As someone who has written quite extensively on the matter of the Slenderman phenomenon, I’m often asked how the whole thing began. It is, admittedly, somewhat complicated. It all began in early June 2009, specifically on the 10th of the month. That was when a man named Eric Knudsen chose to do something that grew and grew. Knudsen molded, nurtured and duly unveiled what is just about the creepiest and most hostile creature that the Internet has ever seen: the Slenderman. By his own admission, Knudsen had more than a few inspirations for his personal creature of choice – some were from the world of horror-fiction. Others, however, came from the all too real, and all too dangerous, domain of the supernatural. They included the notorious Men in Black of UFO lore, Mothman, the collective works of H.P. Lovecraft, sinister Shadow People, Zack Parsons’ That Insidious Beast, the works of Stephen King, and an eerie character known as the Mad Gasser of Mattoon. The goal was to create “something whose motivations can barely be comprehended and causes general unease and terror in a general population.” He certainly achieved his goal. And way more, too.
It’s very clear that a great deal of thought went into how, and under what circumstances, the Slenderman was practically destined to become a big part of the paranormal world and the Internet. Given the nature of the Slenderman and his dark deeds in fiction and, later, in reality – as well as in a hazy combination of both – you might very well be forgiven for assuming that the creation of the creature occurred in the darkened bowels of a creepy, old house. Or, even, in the cellar of something resembling Castle Frankenstein on a dark and thundery night. Not so. Actually, the complete opposite is the case. According to one of Knudsen’s colleagues, it was a slow workday afternoon when the Slenderman imagery began to emerge in Knudsen’s mind and quickly came to fruition. How profoundly odd and down to earth, then, that the definitively unearthly Slenderman was born amid an afternoon of boredom in the workplace. In no time at all, the Slenderman – phenomenon, meme, and soon to be entity – began to take shape. In fact, said Knudsen, “It was pretty spontaneous.” By now, there was absolutely no going back.
Using the alias of “Victor Surge,” and prompted by a then-new competition launched by the folks behind the Something Awful website to create images of a supernatural variety, Knudsen set out to do his best. He achieved precisely that – and much more, too. Knudsen secured a pair of black-and-white-photos – B&W so very often provokes an atmospheric and unsettling vibe – and digitally altered them. In other words, he inserted into the pictures a grim, tall, thin monster in a suit. In a black suit. Knudsen then uploaded his pair of carefully and skillfully manipulated images to the forum section of Something Awful, which is known for running competitions that revolve around photo-shopped imagery. They were the very first images of what became known as the Slenderman. Rolling Stone’s Bryn Lovitt said of Knudsen’s actions: “The idea was to see who could use their Photoshop skills to create the best new mythological creature. Activity and praise for Surge’s tall, faceless ghoul flourished around the post immediately.”
As for the two photos, they were both very similar; in the sense, at least, that both images showed the tall, thin, black-suited and faceless Slenderman in the midst of groups of children. The creature also sported a number of octopus-like tentacles, which waved in the air and beckoned menacingly. Thus, and almost instantly, the Slenderman’s infamously unhealthy and dangerous connections to kids and teenagers was born and unanimously accepted: where there were children, there was sure to be the Slenderman. In rapid-fire time, there was a new boogeyman in town. The ghoulish thing was like a human stick-insect, an obscene, malignant and terrifying one. Knudsen increased the interest in his creation by adding fictional captions to the photos, something which gave them an air of genuineness – albeit that certainly wasn’t Knudsen’s goal. It’s important to note that there was no deception at work here: this was not a case of Knudsen creating a hoax and then trying to pass it off as the real deal. Rather, the aim really was just a case of creating a fearful and entertaining entity for the people that gravitated to Something Awful. The first caption, dated 1983, read: “We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill him, but its persistence silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time.” The words were attributed to a “photographer unknown, presumed dead.”
The second photo had a date of 1986 attached to it. As for the accompanying text, it went as follows: “One of two recovered photographs from the Sterling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as ‘The Slender Man.’ Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence.” In this second case, the photographer was a “Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.” In terms of how the Slenderman came to be perceived as a real entity – rather than just as a creation for, and paradoxically also of, the Internet – it’s worth noting that the seeds of this “fact or fiction?” angle were sown practically immediately. In fact, following Knudsen’s uploading of the photos, a commenter at Something Awful, using the name of “Slidebite,” predicted that it would not be long at all before whole swathes of the paranormal research community would come to embrace the Slenderman as a real entity. “Slidebite” proved to be quite the prophet. The thing was born. And, now, we have a new development…