“Do one thing everyday that scares you.”
Most people merely talk in such terms. They like to include this saying in their Facebook profile. They read self-motivational books and go rock climbing on weekends. There are very few who actually make a practice of regularly confronting their fears. The rare people who not only claim but actually live out this motto have the opportunity to live a life of tremendous impact. Such people are more likely to be standing up to corruption and injustice. They are the entrepreneurs. The freedom fighters. The idea-makers. They are demon hunters to me.
And me? Well it was that time of the year. It was time to man up and face some demons of my own.
So my cousin and I walk into his room and start up Slender: The Eight Pages on his computer.
The wind is howling outside as the rain is weeping over our house, as is norm in this particularly gloomy season of the year in the Northwest. I don’t really like the feeling of being scared, so I’m still not sure why I suggested we do this.
“Should we turn the lights off for this?” he asks as he cranks up the volume on his computer speakers.
I don’t respond, hoping to ignore the question altogether.
Slender is a horror game but there are so many horror games these days that the term is almost meaningless. But whether this game was going to be made up of gruesome cheap scare tactics or mind-bending psychological thrills, it didn’t really matter to me — I don’t enjoy either type. I’d heard that Slender was one of the scariest games ever made, but I didn’t quite know what it was about. Fear of the unknown was almost enough to make me want to avoid it.
Our nameless character looks up into the darkness, flashlight in hand. The setting seems appropriate — a nightmare perfectly crafted for the sole purpose of making grown men scream. There is no narrative exposition. No cut scenes. No objectives other than to find 8 pieces of paper. It’s a walk through a dark forest with nothing but your own fear acting as your rudder.
As we instinctively edge way around the outside of the map, it seems to not be more than just a dark forest and a fence that seems to be enclosing an unspecified amount of land. The small reticle of light that shines out in front of us barely reveals enough of the path for us to know what’s going on. There is no music, just the sound of our characters’ quiet footsteps hitting the forest floor and echoing through the room.
We try running, but realize that the character points his or her flashlight down, leaving us even more vulnerable to the darkness. The fear of the darkness — the unknown — is what keeps us on the edge of our seats. It’s the fear that around one of these trees, somewhere behind the curtain of blackness ahead, stands a creeping sickly demon known as Slender Man.
But Slender Man isn’t your ordinary boogie-man.
Most mythical villains have a long history that is shrouded in the darkness of oral history and folk tales. Their connection to the past establishes a certain connection to reality. Whether it’s Jekel and Hyde or Frankenstein or Count Dracula, these beings have haunted the collective subconscious of humanity with a consistency. They continue to live on in that part of our brains that can never be fully rational.
But Slender Man wasn’t found in some old painting or a folk tale that’s been passed down from generation to generation. He was created. He was thought up — in an online forum of all places.
But soon enough, he was popping up all over the web — from old Photoshopped pictures to detailed web comics and, most importantly, a very involved augmented reality game that included series of YouTube videos, Twitter accounts, and blogs. They all belong to the same Slender Man mythos–an online urban legend. The people playing the game live in a reality where Slender Man continuously stalks people and drives them to psychological breakdown. The first-person horror adventure game my cousin and I found ourselves playing was just the tip of the iceberg.
“Nothing is really happening,” says my cousin, disappointed that we haven’t been ambushed yet. I don’t share his disappointment.
“It’s pretty obvious that we need to head into the center of the map a bit,” I suggest, hoping to get the game over with a bit quicker.
We eventually come to what seems to be the wall of a building. It’s the first non-forest location we’ve come across. As we approach with curiosity, a violently-written note appears to be attached to the wall. It reads:
“Always watches. No eyes.”
“Oh boy,” my cousin mutters.
“This is such a setup,” I say, trying to stay calm.
We continue our walk through the forest, not having received any kind of direction from the note. We eventually come across another landmark — a tunnel of some kind. We cautiously move forward, but stopping dead in our tracks when the tension in the ambient sound rises, bursting through the speakers.
In reaction to the horrific screech, we turn around to see Slender Man himself behind us. He stands in between the trees quite a ways away down the path in complete stillness. How long had he been there? Was he going to kill us?
The rules that govern the game itself are as mystical and blurry as Slender Man’s mythological origins. Some say that using your flashlight or running attracts Slender Man to you. Some say that as the more notes you collect, the faster Slender Man finds you.
Because as I said, Slender is not just a videogame. The community surrounding Slenderblogs and the entire mythos is one of the most peculiar I’ve ever encountered online. They come together to celebrate fear, following the tormented lives of those who are being stalked by the demon. Fear is a drug. It’s an addiction for them — the thing that brings them constant depression and paranoia, but also seems to give meaning to their existence. They wake up and face the thing that scares them each and every day.
Some say that Slender Man can stretch his limbs and devours unsuspecting victims with his claws. Some say he is a psychological terror that just lurks in the background, waiting for the moment when you mentally succumb to his brooding presence. Some say he only attacks people near the forest — some say he can travel anywhere in the darkness. He stands over eight feet tall, dressed in business formal attire. On one forum his backstory included being a fallen angel, having now taken the form of a faceless and disfigured depiction of a modern business man.
But the strangest and perhaps most frightening discovery of all my research is that Slender Man isn’t in the least bit real. He is 100%, verifiable fiction. In fact, most participants of the the Slender Man ARG acknowledge this. In the rare moments of out-of-game discussion, the issue of when and how Slender Man would ever be defeated in-game has been highly debated in the Slenderverse. Some forum threads lay out very specific rules about how this is to be done, reminding the players that Slender Man is ultimately the hero of the story. One commenter in particular had a response that still gives me chills:
You can’t kill Slender Man. *whispers* He’s in your mind.
Yet the players of the ARG continue on, welcoming the demon into their psyche, allowing him to pounce on their every thought. The exact details of Slender Man’s behavior are intentionally left ambiguous — that is left up to the interpretation of each individual player. He can come to represent whatever scares the player most — perhaps the only creature that rational players should legitimately be afraid of. After all, the point isn’t to overcome this demon — it’s to wake up everyday and face him. It’s to feel the fear.
The faceless abomination stares us down as the sound effects cause the hair on the back of my neck to rise. Not knowing what to do, we freeze. Slender Man transports right in front of us as the screen distorts and fades to black. He got us. But finally — we’ve reached the end. The game is over and I couldn’t be more relieved. Although we hadn’t survived more than just a few minutes, I feel a small sense of achievement.
I did it. I faced Slender Man.
I head to bed, leaving Slender Man and all my fear in that virtual nightmare — hoping that my own dreams that night would be a little more pleasant.
“I did something that scares me today,” I think to myself as I curl up under my sheets. I sigh and roll into my covers, the wind still blowing hard against our shudders outside. “I wonder what I will do tomorrow.”