Can Belief in Slender Man Make Him Real?

There's no Slender Man in this picture. By Lorethaya - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source

Slender Man was created in 2009 in the Something Awful forum by user Victor Surge (real name: Eric Knudson) in response to a challenge to “make something creepy.” The two images and the accompanying text quickly spread and became a popular visual image and the subject of fan fiction.[1] Slender Man has also been incorporated into several forms of media, including video games, television shows, and movies. However, Slender Man gained widespread notoriety on May 31, 2014, when two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wisconsin lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times in an attempt to appease him. The victim managed to crawl to a road where she was found by a cyclist and, after six days in the hospital, recovered.[2] The two girls who committed the stabbing were convicted and sentenced to long periods in mental health institutions.[3]

Slender Man is not only an Internet or popular culture creation, certainly he is more than that. Not only to people interact with Slender Man stories online, but they clearly do face-to-face in play as well. Slender Man has extended further than only online communities, into both popular and folk culture where children play games with Slender Man as “it” and students (sometimes jokingly, sometimes not) warn of seeing Slender Man in wooded areas or while walking alone. In spite of his known origins on the Something Awful forum and early depictions, Slender Man has taken on a life of his own. While people continue to pay Slender Man homage on the Internet, Slender Man has stepped out of the computer and into children’s games, oral and online storytelling, and belief.

Slender Man, by LuxAmber - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Slender Man, by LuxAmber – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Jeffrey A. Tolbert argues that Slender Man may be a type of reverse ostension where we create both the experience and the narratives.[4] I would also argue that, at times, Slender Man is the name given to a shared experience which bridges both the experience centered hypothesis (where the experience comes first, then the story is told) used by David Hufford, with the cultural source hypothesis (where people have experiences because they’ve heard the stories). Clearly there are incidents where the story comes first and the experience comes after, but we also see moments where a previous experience is attributed to Slender Man, a sort of reverse quasi-ostension. I would argue that either way, the experience still feels real.

As David J. Hufford has shown,[5] society has a “tradition of disbelief,” while it is traditional to believe in certain things, it is also traditional not to believe in certain things. Additionally, individuals regard the experiences of others to be up for questioning, while our own experiences are treated as dogma, or, as Hufford states more succinctly, “I know what I know, what you know, you only believe.”[6] These experiences become even more complicated when a shared belief narrative takes place online, as some people believe that things found online are inauthentic or suspect. I would argue that this distinction between “real life” and what happens online is fading and what happens on the Internet is real life.

As a legend complex, Slender Man has two main issues complicating belief: both that it is supernatural and found on the Internet. In memorates (which are personal experience narratives about the supernatural), there can be a sense of anonymity; the line between what has happened online versus IRL is further blurred. As Michael Kinsella states, “Communication technologies allow us to see more clearly how the reciprocity between experience and tradition results in the ongoing construction of what we call the supernatural.”[7] Tolbert asserts that Slender Man is just as real as any other entity found IRL or on the Internet because it is a “conscious expression of a culture shared among a particular group of people, which bears special significances that depend in part on an understanding of the group context in which the expressive culture arises.” [8]

Those who read and participate in Slender Man online have experiences that they attribute to Slender Man. For many, a person’s experience reading a Slender Man narrative or watching a video can feel just as real as having an actual experience with Slender Man. As one of my interviewees mentioned,

“I know it was probably because I had just been reading Slender Man stories on the Internet, but I was walking home and it was late and I had that feeling that I was being `watched. Being followed. And I thought to myself “It could be Slender Man” and I knew that was stupid. I was only thinking about Slender Man because I had just read about it. But I just kept thinking, “You don’t know. Maybe those stories are real. Maybe it is Slender Man.”[9]

This narrative certainly shows a logical progression, the knowledge that Slender Man is “not real,” but also the consideration that the stories written about Slender Man could be based on real experiences. While these potential real experiences do not carry the weight of the individuals own experience, they are a part of the logic used by the reader. I am not arguing that Slender Man is “real” or that those who have contributed to the Slender Man narrative think that he is real or have had an experience with him. Rather, I think there is a core spiritual experience here that connects with others that has been turned into a narrative about a specific entity since it was a convenient way to discuss an untellable experience. While this was not the original intention of early participators of the Slender Man mythos, the narratives about Slender Man have grown larger than what is merely placed online. This growth has led to stories about people seeing Slender Man, taking him out of the digital world and placing him firmly in the analogue. Those who participate in Slender Man culture have certainly tapped into something that feels real to their audience. It is an experience that is felt by the participants, on some level, even if it is not an actual experience they have encountered.

Slender Man is not a simple entity that can be looked at as belonging to a single folk group. The reason why he “feels real” to so many people is because he helps to give a voice to real experiences that are difficult to articulate otherwise. Slender Man not only gives us a place to assign value to these experiences, he is standing there, acknowledging these experiences.

The Kiss of Death

Contagion, Contamination, and Folklore

By Andrea Kitta

Disease is a social issue, not just a medical issue. Using examples of specific legends and rumors, The Kiss of Death explores the beliefs and practices that permeate notions of contagion and contamination. Author Andrea Kitta offers new insight into the nature of vernacular conceptions of health and sickness and how medical and scientific institutions can use cultural literacy to better meet their communities’ needs. Using ethnographic, media, and narrative analysis, this book explores the vernacular explanatory models used in decisions concerning contagion to better understand the real fears, risks, concerns, and doubts of the public. Kitta explores immigration and patient zero, zombies and vampires, Slender Man, HPV, and the kiss of death legend, as well as systematic racism, homophobia, and misogyny in North American culture, to examine the nature of contagion and contamination.

Add the code KITT19 to receive 40% when ordering here.

[1] The accompanying text read: “we didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time . . . 1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.”

[2] For more information, please see Slender Man is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet. 2018

[3]  One received 25 years, the other 40 years, however the appeal is ongoing.

[4] Tolbert, Jeffrey A. 2013. “‘The Sort of Story That Has You Covering Your Mirrors’: The Case of Slender Man.” Semiotic Review 2.

[5] Hufford, David. 1982. “Traditions of Disbelief.” New York Folklore 8: 47–55.

[6] Ibid

[7] Kinsella, Michael. 2011. Legend-Tripping Online: Supernatural Folk­lore and the Search for Ong’s Hat. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. Pg 147.

[8] Tolbert, Jeffrey A. 2013. “‘The Sort of Story That Has You Covering Your Mirrors’: The Case of Slender Man.” Semiotic Review 2.

[9] Interview with author. September 17, 2014.


Recommended Books from #FolkloreThursday

Andrea Kitta is a professor at East Carolina University, she received her MA in Folk Studies from Western Kentucky University and her PhD in Folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland. She studies the intersection of belief, medicine, legends, and the supernatural and is the author of Vaccinations and Public Concern in History: Legend, Rumor, and Risk Perception and co-edited Diagnosing Folklore: Perspectives on Health, Trauma, and Disability. Her new book, The Kiss of Death: Contagion and Contamination in Folklore will be out this fall. Follow Andrea around the web here and here.

Posts by:

Dr. Andrea Kitta

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.