Happy Hallowmeme: Slender Man

Join us this October as we look into the horrifying meme-beasts that haunt the Internet and trace their roots back to literature and role-playing games. In this final installment we meet the most popular of all the meme-monsters: Slender Man, a shadowy being whose legend has grown to monstrous proportions in a very short period of time.

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Image courtesy of Harem Malik

Slender Who?


Slender Man originated on SomethingAwful (the same pool of dark creativity that created Zalgo). He was willed into existence in 2009 by Victor Surge (real name, Eric Knudsen), who created him as part of a Photoshop contest. The goal: to digitally transform normal pictures into creepier versions and pass them off as authentic. Other participants joined in, creating both media and stories about the Slender Man, and soon he was everywhere. The Slender Man mythos gradually expanded to multimedia, including a feature film that was released in August.

The Slender Man appears as a faceless, skeletal, tall figure in a black suit with arms that can stretch, tentacle-like, to ensnare children. Slender Man can teleport and proximity to him causes "Slender sickness," including rapid onset of paranoia and nightmares. The online video series Marble Hornets established that the Slender Man even has his own symbol, known as the operator symbol (and which happens to be a mathematical symbol as well).

The Slender Man has many pop culture influences, from mysterious Men in Black sightings to the Tall Man from Phantasm. In fact, the Tall Man was used by Knudsen to digitally insert him into the fist picture that spawned the legend. Knudsen explained in an interview:

I was mostly influenced by H.P Lovecraft, Stephan King (specifically his short stories), the surreal imaginings of William S. Burroughs, and couple games of the survival horror genre; Silent Hill and Resident Evil. I feel the most direct influences were Zack Parsons’s “That Insidious Beast”, the Steven King short story “The Mist”, the SA tale regarding “The Rake”, reports of so-called shadow people, Mothman, and the Mad Gasser of Mattoon. I used these to formulate something whose motivations can barely be comprehended and causes general unease and terror in a general population.​

Knudsen's mention of American horror author H.P. Lovecraft is noteworthy in that he doesn't describe what in particular influenced him to create Slender Man, but we can make some guesses.

Slender Dad

There is another character who has a face like a mask, wears clothing that conceals tentacles, and can cause madness in all who view his symbol: Hastur the Unspeakable. Hastur himself grew from that of a simple shepherd deity in Ambrose Bierce's short story, "Haita the Shepherd" to a monstrous being that was both person and place by Robert W. Chambers in his short story collection, The King in Yellow. Lovecraft gave Hastur only brief mention in "The Whisperer in Darkness":

I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connections—Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R'lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’mur-Kathulos, Bran and the Magnum Innominandum—and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way.... There is a whole secret cult of evil men (a man of your mystical erudition will understand me when I link them with Hastur and the Yellow Sign) devoted to the purpose of tracking them down and injuring them on behalf of the monstrous powers from other dimensions.​

It was August Derleth who expounded on what Hastur was and his association with the King in Yellow, though much of the madness that surrounded Hastrur was established by Chambers. Chambers created a mythical play, The King in Yellow; reading it caused insanity. He also created the Yellow Sign as a symbol that was pursued by a mysterious watchman who would ask, "Have you seen the Yellow Sign?" Here's how the watchman is described:

When I first saw the watchman his back was toward me. I looked at him indifferently until he went into the church... A man was standing in the courtyard of the church, and I noticed him again with as little interest as I had that morning. I looked across the square to where the fountain was playing and then, with my mind filled with vague impressions of trees, asphalt drives, and the moving groups of nursemaids and holiday-makers, I started to walk back to my easel. As I turned, my listless glance included the man below in the churchyard. His face was toward me now, and with a perfectly involuntary movement I bent to see it. At the same moment he raised his head and looked at me. Instantly I thought of a coffin-worm. Whatever it was about the man that repelled me I did not know, but the impression of a plump white grave-worm was so intense and nauseating that I must have shown it in my expression, for he turned his puffy face away with a movement which made me think of a disturbed grub in a chestnut.​

The description of a figure associated with trees, an awful face like a "grave-worm" and feelings of dread have parallels in the way Slender Man is portrayed. Like Slender Man, the watchman is relentless and unstoppable, capable of entering any dwelling -- and later shown to actually be an animated corpse. But there are two pieces of Hastur myth still unexplained: Why is Hastur "unspeakable" and what is the Yellow Sign?

Call of Cthulhu and D&D

Dungeons & Dragons answered the first question with the original release of Deities & Demigods. Hastur the Unspeakable, also known as "He Who is Not to be Named" appears if his name is spoken:

Any time the name "Hastur" is spoken, there's a 25% chance that Hastur will hear and send 1-4 Byakhee to slay the speaker. If the Byakhee are defeated, there is a 25% chance that Hastur himself will appear to destroy the blasphemer.​

Finally, gamers had a reason to not say Hastur's name. And what of the popular symbol of Hastur, the Yellow Sign?

We have Kevin A. Ross to thank for that. It first appeared a scenario, "Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?" for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu role-playing game:

As for my version of the Yellow Sign, I think I told you way back when that my original conception of the Sign was that it was a stylized depiction of the thing behind the King itself: that is, of Hastur. The version that I sent to Chaosium for the scenario was actually upside down and maybe backwards (I don't quite recall...) of the version that has become so popular. (Yes, for those of you keeping score at home, that does indeed mean that Chaosium took my design and turned it inside out and upside down, like they do most things.) If you look at what I had INTENDED the Sign to look like, you'd see a sort of coiled body beneath the central eye with tentacles coming out of the center (and one tentacle drips ichor).​

Fans have pointed out that it looks a bit like Blue Oyster Cult's Cronus symbol. Ross admitted it may have been an influence:

...the symbols does indeed strongly resemble BOC's Chronos symbol. Deliberate? I can't remember. Am I a BOC fan? You betcha. Imaginos is the best occult concept album of all time. I've got all of their stuff, and still love 'em dearly.​

Did Hastur inspire Slender Man? More likely, both were concepts that, through the contributions of successive generations, became twisted into the insanity-spreading, unspeakable beings we know today.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
If you want to use the Slender Man in your game, try checking out The Tall One from Rogue Genius Games. I have it, and it's a great translation of him for your Pathfinder campaign! (Be sure to check out Endzeitgeist's five-star-plus-seal-of-approval review on that page!)
 

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