Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, Free for CAPC Members
Reinke wants to help readers not be manipulated and enthralled by the spectacles of our media age. Instead, he shows that we see the greatest spectacle of all in the Cross.
Recently two young girls from Wisconsin, both just 12 years old, took another friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. Their victim survived only because she was able to crawl to a nearby road where a cyclist found her, bloodied and crying for help. About a week later another young girl, this time a 13-year-old in Ohio, stabbed her mother just as she came into the kitchen. The mother said her daughter seemed to be playing a role. “It didn’t feel like her at all,” she reported.
When questioned, the girls in both crimes invoked Slender Man as their motivation. They were allegedly compelled to violence by their loyalty to this figure, who turned out to be an internet concoction, a sort of horror meme that has proved to be extremely popular on sites attracting users interested in the paranormal. Still, until now, he has not entered mainstream consciousness, and his presence now raises fears about the nefarious influence of the internet.
As is becoming clearer over time, the internet only provides new outlets for our own pre-existing inclinations and biases. If we look for mayhem, we will find it. And then it will find us without further help.In trying to understand these girls’ unthinkable behavior, public attention turned to this figure. Who is Slender Man? Why were these girls apparently so convinced of his existence and, more alarmingly, willing to commit violence in his name? Out of this confusion, a simple narrative takes shape: young girls led horribly astray by violent, evil stories circulating freely on the web. What the public has learned about Slender Man in the last few weeks has enhanced our fears about the digital age. An age which involves hours spent immersed in an online world that trades in horror and gore, making games of both. And, in the greatest indictment of all, these games and stories appeal to kids, the demographic least capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
In the wake of a horrible event, nothing provides more relief than knowing where to point the finger, knowing whom—or what—to blame for things going terribly wrong. But in this case, as in most, an argument’s obviousness can’t be taken for its truth. Maybe the truth in the case of Slender Man is that his character grips the imagination, not because it represents everything bad about the digital age, but because it represents everything bad about the analog age. And the industrial age. And the one before that.
In other words, Slender Man is timeless—the most recent manifestation of the bogeyman, an ancient character that can be found across cultures, as far back as history can recall. The bogeyman is always hovering, just out of sight, ready to snatch us away from the peaceful life we intend to lead and thrust us into horrors we can only imagine.
In contemporary terms, Slender Man is the perfect bogeyman. He is a cipher, and elegant to boot, with an oval opaque face and narrow dark suit. He lurks behind unsuspecting people—usually children—in otherwise prosaic photos, manipulated to include his figure which embodies a child’s worst nightmare. In these photos Slender Man is depicted as passive, standing in the background, a sort of ghoulish wallpaper in an otherwise unremarkable scene. Yet somehow, this conveys an atmosphere so menacing that the Slender Man image haunts just on its own merits. He is the archetypal nightmare, originating from the source of all bad dreams.
Unlike the ancient bogeyman, however, Slender Man is copyrighted. He came into existence in 2009, created by Victor Surge (real name Eric Knudsen) for a forum on the site Something Awful. His creator is nearly always credited in the video games and films that have sprung up around him (and litigation has followed when he’s not). In this sense the Slender Man is more akin to Spider-Man—if the moral opposite—than to any character found in traditional folklore. Both Slender Man and Spider-Man were born of the creative impulse, into a commercial age. Despite Spider-Man’s pre-internet origins, it was just a matter of decades before the comics and TV shows and films managed to explore every cobwebby corner of his mythology. Slender Man seems to be following the same trajectory. The internet may speed up this process but hasn’t really altered its course as an entire catalog of films, games, and short stories have developed around Slender Man’s image.
But even though Slender Man and his attendant horrors came to life in the digital age, the digital age isn’t the source of any evil associated with him. Especially since the internet offers as many truths as it does lies. Anyone with online access can look up the early years of Slender Man’s existence and trace the labyrinthine development of the lore that surrounds him. And no matter how terrifying this lore may be, the story of Slender Man is, in its substance, a version of the stories camp counselors tell, sitting around the fire.
Which brings the matter to a head: if the character of Slender Man didn’t already exist, we would make him up. Because we are always making up reasons to do bad things. The devil made me do it. The Slender Man made me do it. Either way, something outside of myself is responsible for my own awfulness. I look in the mirror and can feel only pity: it’s not my fault that I have the urge to do terrible things. As is becoming clearer over time, the internet only provides new outlets for our own pre-existing inclinations and biases. If we look for mayhem, we will find it. And then it will find us without further help.
When it comes to how we spend our time online, we are self-selecting for horror. We choose to see what we want to see. If the Slender Man—and all the other images of darkness that lurk in the background of our lives, seen or unseen—gains an unholy hold on the imagination, it is not the Slender Man who is to blame. We are to blame, for allowing the unholy to gain a hold at all.
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