When two 12 year-old girls attacked their friend in the woods of Waukesha, Wisconsin in May of 2014, they claimed to have done it to please Slender Man — a fictional monster created by Eric Knudsen, A.K.A. “Victor Surge,” on an internet forum called Something Awful. That incident put a mainstream, national news spotlight on the figure, which was already being widely circulated and adapted online as a meme.
In this bonus episode of Endless Thread‘s meme series, we examine Slender Man as monster, meme, and myth.
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Amory Sivertson: In May of 2014, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the morning after a slumber party, three 12 year old girls walked into the woods.
Ben Brock Johnson: Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier brought their friend, Payton Leutner, with them to play. Sometime later, Morgan and Anissa wandered out of the trees five miles away, holding a knife, clothes stained with blood. Payton’s blood.
Amory: Eventually, the two girls would tell the police they were doing the bidding of a monster — a monster they learned about on the Internet.
[Various news clips: “The brutality of the crime is hard to square with the ages of the accused.” “The latest on those two twelve year old girls accused of nearly stabbing their friend to death, driven by the fictional character Slender Man.” “They will stand trial as adults”]
Amory: The girls said they stabbed their friend as a sacrifice to Slender Man. . . an ominous figure that went viral in 2009, and whose lore was, lurking in the shadows, stalking children, and causing unspecified harm.
Amanda Brennan: Alright, so Slender Man is very, very, very tall. Like, picture the tallest person you can picture, then, you know, now add like eight feet to it, and then picture a blank white face. No features, just nothing. And a suit — a very, like, well fitted, tailored suit. Big, spindly fingers are sometimes seen with him, shadows. . .
Ben: This is Amanda Brennan. She knows a lot about Slender Man, from his eerily lanky appearance, to the effect he supposedly has on people when he’s near.
Amanda: If Slender Man is around and you are filming a recording, the recordings will glitch and it’ll get all weird and spooky. Also, if you have been around Slender Man too much, you get slender sickness and you start coughing.
[Coughing sound effects and audio glitching]
Amory: If you pay any attention to crazy court cases or spooky internet culture, you might remember this story. And if you do, you remember that the press, and people in general, freaked out about it. Because, it was this mysterious thing that seemed to get really popular on the internet and played out in real life with bloodshed.
Ben: Amanda remembers the case because she studies this stuff pretty closely. Not bloodshed — internet memes. She’s an internet culture librarian.
Amanda: I love talking about Slender Man, just because it is so unique in the meme space to how it not only transcended internet culture, but like, became a folklore thing. Like, there’s so many layers to it.
Ben: In this bonus episode of Endless Thread‘s meme Series, we explore one you probably remember reflected through the context of the violence in the woods of Wisconsin — Slender Man as monster, meme and myth.
Amory: Ben, what’s your favorite piece of monster lore?
Ben: I think it’s that trolls will turn to stone if you keep them up past dawn.
Amory: Is that so? OK.
Ben: That’s what I heard. What about you?
Amory: You know, I’m not that up on the monster lore, I gotta say. But I definitely grew up with the Bloody Mary myth — saying it, whatever it was, three times in the mirror in the dark and she would appear. But there’s this idea that lore develops over time, you know? You hear new things about a monster. New ways that they travel from the spirit world into the real world…if you’re not careful. And part of the lore of Slender Man is that, the mere thought of him… means he’s near.
Ben: Who is responsible for that idea, and for the monster himself? This guy.
[Eric Knudsen on The Slender Nation Podcast: “Hello, everyone, I am the quote- unquote creator of Slender Man, Victor Surge.”]
Ben: These days, Eric Knudsen — A.K.A. Victor Surge — is almost as mysterious as the monster itself. He almost never comes out to talk about Slender Man. What you’re hearing is from a rare interview with Knudsen on the Slender Nation Podcast back in 2011.
Amory: He talked about the origin of Slender Man, and how Slender Man was kind of a blank slate.
[Eric Knudsen on the Slender Nation Podcast: “Because his motives are unknown. You don’t know what he wants. What is he doing? Who knows? He’s just a force, you know? Host: It’s just, he’s there. And I think that’s kind of what builds into his fear– or, people’s fear of him.”]
Amory: Eric’s monster started on a spooky online forum called Something Awful. Something Awful is where people tend to share anything and everything that could be considered awful. It’s a popular place for creepypastas – or horror-related internet stories that get reposted and changed over time.
Ben: Like copypasta, which is a combo of copy and paste, but creepypasta. And among the creepypasta posts on Something Awful was a creepy Photoshop contest.
Amory: And most of the posts were… fine, according to Eric, whose online handle was “Victor Surge.”
[Eric Knudsen on the Slender Nation Podcast: “I saw in the first couple of pages of that thread, and I said, you know, these are pretty good. They’re kind of creepy. You know, it looks like there’s a ghost there, but I can do something creepier than that. You know, I’ll just throw this together. And it was literally ten or fifteen minutes of thought.”]
Amory: In Eric’s original photoshopped black & white photos of Slender Man, kids are in the foreground, looking toward the camera. And in the background, the tall figure lurks in the shadows, where your eye might tell you that your mind’s playing tricks on you.
Ben: In one picture, there’s a line of kids, and Slender Man appears way behind them. In another, kids are on a jungle gym, unaware of Slender Man under the shadow of a tree. At least, that’s where it looks like he is. Amanda again.
Amanda: Slender Man is just how people process fear in the unknown. There was something about these images in the story that Victor Surge created that really grabbed– people gravitated to it. And within a week, a group of kids from the U.S. started a YouTube series about it, Marble Hornets. And the way that Marble Hornets iterated on these original photos and then built a whole new set of lore, like, that is to me the most fascinating, dramatic piece of it.
[From Marble Hornets entry #18: “Alex? Alex?” (sounds of commotion)]
Ben: So, this is entry #18 in the Marble Hornets series. People on Reddit say it’s one of the spookiest. A character is shining a flashlight in a dark house and comes across an unclothed Slender Man doll.
Amory: And he shines his flashlight on this figure with a white-painted face and black painted eyes. And then, the figure lunges forward and the camera person drops to the floor.
[More commotion sounds from Marble Hornets]
Ben: This is 480p. Like, dawn of YouTube video quality stuff here. 2009. It’s got this Blair Witch found-footage aesthetic.
Amory: This particular entry has almost 2 million views, and there are 90 more of them, all with similar view counts.
Ben: The film school student at the heart of this crazy successful Slender Man fan-fic video art catalogue is Troy Wagner — also a big fan of that Something Awful forum, who saw the original Slender Man images, and the additional images they were spawning. He liked them.
Troy Wagner: But I noticed no one had done video yet. So I was like– this was during the summer, I didn’t have a job. So I called up my friend, Joseph, who I knew from high school and, actually, middle school. And I said, Hey, you want to help me make a thing for the internets? And he said, Yeah, I’m not doing anything else.
Amory: Troy and his buddy met up that same night and grabbed the Slender Man idea. But their character had a different name: The Operator.
Ben: We proposed the idea that Troy and his friends might have been meme-ing when they took Slender Man off the Something Awful message board and made it into the Marble Hornets web series. He was a little skeptical.
Troy: You say meme, I think of a grumpy cat, you know?
Troy: I don’t think of, I mean, although I guess if you want to get, like, really granular with it, you could use, like– and also this is not a word that I’m a big fan of, is creepypasta. That’s more like spooky memes, right?
Amory: But internet librarian Amanda Brennan says Slender Man has one of the key characteristics of a meme.
Amanda: I think a meme is any type of idea or piece of content or, like, image or even, like, sentence structure that passes from person to person and changes along the way. And I think this is a great example of, like, literally passed from person to person, and the second person is iterating. I just think there’s something so novel about the spookiness of it all.
Ben: Troy and his crew were the ones responsible for some of the lore commonly associated with Slender Man now. Marble Hornets added the ideas of “Slender sickness,” and coughing when he’s near — also the idea that Slender Man’s presence makes audio glitch out.
Amory: Even though the monster has a different name, The Operator, it’s all part of the Slender Man idea. But it’s a malleable idea.
Troy: The way that we made The Operator in the series, like, we didn’t explain squat about it. We didn’t say, Oh, you know, he’s a ghost of a business man, you know? I don’t know, like, we didn’t overly explain anything, it was just, he’s there. Bad things happen when he’s there. Now we’re going to focus on what the characters are going to do about it.
Amory: In other words, Troy’s Slender Man — The Operator — didn’t have a backstory. Being unmoored from an origin allowed people to fill in the blanks themselves of who Slender Man was, what he did, and what he wanted.
Ben: Amanda says it used to be that Hollywood told us what to be scared of — same with eons-old urban legends. But Slender Man started online and then transcended the online space.
Amanda: Thinking about horror as a genre — it’s a lot of the same story retold over and over again, and there is something about Slender Man that is markedly different because he came from the internet. And I think it’s also kind of a democratization — almost like, you don’t need to be a giant film franchise to scare people.
Amory: Hollywood did get in on the Slender Man craze, though. A movie made in 2018 brought in over 50 million dollars at the box office — by following the trend, not starting it. Over time, Slender Man has also inspired fan fiction, erotica. Somebody even came up with an older origin story from Germany, which lended some pre-internet credibility to the monster.
Ben: There was some goofiness that got added over time, too. Slender Man got incorporated into My Little Pony fandom… somehow?
[Audio from a “My Little Pony”-meets-Slender Man fan video]
Ben: But for some people, there wasn’t anything fun or funny about Slender Man.
Amory: Slender Man lives… sort of… in a minute.
Amory: The next time you find yourself wide awake in the middle of the night, scan the AM airwaves of your radio and you just might stumble upon this…
[George Noory: “I’ll be curious to see the amount of phone calls we get, Heidi, from people who have had shadow people or Hat Man experiences. Do you have to be a special person to see these entities or have these entities approach you? I mean– “
Heidi Hollis: “It’s a threat we’ll all experience and at some point, even in passing. You know, you think a large bug is flying through your house, and it’s like, they kind of look like that.”]
Heidi: I’m an author, researcher and podcast host all on anything out of the ordinary, from angels to Aliens, Hat Man to shadow people, all of the above and all the in-betweens.
Amory: Slender Man genuinely scared Heidi because of what he reminded her of — a different paranormal phenomenon. She started getting calls not long after images of Slender Man appeared on the internet.
Heidi: Believe it or not, I had people reaching out to me saying, Heidi, is this your stuff, because this resembles Hat Man. And I’m like, Well, let’s see: he’s wearing a suit, he likes to approach children, and he causes terror wherever he goes. Yeah, that looks pretty much like a Hat Man phenomenon.
Amory: And who is Hat Man?
Heidi: So Hat Man is this guy that wears a three piece suit, generally, sometimes he wears a trench coat. Other times he has a cape. Sometimes he has a hat on. Most of the time he does. And he does like to go after children quite a bit. And there’s also another phenomena that surrounds him called shadow people. He seems to direct these black, shadowy minions, if you will.
Ben: We should say, that Heidi doesn’t just research the paranormal — she believes in it. And for her, Hat Man is definitely real. You, like us, might be a little skeptical of that perspective.
Heidi: Evil is real and he wears a hat.
Amory: So Heidi believes in Hat Man. She doesn’t believe in Slender Man, because she says Slender Man is a stolen idea — a fictional version of the real evil that is Hat Man. The Hat Man she’s written and spoken at-length about. And, she says, turning real evil into fictional viral, meme-ified internet evil is dangerous.
Heidi: Just to think of, you know, making something fictional of such a threat to humankind and people’s souls, acknowledging where it came from, acknowledging that this is a real phenomenon, and acknowledging it’s something that is actually going on in the world. And you slapped a different title on it. So I wish that definitely that that message had gotten across.
Ben: But Lynne McNeill has a different message she wants to get across and a different perspective on the whole Slender Man conversation. Lynne is a folklore professor at Utah State University.
Lynne: I teach Slender Man as a great example of creepypasta, of digital folklore, of legendry and of internet meme.
Amory: What you probably won’t hear Lynne lecturing about…
Lynne: I’ve certainly been asked by many, many young people, Is Slender Man real? And that’s an interesting question for a folklorist to get, because folklorists love to dodge that question. We like to point out we are not cryptozoologists, we are not Bigfoot hunters, we’re not ghost hunters or paranormal investigators. We actually are not always interested in, Is this true? We think there’s many more interesting questions to ask — the main one being, Why does the story persist?
Amory: Lynne thinks part of why a figure like Slender Man has persisted is that he represents something bigger than a spindly man in a suit. He might be a kind of updated version of something that’s spooked us for eons.
Lynne: Any successful piece of folklore is likely to be tapping into tropes and motifs that have already withstood the test of time. So in both folk tradition and popular culture, we’ve seen some Slender Man-like figures. The Pied Piper is a great example — someone who lures children away much to the, you know, grief and horror of their parents.
Ben: Perhaps Slender Man is the Pied Piper of the digital age — a sort of digital folklore, as Lynne calls it. And included in digital folklore is something that, by now in this series, we’re all pretty familiar with…
Lynne: Internet memes are probably one of the biggest forms of digital folklore because they’re so concise and efficient in their communication of traditional ideas. You see it, you take it in, you get the impact. The message is succinct and well articulated. And here’s the thing: because of the self-correcting nature of folklore, due to its dynamic variation, if a meme isn’t especially poignant and succinct, someone’s going to fix it until it is. And that’s one of the best things about folklore, is that it is constantly evolving and updating itself to remain relevant.
Amory: So Slender Man, according to Lynne, is both a meme and folklore. But there’s another word she uses to categorize him.
Lynne: Legend stands out as being about possibility and probability. These are the stories that we tell each other to say, Could this really happen?
Ben: Could Slender Man be real? Legend has it, which creates just enough space in some people’s imaginations to take him seriously. And in one case, too seriously.
[News clip: (Ambulance siren) “Breaking News: A 12 year-old girl is stabbed, leading to a big police search in Waukesha.”]
Amory: On that morning in May of 2014, in the woods of Waukesha, Wisconsin, a 12 year-old girl was attacked — not by Slender Man, but by two of her friends, who claimed to have done it to appease Slender Man. Here’s Anissa and Morgan, telling police what happened.
[From the police interrogation video: Anissa: “Morgan handed me the knife.” Morgan: “And then I started to count again.” Anissa: “About 5 feet away, I said, ‘Now, go ballistic. Go crazy.'” Morgan: “Stab, stab, stab, stab, stab.”]
Ben: Payton Leutner had been stabbed 19 times.
[From the 9-1-1 call: Dispatcher: “Sir, are you with her right now?” Man: “Yes.” Dispatcher: “Is she awake?” Man: “She’s awake.” Dispatcher: “Is there any bleeding going on?”]
Amory: Just by happenstance, a man riding his bike in the remote woods came across Payton, who was bleeding profusely.
[From the 9-1-1 call: Man: “Her clothing has got blood on it.” Dispatcher: “OK, and you found her and she was just laying there?” Man: “Yeah.”]
[From an ABC News story: David Muir: “Do you remember leaving the park to go to the woods?” Payton Leutner: “They just wanted to go on a walk, and I didn’t think much of it. It’s just a walk. It’s in Waukesha. Like, what bad stuff happens in Waukesha, Wisconsin?”]
Ben: This is Payton, talking to ABC News. She survived, even though a lot of people thought — and still think — she didn’t. In a way, her attack became part of the legend of Slender Man. And maybe the ending that a lot of people misremember — that Payton died — is a testament to how memes get changed and twisted as they circulate.
Amory: The Waukesha incident spooked a lot of people — including Troy Wagner, the co-creator of the Slender Man spin-off web series, Marble Hornets. He says he and his crew wondered if they bore any of the blame for the attack by contributing to the lore of Slender Man and giving him more of a platform.
Troy: For twenty four hours or so, our phones were ringing off the hook of reporters wanting to call us and ask us about these things. We would say, you know, Was this ultimately a bad idea? But I mean, eventually we just had to kind of settle on the fact that, like, if it wasn’t us, that would have been somebody else, you know, that this was based on, you know? It’s like, you can’t stop these things from happening, you know?
Amory (to Lynne McNeill): Is there any responsibility that that boils down to the creator?
Lynne: You know, that’s really hard to say.
Amory: Again, folklorist Lynne McNeill has thoughts.
Lynne: I think the short answer that a folklorist would give, and I certainly can’t claim to speak for all folklorists, is no.
Ben: Lynne says Slender Man is a byproduct of the world and society we live in and no one person or group of people can be held accountable for his existence or what people choose to do in his name.
Lynne: And so that sense of responsibility really becomes a shared responsibility that we both react to, and help maintain, a world that requires Slender Man in order to cope symbolically with what’s happening around us. And so we are all complicit in the creation of that and so forth. Therefore, we are all required to take responsibility in helping to deal with that. But, you know, long story short, when a middle schooler asks me if Slender Man is real, I say no. He was made up on the internet to be a really good, believable story.
Amory: After the stabbing in Wisconsin, the ever-elusive Eric Knudsen, the original creator of Slender Man, released a statement extending condolences and declaring in bold letters, “SLENDER MAN IS NOT REAL.”
Ben: This didn’t deter all of the believers, but, according to folklorist Lynne, it did change Slender Man’s significance for some people.
Lynne: He became, and through his own fandom in many ways, almost an ally to troubled children, where he became this character who, given his new backstories, was being portrayed as a bullied child himself and, therefore, someone who could maybe come to help children who are being bullied now. And one really great study looks at the symptoms of “Slender sickness” and compares them to the signs that a child is being bullied and finds an amazing amount of overlap.
Amory: Amanda, the internet librarian says, lately, the cobwebs have been accumulating in Slender Man’s corner of the interwebs.
Amanda: The pandemic has put a lot of things into perspective for people. And like, the same things that scared us before are very different. And I personally haven’t seen a lot of Slender Man content over the past year. But like, when looking at, like, the types of news and then types of content that people have shared over the pandemic, when something that disruptive to life comes, like, I don’t think people are seeking out that kind of meme when life is so scary.
Ben: But folklorist Lynne says Slender Man is good folklore. And good folklore may rise and fall in popularity over time, but it doesn’t die. It just lurks in the shadows until we need it again.
Lynne: Bad folklore just goes away. So if it’s not going away, there’s something about it that’s speaking to us.
Ben: And here we are, in 2021, doing an episode about Slender Man. So there must be some reason he’s on our minds…
[Audio glitch sound effect]
Amory: Just like they say: if you’re thinking about him, he’s near.