Nothing Is Scarier: The Underlying Horror of Slender

This talk was originally given at Videobrains, October 2014.

So first of all, I’m a fan of pretty much everything that could be called supernatural horror. Tonight I want to talk about Slender, the whole internet phenomenon of Slenderman, and my speculations on why the concept is so scary.

Let’s cover the obvious first. Slenderman is an abnormally tall, abnormally thin being that kills or abducts people, depending on which mythos you believe. He might be able to possess or hypnotise people; he might focus specifically on children; he might be a ghost or a supernatural entity that isn’t from our dimension; he might particularly like to go for people who believe in his existence. He might have been human once, or he might have always existed. Nobody knows.

The concept came out of a group of people on the Something Awful forums back in 2009 trying to Photoshop paranormal images. I believe the original pictures were these ones:

Since then there have been dozens if not hundreds of further pictures, as well as various creepypasta tales and several Youtube series. Among the first was the now infamous Marble Hornets, where a group of friends were stalked by Slenderman and slowly began to disappear and/or go mad. There are 397,677 [NB: now 458,002] followers of that channel.

Slenderman even has his own wiki now, which was pretty useful when it came to writing this talk; and there are even Endermen in Minecraft. It’s a huge, internet-wide phenomenon, and the game Slender just tops it all off.

So, the first reason for the scariness of it is the concept that I’ve named my talk after: “Nothing is Scarier”, which I’ve taken from TV Tropes. It means that it is usually scarier to have the protagonist turning round to see nothing rather than an actual scary thing. They put it this way:

“Fear is not induced by some traumatic visual element or by a physical threat, but by the sole lack of event. This is a case of rampant creepiness, associated not with what is happening, but with the general atmosphere of a scene. When properly done, it can result in one of the scariest moments. It does so for one simple reason: the author refuses to show us what is causing this scariness but we desperately wish to know what, so our minds fill in the blanks.”

As you know if you’ve played the game, that is CONSTANTLY happening when you play Slender – and it only makes you more paranoid.

As a side note, that’s why I’ve always been far more scared of things like Slenderman and ghosts and demons than actual things like serial killers. A serial killer is only human, after all. I can kick them or stab them or talk them to death; but a ghost does exactly what it pleases until it gets what it wants. As for demons, if you’ve seen the number of exorcism films that I have then you know that they don’t even have a purpose other than to cause pain; you can’t fight OR reason with them.

Stephen King agrees with me in his definitions of fear in his book Danse Macabre, which he explains like this:

“The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.”

One example of this in a game for me would be the weird fungus head people in Resident Evil.

“The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.”

So, think the husks from Mass Effect. I know it’s not technically a horror game, but a hell of a lot of scary things in it!

The last and worst one: “Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”

So, that last one, Terror, is constantly happening in Slender – you’re walking (or running) along, and you think you see him in the trees. You look, but it was just your imagination – or was it?! I don’t know what the ratio is for you, I’m probably looking around a lot more than a normal person, but it’s only maybe 1 out of 10 times that he’s actually there.

It also explains why a lot of people panic at that bit in the basement in Amnesia – which, if you don’t know, involves throwing bits of rotted human corpse for an invisible monster that chases you, and you only know it’s there because you can hear it splashing along behind you.

If you want non-game examples of ‘Nothing is Scarier’, think of the famous scene in Psycho, where you never actually see the knife connect. Alfred Hitchcock himself said: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

The next concept that I think makes Slender such a scary game, and Slenderman such a scary monster, is how when you DO see him (after all the false scares you’ve given yourself), he is an incredibly extreme version of the uncanny valley. The phrase doesn’t entirely apply, as it’s usually used for things like androids that have faces and the right number of arms and are only slightly off-kilter, but it’s the nearest concept I could find.

There’s a reason why things that look human but aren’t quite are often inherently frightening to us. Things like puppets, clowns, dolls, mannequins, they all creep me and a lot of other people out in a big way. The proponents of the uncanny valley have a lot of theories on why this is, so I’m going to pick the ones I think are most relevant to Slenderman.

The first is called “sorites paradoxes” — seeing something that acts or looks human, but isn’t, undermines our own sense of what it is to BE human. We end up subconsciously questioning ourselves, and wondering what else is out there that could look like us but not be us.

The second is the sheer violation of the norm. It’s so close to human, so close that I just noticed that earlier I used a male pronoun for Slenderman even though it’s probably too far removed from humanity to even have a gender. We have this expectation, when looking at something humanoid, that it should behave and look like us. When it doesn’t, that instinctively sets off the alarm bells that tell us when something doesn’t belong to our species and therefore could potentially be a threat.

The third is related to the one I just mentioned — psychologically, the conflict between what something IS and what we think it SHOULD BE causes a profound discomfort. The evidence is just not lining up with what you expect. It’s like an optical illusion, but extra-freaky.

As another non-game example, if you’ve seen Mama by Guillermo del Toro, you’ll have seen another unusually tall and thin being that is incredibly creepy. It’s also down to how the creature moves as well – as an example, this is test footage for Mama:

Meanwhile, with Slenderman, you don’t even see him move at all. He’s just there; or if he does move, it’s in jerks and starts towards you. He’s far away one minute, and the next minute he’s all up in your face.

The last reason for the scariness of Slender is embedded in the game mechanics, and is possibly the biggest one reason.

You are almost completely helpless in Slender. You have no weapons, so you can’t fight; you have no means of escape, as wherever you go he’s still going to be there; and you only have a limited amount of light, so some of the time you can’t even see. As a side note, all of these are also present in Amnesia, which I mentioned earlier for its success at scaring the bejeezus out of gamers everywhere.

This is a really powerful situation to put a player into, because it is a core fear: to be helpless while something awful is happening. It’s one of the reasons that the first Saw film was so frightening — because not only could the two characters not see any way out (at first), but one of them had their family at stake and couldn’t get to them.

It’s also powerful because most gamers are used to automatically having weapons and being able to fight the bad guys. We’re used to having something, anything, to be able to hit evil things with; even if it’s just our fists. There’s not just a lack of weapons, but a lack of everything — there’s no inventory or map or health bar or battery life warning either, so you’re just sort of fumbling along praying that nothing bad happens (just like real life, really).

You don’t even know how you got into this mess in the first place. My personal bugbear is that you can’t run very fast or for very long, so that’s all three of your instinctive responses fucked: you can’t hide, you can’t run, and you can’t fight.

The other thing is that if you look at Slenderman for too long, you die. But it’s in the nature of human psychology that if you’re told not to do something, you instantly want to do it – so you’re looking around all the time, hoping you won’t see him and hoping you will at the same time.

It’s like Lot’s wife in Sodom and Gomorrah, except if you turn around you get much worse than turned into a pillar of salt. It doesn’t help that there’s a booming noise going on as soon as you start picking up the notes, which signals that the Slenderman is looking for you – it’s like the rumbling in Paranormal Activity, because you know something is going to happen, but not when or how. And then BANG you’re dead.

So, to conclude, Slender is so scary because it simply embodies the principle of Terror, and includes the horror tropes that hit us in the most visceral places. Most of the time he’s not even there, which just makes it worse when he is — and when he is there, you can’t do anything about it.

It’s the very nothing-ness that’s the worst part: the build-up of tension carries on for so long and winds you up so tight, that it’s almost a relief when you see him and die.

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