The Slender Man myth, and its tragic reality, was too big for a movie

Sony Pictures

The new horror movie Slender Man ends with a vague, voiceover reminder: “we” spread the “virus” that is the antagonist. By sharing Slender Man’s mythos — through websites and drawings and late night trips to the woods — people manifest the monster into reality and allow it to claim victims.

In context, the voiceover feels like an apology from the filmmakers to the audience: we’re sorry you had to see that, don’t tell anyone.

[Warning: this post contains major spoilers for Slender Man]

The Slender Man movie spent years in development before director Sylvain White (The Losers) finally turned around the version that hit theaters this month. The movie’s problems are new to internet IP: Slender Man isn’t just one thing you can buy and adapt. Sony Pictures tried anyway.

The entity known as Slender Man first appeared on the internet in June 2009 on a website called Something Awful. Eric Knudson, posting under the name Victor Surge, took 15 minutes out of his day to photoshop some images of a tall man in a suit with multiple limbs and a blank white head with no face for a “Create Paranormal Images” forum subthread. Both photographs included children and spooky captions devised by Surge to give some creepy authenticity to these fabricated images.

The image burned into internet users’ brains. Other forum users started contributing to the Slender Man myth, using the idea that the creature hunted or entranced children. Seeing his character catch on, Knudson produced more Slender Man images, this time with the creature in the woods being suspended in the air on multiple black tendrils acting like spider legs.

Mere months after first being posted to the Something Awful forums, Slender Man popped up in other web creators’ work, from serialized YouTube series that played like new versions of The Blair Witch Project, to independent video games, and “Creepypasta,” a type of internet-propagated scary story told in running threads, like campfire tales of a bygone era.

Sony Pictures

The idea of Slender Man snowballed as amateur authors added traits into the core idea of a blank-faced man in the woods hunting children. The video game Slender: The Eight Pages popularized the belief that Slender Man causes electronic distortion when he appears; a web series called TribeTwelve introduced the idea of a “Slender Proxy” or a human, usually a teenager, who would be hypnotized to work for Slender Man.

The movie currently in theaters is based solely on the creations of Victor Surge, and his credit appears in the film (as Surge, not Knudson), as well as several of his original Photoshopped images that kicked off the Slender Man myth around the internet. That means that no one calls out “Slender Proxies” and there isn’t white-noise digital distortion when Slender Man appears, since those were additions to the character made after its creation.

Where Sony’s Slender Man runs into issues is when it deflects from the other part of the Slender Man mythos: a real life attempted murder.

In 2014, after Slender Man had spread across many different types of fan-made media, tragedy struck when two 12-year-old girls stabbed their friend 19 times with a kitchen knife and left her for dead in an attempt to become Slender Proxies. Their victim survived, and both girls were put on trial and institutionalized in the years since. The fun and games of scaring people on the internet suddenly became very real.

The Slender Man movie avoids direct reference, though the ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy lingers thanks to the screenplay’s use mental illness as a way of connecting some dots. It’s hard to imagine credited writer David Birke not lifting from reality in some way; the movie was announced in May 2016, well after the stabbings had made Slender Man and “Creepypasta” terms for the six o’clock news. The film was shot, and in the first week of January this year, Sony released the first trailer in anticipation of a May 2018 release (which was followed by the announcement of a delay).

At the time, the father of one of the institutionalized girls claimed that the movie exploiting his daughter’s tragedy. “It’s absurd they want to make a movie like this,” Bill Weier told the Associated Press in January. “It’s popularizing a tragedy is what it’s doing. I’m not surprised but in my opinion it’s extremely distasteful. All we’re doing is extending the pain all three of these families have gone through.” While Sony implicitly agreed that there was something a little off about Slender Man, reportedly hoping to unload the movie to another distributor over the summer, details off the distribution strategy stated that the film did not reference the real life stabbing in any way.

This may have changed over the months. In the first trailer, we see scenes of a a girl being found with by the police, stumbling out of the woods, with blood on her mouth. We don’t see this scene in the movie.

Sony Pictures

Still, the reporting stands: the movie avoids allusions to real-life events — mostly because it avoids allusions to almost all Slender mythology. Slender Man has little more to go on than a few black and white photos, the idea that the monster wants children, and that it lives or is sometimes seen in the forest. The rest of the movie’s plot is cribbed from the Americanized versions of The Ring. Those films were meant to be a final horror franchise for the VHS era (RIP physical media) and Slender Man aims to be the long-haired wet girl in the well for the digital age.

One night, four high school friends (Wren, Hallie, Chloe and Katie) search the internet for a video that supposedly summons Slender Man. The girls watch it, they get creeped out, then a week later, Katie disappears into the woods while the class is on a field trip at a cemetary. The other three girls are convinced by Wren that, in order to get Katie back, they have to make an offering to Slender Man in the woods. When the plan backfires, the three girls find themselves tormented by visions of Slender Man.

Eventually, Hallie’s sister gets roped into the Slender Man curse and Hallie is forced to face her fears of solving their Slender Man problem. Following a digital trail, she meets an anonymous Slender Man forum user has been contacting Wren and telling her about Slender Man. The mysterious user is so spooked by Hallie’s contact that she deletes her account, only for the audience to discover the woman’s truth in a shot of a newspaper article on screen: she was sent to a mental institution (where she apparently has computer access). After working through the murky truth, Hallie is able to save her sister when she realizes that Slender Man is only interested in the original four summoners. She surrenders herself so her sister can live.

The Ring didn’t intrigue audiences because a drowned girl who crawl out of a television set. The thrills came from Naomi Watts racing against the clock of the death video to unravel the mystery behind it. Slender Man has no such mystery. Traces of the monster’s backstory are flashed across fake Google searches. At the library, Wren finds some explanation about Slender Man being an encounter with a supernatural energy source. Nothing really matters; there is no way to beat Slender Man, the monster with no backstory and no ability to communicate. He just wants your face.

Chloe, played by actress Jaz Sinclair, doesn’t even die in the final cut. It looks like she might have gone mad by the end of the film, but the last we see of her she’s wordlessly staring out into the darkness. In the first trailer, we see Chloe stab herself in the eye with a scalpel in school science class, and it’s actually shocking to see a spray of blood. That scene has been cut from the movie.

Sony Pictures

A significant chunk of Slender Man appears to have been cut out between January’s trailer and the movie’s August release. The character played by actress Kallie Tabor in the trailer has been greatly reduced, and now doesn’t appear on screen at all, reduced to the person behind the mysterious chat, the one that gets Katie thinking about going away with Slender Man, the one that encourages Wren to sacrifice things they loved to Slender Man alone while in the woods. That should provide the movie’s antagonist with historical backstory that connects the experience of the four girls to a greater mythology, but instead it’s relegated to a reveal via newspaper headline, even though it appears the character’s backstory was shot.

Sony Pictures

On December 21st, 2017, a week and a half before the first trailer, when re-editing it was likely out of the question, Anissa Weier, the first of the two Slender Man stabbing girls to go on trial, was sentenced to 25 years in a mental institution. In February 2018, a month after the first trailer was released, the second girl, Morgan Geyser, was sentenced to 40 years in a mental institution. The trial processes for both the girls throughout late 2017 and early 2018 painted a portrait of two mentally disturbed children, not mysterious actions of an internet monster.

Sometime between the writing of the Slender Man film, when these two girls were seen as disciples of an internet boogeyman or victims of internet culture gone too far, and the sentencing of two sick young women, the idea of an institutionalized character influencing four fictional girls to submit themselves to the supernatural danger of a mythological creature suddenly seemed ... like a bad idea.

Slender Man’s PG-13 rating means the body count, in what was a prime opportunity for goofy slasher antics, is low. Because the supernatural slasher of the title cannot communicate needs nor malice, the whole process of slogging through the plot feels tedious, not tense. The movie doesn’t work for a handful of reasons, but is hobbled by being unable to use the most recognizable parts of the Slender Man mythology. Good taste might have dictated some major changes, but what’s left is a film about nothing. The final beat, hoping to inject some consequence into the horror, warns of spreading urban legends — a lesson only a movie adapted from a myth-less Photoshop artifacts would think to tell. Slender Man is more than that.

Dave Gonzales is an entertainment writer and podcaster. Find him on Twitter @Da7e.

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