Slender Man: From Horror Meme to Inspiration for Murder

What started as a photograph doctored for an Internet contest took on a life of its own – leading two preteen girls to stab their friend 19 times

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Slender Man: From Horror Meme to Inspiration for Murder

Two Wisconsin pre-teens shocked the country in 2014 after attempting to murder their classmate, a sacrifice to a fictional phantom known online as Slender Man. Their victim survived, and her harrowing story of being stabbed 19 times sparked international interest in the legend of Slender Man. What was this strange monster from the Internet and why were 12-year-old girls willing to kill for him? Just last week, a Wisconsin appeals court made the highly controversial ruling to uphold the decision to try both Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier as adults. Here's how a horror meme, created as a joke, led to the crowdsourcing of the Internet's very own boogeyman.

June 8th, 2009: A Legend Is Born
The origin of Slender Man could not be more precise. On June 8, 2009, a blogger by the alias Victor Surge – later identified as a Florida man named Eric Knudsen – uploaded two Photoshopped images to a thread titled "Create Paranormal Images" on the comedy website Something Awful. 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. In the first of two photos, an unnaturally tall and spectral being in a prim black suit is seen in the shadows behind a group of young teenagers, followed by the vague caption: "'We didn’t want to go, we didn't want to kill them…' -1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead."

Knudsen's second photo was stamped with a fake library seal. In the image, several children smile towards the camera, while those in the back gather around a tall figure in a suit, summoning them with long and eerie arms. This time, the caption reads: "One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as 'The Slender Man'. ... Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence. – 1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986."

Knudsen later revealed in an interview that his inspiration for Slender Man came from "H.P Lovecraft, Stephen King (specifically his short stories), the surreal imaginings of William S. Burroughs, and couple games of the survival horror genre; Silent Hill and Resident Evil."

June 11th, 2009: The Evidence Appears
Knudsen returns to the Something Awful forum and posts a fictional doctor's note that recounts several alleged Slender Man victims from the 1990s. Some of the accounts are extremely graphic, mentioning a "mass of blood and human tissue present on the camera" that was allegedly found and turned over to authorities by a patient at the "Woodview Mental Hospital and Psychological Rehabilitation Clinic." According to a follow-up post, 33 patients were later missing from the institution. The aforementioned facility does not exist.

June 12th, 2009: The Internet Crowdsources Its Own Stories of the Slender Man
Fellow Something Awful users begin uploading their own photos and interpretations of the Slender Man. The first Slender Man story is baited with the following hook: "I've been seriously debating sharing these, but after Victor Surge's posts I feel I have to." This user recounts a case of missing teens who vanished while camping, claiming he was given a photo of the Slender Man by his uncle, a police officer still vexed by the incident years later. The photo has since been removed, but it led the way for multiple users to formulaically add on to the mythos. Stories of elementary school fires and missing children continue to pour into the very same thread that housed Knudsen's original "meme." You can access the 46-page thread here.

June 20th, 2009: "Marble Hornets" Brings the Slender Man Myth to YouTube
Merely 10 days after Knudsen's first mention of Slender Man, three college film students – Troy Wagner, Joseph DeLange and Tim Sutton – release a series of short videos depicting Slender Man in the style of The Blair Witch Project, further shaping Slender Man's foreboding legend. In the films, a supernatural monster – a tall, skinny, faceless humanoid with an ability to distort film footage – starts disrupting a student's attempts to film his class project titled Marble Hornets. A classmate later discovers the footage after the student becomes increasingly unwell, obsessed with a version of Slender Man he calls "the Operator." The film's captions explain how the person who captured this footage is now seriously disturbed. Over the next year, Marble Hornets amassed 97 episodes. These films later go onto to set the blueprint for the 2014 video game Slender: The Arrival.

June 24th, 2009: The Legend of Slender Man Spreads over 4chan
The image of the man clad in a dark suit with the amorphous long arms goes viral and lands on the popular paranormal message board 4chan. The first 4chan mention of Slender Man reportedly occurred on June 24th, 2009 – though that fact has been disputed – and a surge of user-created photos and Slender Man fan art dominates the forum. The tall, faceless, monster has gone from an admittedly manipulated Photoshop image to a budding Internet sensation. His mythical likeness starts to appear on other online horror forums and meme generators, including Unfiction, Fangoria, DeviantArt and the Mythical Creatures Guide. Some users even begin to suggest that Slender Man existed far before Knudsen claimed to have made him up and insist that this story dates back to German folklore.

March 2010: Slender Man Videos Become a Popular Trend
Multiple video series in the vein of Marble Hornets appear on YouTube, the most popular being the TribeTwelve series EverymanHybrid. Though slightly varied, they seem to tell the same story: An innocent video blogger somehow has their work interrupted by a tall, besuited monster with no face whose presence alone interferes with technology's ability to capture it. 

October 2011: The Rise of Augmented Reality Survival Games Inspired by Slender Man
A slew of augmented reality games are created around the Slender Man myth, furthering the Internet’s participatory relationship with the legend. The games center around surviving an encounter with the Slender Man, and they stress the fact that he's dangerous and should be feared. Two of the games, Slender: The Eight Pages and Slender: The Arrival, are written and developed in part by the same young men behind Marble Hornets. Later, a character modeled after Slender Man is incorporated into a version of Minecraft. He is becoming a recognizable trope. 

Depictions of Slender Man's villainy change from story to story, from impaling his victims against trees to disemboweling them and keeping their guts in bags. However, he is most notoriously known to stalk victims to the edge of madness and kidnap children, who are never seen again. 

April 7th, 2011: Slender Man Makes it to Creepypasta
CreepyPasta is the ultimate online hub for horror stories and paranormal encounters. Each installment of horror fiction on the site is called a Creepypasta, a term derived from a 4chan term, copypasta, meaning similar-looking blocks of code. Other notable creepypastas include a demonic Huskie named Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer, a night-stalker character with no eyelids. Slender Man is soon given his own page on the site, solidifying his legend as a true Internet monster with a robust network of believers, fans, first-person encounters and supposed sightings.

May 31st, 2014: Two Pre-Teens Attempt Murder in Name of Slender Man
Twelve year-old girls Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier stab their classmate in an attempt to sacrifice her body to Slender Man. Payton Leutner, then 11, is coerced into the woods behind Geyser's Waukesha, Wisconsin home in the middle of the night. Geyer and Weier allegedly stabbed Leutner 19 times in the torso, arms and legs, then left her for dead. The girls believed that if they killed for Slender Man, he would not only spare the death of their families, but would also invite the girls to live with him in his fabled manor. Leutner survives after crawling out of the woods and onto a nearby bike path.

June 1st, 2014: Horrified Public Demands Answers
The coverage of this brutal incident puts the legend of Slender Man front and center. As the case blows up on TV, in tabloids and online, terrified parents demand to know who Slender Man is and why impressionable young children are willing to kill for him. The conversation around the case rockets Slender Man into the mainstream as people continue to ask questions about the strange fictional creature's impact on young people.

June 4th, 2014: Eric Knudsen Speaks
Hounded by terrified parents and obsessive media, Knudsen finally appears to the public, albeit briefly: "I am deeply saddened by the tragedy in Wisconsin and my heart goes out to the families of those affected by this terrible act," he announces through a publicist, distancing himself from the horrific events. He has not addressed the media since.

June 9th, 2014: Ohio Teenager Stabs Mother to Appease Slender Man
Hardly a week after the vicious attack on Payton Leutner, an Ohio teenager stabs her own mother to allegedly appease Slender Man. "I came home one night from work, and she was in the kitchen waiting for me, and she was wearing a mask, a white mask," reported the wounded mother. She later reveals to the media how her daughter had become obsessed with Slender Man role-playing, claiming, "We found things she had written and she made reference to Slender man. She also made references to killing. She had even created a world for Slender man in Minecraft.”

August 1st, 2014: Morgan Geyser Diagnosed with Early Onset Schizophrenia
Morgan Geyser tells officials that she believes she possesses mind control abilities and that she communicates with other fictional characters, including Harry Potter villain Voldermort, the Vulcans from Star Trek, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and unicorns. Court-appointed psychologists claim Geyser is "not faking." It is later revealed that Geyser's biological father suffered similar mental conditions and was hospitalized as a teenager.

March 11th, 2016: HBO Premieres Beware the Slenderman Documentary at SXSW
HBO compiles footage from the Geyer-Weir hearings and premieres the documentary, Beware the Slenderman, which imparts the legend of Slender Man while presenting the facts that led to his creation. First-person testimonies from the girls' parents are heart-breaking and expository. The film leaves viewers acutely aware of how Weir and Geyser’s obsession with the Slender Man legend led to them becoming an inexorable part of its ultimate horror.

July 30th, 2016: Wisconsin Appeals Court Makes Controversial Ruling to Uphold Decision to Try Girls as Adults
Outrage sparks after the decision is made by the Wisconsin Appeals Court to try both Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier as adults. The premeditative nature of their crime puts their actions up against their abilities to decipher right from wrong. While attorney's pushed for two years to have the girls tried in juvenile court, the appeal was officially denied.

What's Next
Beware the Slender Man is slated to arrive on HBO early next year. Crowned as the next Making a Murderer, the film is sure to make Slender Man a household name. As for the actual case against Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, the trial will resume in the adult judicial system despite the defense’s efforts to keep the matter in juvenile court. A status hearing is scheduled for August 19th.