The XX Factor

Because of Slender Man: Why the Internet Bogey Is the Perfect Metaphor for How We Explain Violence

A rendering of Slender Man.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Two 12-year-old girls in southeastern Wisconsin are accused of stabbing their friend 19 times in the woods. They had allegedly plotted to murder her for months—first at a slumber party, during the night, so that they wouldn’t have to look in her eyes; then, after their plans shifted, in a park bathroom, where the blood could flow down a drain. Finally, they settled on a game of hide-and-seek in the forest. One girl told the other “go ballistic, go crazy,” according to the complaint, and the victim was tackled, gashed, and left lying in the wooded park on Saturday. She stumbled to the road where a bicyclist found her and called the police. Though doctors say one wound missed a major artery in her heart “by a millimeter,” the preteen’s condition has since stabilized. Her two suspected assailants will be charged as adults with first-degree attempted homicide—unless their lawyers succeed in transferring the case to juvenile court—and may face up to 60 years in prison if convicted.

Those are the facts, according to prosecutors. Around them swirl something creepier and less defined—the reasons. Why did these girls allegedly spend several months scheming to murder their friend? The Associated Press reports that one of the suspects told a detective they “were trying to become ‘proxies’ of Slender Man, a mythological demon-like character they learned about on, a website about horror stories and legends.” The other girl claims she can see Slender Man in her dreams, that he can read her mind and teleport. After slaying their classmate to demonstrate their loyalty, the complaint says, the kids planned to flee to the hellion’s mansion in Wisconsin’s Nicolet National Forest.

Slender Man means something different to everyone. He is, as On the Media’s TLDR podcast dubs him, “the internet’s monster—the subject of countless remixes, tributes, and parodies.” He appears on the shadowy edges of doctored photographs, often menacing children, and in YouTube videos and forums dedicated to the paranormal. Gamers have filmed themselves recoiling in terror from Slender Man–themed video games. Cartoonists have multiplied him. Mutable and elusive, he is often described as a very tall, thin, humanlike figure who stalks and kidnaps kids—a modern day Erl King in a black suit.  

But despite his shifty, folkloric omnipresence, Slender Man has a locatable origin. In June 2009, a mild-mannered aspiring schoolteacher named Eric Knudsen posted two Photoshopped, black-and-white images to a forum on the website Something Awful under the pseudonym Victor Surge. One showed an elongated figure lurking in a playground, behind a troop of anxious-looking kids. The haunting visuals took over the SA threads, inspiring knock-offs and reported sightings; soon the mythology spun out of Knudsen’s control. But in his TLDR interview, the creator insisted that Slender Man possesses some immutable characteristics: he’s a shapeshifter (“His body can morph. If he wants to look like just a tall, conventional-looking guy, that’s what he’ll look like”) and he compels your gaze (“As you keep looking at [him] and keep digging and keep searching, it’s going to start getting worse and worse for you”). Explained Knudsen: “I like the concept of a monster, a creature that causes general unease and terror. Its methods are strange, its motives are completely inscrutable.”

For my part, I just want to keep writing about this crazy mystery guy, this protean character you can’t stop looking at. It’s so much easier to talk about Slender Man than about the girl who was stabbed 19 times over the weekend. Horrific violence sends us reeling, hunting for significance and explanations, veering down side streets to avoid our own loss of power. We seek out skeleton key–like details we can use to unlock the newest awful narrative. We want to know why it happened.

In the wake of the Isla Vista, California, shootings in May, many people pored over the reasons for Elliot Rodger’s rampage. Did all those men and women die because of guns? Mental illness? Misogyny? Hollywood representations of college hedonism? Or, wait—were we focusing too hard on the psychology of a maniac? Whatever the precise mix of factors ultimately was, everyone on the Internet had a different theory. The #YesAllWomen hashtag proliferated across Twitter like a house fire, situating Rodger on a sexist continuum that drew in everyday examples: being catcalled, being groped at a bar. As a productive and necessary conversation unfolded, and a lot of men woke up to the realities of misogyny, others asked whether there wasn’t something unseemly in how writers were shaping the tragedy, reducing its convolutions to tidy arguments about pet causes. And then more people countered that these arguments matter.

A vacuum of meaning opens up behind atrocity, and people fill it by looking at the facts through their personal viewfinders. That is why there’s a kind of poetic justice to the two girls attributing their acts to Slender Man. He’s the perfect metaphor for the becauses we collectively brainstorm—an Internet phantom who looks a little different to everyone. Slender Man is not an explanation for anything—he’s a bogey with elastic limbs who can look like a normal guy or a tentacled nightmare—but, it seems, he’s better than no reason at all.