Parsec Productions, 2012
Like all good libraries the Athenaeum is a haunted place, full of dusty old ghosts. Fragments of history, that recurring nightmare, can be found piled upon every shelf, hidden in every stack, lying in wait around every corner. It was there that I helped compile prints advertising old Jim Crow minstrel shows. There, too, I organized the prolific correspondence of a US Army Medic who served in the European theater during World War II; his earnest horror became my own as I read about his discovery of the Holocaust. Even the view from the topmost balcony is of Boston’s third oldest cemetery, its faded headstones engraved with winged skulls.
There were less dreadful apparitions as well: the hawk that roosted on the roof, for example, and my boss – the head of Reference – whom I later discovered had not only gone to the same university as I would but lived in the same dorm room that housed me my freshman year. I even received research assistance from one of the kindlier manifestations: a Ph.D. student named Phillip who assisted me in tracking down material for an English paper. This was my junior year, you see – long before my own doctoral ambitions had taken shape – so I didn’t then realize the portent he represented.
The paper’s topic was the literary cosmology of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a fin de siècle horror writer whose ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ has garnered an appropriately cultish following in the century after his death. His ghastly pantheon of indifferent alien beings has served as inspiration for numerous writers, artists and thinkers from Stephen King and Ray Bradbury to Jorge Luis Borges and Gille Deleuze. Its secret currents have infected and inflected countless movies, games and comics as well; even Arkham Asylum, where Batman’s defeated enemies are sent, is named after the fictional New England town and its infamous sanatorium which feature so prominently in Lovecraft’s tales of madness.
It was Stephen King’s own observations on the nature of horror fiction to which the proto-Phillip directed me, contained within the bindings of a long-forgotten graduate thesis. King presents a theory – cited in this thesis – about the three kinds of literary fear, which he arranged in a hierarchy. Lowest is revulsion, the ‘gross out’ factor that comes from descriptions of blood, guts and gore – penny dreadful stuff that even he considers a shameful resort. Somewhat more sophisticated is horror, a split-second reaction to ‘stumbling across’ something truly awful – reaching over in bed to touch your lover only to find their body too still and too cold. But most sublime, claims King, is terror, which exists in the fleeting moments before the awful thing is revealed – it is the state where the reader’s own fears are projected onto the void, achieving effects the author’s explicit prose cannot.
At root Lovecraft’s is a cosmology of terror: dread secrets not meant for moral men, alien architectures defying the limited scope of human science, monsters with unpronounceable names the very sight of which can produce gibbering madness, all of it dwelling just out of sight, ready to be stumbled across. But while Lovecraft inaugurated this way of writing, the Cthulhu Mythos itself – as the derivation from ‘myth’, the collected stories of a culture, suggests – was a communal effort. It draws from the collected stories and letters not only of Lovecraft but his ‘circle’, a group of contemporaries that included Robert E. Howard (of Conan fame) and the poet Clark Ashton Smith. Even after Lovecraft’s death his mythos lived on – much like his deathless monsters – in the letters and stories of his successors. It was ultimately compiled and systematized by August Derleth, and while leading scholars contend that Derleth diluted the nihilism of the original mythos with his Catholic morals, Lovecraft’s particular brand of storytelling has retained its potency.
The 21st century has seen the birth of yet another ‘mythos’, one whose genesis is found not in authorial correspondence but rather on the internet message board ’Something Awful’. The task set to the community was this: use camera tricks and digital manipulation to create paranormal images. From the mess of altered photos there emerged a meme with staying power: a dark suited, featureless figure known as the Slender Man, with eerily elongated limbs and umbral tendrils straight out of the Lovecraftian bestiary.
A chord had been struck; soon the hive-mind of the internet was hard at work deriving details for the Slender Man myth, retroactively producing his legend in the very act of digitally inserting him into historical records. Otherwise innocuous archival materials became pieces of apocrypha, serving the story. The Slender Man is inserted into images so that he might be found, as if he was always already there. Image after image is repurposed and recast in a fit of creative mass hysteria. Like Melmoth the Wanderer, this slim specter thrives through textual infiltration. This often amounts to horrible versions of the ‘Where’s Waldo’ challenge, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective. The most chilling images are indeed the most discreet, with the Slender Man hidden in the scenery, a sinister and elusive presence.
But the Slender Man wasn’t content with message boards and stock images. The viral space of YouTube beckoned, and it was there that he found widespread notoriety. That is how I came to be acquainted with this particular mythos, through a series of online videos known best as ‘Marble Hornets’.
The premise is straight out of a Lovecraft story, albeit updated for the new millennium: a haunted friend, a corrupted piece of art, hints of a secret that man was probably not meant to know. The protagonist and narrator, a film student named Jay, delves into an archive of disjointed footage from his friend Alex’s abandoned project, a film titled Marble Hornets. The video series is thus composed both of the ‘source text’ – the footage from Alex’s archive – and clips of Tim’s ‘investigation’ as he tries figure out what happened to his friend while he attempted to shoot the titular film.
The documentary/‘found footage’ style is crucial to the efficacy of the text; the shaky shots, shoddy hand-held camera work and low resolution obscure vision and thus add to the sense of panic and uncertainty. In this vein the ‘Marble Hornets’ series borrows much from the style of the Blair Witch Project (and exposes the viewer to the same risk of nausea). There are numerous forest forays, many of them made at the wrong times of day. Branches crisscross overhead, leaves rustle underfoot, and the darkness of night is deepened by digital compression. The small circle of illumination cast by a flashlight becomes the only clarity, the only certainty.
It’s this tried-and-true style that gets picked up by Parsec Productions, the developers of Slender: The Eight Pages. A self-described ‘short experimental horror game’, Slender places a player in the shoes of one such unlucky night-time investigator. Armed with nothing more than a flashlight with an all-too short battery life, you enter a forest populated with derelict landmarks – an old water tank, an abandoned truck, a concrete structure with a cramped interior. Your goal: to collect all eight of the faintly luminous pages scattered about the woods. As you find each page the forest gets darker, your flashlight gets dimmer, and night fog begins to fill the air. The soundtrack builds, layer upon layer, first with a foreboding drums-in-the-deep rumble, then a horrible ambient buzz that pulses in syncopated rhythm. Soon the night air is full of angry noise, and by now you are running as often as you are walking, praying that your camcorder does not start to register the telltale static that means he is nearby.
All the while the Slender Man stalks you. He moves like a specter: silent, enigmatic and implacable. He can manifest anywhere outside your line of vision, which means he might be waiting around any or every turn – tall and lean and dark, with his featureless face turned towards you – but you will never see him coming. And you don’t want to see him. Even looking at the Slender Man is dangerous, and the closer you are, the more dangerous it is. Look away. Look away before it’s too late.
The game is astonishingly simple, like the videos, and even more effective. I dared to play it in ideal conditions, at midnight with big speakers, the display projected up on a wall, a great window into that dark wood. I got as far as the first page, heard those drums-in-the-deep, and promptly handed the controls over to my spouse. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake as all those doomed Lovecraftian protagonists – should you arrive upon the threshold and feel a nameless dread holding you back, you don’t press on. That way lies madness!
Even my courageous wife was unable to complete the game, if only because it’s actually quite difficult. Each page ramps up the Slender Man’s aggressiveness, and your stamina and battery life only decrease as the game goes on. The forest is already difficult to navigate, and there is no map, only your fading memory and your failing vision. It’s scary as hell, and unforgiving, and it’s also free to download. There are numerous mods, as well, which replace the gaunt forest with the interior of a dilapidated asylum or a derelict hospice. A more lushly developed version called Slender: the Arrival is in the works for commercial distribution, though as of this writing it has yet to be released.
I may not have braved the game for long, but to be sure I got the full experience we watched a number of play-throughs. These videos are testaments to the game’s effectiveness, recording the reactions of players as they play, often edited into ‘best hits/worst frights’ compilations which cut out the swaths of tense exploration which are terrifying for players but less so for a viewers, who get more out of the howls of fright and panicked exclamations. Indeed, there is nothing quite like hearing the raucous, vulgar chatter of a dozen drunk dudes transform into high-pitched shrieks as they turn each corner. One man sings a tremulous chorus of ‘I’m a goofy goober, you’re a goofy goober, we’re all goofy goobers!’, as he weaves between the trees. The most dreadful moments are, of course, when they encounter the Slender Man, but the trepidation is endemic. Much panic results from running across unexpected but innocuous objects, mistaken for monsters. After a particularly mad dash from a sparsely furnished room, one of the drunk dudes asks: ’why are we so frightened of a chair?’ No answer is forthcoming, but we students of terror have an inkling.
As King points out, this most intense fear rests in the knowledge that you may catch a glimpse. As in the images and videos, it is obscurity which best serves the experience. Looking is dangerous, but sometimes only because if you look too long, the dark magic is dispelled. The chair becomes just a chair. Even the Slender Man himself is not so frightening to behold at length. His smooth textures and singular form are not built for a sustained gaze.
This can be said of the Slender Man mythos in general which, by Lovecraftian standards, lacks depth and richness. The more I explore, the more I see of its crowd-sourced canon, the less interesting the Slender Man becomes – even ‘Marble Hornets’ begins to degrade when it tries to display its horror more dead-center. This is not meant as a condemnation or a takedown; I still get nervous late a night, still fear to see a spindly silhouette passing by my window shades in the pale light of the outdoor fluorescents, so clearly the legend has its power. But it is as a legend, apocryphal and indistinct, that the Slender Man is most elusive and thus most terrifying. And it is terror – the sublime dread that comes from frights unseen – that gives the Slender Man his power.
Philip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.