Stories Told by the Fire

The Myth of the Slender Man

Let me tell you a story.

My first taste of freedom came in my parents’ rusty old Buick down empty country lanes, driving mostly at night, swaying over gravel roads and paved highways, sliding to the barest stop at empty intersections lit by lone streetlamps. Corn and soybean fields swept in all directions. I barreled between them, on my way to a friend’s house or the Colonial Café in the nearest city. It was a good life. Until the night I saw a dark figure on the road.

The dark figure was a man, three stories high. I can still see the outline of his Roman nose and cowboy hat as he loomed above the road. I braked as fast as I could, the Buick groaning and fishtailing. I lost sight of him while righting the car and when I looked back up, no one was there. Not a soul around and certainly not a three story man. I took a few slow breaths and continued driving. He reappeared on the road moments later. He was smaller this time, the size of a normal man as his body jerked into the street. I stomped on the brakes and he vanished once more.

From then on, the man appeared in the darkness every time I drove. Sometimes he was a huge cowboy, sometimes a human sized one. Sometimes he was an animal, occasionally a cloud, but I always knew it was him. After the first few months of terrorized swerving and frightened yelps from my unsuspecting passengers, I learned to fight my instincts. My heart leapt when shadows jerked and drifted across the road, but after the initial terror, I dully recited to myself that nothing was there.

In cities, towns, and well-lit homes, it’s easy to believe that sinister things live in the shadow, pushed to the outer limits by the power of light. But in the lonely country, headlights and streetlights have little power to hold back the night. My parents’ lonely white farmhouse was guarded by a backyard flood lamp, a dot of buzzing electricity in a sea of dark. Some evenings, that great halogen light was an anchor of hope, pressing the shadows out into the fields. But on other evenings, the light seemed pointless and I wished for the night to sweep in like a tide, taking the yard and house as its own.

It’s this eerie tension between shadow and light that powers the YouTube series, Marble Hornets. The first entry appeared in June 2009, and for five years the series has teased out an unfinished story using found footage and sparse narration. It begins with a narrator, Jay, reviewing footage shot by his vanished friend, Alex. Years earlier, a frightened Alex abandoned his film school project and moved to another city. Jay believes the secret to Alex’s sudden departure lies in those hours and hours of unseen footage.

The clips are short, sketchy and out of order. Early clips show Alex recording himself, watching and waiting for something he won’t explain. In one, he drives down a pitch black road towards a lone streetlight. While walking his dog earlier, he says, he spotted a tall man standing completely still beneath the streetlight. The dog panicked, and after wrestling it home, Alex decided to return in his car.

Alex drives towards that lone streetlamp, a pinprick of light in a sea of darkness. The distorting effect of light and shadow makes it impossible to tell whether someone is standing beneath the light or not. Alex pulls up close and no one is there. He gets out of his car and pans around the empty countryside, stillness stretching in all directions. I watched this clip at noon and was so terrified, I could hardly blink. The sunlight in my own house came as a shock as I looked away from the screen. It’s a brilliant start to a homegrown series, created by someone who knows just how bleak and menacing a hint of light can be.

Further clips reveal momentary sightings of a tall faceless man in a dark suit, like the one Alex vaguely described under the streetlight while walking his dog. Sometimes the faceless man brushes past the camera, other times he’s standing stock still, staring straight at it. He’s seen only by camera, never by the naked eye, and recordings are often frozen, distorted or silent. He is “The Operator” and his story slowly unwinds over 85 entries. The latest was posted last month and there’s no end in sight.

“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. This and below photo from Victor-Surge, Something Awful, 2009. Captions from the original photo project.

Marble Hornets wasn’t the Operator’s first appearance. Ten days prior to the first clip, Victor Surge joined a photo editing contest on the Something Awful message boards. Challenged to create a terrifying monster, Surge created a faceless, elongated man, towering in the background of grainy black and white playground photos. The captions he provided for each photograph were terse but tantalizing; he named the entity “Slender Man.”

The Slender Man struck a chord and began to appear in online communities like Deviantart and 4chan. Within weeks, people were photoshopping Slender Man into their own photos, weaving new stories and blogging about sightings. Marble Hornets was among the first and most popular video adaptations of the myth. Dedicated “Slenderblogs” soon followed with first person narrations of encounters with the Slender Man (my personal favorite is Make It Count). Slenderblogs read like the diaries of real people. They’re confused and scared and trying to make sense of the insanity that’s entered their lives via the Slender Man. While the details of each blog are slightly different, two things remain clear: no one knows what he wants, and no one knows how to stop him.

One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as “The Slender Man”. Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence. 1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.

The videos, blogs and tumblrs changing and rearranging the Slender Man mythos are closer to a primitive time of storytelling, when stories were told around the campfire and passed on in an oral tradition. The myth of the Slender Man can never be definitive, despite his documented origin. He is a monster created during the act of telling, available to anyone who can pick up the story.

He’s a blank spot on our map, an unknown in an age of information and a Lovecraftian creation that we will never understand. Cameras are the only way to catch him, otherwise his physical shape is invisible to the naked eye. He leaves madness, disappearances, and death in his wake. Survivors are allowed no understanding, given no insights to his motives.

And so the Internet circles around the Slender Man. It’s impossible to leave such a tantalizing creation alone; amateur film makers and storytellers are drawn like moths to a flame. He’s appeared in Dr. Who episodes as “The Silence”, and on Supernatural as “The Thin Man.” The simple guise of suit and featureless face means anyone can take a stab at his story; since so much is unknown, new details are easy to fill in.

The Slender Man lies in the shadows. He flickers in and out of the light, like my Shadow Man from years before. The Slender Man is haunting, even for those who understand his message board origins. I too, knew my three story shadow man wasn’t real but I still panicked each time I saw him and fought to not slam on the brakes. There’s a fear that’s deeper than knowledge; it lies back there, in the dim recesses of time with stories told around the fire. We still sit around those fires, our backs to the shadows with the first great myth of the web growing behind us.

*originally published on The Stake