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Who is Slender Man? The Internet meme is cited in a brutal crime

One of two original Slender Man Photoshop-manipulated images.
One of two original Slender Man Photoshop-manipulated images.
Eric Knudsen
One of two original Slender Man Photoshop-manipulated images.
One of two original Slender Man Photoshop-manipulated images.
Eric Knudsen

When two 12-year-old girls allegedly stabbed a friend nearly to death last week in suburban Waukesha, Wisc., the crime seemed baffling — until the girls reportedly told authorities why: They said they were trying to please the Slender Man.

Who is the Slender Man?

Authorities — and the media, which have been tracking this story since it broke — soon found out, peeling back the layers of an Internet meme/urban legend and casting public attention on a story and character previously known only to a cultish following of horror fans.

The crime

On Saturday, May 31, the two girls allegedly attacked their 12-year-old female friend, stabbing her 19 times. One of the girls told a detective they wanted to become Slender Man's proxies, the Associated Press reports, and run away from home to live with Slender Man in his mansion in the Nicolet National Forest. 

The two Wisconsin girls were charged as adults in the stabbing and face 65 years in prison. The victim remains hospitalized.

The girls reportedly say they learned about Slender Man on creepypasta.wikia.com, an Internet horror fiction and urban legend site, where users have written stories about the character and created a deep backstory. (The site's administrator is distancing it from the crime, posting: "We are a literature site, not a crazy satanic cult.")

But the girls reportedly believed that the character was real: One of the girls said that she saw Slender Man in her dreams. (The character is sometimes styled "Slenderman" on the Internet.)

"Many people do not believe Slender Man is real," one of the girls said, according to the criminal complaint, as reported by the Washington Post. "[We] wanted to prove the skeptics wrong."

Slender Man's origins

The character first appeared online in a Something Awful forum thread in 2009, born out of a Photoshop challenge to create a paranormal image. Users responded by posting seemingly mundane photos with creepy captions and a spectral figure inserted into the background: a tall, slender man wearing a dark suit, with no face. The captions alluded to dark deeds performed by the creature.

"It feels real," University of Georgia assistant professor tells the Associated Press. "A 12-year-old potentially isn't going to know the whole origin of the story."

The first photo featured the following caption:

"we didn't want to go, we didn't want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time..."

1983, photographer unknown, presumed dead.

The second:

Slender Man photo

One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as "The Slender Man". Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence.

1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.

The very next post on the forum predicted what might happen:

"You just know a couple of the good ones are going to eventually make it to paranormal websites and be used as genuine."

The poster who originally created the Slender Man, Eric Knudsen (online name Victor Surge), said in an interview with a Slender Man blog that he was influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King and other authors, as well as video games such as "Resident Evil" and "Silent Hill" and other myths and urban legends.

He said it amazed him that his creation caught on and began to spread on the Internet as a meme — as if the Slender Man had always existed — though the the forum thread marked a clear origin date for the character.

Slender Man's influence

The character began appearing elsewhere and acquired characteristics beyond his origins. He was said to dwell in the forest and to have tentacles growing out of his back. His arms could stretch. He caused coughing fits or sickness. Those who encounter him turn up dead or missing. And he is said to target children.

The web series "Marble Hornets," which started shortly after the original Slender Man posting, was a found-footage video featuring a Slender-Man-like figure. It added to the feeling among some Internet users that Slender Man might just be real.

Marble Hornets video

Adding to the myth: The videos were posted with claims that they existed before the Slender Man was ever mentioned online. (The series is now being adapted as a feature film.)

Slender Man went on to spawn video games, more videos, a Kickstarter-funded film and a tribute in the popular game Minecraft.

Some users are in on the joke, with people treating the Slender Man like any other meme and having fun with it. Fox even produced a digital cartoon offering a somewhat gentler take on the character, while still not letting go of Slender Man's origins.

Slender Man cartoon

The story has spread so far that apparently earnest callers have told paranormal radio shows about the Slender Man, according to the public radio show "On The Media."

Creator Knudsen noted in an interview that he feels he's lost control of Slender Man, with people trying to obscure his origins online. Listen to the "On The Media" podcast "TLDR" segment from this past January:

You can also hear more in this BBC radio program.

Here's the 911 call for the Wisconsin stabbing, as posted by NBC News, below: