Did Games Help Make Slenderman Popular, or Did They Ruin It?

Did Games Help Make Slenderman Popular, or Did They Ruin It?


Games like 'The Eight Pages' – and one horrific crime – brought the online phenomenon out of obscurity and into the mainstream

Games like 'The Eight Pages' – and one horrific crime – brought the online phenomenon out of obscurity and into the mainstream

A man tears an image off a tunnel wall in the dead of night – a crude drawing of some faceless person in a dark suit with strangely elongated limbs. Ominous music begins to play. He turns to walk away, throwing a quick glance over his shoulder, and the faceless person in the suit is right behind him. The man shrieks and runs back into the forest, his flashlight's beam swinging around wildly as he finds a large tree to hide behind. He peeks out from behind the tree, and the faceless person in the suit is there again.

The man shrieks and swears and shrieks and swears. He quits out of the computer game he's been playing, laughing at the fact that he's so terrified that he's literally trembling. Then he looks at several pictures of adorable kittens to calm himself.

That's a YouTube video of the world's most popular YouTuber Pewdiepie sampling the free PC game Slender: The Eight Pages – which was released in 2012. "I did not expect this," he tells his viewers. "Usually when I try horror games, they are not scary." Pewdiepie's panicky playthrough has been watched over 12 million times, bringing a great deal of attention to the game, as well as to the mythos that inspired it.

The game is the most immersive way imaginable to experience the Slenderman phenomenon. But in the eyes of many longtime fans of the nightmare creature, The Eight Pages didn't simply help to popularize the phenomenon – it ruined it. To grasp why, you need to understand what made it popular to begin with.

Slenderman is in the news now due to a recent HBO documentary about a horrible true crime case from May, 2014. Two 12-year-old girls from a suburb of Milwaukee convinced themselves that the mythical figure of Slenderman is real, and stabbed their friend Payton Leutner 19 times in order to ingratiate themselves with the faceless creature.

Slenderman feels like an urban legend that spread by word of mouth, but the creature was actually born on the Internet. Eric Knudsen, who goes by the online handle "Victor Surge," created the character in 2009 as part of a Photoshop competition in the forums of the site SomethingAwful. Tasked with tweaking photographs to add paranormal elements, Knudsen inserted images of the faceless suit-wearing abomination into the background of a couple of innocuous snapshots of children, and wrote accompanying photo captions that hinted at an incredibly dark back story behind the images.

Knudsen carefully crafted the images and the text to seem like a cryptic piece of evidence, an unsettling entry point to a mystery that was fundamentally unsolvable. He stopped giving interviews in the wake of what's come to be called "The Slenderman Stabbings," but in a 2011 Q&A, he said that his goal was to create a creature "whose motivations can barely be comprehended and causes general unease and terror." He also claimed that he was inspired by everything from folkloric figures like shadow people and Mothman to horror stories by Lovecraft and Stephen King to games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil.

Knudsen's Victor Surge posts immediately struck a chord, and inspired more doctored images, drawings, and short online ghost stories known as "creepypastas." The stories were often presented as found documents – one popular example claimed to be the translation of an 18th century journal written by a bereaved German father who described his encounter with "der Grossman" [the tall man].

Each story had a slightly different interpretation of the creature, but some commonalities began to emerge: Slenderman is a tall, slim, faceless figure with elongated arms and tentacles or tendrils that erupt from his back. He frequents forests. He attacks and mutilates victims, which are usually children, leaving no evidence of how they were killed.

The phenomenon entered a new phase with the emergence of several popular online video series. Many of them used a verite found footage style similar to that of the Paranormal Activity films. One of the series called Marble Hornets garnered over 90 million YouTube views, and scored a feature film deal. New Slenderman tropes began to solidify with the increasing popularity of the videos – the creature's appearance onscreen is often accompanied by electrical disturbances that disrupt the video image, causing screen tearing and static. As befits a long-running series with recurring characters, the faceless creature becomes less of a killer and more of a manipulator, driving humans insane or twisting their minds to make them do his bidding.

Slenderman was becoming a popular Web meme, recognized outside of horror aficionado circles. The best evidence is the Enderman mob that was added to the incredibly popular sandbox game Minecraft in a 2011 update. These tall, all-black characters with freakishly long limbs can teleport at will, and will attack players who look directly at them.

But the key popularizer of the faceless figure ultimately proved to be The Eight Pages. Mark Hadley was looking for a simple project to help him learn more about using the Unity game engine. "I was first exposed to Slenderman in passing – I saw an image without any context behind it," says Hadley. "Some time later, I found the first episodes of Marble Hornets, which is when I started to learn more about the mythos."

He devised a horror game in which players wander around an enclosed wooded area, gathering up eight pages that are scattered randomly around the environment. Each image presents an illustration of the Slenderman, and the drawings are reminiscent of fan art depictions of the character the you would find on sites like Deviant Art. Several pages include daunting messages, like "ALWAYS WATCHES NO EYES" and "DON'T LOOK...OR IT TAKES YOU" and "NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO."

I spent the first day just watching videos of people playing it, totally fascinated.

The game itself is simple, but incredibly effective. Slenderman appears randomly, but can only spawn in certain locations, and pops up more frequently as more pages are found. The creature's appearance is accompanied by bursts of static that make it hard to see, as if your gameplay experience is being captured on video, like in the Marble Hornets series. The restraint and minimalism of the visuals and the intensely atmospheric audio keep the game's jump scares from feeling cheap or cynical. You can never "beat" the Slenderman in Hadley's game, but if you manage to collect all eight pages, the end credits roll, a "thanks for playing" message appears, and a new mode is unlocked.

Hadley posted links to download the game on a few online forums, one of which was devoted to the Slenderman mythos. It took off immediately. "Seeing it go viral literally overnight was a strange experience," says Hadley. "I spent the first day just watching videos of people playing it, totally fascinated." The free title was downloaded millions of times, and footage of people reacting to the game became a huge Internet phenomenon in itself.

Hadley eventually partnered with Canadian developer Blue Isle Studio to create a more fleshed-out version of the game. According to the stat tracking site Steamspy, the PC version has been downloaded almost half a million times. The game also inspired a slew of imitators, most of which borrowed the atmospherics and the idea of collecting artifacts scattered around the environment. There's the popular iOS game Slender Man, as well as Slenderman Rising, Slenderman's Shadow, Haunt, The Pale One, Lost Children: Slenderman, Slenderman House, Slenderman's Woods, Slenderman's Forest, and endless parodies and mashups, like Flappy Slenderman.

Hadley's game, and the many other games it inspired, are the most visible and popular representation of the Slenderman phenomenon. But some longtime fans don't like the version of the creature that it presents. They dislike the elaborate mythologies and horror movie tropes that have grown up around games and video series, as they feel that the portrayal of the faceless monster is less like a mythical creature and more like a Freddie Kruger or a Jason Vorhees. These purists are known as "Surgists" because they want Slenderman to go back to being cryptic and unknowable, like the first posts created by Victor Surge.

"The original Slenderman was much scarier than the modern one," writes one anonymous commenter on a wiki devoted to cataloguing the various permutations of the character. "It was simply short stories made to scare the living crap out of you… Surgism resents the modern mythos because we feel it's watered down. He's more of a scary comic book character now rather than the embodiment of all our fears like he once was."

It's a common refrain among early adopters, but it's inescapably true that an enigmatic mythical figure like the one that Knudsen originally envisioned is very different from a boss character in a video game. Case in point: The game Haunt gives the faceless character an elaborate origin story straight out of comics, in which he was supposedly journalist Mark Slender until he was exposed to strange chemicals created by by Nazi scientists. You can see why Surgists would think that this undercuts the mystery that they find so appealing.

As more and more players discover Slenderman through the game, and add their own contributions to the mix, the vision of the character found in Slender: The Eight Pages is likely to become even more firmly rooted in the lore. But the pushback genuinely bothers Hadley. "I feel like I'm directly responsible for the rift, since my game going viral is what exposed people in a mainstream fashion to Slenderman," he says. "I feel sorry about that. It was never my intention for it to happen; it was just an attempt to give something back to the Slenderman community."

Aside from simply popularizing the mythos, and inspiring some permutations that stray from the original concept, all games have a tendency to deconstruct tropes. As you replay Slender: The Eight Pages, you learn tricks, like never turning around to look behind you, or backing away from the Slenderman if you see him. Thus he becomes a little more predictable and a little less scary.

Many games also feature alternate modes that can undermine the terror. Winning Hadley's game allows players to access a daytime mode, which is no less difficult but far less atmospheric. Beating that unlocks a goofy mode in which the hip hop track "Gimme 20 Dollars" by Ron Brownz plays whenever you see the Slenderman. But the final sleight to the die-hard fans – and where they may have a point – is certainly Slender's Woods – beating it unlocks a mode in which the faceless creature sports bunny ears.