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Oh The Horror!

20 February 2017

From humble beginnings as an entry into a 2009 Photoshop contest, the phenomenon of the Slender Man has exploded across social media as one of the most well-known monsters to be produced by Internet meme culture. He became the inspiration for fan art, horror stories, movies and videos, a soon-to-be-released HBO documentary, and a series of games. He inspired parody memes: Trender Man, Slender Man’s sassy and fashionable cousin, and Splendor Man, his jolly older brother. He has his own fan-made character in My Little Pony, Slender Mane. In 2014, he also became the inspiration for several attempted murders, most famously the now-called “Slender Man Stabbing,” when two twelve-year-old girls stabbed their friend 19 times during a game of hide and seek.
But what is it about Slender Man that has captured the attention of so many? The answer may lie within a theory by the American philosopher Noël Carroll. In examining the “paradox of horror” (the question as to why people enjoy horror fictions that are created to frighten and unnerve), Carroll proposed that the appeal of horror revolves around the mystery that monsters invoke. Monsters of horror fiction, according to Carroll, are “in principle unknowable”. They cannot exist in real life; their nature is otherworldly or alien. To their audience, they are both unreachable and incomprehensible, and it is through this elusiveness that they stimulate their audience’s imagination. In short, the fear and discomfort that the monster elicits is outweighed by the stimulation of its audience’s curiosity.
The television show Doctor Who takes full advantage of this mystery appeal, with monsters such as “The Silence,” or “The Weeping Angels,” and their voiceless, menacing presence. One of Stephen King’s most famous monsters, “It,” or “Pennywise the Dancing Clown,” similarly grasps the audience’s attention through an allure of inexplicable danger. The monster, in its unknowability, its mystery and otherness, provokes an unresolvable fascination that demands imaginative engagement in a way that the real world does not offer. Slender Man most certainly belongs to this category of mystery. His looming, distant presence – always threatening to come closer, to appear at the periphery of one’s vision – signifies his unreachable position. He is a part of this world only when he so desires to be, which usually involves the suggestion of an untold violence. His facelessness and elongated figure, cloaked in a dark suit – almost but not quite recognisably human, as though he is clumsily attempting to disguise his true self with human clothing – marks him as the unknowable, monstrous “other”.
The mystery that Slender Man produces allows his fans to explore the unanswerable questions of “otherness”, of an unknown creature beyond this world. His existence can be felt from the terror of their bodies and the dread in their minds, but it is not physically tangible, and can never in reality be seen or touched. In the words of Douglas E Cowan, a professor of religious studies, the genre of horror explores “the dark side of religious belief.” It looks for the same answers, searches for meanings and understandings of the universe and seeks to “challenge the conventional, convenient, and comfortable understandings that the universe is a friendly place”. For teenagers seeking to make sense of themselves and the world around them, a creature such as Slender Man may become an attractive myth through which to attempt a first independent brush with spirituality.
Alongside his mysterious appeal, Slender Man speaks to a number of fears and anxieties that are very much directed towards youth. Shira Chess and Eric Newsom’s 2015 book Folklore, Horror Stories & The Slender Man analyses in detail the specific threats Slender Man represents to adolescent life. He is a child-oriented monster, an abductor of children and young people. The dark business suit he is always wearing epitomizes adulthood – a symbol of a world to which his audience is not yet a part, as does his immense height, which dwarfs everybody around him into the position of a child. He embodies the foreign territory of the Adult, quite literally looming over his teenage audience from a place in which the teenager knows full well they will soon be expected to join.
Christine Jarvis, a professor of education, has a deep interest in the relationship between teenagers and horror fiction. In her paper School is Hell: Gendered Fears in Teenage Horror, she suggests that horror plays a role in aiding young people in working through their anxieties, resolving teenage confusions about their place in society and fictionalising their fears into monsters. In this way, the anxieties of adolescence (changing bodies, newly realised desires, confusion of identity, fears of a failure to successfully transition into the unknown realm of adulthood) can be explored from the safe vantage point of fiction and imagination, a space of reflection and growth that is not offered elsewhere.
Alongside the chaotic teenage anxieties embodied in horror monsters, Jarvis notes that another prevalent fear in teenage life is that of inordinate adult control. Teenagers are strictly regulated by adult systems in most aspects of their lives. Anger is also directed towards the contradictory adult world – teenagers find themselves in the process of realising that adults are not as perfect as they may have seemed from the blissful platform of childhood. Disappointment create anxieties about the tightly-controlled adult world, and for this reason, the supernatural and occult are favoured in young adult fiction. Slender Man’s business suit may exemplify an adult and their control, but the rest of him – the black, wavering tentacles, the pure white skin, his facelessness – all represents a paranormal force that is beyond logic. Slender Man embodies the adult world, but he is also above the adult world. Adults cannot defeat or control, or even understand Slender Man. He is a power that remains untouchable by all – whilst he does represent an adult threat, Slender Man is also a figure of resistance.
The fascination with Slender Man becomes, perhaps, a little clearer in the context of the turbulent minds of his fans. For the young would-be-murderesses of the “Slender Man Stabbing”, and all of the teenage obsessors of the myth, Slender Man became an outlet. An icon on which they could focus their fears and anxieties, through which they could grasp a tiny piece of their identities beyond the control of adults, and explore their own understandings of the universe.