1/10 And now to dissect Slender Man, the movie its own studio didn’t want you to see.
In rural Massachusetts, four bored teenagers summon the Slender Man. They do this by watching a video on the Internet straight out of The Ring, but one with quickly flashing images that lead theaters to post epilepsy warnings. Each of the cohorts are affected differently. Katie Jensen (Annalise Basso) quickly disappears, and Chloe (Jaz Sinclair) goes mad. Of the remaining characters, Wren (Joey King) frantically searches for a solution while Hallie Knudson (Julia Goldani Telles) spends the majority of the film in denial, which in hindsight I think is meant to be the central conflict. At a certain point, the movie just ends.
The central issue with Slender Man is obviously not the movie itself, which anyone who was paying attention knew up front was going to be pretty bad. But before we get into the real-world problems, we need to stop on that point, because it’s really, really bad.
First off, you can’t see anything. Not in the sense that the monster is hidden or the camera cuts away from violence to maintain its PG-13 rating – it’s that you literally can’t see anything. Most of the screen for most of the movie is just black. There are several scenes in which both the characters and the foreground are backlit, and you cannot see what is going on at all. Slender Man doesn’t just fail to capitalize on the potential of an almost exclusively visual character, it fails for the most part to even put intelligible images of any kind on the screen.
Slender Man is a 2010s horror movie, and obviously that means jump scares. The standard format for rote jumps these days is almost completely sound-based — all sound will fall away for several minutes to signal that a jump is coming, there will be several fakeouts and then a loud bang of some kind, often not even a diagetic one. This has always been an awful format, but in the bizarre absence of images of any kind, Slender Man almost adds a new dimension to this formula by exposing how simple the trick really is and how independent it is from any movie it exists in. I almost want more people to see this movie, just so they’ll come to the realization that jump scares aren’t actually scary – because for as incomplete as Slender Man’s scares are, does last year’s It movie actually accomplish anything more with its jumps? It does not.
But the movie itself is, as stated, not the key issue here. The key issue with Slender Man is the postmodern reality of the character and its effect on real-world events.
Slender Man was first created by Eric Knudsen — the movie’s main character is named after him – in a 2009 Photoshop contest on the Something Awful Internet forum to make the creepiest image possible. Knudsen simply edited a tall, slender man into the background of old photos of children playing and implied that he was some sort of boogeyman who stole children. The image went viral and captured the imagination of the Internet, quickly inspiring many short stories and several low-budget media from aspiring horror filmmakers and video game designers.
Slender Man was essentially an extremely specific aesthetic that was inserted into otherwise unrelated ghost stories. Several scholars have posited that the media inspired by Slender Man during this time period followed the pattern of folklore, and stories about him became established as such despite him having a clear and well-known point of origin. People would see a Slender Man story, then tell their own, as they would around a campfire. The key point to understand here is that Slender Man very much became a character in the real world, in the same postmodern sense that Deadpool exists in the real world – he sustains and expands himself as a concept almost independently of the people who tell stories about him, and other folk legends about other child-stealing boogeymen were soon incorporated. The movie touches on this concept.
The phenomenon took a dark turn in May 2014 when 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser lured their classmate Payton Leutner into the woods outside Waukesha, Wisconsin, and stabbed her 19 times in order to appease the Slender Man. Weier and Geyser were found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, and sentenced to 25-years-to-life and 40-years-to-life, respectively, in a mental hospital. Leutner, miraculously, survived. The attack is the most famous act of violence associated with the character, but it inspired several other incidents throughout 2014, as well as a rash of suicide attempts on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation early next year.
Obviously this incident put a damper on the spread of Slender Man stories, or it should have. But when Sony sees an opportunity to make a half-hearted cashgrab, nothing is going to stand in the way, and development began on this eventual dud in May 2016, against the wishes of Weier’s father specifically, but also anyone with basic human decency.
Wait, that’s not true, the two-year-old attempted murder and the social media backlash that they should have already known about did end up standing in the way. After Bill Weier spoke out, Sony decided to cease advertising on this movie, quietly dropping it in 2,358 theaters in a successful attempt to cut losses. The studio swallowed so hard on the movie that producers William Sherak and James Vanderbilt tried to sell the movie to Netflix and Amazon just two months before its scheduled release in order to get it more eyeballs.
After the movie hit theaters, it was discovered that Sony had also insisted on removing “several major scenes” in order to reduce the amount of violence in their gruesome horror movie and hopefully avoid the backlash that they already should have been fully prepared for back in 2016 when the project was first greenlit. We won’t know the full extent of the damage unless a spec script is leaked, but several scenes from the trailer were obviously removed and the surgery scars are horrifically apparent in the theatrical release, which features nonsensical scene transitions, characters who lack introductions, characters who just disappear at a certain point with no explanation and, of course, that crazy non-ending.
So how could Slender Man have been better? Other than by releasing the full movie, which still could have been a train wreck? Well that’s the thing – just don’t make it.
Slender Man spread in popularity because he was a character that anyone could use, but also one without an explicit cannon. While some of the amateur writers and filmmakers who used him as an inspiration gave him specific attributes, of course, he was more of a stand-in for a monster than a real one, and in many of the more prominent stories about him, he’s nowhere near as important as the characters who are facing him. This genericism is not a weakness, but a strength – the entire strength – of Slender Man as a property.
All that in mind, functionally, we’ve had several Slender Man movies in the past few years. Any horror movie with a generic monster that only serves as a catalyst for the characters — The Babadook, The Witch and Occulus are prominent examples, but the list stretches on — could be functional Slender Man stories, specific applications of this fluid character. All controversy aside, Slender Man as a concept directly clashes with a movie that’s about him specifically.
So you shouldn’t watch better horror movies just because they’re better horror movies. You should watch better horror movies because they’re better Slender Man movies.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.