What Is Slender Man? A Look At The Character Blamed In Stabbing Two 12-year-old girls charged with the stabbing of their friend claim they did it for a character called Slender Man.
NPR logo What Is Slender Man? A Look At The Character Blamed In Stabbing

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

There's a terrible story out of Wisconsin over the weekend. Two 12-year-old girls reportedly told a detective they stabbed another 12-year-old nearly to death to try to please Slender Man. Slender Man? Parents are scrambling to find out what a lot of kids already know. Slender Man is an internet phenomenon.

Shira Chess is a professor of Mass Media Arts at the University of Georgia, who's studied the phenomenon and joins us from WUGA in Athens. And, Professor Shira, we understand this all started on a humor website called Something Awful back in June of 2009? Users were encouraged to create paranormal images. Tell us more about how Slender Man was born.

SHIRA CHESS: So it's not quite a humor website. It's a site of forums where people do a bunch of different things on them, as most web forums do. And a lot of times there are sort of these prompts or sometimes photoshop contests.

And in one such prompt somebody asked people to create paranormal images, right - giving a few tips here and there, right. And so mostly what came out of that for the first couple of days were these ghostly images. And then somebody, a user named - with the handle, Victor Surge, posted two images and a fake news story that was a bunch of schoolchildren basically. And then in the background there was this tall, slender man. And the children, I believe, some had gone missing in a fight.

YOUNG: Well, and so Slender Man morphs from there. Other characters, other people on the site build on the character. I understand it's about 194 pages long, the story now, and it gets pushed off that site.

It's all over the Internet now with video games and different kinds of aspects. One of the places now carrying it, Creepy Pasta. The girls in Wisconsin reportedly saw it there. What's that?

CHESS: Creepy Pasta is basically a place where a lot of different kinds of horror fiction is posted or reposted. And I should say that this all sort of happened organically - the story itself and all of the iterations. In many ways it's not dissimilar to how sort of legends of a vampire might have happened initially, you know, hundreds of years ago.

And those legends sort of morph and turn into other things, and different people contribute in different ways. The only difference is that we're seeing this happen online. And so everything is trackable and traceable. And you can kind of see all the different iterations at once. You can sort of see all this creative power happening at once.

YOUNG: Well, in one of the many different plot lines Slender Man urges people to kill others. We now have these girls saying that. We don't know anything about their state of mind or them. But putting that aside, what is the appeal of Slender Man to those who, you know, are following him online?

CHESS: Well, I think in general, I mean, any horror character - I think the character itself, at least in earlier iterations, was not necessarily promoting violent behavior. That's - you know, when something gets organic like that, any kind of fan culture, right, people can interpret things in different ways. People can write about things in different ways. And that's the power of the space.

And the - but in general, any horror character is going to have appeal because as - in terms of storytelling, we like to tell stories that resonate with us and, particularly in the case of horror, that serve as metaphors for other, you know, fears that we might have culturally or individually.

YOUNG: Yeah, and you've said that Slender Man could be a metaphor for helplessness, for anonymous forces. He could be sort of the void into which anyone could fall.

CHESS: Sure. And I think it's more - what I see it being is a anxiety about anonymity and people being afraid of power differentials that are happening and occurring increasingly.

YOUNG: Wow, we'll have to talk to you more about that. meanwhile, now more people know about Slender Man. Shira Chess, professor of mass media arts at the University of Georgia. Thanks so much.

CHESS: Thank you.

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