How Internet Folklore Works


You may have seen images or artwork representing Slenderman, even if you didn’t recognize it.
You may have seen images or artwork representing Slenderman, even if you didn’t recognize it.
mdl70/Creative Commons/Flickr, Used Under CC BY-ND 2.0 License

The pervasive presence of the Internet means it seeps into every facet of our lives. It becomes the perfect medium for steeping our collective consciousness – our common folklore – in stories that may have no basis in reality yet become a looking glass for our dreams ... or our fears. Sometimes those fears turn a bit nightmarish, as in the case of Slenderman.

Some people call Slenderman the Internet's first celebrity of legend and folklore. He's an ominous supernatural character that appears all over the Internet, a sort of boogeyman that's out to get you even if you aren't sure why or how.

Slenderman got his start on an Internet forum where users manipulated pictures to make them seem as though they'd captured ghosts or other supernatural creatures. Eric Knudsen (who went by the online alias Victor Surge) created two black-and-white images featuring a warped, faceless man wearing a suit, and notably, they had creepy captions that referenced a mysterious, dangerous "Slender Man."

The suspenseful and harrowing images seized the imaginations of like-minded users. They copied the theme and made new Slenderman images, adding their own text to suit their preferences. From there, the legend took on a life of its own, spreading across the Internet.

As the blurry man in the suit made his way around the Web, his origins quickly became equally blurry. Although most people generally accepted him as an urban legend of sorts, other people wondered if there wasn't some truth to his existence. In 2014, that idea went to an extreme in Wisconsin.

It was then that two 12-year-old girls lured an acquaintance into a wooded area and then stabbed her 19 times. The victim survived and her attackers were arrested. One of the offenders told authorities that she wanted to become a follower of the mystical Slenderman, and that to do so, she had to begin by carrying out a murder.

Although the Wisconsin events set a high (or, rather, low) bar for Slenderman-inspired violence, there have been other incidents linked to his legend. Typically it's young adolescents who buy into the Slenderman mythos, committing strange or scary acts to bring Slenderman into their lives in some way, even if it lands them in handcuffs.

That young girls might commit murder because of an Internet urban legend is certainly awful. But that fact speaks to the power of online storytelling and folklore. The stories we humans tell each other hold real meaning. How we interpret and act on that meaning affects our society in profound ways.