For most of us older Horror writers and readers, the whole Slenderman takeover of youthful Horror audiences has remained slightly under the radar. Were it not for the heinous attempted murder trial of two unbalanced young girls which keeps resurfacing, it probably would have remained so…For many it is shocking, alarming…coming from nowhere – which makes it even more terrifying to contemplate.
Except for one thing: this whole scare-the-kids business with men in suits has been done before.
It might come as a shock – if not a disappointment – that the whole mythology of Slenderman is as old as, well, dirt. The fact that it tends to resurface in each generation or so is of mild interest, and often fanned by spinners of paranormal legend-making, offered often as proof that there are some paranormal “things” which have some basis in reality…thereby escalating the level of fear with which we treat them, and providing an emotionally charged platform from which to lob scary tales to haunt the young among us.
It works. Therefore, it is repeated.
But why does it work? And what in the world has the likes of Slenderman to do with Horror Literature?
Literature is For the Formally Dressed: Bring Your Tux
Literature (some will argue) has its own formula. Yet it is in the genres that we are most likely to encounter noticeably familiar rhythms and resurrected themes. Therefore, time and again Horror writers must do battle with originality within the framework of …formula.
Genre audiences have certain expectations. And as such, this has led to what are called “conventions”… certain established rules for achieving that expected outcome. And those conventions have in turn led to an overt expectation of formula. In genre Horror the most common denominator of formula (and therein subsequent convention) tends to be derived from folk and fairy tales, and “new” fairy tales – the urban legend.
Now, formula is not always bad. Consider it to be like music notation…a kind of framework upon which all the magic happens: it is both necessary, and noticed when it is missing. However it can be more flexible than we have allowed for it, as long as changes are clearly organic and roots remain visible.
Most often, we recognize certain “melodies” in writing. These are often the side effects of a subliminally understood meter or pulse behind the words – the “beat” that gets us moving, that connects to emotions.
In writing, words can be every bit as primal as a drumbeat. And to understand the connection between what we do now and what has been done in the past, we need only look as far as fairy tales and campfire tales…urban legends…myths. These are the past tense of genre. And while they are fun and intriguing, writers must exercise caution because these are powerful and obvious patterns – we must decide if we meant to make the connection obvious, and at no time should we attempt to “trick” or “surprise” the reader with the fact of those patterns: we simply won’t succeed, and our story – no matter how capably written, will be rendered “trite” and our plot overdone.
These are our primitive instruments. And being the first things we derived to create word-music, we tend to revert to them often. Simply, we value their power – their ability to really connect into our primal memories to summon certain emotional reactions.
This is exactly what Slenderman (and all characters of his ilk) are designed to do. In Horror, we take the word-music and make it discordant, disharmonious… unsettling and uncomfortable. To do this we must know what is pleasing and soothing in order to not-do it.
Horror is not about banging on the piano keys. It is about playing something with patterned dissonance – intentionally and artistically. This is why some Horror with violence is gratuitous and cheap, but the same act in another story is powerful in a Literary way. As Horror writers we have to be aware of where the line is and make educated decisions on when we cross it and why.
A masterful handling of such details is how inventions like Slenderman got their start and manage to hang on. And on.
There are simply certain images which disturb us on a basic, primal level. Typically these images are discordant. Dissonant. Out-of-step with what we perceive as reality.
This makes nightmares plumb hunting grounds for such images. As biology has taught us, every animal is prey for something else. So logic follows that if one is an apex predator, what could be more terrifying than that which stalks us?
The whole Slenderman profile speaks volumes about our modern fears as well as a few primitive ones. Today in “civilized” countries such as the United States the biggest villains are the faceless persons of privilege and power – the ones who move behind the scenes and treat us like their personal puppets. Their henchmen – figures of authority including government, law enforcement, religion…
It does not take much of a leap of imagination to see those representatives – the Enforcers of our warped society – within the description of Slenderman. We even speak of such authorities in derivative terms, reducing them to what they wear (“suits” and “uniforms”) to what they do (“Pencil pushers” “thought police” and “enforcers”). We proudly declare them “faceless”…”stalkers”… “dark web”…”hidden or shadow government”… They routinely take our children, curtail our rights, manipulate our reality, garnish our wages. “The long arms of the law”…. “the tentacles of government”… “the mind control of religion”…”the opiate of the masses.”
Never mind the perception of stranger danger… the constant presence of real fears of child abduction and the disappearing of whole children and people, the constant threat of societal perversion right here in our society… We were primed for the return of the Slenderman; we simply had not named him in this country…
But there is more to this picture. Because whether it is about survivor guilt or our own personal fears of the once-again suddenly noticeable influx of Others – of immigrants and different customs, language, and religion, we have customized a very old motif to fit modern worries.
And perhaps our human attachment to guilt – collective, racial, personal – all fold into those nightmare creations to build monsters which come at us from planes of existence which we cannot have control over. Perhaps it is a sense that we deserve whatever comes to us, combined with the knowledge our own perception of things has taught us: that when entities are vengeful they often take down whatever prey is available because they cannot reach the ones most often harboring the fullest measure of responsibility.
In other words, the innocent pay most often the debts of the guilty.
Peripheral damage. Collateral damage. Accident. Tragedy.
Humanity provides all manner of words. The Horror is that it changes nothing to cast labels along with our aspersions. But it does give us permission to revel in our customized misery. No one suffers like we do…
So when we create monsters, it is important that we be willing to sacrifice characters our readers have invested some of themselves in. It is important that we remember our own fears in order to translate them to the page.
Our history in storytelling assures us that we will not have to travel far to find such figures from which to diverge. Says Martin Tropp in his book, Images of Fear: How Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1918):
“The continued remodeling of popular myth is behind not only of the purpose and power of the horror tale, but also, as Bruno Bettelheim has shown us (in The Uses of Enchantment) one reason fairy tales have remained popular among generations of children…fairy tales have been shaped by their audience to reflect their wishes and fears. Certain patterns recur because the problems they echo are common to children – among them the fear of abandonment by parents, competition with siblings, the conflict between the allure of pleasures and the demands of growing up.” (7)
(I know. You are not children, you say. You are practically adults. I do know, because I was once you. In fact, only the mirror reminds me otherwise from time to time. And therein we are unavoidably linked.)
But here is the thing: as young adults, we all feel a weird pull toward the supernatural. It is a natural curiosity, typically happening when we fancy ourselves old enough to rightfully question our parents’ real authority, their religion if any, and the meaning of death.
Just like the wee children in fairy tales, we wander about in dark forests, invincible and immortal even as we know secretly that we are not. With a sense of superiority, we leave bread crumbs only to have wildlife eat them, leaving us stranded and lost. We test the things that threaten to get us if we cross the line. We buck authority, flaunt our youth. And we do it out of fear. We do it to prove we can out run those fears. Because bad things always have to happen to everyone else.
Except that they don’t. We see it right now with school shootings. With inner city crime. With war.
Continues Tropp, “Like classical or Christian mythology, stories like Frankenstein, Dracula or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thoroughly permeate our culture; you don’t need to have read the novels to have felt their power… And if myths are…the dreams of our race, then these [retold and reworked] myths have become our recurrent nightmares” the constant retelling of which “never tires of ordering and re-ordering in its search to find them a meaning.” (7)
Did you see the point where Literature and Horror collide?
Literature is all about bringing truth to the table. Fairy tales deal with raw truths about the human condition. Weave that into a tale which resonates with readers to inform about a period of time, an incident that will become history, and you are flirting with Literature. Horror in Literature.
It only makes sense that we would choose a fairy tale guy wearing a formal suit and sometimes a top hat to do the deed…
Fairy Tales Are Not For Children
Having been surrounded by nursery rhymes and geese wearing bonnets, it is entirely possible that you have no idea about the true nature of fairy tales, or fairies for that matter. Especially in the United States, we have sugar-coated our fairy faith with Disneyesque sparkle and glitter. Happy Ever After is our mantra.
But in reality, fairy tales were never meant for charming children. They were most often meant for adults, and when offered to little ones were done so with the intent of keeping rebellions in line. They were “cautionary tales” whose violation resulted in death.
How grim is that? Very Grimm. Go in search of the original stories and you will never be the same.
Reach into Celtic Fairy traditions and you will not find nice things. Fairies of old are first and foremost supernatural beings. Not human. Never having been human to anyone’s certainty. But they are full of treachery and tricks, working within their own understanding of rules and acceptable behavior.
Yet we have done our best to neuter them. We have turned on our electric lights, made leprechauns dance on bar tops, and spun Red Caps into singing miners. We absolutely will not acknowledge any other version of fairies than the kind that emit rainbows and hawk sugary cereals.
Match that against the monsters we now create upon their templates.
Because in order to put the Horror back into our storytelling, we needed to pretend we were being original when we made Slenderman up. Imagine the Horror… when that was indeed closer to the original…
When a monster so stacked with imagery which has been proven through the centuries of fairy tales, ghost lore, supernatural stories, and urban legend to terrify… springs forth, it does so in three dimensions. This is top class monster-building, and it only works when the general target population has never heard the original tales in order to connect them up.
The Phantom Coachman https://atashafyfe.wordpress.com/2017/10/22/ghosts-of-the-road/
This is how the younger generations become “easy” marks. And every year there is a fresh infusion of teenagers who have never heard of or read about certain monsters.
And so this is also why genre Horror is solely presumed to be an emotional playground for teenagers.
Never mind that this is a misconception. Never mind that Horror has even more in store for adults…
The constant recycling of monster traits can lead to some pretty heady stuff. When we as writers tap into primal imagery which has survived with its “scary” intact for centuries, we have the ingredients for a monster that will cling to the imagination in ways that do not let go.
According to Jonathan Gottschall in his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, we should never underestimate the power of primal images to hijack our reason. Says Gottschall: “Take fear. Scary stories leave scars. In a 2009 study, the psychologist Joanne Cantor showed that most of us have been traumatized by scary fiction. Seventy five percent of her research subjects [my emphasis] reported intense anxiety, disruptive thoughts, and sleeplessness after viewing a horror film. For a quarter of her subjects, the lingering effects of the experience persisted for more than six years… for 91 percent of Cantor’s subjects, scary films – not real world nightmares such as 9/11 or the Rwandan genocide by machete – were the source of their most traumatic memories.” (149-150)
No wonder Moms everywhere warn against watching those scary movies.
And no wonder we sneak downstairs when the house is dark and watch them anyway. Sometimes, to life-changing effect.
Slenderman is no different when you take away his tux. He is merely a continued reshaping of a reliable mythic monster.
Alleged to have been “officially” created by Eric Knudsen in June 2009 for a website writing contest, Slenderman burst upon the internet scene and has not looked back…
But we need too. Because according to Knudsen himself, the monster was based on Mothman, Men in Black, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the collective works of H.P. Lovecraft, Shadow People, and the works of Stephen King, among others (Redfern 19-20) This means he was more re-invented than invented…more invented than “discovered.”
The Slenderman template has a long history, stretching as far back as the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Spring-Heeled Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon…even spirits that haunted stately houses in Britain with tall, dark ghostly figures or stalked the moors, or drove phantom coaches…
All of these images work for a myriad of psychological reasons. For example, we have a built-in, hard-wired obsession with tall, thin, spindly characters in black, nattily dressed, and often sporting a full complement of razor sharp teeth when they aren’t missing eyes or mouths or features in general.
We are afraid of….strangers. Especially if they can just vanish before our eyes, or come and go out of fevered dreams…
Strangers have always been dangerous…whether we are talking child abduction, fairy/child abduction, avenging spirits of the murdered or apparitions of the improperly interred dead, outcasts that stumble across one’s tribe, or the only survivor of a plague… strangers often brought death to our ancestors. And they still do in some Walmarts, some high schools, some workplaces, some highways…
Yet in order to propagate fear properly, monsters’ tales must be told. And retold. Embellished. Made familiar and too close to home. It may well be why campfires were invented. And perhaps most importantly, scary things must be shared and believed in because adults do not believe in them.
Yet, the secret is…we still do. We just pretend we don’t. Because at our age, we know there is not a darned thing we can do about them.
This is how the Real World becomes entangled in fairy tales – and I mean the real kind of fairy tales that never end well – when Horror becomes Literature because “…sometimes what needs to be expressed can only be done through the monstrous, for sometimes the human condition is monstrous, defined by the breach of the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, the normal and the abnormal, good and evil, right and wrong.” (Held 4-5)
This is why I became a Horror writer.
And the sooner we see Slenderman as a stand-in for our deepest fears, the sooner we can make newer, scarier monsters from his mold.
On Finding the Original in a Many-Splendored Slender
I find it interesting that Slenderman has begat endless progeny in Horror, and that his likeness and progeny proliferate right now in American Horror.
Whether we are talking film or writing, we are being drawn into the vacuum of the tall thin monstrosity that stalks our world. He hides in the forest – a Freudian reference if ever there was one – lurking in our primitive desires and fears.
But like all fairy tales, his presence in our fiction has issued a new challenge to Horror writers. Tell any tale you want, but find the point of originality.
Here again, writing becomes like music. And like in music, in writing we have Jazz to deal with.
In music, there is the following of notes, and there is improvisation. If Horror writers insist on using our primal templates, we must also find a way to deliver the monster in some sneaky, unsuspecting way.
Some say all tales derive from fairy tales and their ilk…some say there are only three original plots in fiction.
But even if that is true, we have only to look at the many stories that these seminal stories themselves begat to know we can one-up the original. We simply have to figure out how, why, when, and where. We have to write and then edit with the realization that when we borrow these primal templates, the melodies are familiar — but we don’t want them completely recognized. We need to surprise in order to delight, to terrify, to unsettle and then haunt.
And sometimes this unfortunately may mean shelving a monster because the sacrificing the original just won’t do. It won’t matter how well a story is told if the only image that surfaces belongs to another story. We see that now with all wizards and witches in Young Adult. Just stating the premise alone is flirting with professional rejection. We are still seeing the same problem with dragons in Fantasy. On one hand, a writer set such glorious imaginations on fire that the creative waters are bursting the banks, but on the other, the audience now needs time to forget in order to be surprised again.
It is an unfortunate characteristic of our species that we endlessly search for patterns. And when we spot them in fiction, they spoil the yarn.
Slenderman is doing this now in Horror. He has replaced Zombies, which replaced Vampires. And we are now nearing tilt.
Writers must endlessly search for the new angle on the old tale. And “sometimes only horror can say what needs to be said” (Held 5).
But we need not despair. Says Jacob Held in his introduction to Stephen King and Philosophy titled, “On Writing Popular Philosophy”: “Noel Carrol notes that ‘the attraction of supernatural Horror is that it provokes a sense of awe which confirms a deep-seated human conviction about the world, viz., that it contains vast unknown forces…’ we are attracted to that which horrifies us.” (6)
And indeed we are. The popularity of fan fiction websites like CreepyPasta which contain whole sections of fictional Slender tributes are the proof of our own self-horror. The fact that even left to our own devices we primally gravitate to the same monsters over an over are not proof of their existence, but proof that we fear ourselves most of all. We fear what we have become. We dread the endless threat to innocence. We fear we are already in a fairy tale of the old school…
Deep down, we know the truth: we are all faceless ruiners of innocent humanity. No wonder we see suits in the trees with preternaturally long arms waving and probing the night to grab us and drag us to face the laws of the dark forest… Judgement and justice always seek us out.
We cannot make a single choice that does not have ramifications which ripple across our geography and potentially damage other human beings.
And yes, we wear our finery when we wreak our havoc, top hat and tails, our suits and facelessness, professing our own innocence in the doing of our misdeeds. That we fancy ourselves as innocent makes us fair game for the tentacled arms of justice. It makes us deserving of the night gaunts and haunts that stalk the dark, wild areas of our imaginations.
This is what causes Lovecraft to capture us: our fear that we do not deserve the planet we occupy. Cthulhu waits. Judgement is pending. And all manner of dark things have come to course the night-world and hunt us. Including Nyarlathotep…a god masquerading as a man dressed in black… (Bilstad 208-209)
It should not be a far leap to see that the current impact of Slenderman on modern American Horror is nothing more than a continuation of a tradition of guilt and hair-raising storytelling. Because creating guilt even where there might not need any to be is part of our human legacy. But those among us – especially young, idealistic teenagers – who are just starting to explore the world around them as well as their own places within that world – are especially susceptible to the myths that spring from our very DNA.
This is not a bad thing at all…it is, rather, how great Horror gets its start… Because it is within those memories, those glimpses into the indistinct shadows of night where hungry, faceless things await us with inescapably long arms and featureless faces that we will see reflections of ourselves.
And the monsters just keep on coming… like they’re rolled out on a rack…
Bilstad, T. Allan. The Lovecraft Necronomicon Primer: a Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos. Woodbury, MN: Llewelyn Publications, c2011.
Gottshcall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, c2012.
Held, Jacob M., ed. “Introduction: On Writing Popular Philosophy.” Stephen King and Philosophy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, c2016
Redfern, Nick. The Slenderman Mysteries: an Internet Urban Legend Comes to Life. Newburyport, MA: New Page Books, c2017.
Tropp, Martin. Images of Fear: How Horror Stories Helped Shape Modern Culture (1818-1819). Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, c1990.