Open Source Horror: The Slender Man

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In his terrific monograph, H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life, French novelist Michel Houellebecq proposes that Lovecraft differs from virtually all fiction writers before and after him because his work constitutes a founding mythology. Houellebecq is referring to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, which he created and developed, and then—in a move practically unthinkable in today’s environment in which every shred of intellectual property is staked out as a potential gold claim—invited his friends, colleagues, and literary descendants to adopt, appropriate, and integrate into their fiction.

August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, Brian Lumley, and many others used elements of the Cthulhu mythos in their fiction without needing Lovecraft’s permission (which was good for Lumley and his contemporaries, since Lovecraft was dead by the time they were writing) or to work from some kind of authoritative story bible that enforced coherence across the stories. Rather than developing unofficial sequels, writing as the original writer (in the cases of Nancy Drew, Doc Savage, and other serial-novel superstars), or engaging metafictionally, these writers continued Lovecraft’s work.

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The Slender Man stalks his prey. Can you see him?

Until very recently, there were few, if any, other precedents for creating a body of literary work and then throwing it open to the world for anyone to use—at least in the world of fiction. (There’s fan fiction, of course, but that never officially continues the original and is contravenes the writer’s express wishes, as in George R.R. Martin’s case with Game of Thrones fanfic.) The arena where this practice has been most common—and extremely valuable—is software. The arrangement that Houellebecq describes Lovecraft and his literary descendants using is essentially the open source software model that has led to the creation of much of the key software that powers the Internet (and many desktop and mobile apps to boot).

Lovecraft was the only major instance of open-source literature (that I’m aware of, at least) until the creation of the Slender Man.

The Slender Man was created by Victor Surge, the screen name of Eric Knudsen, on SomethingAwful.com in 2006 as part of a thread that hosted user-created paranormal images. Along with posting images he created, Surge also added snippets of text that purported to document the Slender Man’s historical activities.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Slender Man is a thin man, unusually tall (anywhere from 6-15 feet), with extremely long limbs, dressed in a black suit and white shirt, who has no facial features (some versions of the Slender Man have tentacles in place of arms, but they aren’t canonical). A creepy enough presentation, sure, but the Slender Man gets really scary when you add in that he stalks children (and sometimes adults), often throughout their lives. His presence can induce hallucinations and distortions of time and perception. The people he stalks frequently end up in the forest, dead. The Slender Man—especially in Surge’s truly creepy initial images—can often be found lurking in the background of photos, fading into the scenery while he passively observes children.

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Spot the Slender Man

Without question, it’s a creepy character that not only offers a great visual presentation but also a rich set of possibilities for stories. Those possibilities have been explored in multifarious ways because Victor Surge explicitly encouraged others to use the Slender Man, to adapt him to other uses and media. From the outset, he open sourced Slender Man.

As a result, you’ll find the Slender Man spread across the Internet and mainstream media. There are sites full of stories about the character (many of which are done in the style of faux-historical accounts) and he appears as the star of over 100 iPhone apps (link opens iTunes). A variation of the Slender Man is at the heart of Pascal Laugier’s first post-Martyrs film, The Tall Man (yes, it stars Jessica Biel, but don’t let that fool you. Her presence may make you think it’s one kind of film; it’s not and it’s worth seeing).

With the exception of Laugier’s film, the Slender Man hasn’t seeped very deeply into mass culture yet, but he’s clearly spread widely, especially online. It’s reasonable to assume that had Surge kept the character to himself, and not made it a tool for anyone to use, that wouldn’t be true. In fact, you might not be reading about the Slender Man right now.

Which would be a shame, since he’s a terrific character with lots of potential. Not that every character can benefit from the open source treatment and I wouldn’t advocate it universally. But it’s exciting to see new creators following in Lovecraft’s example and developing new founding mythologies that other creative people can employ in the service of finding new ways to frighten us.

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