"If you want to study the life cycle of a meme from a random internet post to a fully realized, culturally known concept, you can't get much better than Slender Man."
On May 30, 2014, three 12-year-old girls had a slumber party in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. The next morning, one of them nearly bled to death after being stabbed 19 times with a kitchen knife in the middle of the woods.
Bleeding from her arms, legs, and torso, Payton Leutner managed to drag herself to a path, where a cyclist found her and called 911.
“My body was working so hard to keep itself alive,” she later recalled, after miraculously surviving the attack. “It was probably like, ‘Vision isn’t really a priority right now.'”
The perpetrators, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, admitted to police that they had been planning the attack for months.
Their motive: to please the Slender Man.
The Online Origins Of Slender Man
Nearly five years to the day before Leutner’s near-fatal stabbing, Slender Man was born out of a Photoshop contest on an internet forum.
The challenge, posted on the humor site Something Awful, was to take regular photographs and make them scary by adding real-looking ghosts, ghouls, or monsters.
Eric Knudsen, who went by the username Victor Surge, responded to the call.
“It was pretty spontaneous,” he told an interviewer in 2011. “I saw some of the pictures in the thread and just decided to make something that I myself would find creepy.”
Inspired by the “surreal imaginings” of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, William S. Burroughs, and a host of folklore creatures, Knudsen took some old black-and-white pictures of children playing and inserted a tall, thin, grainy figure in the background. In one image, he added tentacles to its back.
One of the photos had a cryptic caption that added to its creepy allure. “‘We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them,'” it read, “‘but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time’…1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.”
The Making Of The Slender Man Legend
While Knudsen gave Slender Man its name and physique, the Slender Man story was the communal, home-grown creation of a slew of internet users.
“If you want to study the life cycle of a meme from a random internet post to a fully realized, culturally known concept,” noted Carli Velocci for The Verge, “you can’t get much better than Slender Man.”
On June 20, 2009, just 10 days after Knudsen’s posts, the YouTube channel Marble Hornets premiered with a Blair Witch Project-style found footage series about a film student being stalked by a Slender Man-like figure dubbed “The Operator.”
Marble Hornets was the product of a few film students’ imaginations. Joseph DeLage, Tim Sutton, and Troy Wagner — all of Alabama — shot the nearly 90-episode series with practically no budget. It ran for five years and still boasts more than 500,000 subscribers.
Other series and homemade video games soon followed, spanning many websites with hundreds of thousands of visitors. He was always a tall, faceless figure with a dark suit and long arms, often with tentacles sprouting out of his back, but fans soon filled in the blanks of the Slender Man mythos with their own ideas as to what he did and why.
“We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time…”
Users posited that he preyed on children, beckoning them into the woods and inviting them to kill in order to be initiated into his “proxy.” His modes and motives were always left ambiguous; it was scarier not knowing any of the specifics.
“The ‘open source’ nature of it — a wide-ranging canon with lots of gaps to fill in around a fairly well-defined spine — helped a lot, I think,” said Cat Vincent, a Slender Man enthusiast.
“Before you had angels and succubi, and then ghosts and spirits, today we have shadow people and inter-dimensional beings,” said Knudsen. “The Slender Man, and other newly created entities, are just the newest addition in the progression of a long, and very real, human tradition.”
The creepypasta — a modern horror legend that spread like a virus through the annals of the internet – reached its peak popularity in 2012. After that, it began to peter off. What had been the collective labor of love by a close-knit family of anonymous internet users soon became a commodity.
In 2013, the first-person horror video game, Slender: The Arrival premiered as the commercial successor of the free-to-play indie game, Slender: The Eight Pages. Slender Man was now for sale, tarnishing the home-grown appeal of its origins.
And then came the 2014 stabbing.
The Slender Man Stabbing
Payton Leutner’s near-death made international headlines, fueling parents’ fears that the dark corners of the internet would turn their children into violent, socially isolated monsters.
What was once a harmless online bogeyman was now — according to the breathless, relentless TV news coverage — cause for serious parental concern.
Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 12 years old, were arrested soon after authorities found Leutner bleeding on the side of the road on May 31, 2014. Police interrogated them that day.
Geyser said Leutner was her “best friend since fourth grade.” In fact, the three girls had just gone rollerskating the night before for Geyser’s birthday.
But as early as December 2013, Geyser began plotting how she and Weier could become Slender Man’s “proxies” and join him in his mansion in the woods — and they saw Leutner as their ticket.
“Morgan said, ‘Hey Anissa we should be proxies,’ I was like, ‘OK, how would we do that?'” Weier told the police.
That’s when Geyser told her about her plan to stab Leutner. If they didn’t, Geyser said, Slender Man would “kill [Weier’s] whole family in three seconds.”
“I was excited because I wanted proof that he existed because there were a bunch of skeptics out there saying he didn’t exist,” Weier said. “Morgan and I were going to be like lionesses chasing down a zebra. I was going to tackle her and then Morgan was going to do the stabbing.”
“Many people do not believe Slender Man is real,” one of them told the authorities. “[We] wanted to prove the skeptics wrong.”
The state of Wisconsin decided to try the two adolescents as adults, but Geyser was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia (like her father had been 10 years prior), and in 2017 a jury found Weier was not criminally responsible for the stabbing for reason of mental illness. Experts argued that she suffered from “shared delusional disorder.”
In other words, Geyser’s schizophrenia made her think Slender Man was real, and Weier’s own disposition made her uniquely susceptible to Geyser’s delusion.
The stabbing story seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for what was once a fun, harmless, internet meme. “Please don’t kill anybody because of Slender Man,” pleaded Something Awful; Marble Hornets released its final two episodes a couple weeks later.
Other Slender Man Victims
The now-infamous Waukesha stabbing isn’t the only time the Slender Man story has claimed victims.
On June 5, 2014, a woman in Hamilton County, Ohio, called the police after coming home from work and being attacked with a knife. The alleged attacker was the woman’s 13-year-old daughter who, according to the mother, greeted her while wearing a hood and a blank, white face mask.
The daughter is said to have a history of mental illness and an obsession with the Slender Man legends she read about online. The mother was treated for wounds to her face, neck, and back.
Later that year, a single mother and her 9-year-old son woke up to a fire in their Port Richey, Florida home. The woman’s 14-year-old daughter had started the blaze by lighting a bleach and rum-soaked sheet on fire.
The girl admitted she had been reading a lot about Slender Man and expressed remorse for setting the blaze. She even texted her mother to ask if everybody was okay.
The Mania Of The Slender Man Story Continues
It would seem that humans, having long ago conquered most of our survival challenges, are simply titillated by terror. Much like Eric Knudsen said, 2009’s Slender Man is much like 1823’s Frankenstein, yet another entry in a long line of spooks that some of humanity’s more creative members have conjured up to scratch that universal fear-itch.
With any luck, the adults who read or hear about the “Slender Man-inspired” attacks will keep their heads and let the teenagers with mental health issues get help, rather than becoming delusional themselves about the next big threat to make the headlines.
After the 2014 attack, Waukesha Police Chief Russell Jack said the stabbing “should be a wake-up call for all parents….The internet is full of dark and wicked things.”
But for every frightened parent, there’s an internet user who just wants to have good, harmless fun with Photoshop. “We just want to enjoy a good horror story,” said one moderator of the Slender Man Wiki. “We just want to be left alone.”
After learning about spooky story of Slender Man, the internet’s favorite bogeyman, read how Mothman terrorized a West Virginia town in the 1960s. Then, learn what really caused the mass hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials.