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Ghost in the Machine: The Enduring Horror of Slender Man

The recent feature-film imagining of the online phenomenon flopped at the box office, but there’s something about the scary viral campfire story that speaks to the way online mythology is impacting the real world  

Slender Man in the shadows of a forest Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The (hash)tagline for Slender Man is #CanYouSeeHim?. The answer so far is: “Sure, but maybe let’s see something else instead.” Sylvain White’s film did not defy industry projections this weekend, taking in a modest—if not exactly terrible—$11.4 million. That’s far less than Annabelle: Creation made last summer in the same mid-August slot and probably not enough to justify a sequel.

Not that Sony’s Screen Gems would want to back one. The rumor circulating over the weekend was that the studio got spooked by the possibility of audience backlash and undermined the production both on set and in the edit room. That backstory certainly accounts for why Slender Man feels so bland, and why some of the gorier moments from the trailer aren’t in the finished product. The film bears the scars of a movie pulled apart in the editing room; not since Mr. Police struggled to find the clues strewn through the Scandinavian wasteland of The Snowman has a mainstream thriller felt this hastily assembled and incoherent.

The question of whether Slender Man represents a missed opportunity or a movie that shouldn’t have been made in the first place remains open, but there’s no denying the character’s market appeal. Already, there are amateur-produced YouTube series, iOS video games, and Kickstarter-funded indies floating around online. And there’s nothing stopping a different set of Hollywood filmmakers from taking up the saga of a character who seems to transcend intellectual property rights. Slender Man’s credits cite “Victor Surge,” a.k.a. Something Awful forums user Eric Knudsen, as its namesake’s creator, owing to a 2009 post in an online Photoshop competition that stands as Slender’s first recorded online appearance. Good luck getting that to hold up in court, though. Slender Man is not a licensed bogeyman like Freddy or Jason, but a literally faceless meme—a figment of our collective digital imagination as ephemeral as the internet itself.

The causes and consequences of a crowd-sourced phantom were already ably tackled in the 2016 HBO doc Beware the Slenderman, which examined the so-called “Slender Man stabbings” in exacting detail. In 2014, after a sleepover date with two classmates, Waukesha County preteen Payton Leutner was abducted by her friends and dragged into the woods, where she was assaulted and left for dead. The other two girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, didn’t deny their culpability after being arrested, but claimed that they were acting under the influence of a supernatural being. (Leutner survived her injuries and returned to school that fall; Geyser and Weier, who were initially deemed competent to stand trial as adults, were both remanded to a psychiatric care facility.)

In covering the attack and its aftermath, director Irene Taylor Brodsky leverages morbid curiosity (hers and ours) against an ethically minded respect, but leans a little too heavily on true-crime documentary clichés, including an intrusive synth score that borders on parody. Where Beware the Slenderman shines—and demonstrates some real power—is as a semi-essay film, deftly threading an overview of the Slender Man phenomenon and its associated imagery through a wider-angled meditation on the online migration of urban legends and the function of folklore in an era of fake news. “I wanted to prove all the skeptics wrong,” Weier explains to a police officer during an interrogation captured in blurry, obliquely angled police surveillance footage that looks like something conjured up on Reddit’s infamous creepypasta buffet site R/nosleep. Her tone is one of defiance; it suggests that the popularity of “viral” media has metastasized into an actual and widespread psychological condition.

From John Hinckley imagining himself to be Travis Bickle, to the supposedly Joker-inspired 2012 Aurora theater shooting, pop culture has long been implicated in tangible acts of violence. Slender Man, a cipher whose myriad authors have envisioned him as an antihero as well as a villain, represents something different and more insidious: not a fictional character to be emulated, but an imminent presence waiting to be conjured into being by a desperately credulous fan base. He’s also his own free-standing metaphor, enfolding his victims in tendrils that resemble nothing so much as the endless fiber-optic cables binding the internet together, bearing lonely children away from their sadness like the narrator of W.B. Yeats’s “The Stolen Child”: “with a fairy, hand in hand.

If Slender Man had accessed the poetic potential of its material, it might have been as vital a ghost-in-the-machine fable as both the Japanese and American versions of The Ring, two horror movies that spiked their jump scares with subtext about ancient evil adopting a state-of-the-art format. As it is, the film just derivatively channels J-horror-style technophobia in the form of a haunted QuickTime movie viewed by its four female protagonists during a weekend hangout. The closest that David Birke’s screenplay comes to the double-edged wit of his script for Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is when Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles) tells her mother that her plans for the evening are to “drink vodka and meet guys on the internet,” which, in a fashion, they do, invoking the bespoke ghost for no reason other than that a group of boys across town are holding their own makeshift seance. The only one who seems into it is Katie (Annalise Basso), whose unhappy home life makes her a prime target for a monster that seems drawn toward fragility.

I say “seems” because Slender Man doesn’t have any idea what its title character wants. Once Katie disappears (unfortunately taking Basso’s focused, eerie performance with her), the vagueness of the villain’s ensuing plan and his methodology—stalking the girls through the woods, imparting hypnotic hallucinations, infiltrating their laptops and cellphones—plays less as a reflection of Slender Man’s virtual-world omnipresence than as the attempts of some frustrated filmmakers to stretch an elevator pitch to feature length. The late-night weekend audience I saw the film with laughed at the most ostensibly horrifying moments (including a Jacob’s Ladder homage), not as a release of tension but to break the monotony of desperate young actresses skulking around in underlit forest settings.

The only time we all snapped to attention was when White’s camera revealed that the gothiest of the girls—Conjuring alum Joey King’s Wren—has a MAGA poster on the staircase leading to her bedroom. If that image (#CanYouSeeIt?) is meant to connect Slender Man to a different form of online horror, fair enough, but compared with the cogent sociological commentary of the year’s superior dark web cautionary tale, it’s a throwaway—the perfect emblem for a disappointingly disposable movie.