Slender Man, the fictional online horror meme, has been much discussed in cable news lately, cited as the motive behind two violent attacks. But the genesis of the Slender Man was far from sinister. Back in January OTM producer and TLDR co-host Alex Goldman talked to Slender Man's creator, Eric Knudsen, Programming note: A longer version of this story originally appeared on TLDR -- OTM's new blog and podcast.
BOB GARFIELD: At the end of last month, a gruesome assault occurred in Wisconsin. Here’s a local news report from CBS.
CORRESPONDENT: Two 12-year-old girls from Waukesha, Wisconsin are in a juvenile detention center tonight. They’re charged with attempting to kill another 12-year-old girl who was stabbed Saturday 19 times.
BOB GARFIELD: The two girls stabbed their best friend almost to death in an attempt to win the attention of a fictional online horror meme called Slender Man. Elsewhere this week, a daughter brutally attacked her mother with a knife, another assault reportedly linked to Slender Man. The mother spoke anonymously to Cincinnati’s NBC affiliate.
MOTHER: We found things that she had written and she made reference to Slender Man. She even had created a, a world for Slender Man in Minecraft.
BOB GARFIELD: Waukesha’s Police Chief Russell Jack sees no room for doubt.
RUSSELL JACK: Parents should not be allowing their children to have unrestricted or unmonitored internet usage.
BOB GARFIELD: Thus has Slender Man, a fiction created for horror enthusiasts on a hobbyist website, reignited the debate about the threat that the internet poses to children. But you don't need the internet to inspire the vulnerable or the disturbed to violence. All kinds of material from anywhere can captivate the troubled mind. Convicted murderer Charles Manson believed the Beatles lyrics were about murder and race war. They weren’t. As Slender Man suddenly breaks into the headlines, maybe it's instructive to recall just how un-sinister was its creation. Back in January, before the tragedy in Waukesha, On the Media producer and TLDR co-host Alex Goldman reported on the phenomenon.
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GEORGE NOORY: From the city of angels off the Pacific Ocean, good morning, good evening, wherever you may be across the nation, around the world. I’m George Noory. Welcome to Coast to Coast AM. Next hour, biblical prophesy…
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ALEX GOLDMAN: George Noory hosts a late night show called Coast to Coast that you might have already heard of. If not, all you need to know is that people call in to talk about the paranormal – monsters, the famous ones, like aliens and the devil, and more obscure ones, like chupacabras and the shadow people. Noory’s heard about most of them. But on November 6th, 2009, people started calling in about a new kind of monster.
CALLER: Have you ever heard of the Slender Man?
GEORGE NOORY: The Slender Man?
GEORGE NOORY: No, I have not.
CALLER: He’s very thin and he wears a black suit. He has very long limbs and his arms stretch.
GEORGE NOORY: But he looks human.
CALLER: He, he - humanoid, I’d say.
GEORGE NOORY: Is he evil?
CALLER: Ah, I’m not sure. He’s known as wanting to kidnap children.
CALLER: And I heard the caller talk about Slender Man.
GEORGE NOORY: The Slender Man, do you know anything about this thing?
CALLER: He’s kind of been a big buzz on the internet lately - there’s these videos on YouTube. Apparently, he’s stalking the director of the videos?
TIM: No, there’s somebody out there right now that is an immediate threat to both of us!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Marble Hornets is a YouTube series, now in its fifth year.
JAY: Probably watching us right now, now that you mention it.
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ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s sort of like a video diary. A college student making a short film starts seeing a Slender Man-like figure called the operator, skulking in the background of his shots. And it only gets creepier from there. It has since spawned numerous imitators.
MAN: - right now!
WOMAN: What is that? What is that?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Slender Man also stars in a couple of video games, which are so scary that YouTube users delight in filming their own terrified reactions to them.
PLAYER: Oh, whoa, oh my God, what the hell was that? Oh, run, run, run, run, run, run! I don’t like it. Get out of there, get out of there.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Slender Man is different in every appearance. Sometimes he has tentacles or a maniacal laugh. He can be anywhere between 6 and 15 feet tall. This kind of versioning naturally happens when the internet collectively invents something. But actually, the Slender Man isn’t something the hive mind created. He’s one guy’s idea.
ERIC KNUDSEN: Hi, my name is Eric Knudson, also known as Victor Surge on the internet, and I’m the creator of Slender Man.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Like pretty much every story you hear about someone who is deeply into the macabre, he’s about the sweetest person you’ll ever meet.
ERIC KNUDSEN: I’m a 33-year-old male, married. I have a 20-month-old toddler. I’m actually looking to become a schoolteacher.
ALEX GOLDMAN: In June of 2009, Eric posted the first images of Slender Man in a thread called “create paranormal images” on the website Something Awful.
ALEX GOLDMAN: When you created this character, you just figured it was gonna be like a laugh between you and Something Awful and something that didn’t sort of get beyond that particular thread.
ERIC KNUDSEN: Absolutely. I mean, some people had joked in the thread that, oh, wouldn’t it be funny if some of these ended up on paranormal websites, or someone, you know, said, oh these pictures look real, they must be real, oh, they’re ghosts or creatures or whatever. But I don't think anybody expected that to happen.
ALEX GOLDMAN: The images were so powerful that soon almost everyone in the thread was just posting images of the Slender Man. Eric’s monster quickly outgrew the Something Awful forums and started to show up on the rest of the internet. But whatever the internet’s imagination thinks Slender Man is, no matter how many times he’s remixed and spliced with other legends, Eric believes that the Slender Man has an immutable and specific set of characteristics and always has, since the beginning.
ERIC KNUDSEN: The way I see the Slender Man is that his body can morph. If he wants to look like just a tall, more conventional-looking guy, that’s what he’ll look like. But if you keep looking at it and keep digging and keep searching, it’s gonna start getting worse and worse for you. I liked the concept of a, of a monster, a creature that causes general unease and terror. Its methods are strange, its motives are completely inscrutable, so what is it doing, why is it here, is it taking people?
ALEX GOLDMAN: Does it bother you at all that the internet seems to have honed in on this thing and wanted to take it apart and put it back together and make it its own thing?
ERIC KNUDSEN: You know, a little bit, it does a little bit. I feel kind of like – I feel like less of a creator and more of an administrator, in a lot of respects, or the manager. I feel like, I feel like I’m Slender Man’s manager and that he’s out there doing his thing and I need to kind of just watch him and take care of him. I find it like being my one shot as a creator in my life, and I don’t necessarily just want to give that up.
ALEX GOLDMAN: The problem for Eric is that the corpus of Slender Man material is now so rich that people don’t believe Slender Man originated with him at all.
ERIC KNUDSEN: A lot of people say that, oh look, Slender Man existed prior to June, you know, 10th, 2009. Here’s this old German folklore, here are these old woodcuttings or these pictures or these stories and, interestingly enough, a lot of that stuff is just fiction that was created post creation of Slender Man. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, the fact that as an urban legend, you know, we seek to obscure its own past to make it seem more real but that also makes it seem like it’s something that’s always been there.
ALEX GOLDMAN: So it’s like fake historical references to this character that people assume are real and then assume that that means that it’s just part of this public domain tradition?
ERIC KNUDSEN: It’s basically like a Google-powered confirmation bias, you know? Certain people just don’t want to believe that it’s fiction, ‘cause it’s scarier – obviously, much scarier that way, you know, if it’s something that’s real or could be real.
ALEX GOLDMAN: In January of 2010, Eric registered a copyright on the name “Slender Man,” which doesn’t stop fans from making their own work. It just stops them from being able to make a profit on it without his blessing. Although, it’s worth saying that talking to him, you really don’t get the sense that his desire for control is about money.
ERIC KNUDSEN: If there’s going to be a commercial exploitation of the character, I just don’t want to see something that’s gonna be lame. I just want something amazing to come of it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: You don’t want him doing ads for pizza rolls or anything like that?
ERIC KNUDSEN: No, no pizza rolls. And I mean, I will do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen. But, you know, of course, at this point, you know, I have some say.
ALEX GOLDMAN: Every time the Slender Man appears in a forged historical document or a faux documentary photo, he becomes realer and scarier, and Eric disappears just a little bit more.
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GEORGE NOORY: But this is growing on the internet, so it should be easy to find, huh?
CALLER: Yeah, yeah, it should, it’ll be really easy to find, just type in “Slender Man.”
GEORGE NOORY: Okay, we’ll check it out. That could be a good story.
CALLER: Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty interesting – pretty creepy.
GEORGE NOORY: Okay, Slender Man. That’s - that is weird, Slender Man.
BOB GARFIELD: Alex Goldman is a producer for On the Media and co-host of TLDR. Slender Man’s creator, Eric Knudsen, has issued a single statement to the media since the attack in Wisconsin earlier this month. Knudsen said, “I am deeply saddened by the tragedy in Wisconsin and my heart goes out to the families of those affected by this terrible act.”