News & Views
Memes and urban legends

It sounds like the plot from a horror film; a group of people invent an urban legend, which then takes on a life of its own. But that is exactly what happened following the inception of the ‘Slender Man’. This fictitious individual has recently come under media scrutiny, following a stabbing in the United States where the young perpetrators claimed their actions were an offering to the Slender Man.

But who is the Slender Man?

He came into being in June 2009, as the result of a competition on comedy blog Something Awful, where contributors were challenged to make up a scary “modern myth”. He is often characterised as tall and thin, in a dark suit, with a “blank face”. Some attribute him with eldritch “tentacles” which grow from his back.

The Slender Man rapidly became a meme, in the original sense of the word – an idea or symbol which spreads from person to person. “It just exploded,” folklorist Jeff Tolbert recently told the BBC’s Justin Parkinson. “It became a phenomenon that I don’t think anybody could have predicted.”

And so the Slender Man, who didn’t exist until five years ago, has evolved into a figure of genuine fascination on a large scale; just check out the merchandise and artwork on sites like Etsy and Instagram. A phenomenon with which the Slender Man finds himself frequently linked is ‘creepypasta’, a mutation of ‘copy/paste’ which is used to describe short segments of text, usually horror stories and urban legends, which readers are encouraged to share.

What makes the Slender Man exceptional is the way in which people cobbled together a cohesive mythos; it is remarkably similar to how our favourite legends and folk tales originated. Back then, storytelling was an oral, almost shamanic tradition, passed along from one generation of narrator to the next. In the case of the Slender Man, the campfire around which people told stories happened to be the internet. Open source storytelling, if you like.

“What Slender Man shows is the amazing speed and power of the internet to spread stories,” says Assistant Professor of Communications Trevor Blank at the University of New York at Potsdam. “The awful events in recent days may see interest in Slender Man decline or it may continue in a different way, depending on how contributors and fans react. But one thing is for sure – there will be other stories. Folklore doesn’t die.”

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