How Slenderman, the Internet's Horror Star, Crawled out of Creepypasta

On June 8, 2009, Eric Knudsen posted two black and white images he had Photoshopped to a forum called "Something Awful." The forum was hosting a photo manipulation contest and was taking submissions from artists who were creating fake "paranormal" images. Knudsen's original monster, whom he called Slenderman, was the breakaway star of the contest, inspiring writers and artists online to create a backstory for him.

Horror folklore that's written and shared online is colloquially called "creepypasta," and the term has become synonymous with the name Slenderman in recent years. Creepypasta authors are the contemporary version of kids telling ghost stories around a fire, and when their horror stories are copied and pasted onto websites like 4chan, Deviantart or Reddit, they're often edited or adjusted by new, anonymous authors. That's how fictional creatures like Slenderman end up with sprawling backstories and lore that everyone seems to agree on.

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A still from a fan video on Vimeo, featuring Slenderman. Vimeo

Across most creepypastas and fan art, Slenderman is a tall, thin, humanoid creature with unnaturally long limbs who stalks and preys on children. Sometimes he's depicted with extra arms, and he's always in a black suit and tie. He doesn't have facial features or hair. In an interview with the internet culture wiki Know Your Meme, Slenderman's creator, Knudsen, compared the monster to old mythical creatures whom most people still know from folklore today. "Before you had angels and succubi, and then ghosts and spirits, today we have shadow people and inter-dimensional beings. The Slenderman, and other newly created entities, are just the newest addition in the progression of a long, and very real, human tradition," Knudsen says.

Part of the fun of developing Slenderman online was originally in the shared "game" among creepypasta writers that what they were recounting was true. r/nosleep, a popular subreddit, asks that all users maintain that front in the interest of having creepy fun—redditors post original horror stories to the subreddit as if they are recounting something that's actually happened to them, and all commenters respond as if the stories are truthful. It's a widespread online game of roleplay, in a way, and that blending of reality and fantasy might be where teenage readers run into trouble.

In 2014, two 12-year-old girls in Milwaukee tried to stab their classmate, Bella, to death, and when they were apprehended, they told the authorities that they had hoped Slenderman would see their crime as an offering. New York Magazine reported in 2015 that the girls had explained to the police, "Bella's death would earn them Slender's protection. Afterward, they said, they would go to live with him in a mansion in the forest, morphing somehow into mini-­monsters, not unlike the way humans who've been bitten by vampires are said to become vampires themselves."

Morgan Geyser is led into the courtroom at Waukesha County Court on August 19, 2016 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Geyser, one of two girls accused of trying to kill a 12-year-old classmate to please the fictional horror character Slenderman, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Michael Sears/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel/AP

After that crime, which eventually became known as the Slenderman Stabbing, creepypasta platforms began rolling out disclaimers to identify everything on their site as a work of fiction. In an interview with Inverse, viral YouTube star Mr. Creepypasta explained how the real-life horror made creators like him pause what they were doing. "The danger here is that Creepypasta is entertainment largely aimed at kids and teenagers," he said. "Sometimes you have to remind kids that certain characters are the bad guys. We're not meant to identify with characters like Slenderman. It's not that there's a problem in the story — it's an understanding among readers."

Despite his violent emergence in real life, it appears mainstream culture's relationship with Slenderman has only begun. In January, HBO ran a documentary about the Slenderman myth, and a Sony Pictures feature film about Slenderman is set for 2018.