While there certainly is an element of collective subversive collaboration in the creation of Slender Man on the Something Awful forum and other venues for creepy pasta, there is a shared aesthetic and, at times, a shared experience that taps into something deeper than mere play. Just as Slender Man himself is complicated, so is belief in Slender Man. As Jeffrey A. Tolbert (2013) has argued, Slender Man may be a type of reverse ostension where we have to create both the experience and the narratives. I would also argue that, at times, Slender Man is the name given to a shared experience which bridges both the experience centered hypothesis used by David Hufford (1989) with the cultural source hypothesis. Clearly there are incidents where the story comes first and the experience comes after, but we also see moments where a previous experience is attributed to Slender Man, a sort of reverse quasi-ostension. I would argue that either way, the experience still feels real.
It seems that Slender Man narratives suffer from a double stigma as they are both supernatural and found on the Internet. This stigma is based on the traditions of disbelief. As Hufford rejected the a priori notion that nothing supernatural must be happening because supernatural things do not happen, and Diane Goldstein (2007) rejected the a priori notion that “folk belief expressed in popular or commodified culture is any less serious, any less important, any less rational, or any less a belief than what is expressed more traditionally” (2007:16), I reject the a priori notion that just because something is found on the Internet, created in response to a challenge, or has an individual author it does not mean that it is not a real experience being expressed in a way that is socially and culturally safer than telling a personal experience narrative.
Perhaps Slender Man contains a core experience which many have felt, but which does not currently have a name. Slender Man narratives online tap into that core experience, giving those who have had a similar experience a way to discuss these events. Similar to David Hufford’s (1989) research with the Old Hag and sleep paralysis, there is an experience of some kind which “has provided the central empirical foundation from which the supernatural tradition arose” (Goldstein, Grider, and Thomas 2007:14). Slender Man becomes a “flexible rhetorical tool” (Tolbert 2013:2) or, more simply, the experience of feeling watched now has a name and that name is Slender Man.
In this context, I would argue that Slender Man is an unacknowledged common experience that has turned into a “typical experience” on the Internet. This now typical experience is without “an experience,” so there is not a single definitive experience, rather a series of typical experiences. The idea of Slender Man fills in that gap of having “an experience,” providing an object to describe this subjective typical experience, heretofore an unacknowledged common experience.
These unacknowledged common experiences are crucial to both experience and the maintenance of belief. “An experience” is not always the most important part of experience, nor is it more valuable than unacknowledged common experience or typical experience. An experience is perceived to be more unusual or interesting, but it is not always what solidifies belief. The unacknowledged common experience of reading a Slender Man story, playing a game where Slender Man is a character, or otherwise engaging with the narrative is the convincing part of the interaction. Individuals are not having “an experience” with Slender Man, rather, this character is a part of a larger experience with the supernatural. Like legends, which are not literally true but rather “typify life in modern society” (Smith 1999), Slender Man also is a part of the experience of life in the modern world.
In conclusion, Slender Man is not a simple entity that can be looked at as belonging to a single folk group. He is, possibly, an acknowledgement of the unacknowledged common experience of being watched. The reason why he “feels real” to so many people is because he helps to give a voice to a real experience that is difficult to understand otherwise.
Andrea Kitta is a folklorist with a specialty in medicine, belief, and the supernatural. She is also interested in Internet folklore, narrative, and contemporary (urban) legend. Her current research includes: vaccines, pandemic illness, contagion and contamination, stigmatized diseases, disability, health information on the Internet and Slender Man. She is co-editor for the journal Contemporary Legend, a scholarly journal published annually by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research.