Slender Man Is Exactly the Wrong Kind of Bad

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<i>Slender Man</i> Is Exactly the Wrong Kind of Bad

Note: This article contains spoilers for Slender Man, but you aren’t missing much.


My name is Ken, and I’m addicted to creepypasta. Completely without any pretense of irony. There, I said it.

“Creepypasta” is, I guess, a portmanteau of creepy and “copypasta,” arising from a trend on online forums that encouraged people to post their made-up spooky stories in a kind of first-person forum post format. This kind of thing always excites me because I love when people find a new medium in which to tell stories. It lets me see the spark of creativity in a new way, with new format restrictions and conventions that engage different parts of my brain. Having grown up as part of the House of Leaves generation, old enough to remember the clumsy analog world but quick to step into the ephemeral digital world, you figure I’d like this kind of word-of-mouth, viral storytelling phenomenon, right?

That said, creepypasta is almost uniformly terrible. It is largely inelegant, without nuance, and utterly fails to resemble the real world in the slightest—an essential ingredient if you actually want to tell a story that seems like it could maybe happen to you. I don’t even care. It’s the kind of bad that’s earnest and honest, the kind of storytelling that doesn’t in the least hide that it’s mostly written by 13-year-old boys who have problems with girls or 13-year-old girls who have problems with a world that’s already out to get them. A vast subgenre of it is just telling you, the reader, how to play “games” that end in demon summoning or soul stealing or navigating haunted after-hours Disneyland.

Most of it should never, ever be read, which is paradoxically why I think more writers could benefit from doing so. If the amount of it I consumed on a weekly basis were converted from weightless digital bytes into, say, a gel-like form, I’d need a firehose to deliver it to me. I was ready to write about a harrowing psychological examination of how the viral online world can affect the developing brains of the young and inexperienced as they grapple with the ever-present fear that they may be being watched, but I sadly did not get the chance to pen Paste’s review of Eighth Grade.

No, I am actually here to excoriate Slender Man, the latest disappointment from studio Screen Gems. Nobody else saw this dud, and I realize I may be screaming into the void. But as that’s what the average creepypasta writer does, I suppose this is my tribute to them, as well.

The medium is the message.

That video above is the first in a series of roughly 90 or 100 videos, all found footage, all told from the perspective of a Midwestern twentysomething getting drawn into a creepy mystery where our favorite tall, faceless gentleman makes many a cameo. It’s interspersed with combative counter-videos from a sock puppet account that are meant to creep him out. The acting is not professional. The sets are whatever abandoned houses, schools, factories and such the filmmakers could find and whatever hotel rooms they could afford to rent. It is a better Slender Man movie than Slender Man, easily. It may ramble, it may lack a known actor, it may occasionally be amateurish, but t is nonetheless coming from a place of creativity and determination and moxie, and I give it two deformed shadow-tentacles up. I certainly have never put that much effort into anything I’ve done in my life.

So, how would you take that kind of format—a bit by bit, drip by drip story told in snippets, in whispers, in unexpected freak-outs—and turn it into a piece where the audience sits for two hours? I’m not saying you couldn’t. I’m saying Slender Man makes no attempt to try. A good three-quarters of the fun of the Slender Man mythos is in the finding and the revealing of it, in the anticipation before the deeply sincere writer reveals the next chapter, supposedly written right after their last harrowing encounter, the epistolary nature of the whole thing a call back to classics like Dracula.

Slender Man, the movie, by contrast, just dumps us into a straightforward narrative, the only recognizable similarity being the horribly stilted teen dialogue. It is the story of Hallie and her three gal pals, high school girls who are drawn into the Slender Man mythos when some cute boys decide they’re going to try to summon him.

There’s a lot that should be going on here that just really isn’t, and plenty of other things going on that should not be. Slender Man, for the uninitiated, is a made-up boogeyman character who originated on the forums. His creator, Eric Knudsen, (credited as his forum handle “Victor Surge” in the acknowledgments of this movie) essentially claims no hard copyright on the character, which has spread among forums and eventually into fiction like the above Marble Hornets videos or the Slender Man video game.

Slender Man is an impossibly tall, tentacular specter who can appear seemingly anywhere. The hand-me-down nature of his storytelling tradition since 2009 has meant that there are some general attributes people assume about him but that there are no concrete facts about him, in the same way there are really no concrete facts about The Joker outside of whatever your preferred version of him is. This essentially means that he operates under no rules, and thus is a terrible and lazy horror movie villain.

Hallie and her friends follow the instructions of an online video to summon him. The movie presents vague ground rules for him at this point and then haphazardly starts introducing others as the film progresses: He only takes some victims but kills others and no reason is given for why. Having opened their minds to the terror that is Slender Man, the girls begin to become haunted by him, one disappearing and others growing increasingly insane. It is a bog-standard stupid horror movie plot, every bit as eye-rolling as the worst entries of Final Destination or unbearable bullshit like Darkness Falls. If your horror movie villain can be any shadow in any place at any time, can make your mind think anything, can, metaphorically speaking, fire while cloaked, there is no dramatic tension. You know from the get-go that these girls are going to get mulched.

Except, some of them aren’t? Some victims are driven insane and kill themselves, we were led to believe by the trailer…

…except entire swathes of the film implied by this trailer seem to have been completely cut out. The girl who scalpels her own eye, the boy diving Assassin’s Creed-style without a net, the be-shitted young girl wandering dead-eyed out of the woods to be found by police—none of it is in this movie. Could the film have been cut because of the uncomfortable proximity to a terrible real-world event?

Yes, the film was probably cut because of its uncomfortable proximity to a terrible real-world event.
There’s no other way to explain the inconclusive feel of this film, in which characters are introduced or shown to be insane-and-near-to-death yet never show up again, whose fates are literally only given a passing mention in the closing monologue and yet who are integral to the freaking story. That girl who is supposed to scalpel her eyeball in the trailer up there is shown to be going nuts at one point of the film and then just … never shows up again, her sunken-eyed zombie routine limited to what is an obvious re-shoot.

This movie comes out four years after the incident in Wisconsin, covered fairly thoroughly in the documentary Beware the Slender Man, in which two pre-teen girls, apparently under the impression Slender Man had demanded a sacrifice from them, stabbed one of their friends repeatedly. The victim fortunately survived the ordeal. The two girls, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, remain incarcerated, serving terms of 25-to-life and 40-to-life.

Considering the film was first announced in 2016, it’s already clear that the makers had to have known about this national news item and, on some level, were looking to exploit it. It also seems pretty likely, just based on what they evidently filmed and later cut, that they got cold feet and decided that bumping off children onscreen was too much. (The Waukesha, Wisconsin area’s theater chains all declined to carry the film, regardless.)

Here’s my question: You’ve forged ahead, two years after a gruesome real-world incident, with a story that has some parallels to it, so why the cowardice all of a sudden? The result is a movie whose basic plot features zero conclusions. The first friend of Hallie’s to be snatched by Slender Man is never seen again, the second friend (she of the eye-ball stab) is just “sick at home” and, we suppose, dead at the end of the film? Ultimately, Hallie sacrifices herself to save her sister, who is also in Slender Man’s clutches. We’ve been told that somebody can sacrifice something to get Slender’s attention, but at no time is it made clear why sacrificing herself to save her sister might make any kind of difference since, you know, he’s already basically entitled to Hallie’s soul or whatever, she having gone through with the summoning game. So I guess her proposition is that she’s giving him a payday advance?

I’m ranting about something silly, I realize. But the movie’s last little monologue—insisting that the spread of eerie stories like these is how they gain their power and essentially ensnare us all—is borderline offensive. Slender Man and creepypasta are silly, but they were made by a community with a shared spirit and enthusiasm. It feels like corporate filmmaking just decided to roll on in and wreck the place.

Kenneth Lowe lives in a mansion in the middle of the woods and is not interested in your soul. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing on his blog.