The Evolution of Folklore
Urban Legend: Slender Man
I have been fascinated by myths and legends for as long as I can remember. Whether it is Jason & The Argonauts or Roswell Aliens our stories come to define generations and their values. When looking at ancient Greek mythology such as The Odyssey or Herakles one can discern what Greek society valued and thought about the natural and supernatural worlds. By that same gesture looking at more modern myths such as the Roswell Conspiracy and the mystery surrounding ‘Crop Circles’ one can again see how contemporary society approaches the same issues.
These myths and legends were not authored by individuals the way stories and novels are today, they evolved naturally, instinctively, and collectively through unconscious processes embedded in oral and written traditions. At their core mythology always began as made-up or true stories, revelations or dreams. The process in which mythology is formed goes something like this: Begin with a real or fabricated incident, or an event that was worth remembering, or something so intriguing that one would feel compelled to repeat it over and over. This story would then be passed down through word of mouth and written text, from person to person and from generation to generation until it had been told and retold millions of times and existed in a hundred different versions all over the world.
The exact same can be said about modern day myths, the image might have changed but the process has largely remained unchanged.
I have been following the development of one such emerging ‘urban legend’: Slender Man.
At the moment not a whole lot is known about the mythos of the paranormal creature known as “Slender Man” but he is normally depicted as being exceedingly tall and wearing a jet-black black suit. While this may not initially appear to be even remotely scary there is still more to come. Slender Man’s other attributes include his unusually thin limbs akin to branches. His face is featureless and white as a sheet, although some variations claim that he can morph his face into whatever you fear the most – similar to a Boggart from the Harry Potter books. His serpentine arms can stretch out to extraordinary lengths to seize his victims. Slender Man takes joy in physically and mentally haunting people who are unfortunate enough to see him, once visual contact has been made he will linger in your mind like Freddy Kruger. While he has no clear agenda with regards to who he targets Slender Man has an affinity for younger victims, those more impressionable and vunerable to his antics. Many accounts also depict him possessing a number of bizarrely shaped, jet-black ‘tentacles’ protruding from his upper back that are used to hold him aloft off the ground for quicker and quieter movement – another stealthy stratagem. There are even claims that Slender Man has the ability to imitate the voices of his victims’ loved ones, further preying on their psyche.
Slender Man is a stalker in the purest sense of the word who likes to hide in plain sight and is commonly spotted in wooded areas where he can easily blend amongst the trees and dark corners of the forest. When he finds his next victim he follows them relentlessly, misleading and disorientating his prey to the point of sheer terror and insanity. Stranger still Slender Man has a habit of briefly revealing his physical presence to his targets to further unhinge them: It is still uncertain why he does this.
Who is the Slender Man? Where did he come from? What does he want?
According to the popular American legend he was once a man who was tortured viciously as a result of a family feud involving his children. He was first beaten to death with a log, impaled with a branch or pole and hung from a tree with his arms and legs amputated. Now he roams the world in a supernatural form seeking justice, his blank visage hiding the enduring pain of his ordeal. If one is captured by the Slender Man they are said to awaken finding him standing above them. He will then task the person with a riddle relating to a conundrum or sin they may have previously committed but never owned up to. If you answer truthfully he will spare your life but break both your arms and legs as penance. If you either refuse to answer (through sheer terror or otherwise), or answer untruthfully his long appendages will extract your heavy heart, weighed down by sin, through your throat. In circles on the internet Slender Man is claimed to be the creation of a website called somethingawful.com. While many say that this alone debunks the mysterious legend and closes the case on the creature’s fictitious existence there is more here than meets the eye…
I mentioned in my opening paragraph that myths and legends evolve over time and the case of the Slender Man is a prime example of such a phenomenon. As it transpires the legend of the Slender Man goes back a lot further through history as opposed to merely being something fabricated on the internet. The earliest recorded sighting of the Slender Man was around 16th century Germany, found in a woodcut carving by Hans Freckenberg (Pictured Right), a renaissance artist who mysteriously vanished shortly after completing his two works featuring this bizarre human figure. In these two woodcuts something called Der Grossman, meaning “tall man” is featured. The Germanic legend says that misbehaving children would encounter Der Grossman days before mysteriously disappearing, never to be seen again. On the occasion that the creature was encountered and met with violence he would exact retribution on the town nearest to where his prey was caught. Der Grossman would infiltrate the town and single out certain villagers, possibly those with darker or violent hearts, and impale them on high branches of trees – an echo of his supposed origins. The depiction of Der Grossman is interesting because it bears very little resemblance to any of Freckenberg’s other works; He was known for his accuracy in presenting human anatomy so the two woodcuts of this skeletal figure have baffled historians since they were uncovered around the 19th century.
Stories of people encountering the creature around this period can be found all over Europe, there are a few variations on the mythology here and there but the core elements remain untouched. The following is part of a story from Romanian folktale that tells of twin sisters Sorina and Stela that were led out into the woods one day by their mother.
They could see it (Der Grossman) close by, dressed as a nobleman, it’s arms boneless as snakes and sharp as swords. The mother, under the order of the creature, told her daughter Stela to cut a circle in the ground with a knife and have Sorina lay down in the middle to be cut open. Stela refused and ran home to hide under her bed. When their father returned home, his terrified daughter told him what had transpired and he then went into the forest to track down the twins’ mother. The girl fell asleep to be awakened by a knock on the door. “Open the door, it’s your father,” a voice said.
The girl refused. “Open the door it’s your mother,” the voice continued.
Upon refusing once again, the door flew open to reveal the horrible sight of her mother holding the severed head of her sister Sorina in one hand and the head of her father in the other. “Why?” cried Stela.
“Because,” said her mother, “There is no reward for goodness in this world, nothing but cold steel teeth and scourging fire for all of us. And it’s coming for you now.” At that moment, the fiend emerged from the fireplace and swept up the surviving twin in his burning embrace.
This harrowing tale suggests that Der Grossman “Slender Man” is capable of hypnotism, or is capable of manipulating the fears of his victims in order to bend them to his will. While these traits might be found in stories told in Romania they might not be found in other countries’ interpretations.
Other interpretations of Slender Man can be found in 18th century English, Welsh, and Scottish folklore. Here he is known as Fear Dubh (The Black Man), The Clutchbone, and The Faceless One. The Welsh accounts of “The Faceless One” even spawned a macabre lullaby,
‘Hush, thy childe, do not stray far from the path,
or The Faceless One shall steal you away to Fairieland.
He preys on sinful and defiant souls,
and lurks within the woods.
He has hands of ebony branches,
and a touch as soft as silk.
Fear The Faceless One thy childe,
for he shall take you to a dark place.
And what shall become of thou?
Noone knows, so be good, thy little one-
Alas! He is here to take thou away!’
The legend of Slender Man originates from the folklore of the old world, it is a legend that has withstood the test of time and has evolved through modern media. There is nothing even remotely silly about it, the fact that this latest resurgence into popular culture came about as a result of the internet does not harm the legend’s credibility either. Like I mentioned earlier, in ancient Greece mythology began as stories shared in communities and folklore began as stories told around campfires and in town halls. The modern day equivalent of this is the internet, the next evolutionary step in the way we share stories with each other. If you ask me what makes this creature so terrifying is that after all this time, people are still questioning his existence. Websites have been flooded with people claiming to have had encounters and/or sightings of the Slender Man, especially those that live near forested areas. To make this creature even stranger it seems that the more one talks about or researches the Slender Man, the more likely they are to encounter him; bringing life to a legend, bringing life to their fears.
What makes him so terrifying to others? Why has he been remembered for centuries? Is it because of his ability to prey on and derive joy from mankind’s palette of common fears: Isolation, Darkness, Despair, Truth, and Pain? Is it because he chooses to wear a suit normally associated with authority figures? Or is it because he is what we have all collectively made him: Immortal and everlasting?
To end on what I feel is a fitting analogy: Myths and legends enduring and evolving is happening more frequently than most people notice. Point & Case: 1476’s Vlad the Impaler to 1897’s Bam Stoker’s Dracula to 2005’s Twilight.
Most of popular culture’s comic book heroes are derived from the myths and legends of old. Point & Case: The Nordic god Thor becoming Marvel Comic’s “Thor”.
Maybe I am taking the mythology on offer here a little too seriously, but I find the circumstances and means of Slender Man’s resurgence absolutely fascinating!
Anyways, watch your back out there everyone… There might be something out there…