Exploring how and why we watch. by Jane Schoenbrun
Why I Spent Months Making An Archival Documentary about The Slenderman
When I was thirteen years old I spent a good deal of my free time posting on an online message board dedicated to Wes Craven’s Scream film series. I was a nerdy, creative kid stuck in suburbia, and I’d stay up late on my parents’ basement desktop computer writing long, elaborate, I’m-sure-illegible fan fiction stories to post on the message board.
This was a subculture on the forum: users would regularly post their own fictional horror stories (some inspired by the Scream movies, some original). The stories would often feature the characters from Scream mixed with new characters inspired by (and named after) members of the forum itself. This meant that I was a character in several people’s stories, and these same people were characters in my stories. We would all comment on each other’s work, suggesting directions we’d like each story to go, complaining when the characters named after us got killed off. Sometimes we’d even write our own chapters or sequels to other people’s stories, exquisite-corpse style.
I didn’t talk with many of these message board users outside of the message board, but there was one person I struck up a deeper relationship with. Our conversations evolved from comments on each other’s stories to private messages, then to AOL Instant Messenger. Twenty years on, my memories of the whole relationship are pretty foggy, but I believe we even spoke on the phone once or twice. He probably told me his real name at some point, but I don’t remember it. All I remember are the first three letters of his forum username and his AOL screen name: WAJ.
WAJ was in his early twenties. He was gay. He was close with his mother. He was a big fan of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I was too). He wrote vampire-centric fan-fiction. And he was suffering. Over time, WAJ started confiding in me over AIM about his struggles with depression, his recurring thoughts of suicide. I’d sign online to chat with friends from middle school or with girls I hadn’t seen since sleepaway camp, and WAJ would IM me something along the lines of, “Had a horrible day today. Not sure I can keep going.”
Even though I was pretty young at the time it definitely occurred to me that this was not the ideal online relationship for a thirteen-year-old boy to be getting himself into. I increasingly began to feel both sympathy and anger for WAJ. My natural impulse when getting one of these “cry for help” messages was to listen and to offer comfort. I instinctively felt that ignoring someone in that much pain would be an act of cruelty. But I also didn’t understand why he had decided to anoint me of all people as his personal confidant.
So this went on for the better part of a year — the suicidal twenty-something and his recently Bar Mitzvah’d therapist. Then at some point WAJ started telling me about his new boyfriend. This was before online dating, and I don’t recall how they met. He told me that the guy had been struggling with drug addiction. Even considering this though, the boyfriend seemed like a good influence. Or at the very least, WAJ’s deep sadness had momentarily receded. He was on an upturn.
Then one night WAJ IM’d me, and this conversation I remember clearly, even 20 years on:
“I have a secret,” he told me.
It was a big one, he insisted. Like, “change the way you see the world” big. He said he would let me in on it, but only if I promised to keep it between us. I promised, and for the past two decades I’ve kept my promise.
Anyway, I’m about to finally break that promise.
Here’s what he told me:
“Vampires are real.”
It turns out that WAJ’s new boyfriend, WAJ explained to me, was a literal, honest-to-God vampire. “It’s not like in the movies,” he assured me. “There are no fangs.”
He was vague and evasive with further details, and the chat transcripts are lost to the ages, but I remember him telling me that his boyfriend had fed on him and he had fed back, meaning they had literally drank each other’s blood. He said that the experience was exciting and frightening. I remember clearly that he said something like, “I’m really scared to go down this path because I don’t know what I’m becoming.”
He promised to tell me more soon.
I remember sitting in math class after that feeling scared for WAJ, worried about his mental health. I was annoyed too. What the hell had I gotten myself into online? This was the kind of thing guidance counselors held assemblies to warn us against, wasn’t it?
I never seriously entertained the possibility that WAJ’s story was real, but I was pretty sure that he genuinely believed it. That him and his boyfriend had managed to convince each other of this fantasy. Or maybe he didn’t believe any of it… who really knows. Maybe he didn’t even have a boyfriend. Maybe he’d made this whole thing up to see how I’d react. Maybe this just another form of role playing for him — an extension of those fan fiction stories we’d both been writing online.
But then I found myself considering in the most fleeting of moments: can you imagine if he wasn’t making any of this up? I felt something akin to wonder. Like, imagine if this was all real? Really real. Would that make the world a scarier place, or a more exciting one?
I switched my AOL screen-name to invisible so that WAJ wouldn’t be able to see me while I was online, but so that I could still sign on and chat with my real-life friends. Every time I turned the invisibility feature off WAJ would IM me immediately, I’d sign back off.
I finally changed my screenname in the ninth grade. We fell out of touch.
I was 26 at the time and working a day job. I have no doubt that if I was ten years younger, I would have not only already known about the Slenderman, but I would have already been in the woods with a GoPro making movies about him, corralling my reluctant friends to fake dead in a pile of leaves. I would have been online writing “creepypasta” stories.
I fell down the rabbit hole. Like thousands before me I started watching YouTube videos, reading creepypastas, Wiki-entries, and MMORPG forum posts, all of them written in the first-person, most of them written by kids. I was fascinated by the agreed-upon premise underlying this creative movement: that contributors would never break character, that they would never admit that the experiences they were recounting were fictional. This allowed contributors and participants to immerse themselves, to live for awhile in the fictional worlds they had invented together.
The result of this was that fiction and reality began to bleed together in compelling, sometimes disturbing ways. I recall a typo-laden forum post I came across one night written in the first-person by a young girl haunted by the Slenderman, in which she detailed her habit of stealing pills from her parents’ medicine cabinet to cope with her parents’ divorce. Was this a complete fabrication or a genuine cry for help?
Did WAJ really believe that “secret” he told me all those years ago?
I don’t scare easily, but there was definitely something scary to me about the Slenderman (or more specifically, there was something scary to me about him at 1:00AM in a dark bedroom).
But it was difficult to put my finger on exactly what it was that frightened me about all this. I think it was less the image of the Slenderman himself — the suit, the tentacles, the increasingly complex and convoluted mythology built across thousands of amateur videos and stories. It was more the premise inherent in the Slenderman’s creation that scared me. It was the way fiction refused to be quarantined from reality.
My Slenderman fixation only heightened after the 2016 election. “Donald Trump is a Tulpa,” one blog surmised, referencing a popular theory that explains the Slenderman’s origin in Buddhist terms. “He exists because you thought of him. Now try and not think of him,” one user wrote in the message board thread that originally birthed the Slenderman character.
I began to notice how the real world crime, carried out by two young girls both since diagnosed with severe schizophrenia, was in the process of being swallowed back up into the Slenderman fictional mythology. While the Slenderman fan community had released official statements distancing themselves from the stabbing (and asserting that fictional stories should not be blamed for real life tragedies), references to the stabbing were now cropping up in many new Slenderman stories and videos, held up as further evidence of the creature’s power. Most recently, whether intentionally or not, echoes of the stabbing can be found haunting the trailer of Sony’s upcoming Slenderman horror movie.
This creature had been born fictional, but had found a way to manifest into reality. Now it was in the process of being swallowed back up, fictionalized and commodified once again.
At first I considered the film to be a work of media criticism. And it is. But I’ve since come to understand the film best as a work of theological inquiry. I’ve always thought of art as a form of secular worship, and this was a film made during a crisis of faith.
I have no desire to profit from it, or to commodify it in a traditional sense. It feels too personal to me to do that. And besides, it’s my belief that no one should participate in a meme to make money. Instead I submit this film openly and humbly here for the internet to chew up and spit back out (or perhaps just to ignore).
I do want to make clear that the film is not meant to be viewed as a fan documentary. My goal here is not to pay tribute to the archive of videos that I’ve pulled from. Rather, I want to use these videos — hundreds of them (though, it must be noted, this is just a small sampling of the near-infinite supply of Slenderman videos uploaded to YouTube over the past nine years) to interrogate bigger questions that arise when considered collectively.
I also want to clarify that my film is not meant as a social-issue documentary or an anti-internet screed. I have no interest in casting blame in any one direction, or arguing that the tragic incident at the heart of this film serves as evidence that the internet or YouTube or video games should be legislated. People have been carrying out atrocities in the name of fictional texts for a lot longer than YouTube has been around. What’s behind that impulse?
At one point during the trial of Anissa Weier (one of the young girls who carried out the stabbing), a psychologist was asked to clarify the definition of a delusion. Specifically, the defense attorney asks her, what is the difference between the belief in a commonly-accepted fiction (like Santa Claus) and the belief in what psychologists refer to as a “bizarre delusion?” (like, say, the belief that Slenderman is literally real and wants you to stab your friend).
“That’s a culturally accepted norm that we have in society,” the psychologist explains, referring to Santa Claus. “And it’s different in that… it’s culturally accepted. And it becomes challenged by the person themselves, the child… they outgrow that…”
But, I hope to ask, what about all those fictions that we never outgrow as individuals and as a society? Because while we don’t all suffer from schizophrenia, as human beings we are all hungry to uncover meaning in a world largely devoid of it. We adopt belief systems. We find ways to insulate ourselves from reality, to live lives dependent on fictions — personal fictions, historical fictions, societal fictions, religious fictions.
This is a coping mechanism I think, and almost certainly an innate human impulse. There’s a sadness and a darkness to this. But does that render life a tragedy? A horror movie? Or can there be something beautiful found in this — our appetite for delusion? I don’t just mean in the allure and the comfort of the delusion itself, but in our longing for it.
Thank you for watching my documentary. I hope you can zero in on a wavelength through which to engage with it. I’d like to dedicate it to Ford and Aury, who I consider the heroes of the film. And to WAJ, wherever he is.