Myths need a maker

Slender Man, or Slenderman, is an Internet myth, an urban legend for the digital age, a ‘here there be monsters’ for a world with borderless and edgeless boundaries. The cartography of the web is unclear, the shaded unknowns are unseen, and the drop-off points are hidden. Slender Man lives in the cracks. What he is exactly, is a purely fictitious Internet character. He’s a tall, thin man, usually shown or described ‘ whether through drawings, images, or stories ‘ as hanging around children and compelling them to do awful things. Born of collective storytelling in the Internet’s back channels, he’s ambiguous and mutable, nowhere and everywhere.

Technically, Slender Man was created in 2009 on the website Something Awful. The site asked users to use Photoshop to create paranormal pictures and one user, Victor Surge (n’e Eric Kundsen), created Slender Man. He posted a couple of photos, the most famous of which is a black and white image featuring a child on a playground slide in the foreground. In the background there are more small children, and under the shade of a tree a group stands around a tall, thin, dark figure with long tentacle-like arms. The caption for the photos are ominous:

‘we didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but it persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same timeナ – 1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead’.

The meme spread, despite everyone knowing its origin in the Something Awful forums. People added to the folklore by creating more photos, more references, more oblique stories. He is usually depicted as faceless, wearing a black suit and tie; he was the subject of a found-footage style YouTube series called Marble Hornets and he appears in several video games. And so the story endured, with people contributing various details here and there, building on a fiction now seven years old. Even the name of the original forum — a humor site that is, according to the Washington Post, home to ‘jokes about things like Dungeons & Dragons, porn and 3-D printers’ — enhances the creepiness of the origin story. Rather than nerdy web outskirts, Something Awful becomes more Blair Witchian, as Something Wicked This Way Comes.

For all of the Internet folklore took a much darker turn in June 2014, when two twelve-year old girls stabbed a classmate 19 times. When interrogated by police, they said they did it so they could see Slender Man and prove that he is real. The classmate survived; the girls’ trial is ongoing and they were back in court on November 11. HBO has made a documentary about the case, scheduled to air in January 2017. Before the incident, there was just the right amount of almost-true to keep the legend alive. But as the girls are held in prisons and evaluated, pressed for reasons and asked to recount again how Slender Man influenced their decision, it has become part of the real-life record.

Slender Man has been discussed at large as a kind of metaphor for our societal anxieties of the unknown. Shira Chess, an academic at the University of Georgia, is quoted most frequently in news articles on the incident, stating that myths reflect our cultural fears and that Slender Man represents ‘helplessness, power differentials, and anonymous forces.’

As an on-screen legend made into a real-life horror story for three girls, there’s something about Slender Man’s apparent power to compel his victims that’s reminiscent of The Ring, even if that would be an outdated way to think of the Internet specter. The American version of the film was released in 2002 and features VHS and landlines, that kind of mute the terror when viewing today, with a wave of nostalgia for devices of yesteryear. There’s a sequel that moves the film into the digital age, with online videos and webcams — an update that is necessary to accurately instill some sense of terror. Because although neither the 2002 nor 2016 version is explicitly about technology, technology is the mode through which dangerous transference takes place.

The fact that the web — which is by no means new at this point — still inspires fear, is impressive. Part of this is because so many of us don’t fully understand how the web actually functions. Although we use it on a regular basis and know the user end, those who control the technical elements hold the power to completely revert our worlds. VHS and its entirely contained mechanics are hardly frightening compared to the nebulous networks we have created — networks that live within the same universe as our everyday activities. Viruses are probably the best example. They infect through familiar channels like email and downloads. We have come to expect pop-ups and spam on less credible sites as kind of casual reminders that there are anarchists and dissenters who know much more about our digital footprints than we do. The real viruses, the ones that do more than just slow your operating system, lock you out of your files, your hard drive — essentially your whole life. They put you on pause and remind you of your reliance on systems that are, in reality, almost wholly beyond your control.

Following the American election, we’re worrying about the limits of this digital world to sustain a pan-anything dialogue. Depending on who you’re reading, it may be responsible for electing Trump. The silos of the Internet and the echo chambers of social media are being blamed for the lack of insight that those on either side of the presidential campaign had into the other before election night. BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis created a kind of visual essay on this topic called Hypernormalisation, released on BBC iPlayer just before the election. Dramatic and conspiratorial, the documentary sees the web as a vast and shallow tool that feeds society’s narcissism by validating our pseudo-sense of reality: basically we immerse ourselves in select worlds, so we forget that the big picture is often very different.

And this is often the most worrisome thing, because more than anything, we worry about how technology affects our behavior. The latest season of Black Mirror delves into the dark sides of technology, or more accurately, the dark side of humans and how technology can be used in service of our worst selves. For every story of how the web is connective and redemptive — in creating networks where none existed, in uniting disparate forces through new communications channels, in giving those formerly voiceless an outlet and a microphone — there are cautionary tales that harken back to parental control apps and hand-wringing over anonymous chatrooms. The way these discussions go, it is the dark side of the power of the Internet that we don’t see coming. It’s a slow burn we don’t notice — we’re inoculating ourselves from the things we don’t want to see, the opinions that disagree with our own. That bit by bit, we’re building ourselves a reality that fits the perspective we want. It’s an argument that is easy to latch onto, especially while looking to assign blame for the unexpected.

However, there are things that don’t fit with this theory. As much as we would like to tie a bow on it and say we are lulled into false senses of security by our newsfeeds and our online social circles, and that media outlets contribute to this fa’ade, this isn’t true for a number of people. We can’t acknowledge the one side of media bias without also acknowledging the vitriol that gets expressed online to members of the press ‘ particularly toward women and people of colour ‘ that never allows them to forget that there is fierce opposition, not only to their perspectives, but to their very personhood.

Discussing the impacts of social media in relation to the election is not pointless, but it does have a whitewashing tendency to forget that there are people behind the tweets and that engagement is a choice. That social media is a tool — not a cause — for communication. We can no more easily assign blame for a seemingly unbridgeable gap to Twitter or Facebook than we can fully lay the blame at the feet of any one person or group. Even the anonymizing aspect of the web — which is often nefarious and cowardly — is not as simple as good or bad. For the arguments that say facelessness enables the worst behavior, there’s the counterpoint of Emily Doe.

Emily Doe is the stand-in name for the young woman from Stanford who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner in January 2015. Earlier this year, Brock Turner received a six-month sentence for his crime — a crime that could have resulted in a sentence of fourteen years, of which he only served three months. At his trial, Emily Doe read a victim-impact statement, detailing her side of the assault and the effects on her life. The statement went viral, and to date has been viewed 11 million times, and was read on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. This month, she was named Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year. Parts of her statement were read on stage and Michelle Daube, a law professor at Stanford, accepted the award on her behalf. With the announcement of the award, Emily Doe also wrote an essay in Glamour. Emily Doe remains anonymous, and it is through her anonymity that she has shared her story and that she continues to fight against her assailant and the system that prioritized his well being over hers. In what seems counterintuitive in most cases of hidden identity, her anonymization has reminded people that there is someone, a real person, behind the viral content.

And really, the building of online myth depends on what you categorize as legend. By definition, myths have an element of something fantastical, beyond what we recognize as real life. They’re usually explanatory, helping us as a culture understand how something came to be. But there is something to be said for those who are not afforded the things in real-life that others are, and for whom ideas of equality often seem equally fictitious. Where the things that we currently do not recognize as real life are for what we could be striving. Where understanding how things came to be demands a reckoning that could use something fantastical and out of the ordinary, for the ordinary is not always a comfort. Imaginary worlds are not always treacherous, but ones that face cultural, societal, and legal obstacles often seem equally out of reach.

Perhaps the Internet can be used to further entrench our ideas and disconnect us from reality. And perhaps the Internet will always be suspect and drive our fears of our inability to separate fact from fiction. But perhaps there’s also the flip side, where the fiction is not only a respite, but home to a necessary optimism that things can change. While there is no doubt that a dark side of the web exists, not all Internet myths are dangerous, and there are even some where we could benefit from their transference.