The legend of the Slender Man: The boogieman of surveillance culture
First Monday

The legend of the Slender Man: The boogieman of surveillance culture by Kyle Curlew



Abstract
Western societies have developed a culture of surveillance that frames how social actors understand institutional and vernacular forms of “watching”. Through the intersection of folklore, anthropology, and sociology, I explore the performances of the Slender Man legend as a monstrous cultural artifact representative of cultural anxieties around surveillance, social control, and secretive agencies. This blend of disciplines will help illuminate central cultural fears and anxieties within Internet sub-cultural groups. My goal in this paper is to understand how participants of alternate reality games (ARGs) exhibit anxieties about ubiquitous surveillance through uncoordinated collective storytelling.

Contents

Introduction: The boogieman of surveillance culture
The origin point of the Slender Man mythos
What is a legend?
Alternate reality games and community
Surveillance
Social control
Secretive agencies
Surveillance imaginaries and the techno-monster of cosmic horror
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction: The boogieman of surveillance culture

Our everyday lives have become saturated in ubiquitous digital technologies. One major consequence of this ubiquity is the emergence of pervasive surveillance techniques and social control strategies from both private and public institutions [1]. There has been a great deal of work in surveillance studies concerned with investigating the ways in which these practices influence the social, cultural, and political realms (Bennett, et al., 2014; Lyon, 2007). However, little research has been conducted on how surveillance is interpreted in the everyday folk lives of Internet subcultural groups, such as Something Awful, 4chan, and Unfiction, who conduct their activities in heavily surveilled spaces.

In this paper, I use methodological strategies from the field of digital folklore combined with anthropological and sociological theory to interpret the Slender Man legend cycle as a monstrous cultural artifact that exhibits themes of surveillance, social control, and secretive agencies within the of cosmic horror genre [2]. This blend of disciplines will help illuminate central cultural fears and anxieties within Internet socio-cultural groups.

It is the pervasive ubiquity of surveillance in our everyday lives that has enabled it to become a major theme in our collective storytelling and cultural dispositions. David Lyon (2017) observes, “[surveillance] is no longer merely something external that impinges on our lives. It is something that everyday citizens comply with — willingly and unwittingly, or not — negotiate, resist, engage with, and, in novel ways, even initiate and desire” [3]. Western societies have developed a culture of surveillance that frames how social actors understand how institutions watch us and how we watch each other. I argue that through the development of surveillance culture there is an emergence of a folklore of surveillance.

The Slender Man folk narrative was co-constructed by a community of thousands of Internet users between 2009 to the present. My goal is to understand how participants of Internet culture exhibit anxieties about ubiquitous surveillance through uncoordinated collective storytelling. I have read a series of five major blogs that have contributed to the Slender Man mythos to sort references to issues of surveillance and social control [4]. This blend of folkloric and sociological inquiry can provide a fresh understanding of how surveillance culture saturates the digital everyday lives of everyday people.

 

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The origin point of the Slender Man mytho

On Monday, 8 June 2009, Something Awful (http://www.somethingawful.com) users participated in a forum thread called Create Paranormal Images [5] which was to serve as a contest to produce the best, scariest, altered photo. On Thursday, 25 June 2009, a user named Victor Surge (whose real name is Eric Knudsen) posted the first two images of the Slender Man. The comments thereafter quickly shifted the focus of the thread away from the initial photo manipulation contest and into an excited negotiation of the Slender Man’s legendary constitution.

 

We didn't want to go
Figure 1: “‘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 ...’ 1993, photographer unknown, presumed dead.” Posted by Victor Surge, 10 June 2009.

 

The Slender Man emerged as a creature from beyond time and space (with obvious Lovecraftian references) who resembles a tall man with disproportionately long arms and legs and no face. It sometimes features black tentacles while it lurks in the static and distorted backgrounds of photos and videos. The Slender Man watches, stalks, and creeps its victims until they are driven to madness. Eventually the Slender Man steals away its victims (sometimes from existence), takes control of their minds (turning them into proxies or the hallowed, a topic to be explored later), or relentlessly tears them into pieces and leaves their body parts in plastic bags hanging in trees to be found by its new victims. The Slender Man rapidly proliferated as a monstrous legend, spreading virally across various social media platforms, forum boards, vlogs, and blogs in cyberspace.

 

We didnt want to go
Figure 2: “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.” Posted by Victor Surge, 10 June 2009.

 

Monsters have been a key component in the folklore of peoples across time and space, and such creatures carry crucial cultural significance. As Jeffrey Cohen (1996) writes, “A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read: the monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ ‘that which warns,’ a glyph that seeks a hierophant” [6]. The Slender Man is a culturally constructed monster whose constitution is inscribed with the fears and anxieties of a set of cultural groups (Boyer, 2013). To approach the Slender Man as a cultural construct it needs to be understood in relations to monsters in storytelling traditions. Boyer (2013) draws on the work of Cohen to trace the anatomy of the Slender Man as a traditional monster trope. Though she locates the Slender Man in a historical trajectory of monsters from several cultural backgrounds, she admits that the Slender Man as a new monster must be interrogated to draw out its cultural significance. Cohen’s (1996) insights on “monster theory” are useful for this task. He observes that the monster is representative of several important themes: the monster serves to represent deep seeded cultural fears; it can never be fully expunged and it always returns to haunt its victims; it evades normative categories; it traverses and guards the margins of cultural boundaries; and it is an ultimate symbol of difference and the other. The Slender Man is a typified monster that emerges from the interconnected cultures of the Internet. As an augmentation to Cohen’s work on monster theory, Dion Dennis (1999) introduces the techno-monster and though the Slender Man is not a machine, it emerges out of the hybridized performances enacted over digital new media platforms.

The collaborative nature of this monstrous legend performance has led Andrew Peck (2012), in his short documentary Tall, dark, and loathsome (https://vimeo.com/54951101), to observe, “[The Slender Man] is a crowd sourced Cthulhu”. This observation is fitting as it links the Slender Man performances to the nightmarish Elder Gods of the Lovecraft tales [7] — the founding creative material for the genre of cosmic horror. Vivian Ralickas (2007) writes that cosmic horror is “that fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance” [8]. The Slender Man is a monster that is impossible to comprehend that comes from a realm that is not our own. Its presence, typical of cosmic horror, saps all hope from its victims. The main protagonists of these narratives are stripped of their humanity and almost always destroyed. Ralickas continues, “With its identity and the foundations of its culture destroyed, the subject who experiences cosmic horror always succumbs to one of three comparably dreadful fates, judging from the standpoint of a balanced, rational mind: insanity, death, or the embracing of its miscegenated and no longer human condition” [9]. It is the cultural stuff of monsters and cosmic horror that was weaved into the Slender Man performances, eventually contributing to the overall development of the legend’s mythos.

 

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What is a legend?

The academic discipline of folklore emerged to engage in the collection and analysis of legends. Folklore is the study of tales of everyday life and in exploring this, has four main characteristics that have been heralded throughout the disciplines history.

  1. Folklore is repetitive and variant. People perform it repeatedly, and as it spreads to different tellers and audiences, it changes form while keeping a central theme.
  2. Folklore is a performance between storyteller and audience contextualized within particular spaces (from this perspective, the digital realm is considered spatial).
  3. Folklore is not constructed by the teller, but by the community and thus the interaction between the storyteller and the audience constructs the story and allows it to spread. In other words, folkloric performance is a collective process.
  4. Folklore is the transmission of tradition from one generation to the next. However, as Lynne McNeill (2013) asserts, this does not need to be done through traditional means. This only means that critical cultural knowledge is transmitted from one person to another.

Typically, a community’s values and fears spread virally through the vernacular telling of legends.

Most importantly, folklore is not a novel, movie, or video game [10]. It occurs within the day-to-day interactions of people in everyday life. It has the quality of being alive. As Bauman (1986) asserts, folklore is a part of a communicative event mixed up with a cultural and interpersonal context, not as something collecting dust in a bookshelf.

A legend carries many of the same features of folklore. However, one of the main characteristics of a legend is that it is a folk narrative told, typically, as if it were a true story. This is a recurring theme in the Slender Man performances — authors tell the story as if it were true and happening to them. As a result, it is difficult to discern whether the storyteller is representing events as a depiction of a true story or spinning fiction.

Bill Ellis (2003) explains that legends are an emergent performance and a communicative process — not a static story. Legend performances are emergent on three levels: (1) they emerge as “news” out of the teller’s cultural context, (2) their primary meaning emerges out of the same cultural context; and, (3) such legends often represent particular cultural emergencies or anxieties. Legends are not told in isolation; they are a type of storytelling that emerge from the community interconnected with the author’s personal experiences. It makes sense that a monstrous telling could be drawn into the legend genre as a key component of its performance.

The Slender Man is a monstrous hybrid legend. It has a dual existence in corporeal and virtual forms which changes the overall constitution of its legendary genre. Hybrid legends contain three overarching features:

  • Hybrid folklore blurs the distinction between corporeal and virtual expression [11]. Such folklore, as observed by Trevor Blank (2013), moves seamlessly from actual, physical life to virtual, digital life. In terms of the Slender Man, one blog, Just Another Fool, interacted with the audience by sending a ragged and haunted journal through snail mail [12].

  • Hybrid folklore blurs the distinctions between human and non-human actors. Bruno Latour (1999) is famous for asserting that human social action occurs in tangent with non-human actors (such as servers, wires, and algorithmic code structures). As digital folklore is transmitted through largely digital venues, its narratives developed by human actors are mediated through a series of codes, algorithms, fiber optic wires, and servers. There are numerous and constantly proliferating non-human actors that influence how the folklore is produced and consumed.

  • Hybrid folklore blurs the distinction between old media and new media. Henry Jenkins (2006) uses the concept of convergence to discuss the intersection of where new and old media collide, not just in terms of material mediums, but also in terms of cultural understandings. A new culture, which Jenkins calls ‘convergence culture,’ emerged that not only encouraged active user participation, but also the connection of information over a large variety of media.

The Slender Man was born in Something Awful but then quickly spread to 4chan (http://www.4chan.org), Unfiction (http://www.unfiction.com), Creepypasta (http://www.creepypasta.org), and an uncountable number of blogs, vlogs, and Twitter accounts. This monstrous hybrid legend spread through people’s mail, video camera lenses, and nightmares.

The Slender Man is a hybridized folk legend. Why is the study of hybridized folklore useful? Through studying the Slender Man legend cycle we can sift through themes and patterns to understand larger cultural anxieties that particular groups of people are dealing with. In this case, the groups of people are the emerging generation of youth grappling with their digital presence on ubiquitous computing. As a group of digital natives they are exposed to a unique set of anxieties including surveillance, social control, and the looming presence of agencies like the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).

 

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Alternate reality games and community

Hybridized folklore exists as data that can be reduced to zeros and ones, and thus it can be stored, replicated, modified, surveilled, and quickly transmitted from one place to another. Code is both a tool of empowerment and a tool of discipline (Dijck, 2012; Kitchin and Dodge, 2011). Folklore, in this sense, may be enhanced in empowering ways over the Internet, but it is also subjected to new forms of surveillance and social control.

The Internet and the connective media it enables allow for a flourishing creativity and a sense of empowerment through newfound accessibility to affordable media tools and a wide, connected audience. These factors allow for the flourishing of new forms of storytelling which are interconnected with codes, algorithms, and computer hardware.

For the first time in history, media technology has become so affordable and ubiquitous that it has become embedded in everyday life (Benkler, 2006). Not only have these tools become more affordable, but applications for phones and tablets now have photo and video editing software that removes the need to have formal knowledge of media manipulation.

This digital ubiquity has set the stage for the production of hybridized folklore and digital vernacular expression. As Kitchin and Dodge (2011) point out, “Since the 1990s, software has contributed to a burgeoning of ‘back bedroom’ creativity through desktop design, improved studios, home recording setups, and self-publishing” [13]. It is this empowering capacity enabled by digital technologies that has allowed the genre of alternate reality games (ARGs) to emerge as a form of vernacular performance.

According to Lynne McNeill (2012), ARGs are “interactive group games — similar in basic structure and purpose to traditional scavenger hunts that take place in the real world — that involve the use of communication technologies for the planning, distribution, and organization of tasks, clues, and instructions” [14]. In terms of the Slender Man ARG, players often told their stories as if they were actually occurring, effectively blurring the boundaries between “real life” and the imagination. Though the original posting of the Slender Man to Something Awful was not included within the ARG — it provided the creative scaffolding for the ARG to emerge.

The Slender Man ARG was a central conduit to the development of the overall legend cycle. This ARG included the YouTube series’ Marble Hornets (https://www.youtube.com/user/MarbleHornets), everymanHYBRID (https://www.youtube.com/user/EverymanHYBRID), and TribeTwelve (https://www.youtube.com/user/TribeTwelve), alongside the blogs that were mentioned earlier. This ARG also contained an uncountable number of Twitter and Tumblr feeds that were usually connected to participating blogs. The platforms used for telling the Slender Man story were interconnected and often referred to each other. Authors sometimes engaged in meta-gaming, or out-of-game coordination of the story, which was orchestrated from a forum board known as Unfiction [15]. The storytelling of an ARG was related both in the main content of the blogs as well as the comment sections where main characters and audience members interacted. Sometimes users would use faux accounts that were created to add new characters which would strategically interact with blog authors.

The ARG is not just a game; but a community of storytellers, audiences, and lurkers. This community exists in a larger maelstrom of Internet culture, through sites like Something Awful and 4chan. The Slender Man ARG is a complex maze of storytelling that flows through many intertextual media forms in a crooked and fragmented fashion. Some of these paths lead nowhere but to the death of a character and the end of a story. Others lead to entirely new communities of ARGers engaging with the Slender Man legend cycle.

Contributors to the Slender Man ARG performance are often anonymous or pseudonymous. The only person to receive official fame and claim to the story was the original poster, Eric Knudsen (a.k.a. Victor Surge). He was unable to claim the story as his own, as the actual narrative emerged collectively. Knudsen merely facilitated the Slender Man’s beginning, but many news articles and media coverage have attributed Knudsen as the artist who invented the Slender Man [16]. It must be noted that an unnamed third party owns the official rights to the Slender Man narrative (Sarkar, 2012). This is problematic as most of the creative building blocks for the Slender Man mythos were collectively made by ARGers as an open source project [17].

Many of these narrative communities exist largely online as hybrid forms of legend performance. Theoretically, these narratives and their emergent qualities can be followed through the traces of data and metadata left behind. As Latour (2005) outlines, we can understand the associations of the social through the traces left behind when actors engage in communicative acts. It must be said that this task, though an ideal avenue to understanding hybrid folk legends like the Slender Man, is largely inaccessible as there are far too many traces to map. However, there is an abundance of data that can be heuristically mapped together for the aspiring social scientist.

My overall focus is not on the actual creation, negotiation, and circulation of the Slender Man legend cycle (for this see Andrew Peck’s work [18]). Instead, it is on the subcultural anxieties that such a monstrous legend exhibits and how those anxieties connect to larger, systemic issues brought about by a culture saturated with references to surveillance practices.

However, it must be noted that in the context of ARGs this monster has significance to a particular set of cultural groups. The cultural anxieties that I am about to explore relate specifically to the broad realm of Internet culture: gamers, hackers, coders, 4chan users, and fan cultures. The Slender Man is a specific kind of boogieman, which haunts a specific kind of culture. These are the anonymous and obscure Internet groups that are threatened by the political affairs of Internet control — namely mass surveillance interests. Though the Slender Man has been co-opted by several commercial projects and copyrighted by an unknown commercial entity, commercial use of the Slender Man is beyond the scope of this paper [19].

The Slender Man is a monster that stalks victims at the fringes of Internet culture. It is largely elusive, evades conventional categorization, represents an unseen other, and is the disembodied watcher. Three interconnected themes emerged from my content analysis of the Slender Man ARG blogs. These are: surveillance, control, and secret agencies. These themes are by no means the only themes present in the legend cycle, however, in terms of the cultural group I am exploring, they are the most urgent.

 

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Surveillance

Surveillance is the central theme of the Slender Man legend cycle. The Slender Man is always watching its victims, and even when its presence is not obvious, its presence can be felt. This often causes the characters to portray symptoms of extreme paranoia.

The omnipresent surveillance of the Slender Man is representative of what sociologists refer to as surveillance society and surveillance culture. Modern societies are often characterized and have been demonstrated to contain ubiquitous surveillance as a societal norm (Lyon, 2015). Though surveillance is not always malevolent — it leaves in its wake a dreadful chilling effect.

David Murakami Wood (2014) argues that as ubiquitous computing becomes more embedded into everyday life, so does ubiquitous surveillance. Recent trends in surveillance studies point towards the progressive vanishing of surveillance technologies. As surveillance technologies become more sophisticated and enclosed in the digital devices social actors use on a day-to-day basis — they take on an ambient state, conducting routine, continuous surveillance in the form of data collection. This is a suitable way to describe the sort of lurking, haunted surveillance the Slender Man conducts. In many of the blog posts and YouTube videos the Slender Man is present, but the characters are often unable to see it.

Much surveillance today has vanished and been locked into the blackbox of information and communication technology (ICT). Blackboxing means that components of a system have become so stable that it is understood as one entity (Callon, 1990). For an example, a person’s mobile phone is an assemblage of many complicated components. However, all those components are blackboxed in the device itself. The person only sees a mobile phone, not an assemblage of complicated devices and socio-technical practices.

Furthermore, surveillance is conducted through automated means using computer software, hardware, and algorithms to collect, sort, and analyze data. O’Donnell (2014) asserts that video games are both already and always information systems and a series of surveillant algorithms [20]. Even if the Slender Man ARG is not a traditional game, it exists within a complex array of information systems in the figuration of blogs, vlogs, and social media platforms. The Slender Man performance is constantly examined by countless non-human elements implicit in Internet networks.

Even though surveillance has progressively vanished from immediate sight, it is most certainly recognized by social actors. Surveillance becomes taken up in the imaginations of people as they go about their daily lives. Lyon (2017) calls this “the surveillance imaginaries” which “have to do with shared understandings about certain aspects of visibility in daily life, and in social relationships, expectations, and normative commitments” [21]. These imaginaries inform social actors about surveillance practices. They also contribute to their proliferation and resistance to them. The Slender Man is a monstrous product of the surveillance imaginaries that become performed through vernacular storytelling.

Much of the surveillance expressed in the story is already vanished, setting up a haunted atmosphere. The first Slender Man blog I approached was called Just Another Fool [22]. On 29 July 2009, Logan posted his first blog post. The post was not about the Slender Man. It featured pictures of a watch and discussed sleep habits, as well his motivations for starting the blog (Logan, 2009). The story becomes more and more intense as the authors and characters lead readers through each successive blog post. When I returned to look at the post after reading the full blog, I realized that the reflection of the Slender Man was in the watch’s face the entire time (https://jafool.wordpress.com/2009/07/29/this-is-what-happens/). Even before the reader had come to realize that this was a Slender Man ARG, it was watching.

The ARG blogs typically begin on a subject other than the Slender Man even if the Slender Man was present but hidden. As the stories progressed, the characters would become more and more aware of their dangerous stalker. In Lost Within the Green Sky, the author Danny wrote, “... I could tell I was being observed. Does he always do that? I don’t know. The lights flickered back, and he was gone. It was only a split second, such a small amount of time was easy for me to pretend I had imagined it” (Danny, 2010). Once the author, or others in the story, realized they were being stalked, it was already too late. They were already and always on the dark path to the end of the telling. The characters would be stalked, driven to the brink of insanity, and would finally disappear.

In Make it Count, the author, Celeste McLachlan, discovered her best friend, Rose, hiding in the washroom. McLachlan wrote:

It took me a while to convince her to get up. She seemed calm in an eye-of-a-hurricane sort of way, and kept repeating nonsense phrases like mantras. Listen, they might ring a bell, because the one repeated most was “Sees me.” Other than that, she kept telling me that it didn’t matter whether the police knew, and that I had to stay with her or else “he” would get her. This Slender stuff has really gotten into her head; it wasn’t until we were in my car that I realized why she’d stayed in the bathroom: It’s the only room in her house without windows (McLachlan, 2010a).

Shortly after this, Rose went to work, and on her way disappeared. She had been abducted by the Slender Man and its proxies (its mindless servants).

Jeremy Bentham devised a utopian punitive project of complete and radical transparency called the panopticon. This architectural prison design consisted of a central guard tower surrounded by a series of prison cells. From the guard tower, the warden could watch every prisoner in the facility at all times. The prisoner, not being able to tell if the warden was watching or not, would get the sense of constant visibility. The idea was that such visibility and exposure would reform criminals so that they could be reintegrated back into society (Horne and Maly, 2014). Though this prison was designed with good intentions, it was later taken up by Michel Foucault (1979) as a metaphor for constant and intensified surveillance in modern societies.

Foucault (1979) writes, “Visibility is a trap” [23]. Such a contraption reverses the “principle of a dungeon” which hides prisoners from the public, rather than constant and intensified exposure. The panopticon has become a predominant metaphor for a society of surveillance where the feeling of being constantly watched leads to normalizing and disciplinary effects that shape social actors to stray away from deviance. However, the panopticon has fallen out of usage in contemporary surveillance studies. Latour (2005) has criticized the panoptic model of surveillance as being “a world of nowhere to feed the double disease of total paranoia and total megalomania” [24]. Nonetheless, the panopticon haunts the surveillance imaginaries as a paranoid nightmare of constant exposure to a faceless watcher. It is an indispensable imaginary in the folklore of surveillance.

The Slender Man as a monster from the realms of cosmic horror is representative of the consequences of perfect transparency. Instead of providing the power to reform and normalize its victims, the Slender Man instead saps away at hope and sanity until the victim’s death or disappearance. Describing her first encounter with the Slender Man, Celeste McLachlan writes, “His face wasn’t a face, but I could tell where it was looking” (McLachlan, 2010c). The Slender Man is the monster that sits in the panoptic guard tower — he lacks a face obscuring whether or not it is watching, but nonetheless, he is always watching.

Surveillance is a major theme in all of the Slender Man performances. It is always present, and it has already been vanished. The Slender Man, like the surveillance performed by software and algorithms, is barely comprehendible. The characters in the legend tellings do not understand how the Slender Man works. They only understand that it is after them and has taken their friends, warping their minds, or stealing them from existence.

 

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Social control

Both the performance of hybrid legends and the cultural context from which they emerge (including the vanishing surveillance phenomenon) occur through the mediation of digital software. Code is a key actor in the performance of hybridized folklore. It is an actor that shapes human action in ways that are not immediately visible but nonetheless carry significant consequence.

Social control is the power to shape and define the networks and discourses to which we are assembled. Latour writes, “Those who are powerful are not those who hold power in principle, but those who practically define or redefine what ‘holds’ everyone together” [25]. In terms of computer networks, code and the actors that engineer it wield the power to shape entire populations. However, it must be maintained that all actors still have agency. For every exertion of power over the network, there is resistance and a counter exertion of power.

Though code can shape social interaction in exploitative ways, Kitchin and Dodge (2011) hold that it also provides a catalyst for engaging creatively with media. In every aspect of the creation and performance of the Slender Man legend cycle, code has been a tool that has enabled such production. Coded mediation is present in the editing of the original photographs, the posting of renditions to forum boards, the durability of server storage, and the copy/paste sharing of the narrative itself.

However, code is meant to surveil, shape, guide, regulate, and control. “Cyberspace”, a word originally coined by William Gibson, originally emerged from the word “cybernetics”. As Mosco (2004) notes, “‘Cybernetics’ — a word derived from ‘kubernetes’, the classical Greek word for the helmsman of a ship — designates the science of steering or managing large systems” [26]. This is important, as the very root of the word typically used to describe the Internet emerges semantically from social control.

Because most of the software and its intentions are blackboxed and made to be opaque — this form of social control is largely unacknowledged. This is a far cry of difference from the “open source metaphor” used to describe the Slender Man’s narrative process (Chess and Newsom, 2015). Though the Internet had once been a deterritorialized space of generalized freedom — much of this has changed as corporations began claiming and territorializing much of cyberspace (Granick, 2015). The very idea that the Internet is a place of unhinged freedom is a mythology (Mosco, 2004).

To naively associate the Internet as a place of freedom to create ignores that the Internet is not a neutral place. Much of the Internet is carved up by governments, corporations, and non-government organizations. These entities operate on a logic that seeks to discover ways to gather, store, analyze, and monetize data (Zuboff, 2015). This too has a way of vanishing from sight, however not entirely. We are constantly exposed to branding and advertisement practices that are embedded in the various media platforms we use. We implicitly practice social interaction within a context of visible, though obscured, social control mechanisms meant to shape us to be productive towards capital gain. It is important that we understand the Internet to be an ambivalent space. As Dijck (2012) asserts, connectivity to the Internet “is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” [27].

Code is written by programmer to perform tasks, and though users may respond to such programs in unpredictable ways, code becomes imbued with a sense of action. Kitchin and Dodge (2011) observe that “Software as an actant, like people as actors, functions within diversely produced social, cultural, economic, and political contexts” [28]. Code is also a product and a process. It is naturally incomplete and usually subject to constant tinkering. In many cases, such as some Web sites or social media platforms, meanings embedded in code are motivated by capitalist interests.

Consider the way that advertisements function on many blog sites. They are given a prominent placement on a page to encourage users to click on the advertisement. Sometimes the owners of the Web site a user is visiting have embedded advertisements in hidden areas to coerce you to “accidentally” click on the advertisement, thus phishing for more clicks that will bring the Web site more profit. This sort of “click bait” can become complex. Web sites such as Buzzfeed, utilize “native advertisement” to a degree that you can no longer see the difference between advertisements and journalistic articles. Code entices and shapes users to interact within a context of branding.

There are ways for individuals to resist the incursion of these practices in Internet browsing. Users might consider using browser extensions, such as Ghostery (https://www.ghostery.com) or Adblocker (https://adblockbrowser.org), to reconfigure their visual interfaces to avoid heavily branded Web spaces. A user might also consider anonymizing their browsing habits using a virtual private network (VPN) that disguise their IP address by feeding it through a decentralized network of servers or a TOR browser (https://www.torproject.org). Finally, there are ways of obfuscating or misleading any collection of data by providing incorrect personal information on social media sites and other platforms that require user accounts. Nonetheless, despite efforts to subvert surveillance and social control, users must remain aware of these activities as they go about their day-to-day browsing to sufficiently subvert them.

For some, it may appear that the Internet is constructed to shape the way that users interact with each other and produce data that might be useful commercially. On the proliferation of global networks that seem to connect “everything to everywhere”, Galloway and Thacker (2007) assert, “The network, it appears, has emerged as a dominant form describing the nature of control today, as well as resistance to it” [29]. These forms of control operate anonymously, invisibly, and through a large array of non-human actors. A network presumes interconnected nodes that are contrary to popular opinion not inherently democratic or free [30].

Anywhere along the network from these various nodes both human and non-human actors can exert power to shape the overall network. However, it must be noted that the exertion of power is asymmetrical, where some actors have greater access to the resources to shape the network than others. As Galloway and Thacker (2007) assert, “Not all networks are equal” [31]. Similarly, Star (1991) writes, “No networks are stabilized or standardized for everyone” [32]. Networks do not only distribute resources unequally, but they also contain practices of exclusion.

The Slender Man, as a vernacular cultural product, exists in distributed form through tangible networks. Theoretically, it can be tracked, quantified, and mapped to demonstrate the geography of a hybridized legend cycle. However, because of the complexities of these vast networks, this scenario is highly unlikely.

The point is that the Slender Man exists in a network that is shaped by vernacular and institutional forces in a digital geography that is highly branded and constructed to serve in some cases capitalist interests. This is apparent in that many of the platforms on which Slender Man ARGs were performed are commercial entities that collect, store, and sometimes, monetize user data. In this sense, the creative efforts or immaterial labour of users interacting on social media platforms is captured for non-altruistic purposes (Terranova, 2013). Indeed, the Slender Man mythos was captured by commercial forces, leading to a policing of who can use the Slender Man narrative in specific projects. The Internet does not simply enhance the ability for users to generate vernacular expression. It also pits users against institutional forces in a relationship defined by asymmetrical access to resources.

The most obvious instance of social control represented in the Slender Man performances are the ‘proxies’, otherwise known as the ‘hallowed’. In many instances, a Slender Man legend telling ends with main protagonists going mad and disappearing. They are either killed by the Slender Man (or its minions), disappear from time and space and sometimes memory, or are turned into a proxy. Mind control is a main theme in the cosmic horror genre, in which the human subject is stripped of agency and hope by an otherworld entity (Ralickas, 2007).

This means they lose their minds and begin to do the bidding of the Slender Man. Typically, when a protagonist is attacked by a proxy, they begin to understand their bleak predicament. They sometimes even try to make sense of it. In the blog Lost Within the Green Sky, the main protagonist Danny describes it as a form of indoctrination that slowly drains the will from its victims (Danny, 2011).

Even as proxies, characters are killed once their usefulness is exhausted. This theme is not surprising, as it emerges from a cultural context that is known for its pervasive ability to control through silent software mediators. It is also notable that “usefulness” is not defined. Consistent with Cohen’s monster theory, no one understands the motivations of the Slender Man. The monster evades conventional categorizations.

In one rendition of the Slender Man narrative, the author of It’s Your Very Own ..., Shiloh, describes his own abduction and transformation into a proxy:

Black suit, no face. I can’t put into words the horror of this moment. Everything in my life up to that point was nothing compared to seeing a nightmare become flesh. I felt something enter me. A piercing pain in my stomach ... . After that, I must have passed out. The next thing I remember is being dazed in a dark room or garage or basement or something. I was handcuffed to some object. (Shiloh, 2010).

After stalking and haunting its victims, the Slender Man chooses to take or destroy them. In Shiloh’s case, he was taken by the Slender Man and subjected to terrifying indoctrination. This indoctrination is typically characterized to be something that a mortal human simply cannot understand. It is a non-human phenomenon that is entirely veiled in mysticism characteristic of Lovecraftian cosmic horror: “an experiencing subject faced with phenomena that overwhelms its senses and cognitive faculties” [33].

The indoctrination process, like the codes that shape Internet users, is an inherently non-human process. The non-human characteristics can seem incredibly alien to those without the know-how — anyone without specialized knowledge in certain aspects of the computer sciences or mathematics.

Some blogs are constructed around the thought processes of those who become proxies. An example of this is Jake Owen, author of Fairy Tales and Haunted Sleep, who over the course of the blog, traverses through a haunting and then goes mad after having a physical encounter with Shiloh. Jake Owen writes, “I’m going to be frank with you here. He was really asking for it. Can’t say he went out without a fight” (Owen, 2011). On Shiloh’s blog, something writes, “They’re both dead. Shiloh, Grant. Killed the other kid too. Killed his cousin. I am enigmatic” (Shiloh, 2011). The inhuman element of the Slender Man monster tore away the humanity in both victims. Both blogs, It’s Your Very Own ... and Fairy Tales and Haunted Sleep intersect here and they both end. The proxy Enigmatic (presumably the proxy form of Jake Owen) kills Shiloh.

When characters decide to escape, the Slender Man often sends its proxies to find them. Later in her story, Celeste writes, “Hallowed. You read that right. Slenderpuppets. Proxies. Masky’s bros. I knew it was only a matter of time until they found me. I just didn’t expect them to be so damn blatant about it. Then again, maybe they’ve had their eye on me for a lot longer ... . I shudder to think” (McLachlan, 2011). The proxies, just like the Slender Man, become inescapable.

The proxies represent cultural anxieties over the mysterious and non-human properties of digital social control. Like surveillance, this phenomenon has almost vanished — slightly visible for users to sense its presence, feeding the chilly climate of a surveillance society. Furthermore, the bleak atmosphere of cosmic horror positions all victims as inconsequential in a larger world of non-human elements.

As surveillance and social control do not emerge from a void, there is one final piece to this puzzle. There needs to be a central control room. There needs to be a watcher. The Slender Man narratives tend to portray one common image — the operator symbol.

 

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Secretive agencies

According to the Slender Man Wiki, the operator symbol, a circle with ‘X’ through it, was first used in Marble Hornets and then spread to the rest of the Slender Man ARG community. In most cases, those who were haunted by the Slender Man began to obsessively draw this symbol. In Make It Count, Celeste writes:

Just got back from Rose’s place. She didn’t say anything, but I know something was wrong. I was sitting on her sofa waiting for her to get her drink and I checked out the notebook she keeps in her room, and it had the normal stuff — notes for her class, maybe a harmless little poem here or there. But what was weird was that this one symbol kept recurring. A circle with a big “X” drawn through it, like somebody was going to write an anarchy symbol and suddenly forgot how. They were drawn all over the margins, along with some creepy stick-figure drawings (McLachlan, 2010b).

The reader is often given the impression that the Slender Man’s presence somehow causes the character to dwell on the symbol. So much so, that the character etches the symbol into everything — notebooks, walls, and newspaper clippings.

 

The operator symbol, from the Slender Man Wiki
Figure 3: The operator symbol, from the Slender Man wiki (http://theslenderman.wikia.com/wiki/The_Operator_Symbol).

 

The Slender Man, or the operator, appears as a tall man in a black suit with no face. This symbolism is saturated with references to faceless intelligence agents. Combined with the references to surveillance and social control and we have a relevant cultural metaphor of intelligence and security officials trusted to safeguard national security.

The Slender Man narratives began in a time when whistleblowers were leaking information about mass surveillance of North Americans, information sharing between the U.S. National Security Agency and telecommunication companies, and superfluous government secrecy. This notably hit a peak in June 2013 when Edward Snowden coordinated his massive, controversial leak that exposed many of the logics and practices of the NSA to the public (Lyon, 2015).

Before Snowden’s disclosures, there were many others who leaked valuable information about intelligence operations in the U.S. (Murakami Wood and Wright, 2015). These not only informed journalists and academics about top-secret activities of the deep state, but it also fed into the public imagination, creating a chilly atmosphere that would only worsen with further disclosures (Keller, 2017). Without the brave and sometimes reckless accounts of whistleblowers, government-sponsored surveillance operations would be completely impenetrable. Furthermore, there are countless intelligence and security agencies across the globe who are plugged into the Internet for similar reasons — many from countries founded on less than democratic principles.

For example, as reported by Business insider, the Chinese government is currently experimenting with a new social scoring system that would merge a citizen’s “financial, social, political, and legal credit ratings into one big social trustability score” [34]. A citizen’s access to essential services, such as employment, housing, and healthcare, would depend on their trustability score — those who are unable to maintain a reasonable score would have services revoked. Such a social experiment is emblematic of a panoptic nightmare scenario that is sure to create a chilly environment in the lives of Chinese citizens.

The terrorist attack on 11 September 2001 solidified political discourse to strengthen the NSA’s intelligence and surveillance networks. Murakami Wood and Wright (2015) note “a growing anxiety amongst intelligence agencies that the Internet both supplied them with a new source of data ... but also presented new problems of being a space that was potentially unlimited and out of control” [35].

It could be argued that those terrorist attacks led to a campaign to “re-engineer” the Internet in order to actively dismantle freedoms that it had once represented and embed within it a more powerful access to surveillance technologies (Murakami-Wood and Wright, 2015). These tactics involved changes in methods to regulate Internet access, enforce legal copyright policies, impose censorships, and carve up the Internet for corporate interests. As reported by TechCrunch, these efforts continue to this day with efforts to dismantle Net neutrality.

Intelligence agents are the eyes in the control room, always behind the scenes, watching, faceless. The entire Slender Man narrative expresses anxieties with these faceless entities, some indeed non-human. A variety of computer programs conduct surveillance, capturing and analyzing metadata beyond human comprehension (Lyon, 2015).

As Chess and Newsom (2015) observe, the Slender Man is also representative of faceless hacktivists, such as the Anonymous hacker collective. Anonymous has routinely entered the public imagination through a steady series of reports on their activities. Anonymous typically speaks to the public through a figure dressed in a black business suit wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. It is an image that bears a striking resemblance to the Slender Man. Chess and Newsom observe, “the Slender Man functions as a lurker, and in this capacity, he is infinitely terrifying, particularly because of his anonymity. Just as the group, Anonymous, the Slender Man is foreboding and may be anywhere and everywhere ... the Slender Man is a monster of ubiquity and industry, and represents the same anxieties as those that helped to foster the culture of anonymous” [36]. In this way, the Slender Man embodies anxieties from both the politics of the deep state and the “anti-politics” of Anonymous.

The operator in the control room is always watching. Like the Slender Man, the operator is seemingly omnipresent. Just about every Slender Man narrative that I have encountered has a way to express this anxiety. The Slender Man itself is representative of a complex that exists in the underbelly of governments around the globe, taking refuge digitally while constantly watching global flows of Internet information.

 

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Surveillance imaginaries and the techno-monster of cosmic horror

The Slender Man is a techno-monster performed by a community of storytellers participating in an alternate reality game based in the hopeless genre of cosmic horror. As a legend cycle, “the Slender Man is born out of technological anxiety” [37], and thus represents the cultural fears of the broad scope of Internet cultural groups. Cess and Newsom (2015) describe the Slender Man as a contemporary boogieman, an entity that stalks and lurks victims over the Internet. Their description of the constitution of this boogieman is akin to a panoptic effect, “We monitor our language and hold our words for fear of what the invisible onlooker, the unknown presence might think or say. The lurker is the real-life boogeyman of the Internet because his or her unknown status is always necessarily a threat” [38]. Although panopticism has fallen out of favor in some academic circles, considered a cliché within the canon of surveillance studies (Murakami Wood, 2007), it has manifested itself in surveillance imaginaries of Internet users, similar to references of Big Brother. Combined with the overarching genre of cosmic horror, the panopticon’s utopic purpose becomes reversed. The three themes explored in this paper come together to represent a panoptic nightmare where surveillance and social control are utilized to haunt users of the Internet, representing a chilling effect in contemporary society.

According to Sandywell (2006), cyberspace itself has become characterized by the monstrous as it triggers, for some, a cultural panic surrounding the hastened development of the information age. Sandywell writes, “The result is a networked society characterized by surveillance and control, fragmented identity, and deterritorialized techno-anxieties ranging across personal and collective life” [39]. It is the unknown and often inhuman constituents of cyberspace that provide nightmarish fuel to surveillance imaginaries underlying such ARGs. Some Internet users engage in acts of watching each other, providing a constant peer-to-peer panoptic machine over conventional social media (Andrejevic, 2006). The results of both institutional and vernacular surveillance leaves Internet users exposed to near constant visibility.

Lyon (2017) describes surveillance culture as a phenomenon that is both multifaceted and contextual — it mutates differently based on its position in space and time. The anxieties represented by the Slender Man legend cycle are grounded in the context of social actors who spend much of their leisure time surfing the Web. From this perspective, the ubiquitous use of new media and the presence of vanished surveillance technologies have become rooted in everyday life and the folklore of surveillance. Lyon observes, “Surveillance imaginaries offer not only a sense of what goes on — the dynamics of surveillance — but also a sense of how to evaluate and engage with it — the duties of surveillance. Such imaginaries, in turn, inform and animate surveillance practices; the two belong together” [40]. Unlike the conventional assumptions that social actors are somehow unaware of pervasive surveillance around them, the surveillance imaginaries, through the emergent folkloric, demonstrate that social actors are able to express anxieties embedded in surveillance culture through uncoordinated and hybridized storytelling. While doing so, social actors participate within the overall surveillance society. The Slender Man as a techno-monster of cosmic horror sets an abysmal tone in the imaginations of Internet users.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

The Slender Man is a story that represents the cultural anxieties of those who practice Internet culture. The themes of surveillance, social control, and secretive agencies all come together to create a ‘chill’ in the social and cultural atmosphere that holds everyone together. This is expressed through a terrifying, eerie, and playful alternate reality game constructed by thousands of uncoordinated human players. Through a qualitative framework, I have been able to draw out these themes from uncoordinated, collective storytelling.

The disciplines of folklore, anthropology, and sociology intersect here to demonstrate how Internet users interpret large macro-processes that shape their day-to-day experiences. Over the Internet, vernacular performance is pitted against institutional forces, causing an interplay between empowering and exploitative elements. These institutional forces have asymmetrical access to economic and cultural resources that allow them to carve up the Internet into branded spaces.

Further qualitative and ethnographic work is needed to explore the folklore of surveillance and social control. The academic community must understand the vernacular ways of coping with such systems if it wishes to create meaningful change in a constantly watched society. End of article

 

About the author

Kyle Curlew is an M.A. candidate in Sociology at Queen’s University with affiliations to the Surveillance Studies Center (SSC). His research interests are new media, surveillance, folklore, and political economy.
E-mail: 15kjc1 [dot] queensu [at] ca

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to take the opportunity to thank my friends and colleagues in the Department of Sociology at Queen’s University for their help in peer editing and their encouragement. I would like to particularly thank Melissa Forcione, Rose Brown, Jennie Day, Brandon Rodrigues, and Jade Monaghan. I would also like to thank my M.A. supervisor, Dr. David Murakami Wood for his encouragement and advice in this particular project.

 

Notes

1. I do not have the space to outline the full body of literature demonstrating the depths of a surveillance society. For a more in-depth understanding of the nuances of a surveillance society, read David Lyon’s (2015) Surveillance after Snowden.

2. Cosmic horror is a literary genre pioneered by H.P. Lovecraft in his horror fiction. The genre emerges from his general philosophy of “cosmicism” which positions humans as insignificant in the larger cosmos. Human insignificance is further exasperated by the fictional elder ones — power extradimensional gods who pose an immediate and inescapable danger to the existence of humanity (Slåtten, 2016).

3. Lyon, 2017, p. 814.

4. My research into the Slender Man legend performances centered around five major blogs. Each of these blogs contribute to the Slender Man legend in meaningful ways. As we will explore later in this article — their performances are interconnected and often refer to each other. They are titled: Just Another Fool (https://jafool.wordpress.com), Fairy Tales and Haunted Sleep (http://insomniacprince.blogspot.ca), Lost Within the Green Sky (http://followthegreene.blogspot.ca), Make it Count (http://countingitup.blogspot.ca), and It’s Your Very Own ... (http://enigmaticbrick.blogspot.ca).

5. The Slender Man had originally appeared on Something Awful as a post from Victor Surge (http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3150591), however, there is still some popular debate about whether or not the Slender Man narrative is older. In some cases, people argue that the Slender Man came from early German folklore. A doctored wood carving even emerged as potential proof of the Slender Man’s ancient status. Other folklorists, notably Chess and Newsom (2015), connect the narratives origin to be similar to the ancient Celtic faeries (p. 48).

6. Cohen, 1996, p. 4.

7. According to the Lovecraft Wiki (http://lovecraft.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page), the elder gods, or the Great Old Ones, are unique and fantastical creatures of enormous power from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories that used to preside over Earth like gods. The most well known and popular Great Old One is Cthulhu — a massive creature who has features that resemble a giant octopus.

8. Ralickas, 2007, p. 364.

9. Ralickas, 2007, p. 365.

10. Folklore is often as mediated as individual or commercial cultural forms, its origins are unplanned, spontaneous, and collective. Such vernacular performances are often appropriated into the commercial culture industries, as has been the case with Slender Man. As Mikel Koven (2007) observes, these entities often appropriate folklore for entertainment purposes. Recent examples of this include the NBC TV Series, Grimm, or the frequent appropriation of folklore in Fox’s X-files.

11. In an interview at the Library of Congress (http://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/2014/06/understanding-folk-culture-in-the-digital-age-an-interview-with-folklorist-trevor-j-blank-pt-1/), Trevor Blank describes the blurring of the distinctions between corporeal and virtual reality as being characterized by understanding digital media as being “an authentic extension of our communicative selves without much thought over the medium in which it was sent”. Instead of a social actor viewing a forum board message as a series of zeros and ones curating pixels in a visual interface — social actors see it as equivalent to face-to-face communication (Owens, 2014).

12. Joshua’s claim to have sent the journal to an academic was certainly a narrative performance, it was conducted in such a way to be interactive with the audience (https://jafool.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/getting-rid-of-it/). Joshua wrote that he would give the journal to anyone who posted in the comment section expressing interest and who would e-mail him their address. The comment section exploded into action as audience members scrambled to send their addresses to get the journal. In the end, the journal was sent to a graduate student, named Dav Flamerock, at Miskatonic University (the very fictional University that first appeared in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction).

13. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p. 121.

14. McNeill, 2012, p. 88.

15. Unfiction is a central conduit for users to organize the larger logistics of an alternate reality game. It is also a place to find current games and communicate with other ARGers.

16. As Gabriella Coleman (2015) has pointed out in her ethnography of the hacking group Anonymous, no single group or person can claim ownership over the collective (p. 16). It is also important to note that she observes that collective and anonymous groups are an entirely strange phenomenon in the individual-obsessed Western context (p. 46). Collective identities, such as an ARGer community, would seem out of place. Journalists have a difficult time characterizing the Slender Man legend cycle — it simply can’t be credited to one individual.

17. Drawing from the culture of hacking circles and Internet-based communities, Chess and Newsom use the concept of ‘open sourcing’ to describe how the Slender Man legend was conceived, performed, and negotiated. Chess and Newsom argue, “In this way, the Slender Man was established, debugged, and negotiated through a complex set of generic, yet evolving, expectations” (p. 62).

18. For more information into the nuances of the Slender Man legend cycle, please see Andrew Peck, 2015. “Tall, dark, and loathsome: The emergence of a legend cycle in the digital age,” Journal of American Folklore, volume 128, number 509, pp. 333–348; doi: https://doi.org/10.5406/jamerfolk.128.509.0333, accessed 23 May 2017.

19. In a Daily Dot feature, Miles Klee (2013) explores how an unknown “third-party option holder”, whom is apart from Eric Knudsen, has been shutting down for-profit projects concerning Slender Man. These include two films (both entitled The Slender Man) and a video game (Faceless) — which had initially emerged over the Internet only to be removed because of copyright issues. Hence, there has been no commercial releases of Slender Man.

20. O’Donnell, 2014, p. 350.

21. Lyon, 2017, p. 818.

22. Just Another Fool was credited to be the first Slender Man ARG blog to emerge after the Slender Man exploded in popularity in 2009.

23. Foucault, 1979, p. 200.

24. Latour, 2005, p. 181.

25. Latour, 1986, p. 276.

26. Mosco, 2004, p. 11.

27. Dijck, 2012, p. 4.

28. Kitchin and Dodge, 2011, p. 23.

29. Galloway and Thacker, 2007, p. 4.

30. Galloway and Thacker, 2007, p. 13.

31. Galloway and Thacker, 2007, p. 19.

32. Star, 1991, p. 44.

33. Ralickas, 2007, p. 367.

34. Nguyen, 2016.

35. Murakami Wood and Wright, 2015, p. 135.

36. Chess and Newsom, 2015, p. 57.

37. Chess and Newsom, 2015, p. 54.

38. Chess and Newsom, 2015, p. 55

39. Sandywell, 2006, pp. 43–44.

40. Lyon, 2017, pp. 818–819.

 

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Editorial history

Received 22 August 2016; revised 18 May 2017; revised 20 May 2017; revised 21 May 2017; revised 22 May 2017; accepted 23 May 2017.


Creative Commons License
“The legend of the Slender Man: The boogieman of surveillance culture” by Kyle Curlew is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The legend of the Slender Man: The boogieman of surveillance culture
by Kyle Curlew.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 6 - 5 June 2017
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6901/6311
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v22i16.6901





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