The Urban Legend as it Was
We’ve all heard the story of the alleged “alligator as pets” fad in the 1960s. The story goes that once the pets became too big and therefore not cute, people flushed them down the toilet where they grew to full size (if not larger, as some versions of the story maintain) and stalk hapless city employees or anyone else foolish enough to wander into the sewers. Every cartoon sewer features alligators because of this story and it has become an interesting side note in American culture. But the simple fact is that the story is nothing more than an urban legend, no different from the idea that your eyes will cross if you get to close to the television, and has been thoroughly discredited. Today it really holds no greater power in our culture that an antiquated cliche. However, many urban legends are able to retain some influence on society, usually because they inspire a fear of something typical such as fast food (Cohain). The new urban legends don’t draw themselves from the everyday, but they are just as enduring.
The New Urban Legend
The first time that I ever heard about the Slender Man, I honestly believed that he was a real phenomenon. A simple Youtube search for “The Slender Man” comes up with grainy footage of incidents in which he was captured on film or in still photographs, one of which can be seen above on a lonely street (just to the left of the fountain) as well as from the other end of a lake on this page’s banner. There is a great deal of pseudo-“evidence” for the existence of the Slender Man, and it is easy for a newcomer to the legend to actually believe in it. The story goes that the Slender Man is a large figure, nobody knows exactly how large because he an allegedly change his height and shape at will. He appears to be wearing an all-black three piece suit and in photographs his face appears to be blank, although alleged witnesses of him describe his face as “a living nightmare.” When Slender Man first appears he is often seen at a great distance, but once he is witnessed then you become his victim. It can take a long time but he will keep appearing, drawing closer and closer. There is no escape. When the Slender Man finally attacks it is believed that he stretches his arms to ensnare his victims (some variations of the story believe that the Slender Man’s human form is just a form of deception for a kind of spiderlike creature), but it is unclear exactly what he does with them, as there is never a single piece of evidence left behind (some versions speculate more gruesome endings to the story, the most outlandish of which involving a massive log and a whispered question). In the end though, the Slender Man legend is no different in principle than that of the wild sewer alligators. Each is an urban legend and an invention of the modern mind.
The difference is that the Slender Man was born on the internet. Many sites dedicated to the story trace it back to a “create a paranormal character” contest on the technology/media discussion website “somethingawful.com” in 2009. However, looking around Youtube cites Slender Man as the cause of a factory fire in the 1980s, responsible for the disappearance of several police officers investigating missing children, present in German folklore dating as far back as the 16th century. The difference between the antiquated urban legends described earlier and the new urban legends of the 21st century is twofold: purpose and presentation. Traditionally we can assume that urban legends come from our parents and are typically designed to teach some lesson in a blunt way. It is a story that comes from elders, and we only trust it as much as we trust them. But the internet is the last frontier; we feel as if Youtube and sites like it have the potential to cut through the biases of the media and to discover the stranger side of the world. So when asking exactly what I wanted to research about I wondered exactly the influence that the new kind of urban legend has had on society? The Slender Man serves no purpose other than to terrify. There is no pattern to his attacks and no means of escape from him. There is no lesson to be learned from the Slender Man, and that is why I focused my research on the Slender Man myth, because in truth the Slender Man is just a microcosm for a new style of urban legend. He is interchangeable with the phenomenon of the Otherkin (mythical beings resurrected and living within the internet), the Midnight Man (a creature that can be summoned with a ceremony at exactly midnight who will torture you for three hours and thirty three minutes), the suicide image (drawing made by a Japanese girl which is said to instill people who stare at it with suicidal thoughts), or dozens of others. Each was born on the internet and carries at least the illusion of being fact to a certain degree. But how widely are the legends believed? How has the influence of these isolated stories spread into our culture? What is the role of the internet regarding future urban legends and should we ever consider whether these kinds of stories have gone too far?
http://www.scp-wiki.net/scp-173 (The SCP-173 Entry)
http://www.youtube.com/user/marblehornets?feature=results_main (Marble Hornets channel page)
http://www.reddit.com/r/Slender_Man/ (Reddit’s Slender Man page, my primary archival data source)