digital world and all of the surveillance that entails.
Lyon, David. Surveillance Studies: An Overview. Polity Press: Cambridge, 2007. Print.