Slender Man and the Hunt for Community
It might sound like the search for a new 'Harry Potter'-like franchise but the search for clues in what appeared to be a ritual sacrifice reveals a group of enthusiasts dedicated to nurturing a spooky story.
The spooky, faceless, stick man in a suit has become a modern-day bogeyman who doesn't hide under the bed or creep out of a closet, but lives in an online alternative reality gaming community. He's kept alive via fan art, YouTube videos and Internet sites accessed by teens to twentysomethings across the country. Most recently he made an appearance in Clark at a site that seemed to be an animal ritual sacrifice — a story that unlocked my journey into the search for Slender Man and why he's gaining popularity locally.
The news had been slow for weeks before the discovery of “animal remains” and a “ritual sacrificing site” here in sleepy little Clark, New Jersey. Clark-Garwood Patch was abuzz with visitors scoping out my photos and report on the strange scene. And just when I thought things couldn’t get any weirder, my story on animal remains had turned into an Alice-in-Wonderland trip down the rabbit hole when I learned that the site was the work of a couple of kids.
A commenter on the story confessed to having created the scene to spook a friend, confirming a lead I had stumbled upon the night before: this “ritual site” and the strange symbol I found there were related to an online alternative reality gaming community.
The "operator symbol" – a circle with an X through it – was the mark of the gaming community's villain: a tall, skinny, faceless, pale, bald man with branches for arms was named, appropriately, "Slender Man."
Slender Man was born from a paranormal photoshop contest hosted by an Internet forum. Slender Man’s artist-creator, Victor Surge, drew the long armed, suited man and posted that the monster stalked children. The eerie creature snowballed in popularity on the ‘net and became a sort of online boogeyman, referenced on several paranormal sites and forums and illustrated in fan-art.
Slender Man really took off in 2009, when a couple of kids in Alabama– Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage–took a video camera and ran with the idea of the spooky villain, beginning an online video series centered around the mystery man. Their tale went like this: A young filmmaker, Alex, was the first to encounter the strange suited man as he appeared on his set in the woods. Alex soon became spooked and abandoned his movie project, titled “Marble Hornets.” When Alex’s friend, Jay, asked about the film, Alex told him he’d hand over the footage he had if Jay never asked him about it again. Alex then disappears and Jay begins playing the tapes and posting them to YouTube.
Viewers join Jay on his hunt for Alex as he stumbles upon clues and leads and Slender Man makes fleeting appearances – in a window, in the shadows. You have to watch carefully to see him and the Where’s Waldo of finding him seems to be half the fun. Slender Man is clearly threatening, a psychologically terrifying killer that invades your mind and leaves those who encounter him doubting their own sanity. Each video is short and seems to create more questions than it answers. The series has gained in popularity exponentially, with several other factions creating video Slender Man series, though Marble Hornets remains the most popular.
I needed to know more about why these kids were so into the Slender Man series and wanted proof that this “ritual site” was their doing. I commented on the story, too, asking the commenter, "Antimony," to submit to an interview with me. I also promised that if I could prove the stunt was the work of Antimony, I would write a follow-up article to exonerate the angry Santerian commenters, who were furious because of an earlier suggestion from a county official that the work may have been related to Santeria. I called county spokesperson Seb D'Elia back to tell him I had a commenter claiming responsibility. I asked D’Elia what would happen if he came forward to police. Then I commented on the story to report back to Antimony.
"Antimony- I made a few phone calls to address your concerns regarding coming forward to police. Via email, Union County Police Chief Daniel Vaniska wrote 'I certainly would encourage those responsible to come forward and talk to us. We would give consideration as to whether charges would be filed.' You can reach Chief Vaniska at 908-654-9800."
Eventually, Antimony agreed to answer my questions via email and sent me photos of the site as proof. I told him his prank had made NJ News 12, too, a surprise to him. I wrote:
"You have no idea how insane everyone thought I was with this wacky Slender Man theory – from the lieutenant at the UC PD to Seb D'Elia to my editors and coworkers. Imagine trying to explain it – "Well, it's like an alternative reality game online...there's this skinny suit-clad villain...it's very psychological...there are these YouTube videos...." But, I mean, the symbol on the rock was dead-on for the Operator Symbol, the stick figure is the exact Blair Witch stick figure, Slender Man is faceless so I thought maybe the skull was symbolic there. I'd been wrapping my head around the American flag (which seemed to make no sense with Santeria) and the hard hat..lol. Anyway, I feel so vindicated. Thanks for coming forward. I would have wondered about this forever."
I complimented him on the stunt's creepiness and told him I was genuinely spooked. He replied:
The deer skull was actually just a quick invention of our own, having remembered the nearby skeleton in the woods at the time of creation. Thankfully we had gloves to carry those things around with! Well, at least we know we got the creepiness factor down. It's exactly what we were going for, after all. I still remember the night I watched a bunch of entries in the Marble Hornets series at about 1 in the morning. Can't say I slept very well that night, lol. To be honest, I had never even heard of Santeria before your article, and I'm quite surprised to see that there are people who practice such things around here. Just not something one really expects, I suppose.
Then, I sent Antimony some questions to answer. First, I needed to know what the appeal was. Was it as simple as “kids just like to be spooked”? Some 18,000 subscribers are tuning in to the Marble Hornets series. How are they finding it and what keeps them coming back?
Antimony filled me in:
I got into the Slenderman and Marble Hornets stuff about a little over a year ago after I overheard someone talking about it. I have been following the series since. As far as I'm aware, only one of my friends knows of/watches the series, and I introduced him to it. He just so happens to be the other big contributor to this whole thing as well. I'm not really sure why I like either of them, now that I think about it. I guess I've always been into the horror type films my whole life, and this was just another one, although I feel it has a bit more depth to it than simply watching a movie. I don't really watch any other similar type things online, and I actually don't even know any others. We are 18 years of age and reside in Westfield.
And so Antimony and a friend had decided to pull a prank. They would take Slender Man out from the safety of the Internet – of “alternate reality” – and make him reality. Basically, they had tried to scare the pants off a fellow Slender Man-following friend.
The entire purpose of the site was to spook another friend of ours, for the reason that he always goes to the area, and would annoy us by always speaking of it. That's not to say I don't like the area, we went there all the time when we were younger, but it just gets annoying when someone is always bringing the same thing back up over and over again. We were really only just starting with it, and with a bit of disappointment, I must say our friend wasn't really that scared with it. On the day he was there, and I was with him, and it just so happened that a vulture came out of nowhere and started circling overhead as he was looking at [the site], adding a nice level of unplanned creepiness. After that, he did tell me that, for his own sake, he's going to believe it was me messing with him the whole time. We started doing it all about mid-April. In fact, the stick man went up April 26th.
There really was no specific reason we chose to make it the way we did, it was all on the spot answers to questions like "How can we make this creepy?" or "What's the creepiest way to do this?", et cetera. There were quite a few pieces there that we were not responsible for. The flag, all the metal pieces, and the tires have been there for many years, actually. Probably about 2-3 weeks before news of this broke, the hard hat randomly appeared in front of the stick man, something we never really figured out. After that, what I guess were mice skulls (though they seemed a bit too large to be mice skulls) started appearing on the rock slab, yet another thing that made us wonder. It didn't freak us out though, we figured it was someone trying to mess with us, much like we were doing so with our friend.
I wondered if Antimony realized the stir their prank had caused. Not only did it make my news day, but News 12 had come out and a news helicopter hovered above the scene when I went to take photos of it. Clark police and county police had showed up to investigate and even closed off the area. News 12 had used my story in their nightly broadcast. These kids really made a splash. I asked when he realized he’d caused such a commotion.
I found out the evening it happened after my friend sent me a link to your article. I found it kinda funny and awesome, in a way. Yet I didn't know what to think in regards to the police part of it. I wanted to go get it cleared up that night, and we almost did actually, but decided to wait until the next day to do so. But we had a big discussion about it by then, and my friends were afraid of getting some sort of criminal mischief, disturbing the peace, or trespassing charge and refused to go, so I kinda just backed down.
After our first email exchange, I asked Antimony if we could talk some more. But like Slender Man, I was only afforded a moment with him before he disappeared.
In chats with other friends, teens, kids I would meet on the job, I couldn’t find a single other person who knew of Slender Man or Marble Hornets. The phenomenon is one born out of the Internet and though the Slender Man community is huge (Marble Hornets’ first video has more than a million hits and is prefaced by a YouTube-placed advertisement; their channel has some 18,000 subscribers), fans are spread across the country since their gathering place is virtual not physical.
In a YouTube inteview, Marble Hornets creators Troy Wagner and Joseph DeLage say they know many of their fans well, and even game with some of them online. The duo have become celebs in their realm, even getting invited to this year’s Geek Media Expo, a ComicCon-esque event, held in Nashville.
For Marble Hornets and other Slender Man series producers, stories are told on the trifecta of the ‘net: YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. From what I could gather through online photos and comments, Slenderfans are mostly young (from tweens to twentysomethings), gamers, and happily self-professed nerds.
Though the venue is different, viewers react to Slender Man videos the same way TV-watchers do. They comment on their favorite episodes and bemoan the ones they feel are off-target or too far-fetched. And they’re not just fans, they’re fanatics. For example:
Donovan Johnson I'm still following MH, because if it has a satisfying ending, I will declare this the greatest thing ever on the internet. However, it is getting more and more unlikely that it will have satisfying ending IMO
John Lavin This had my heart pounding the whole time. I was about to be sick by the end of it. Very Anit-Climactic, but done with an edge of your seat style. Hope they get out 51 soon. This one wasn't enough to tide me over.
Trent Noble Come on guys, some answers please. This is getting like watching a season of Lost. One answer for 6, 000 questions.
Dean Humphreys This entry kept me on edge the whole time, really well done and to the people complaining, you can't put the operator in every video or they would just become boring and lifeless. It's entries like these that add the substance and the ambiguity.
Tyler Bok DUDE! This had my heart pounded super fast the whole damn time. :) I really like this new season's focus on character over the first one's, and I love the new rival dynamic between Alex and Jay! It makes everything much more interesting.
Kevin Kiernan I can't wait for it to be revealed what was on that tape and what Alex wanted to show Jay in the woods. If both are covered in 51, I will squeal in happiness. After I piss myself in fear of course.
Jamie Dean it is beneficial to the best writers to know the audience wants answers and to toy with them. Build them up before dropping a bomb shell. hopefuly soon a monumental truth will be unveiled and the story may connect together. The series is very well planned, that much is obvious, Troy and Joseph know what they're doing.
When I explained Slender Man to my mother, she just couldn’t get it. For sure, Slender Man, a psychological, child-stalking killer is dark stuff. I imagine this is the conversation many of the young Slenderfans have with older folks as they try to explain why they’re into the series and how they follow it on the Internet. In one way, the appeal seems simple: Slender Man vids taken together are horror flicks, mysteries, a combination of the cinema-verite stylings of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity mixed with the never-ending twists and turns of a hit like NBC’s Lost.
The rise in these online communities conjures images of Dungeons and Dragons, the role-playing game that consumed a variety of kids before "Call of Duty", "Assassins Creed" or any other creation for the Xbox or Playstation generations. Lisa Greenberg, a psychologist in Madison, provides insights into the world of hyperconnected "gamers" and the communities they create online.
“I think that much of the appeal here is the very ‘yuck’ reaction that adults feel,” said Greenberg. “Teens are connected to adults but are often more powerfully connected to their peers, who need to carve out identities different from those of the older generation. So, if Slender Man's growth continues as bonding moments with peers, and in finding ways to be different from the old, boring, familiar ways of parents, home, school, tradition and society in general. Slender Man also offers opportunity for risk-taking which is a plus for adolescents, and who are big believers in the 'no risk, no reward' theory.
“Imagine the gain in prestige in his peer group for the — I'm guessing here — 17-year-old boy who set that scene in the park,” Greenberg said.
My favorite part of being a journalist is the obsessive chase to cover a story by losing myself in something I once knew nothing about. Before I can put pen to paper, I have to feel like an authority on whatever the subject may be. Sometimes the studies are of my own choosing – a first-person story about sailing on the Hudson? Yeah, I'll volunteer for that. What's disc golf? I'll take a spin. But this story found me and I never imagined where it would lead when I first got to the scene.
Am I upset that what I and authorities automatically assumed was one thing turned into something else, that it was the actions of some 18-year-old kids from Westfield? Nah. I learned about (and gained respect for) Santeria, made News 12, and discovered an underground world where the Internet generation comes to get their horror fix.
So pleased to meet you, Slender Man. No offense, but if we never cross paths again, it'll be too soon.