No Gods, No Masters: The Rise Of Slenderman, ARGs, And Internet Horror

The best horror stories live on the internet.


I’ll always remember where I was when I first discovered Slenderman.

I was sitting in my car in the university carpark, having heard of this creepy new series on some online forum, watching the introduction vid to Marble Hornets through my fingers, desperately afraid of the inevitable jump-scare the internet has conditioned me to expect when watching unsuspecting footage of moving scenery.

But what I found was so much more interesting.

Admittedly I was too scared to go through with watching all the Marble Hornets videos back then, and only finally came back to the series earlier this year when I discovered Night Mind, a YouTuber who promotes and repackages online horror series in a series of easy to follow explainer videos.

This turned out to be the perfect viewing experience for me — as someone still traumatised from my childhood viewing of The Sixth Sense — who has always loved and admired horror and spooky stories from a distance but always too afraid to actually watch them as intended.

But despite my overactive imagination and low-key belief that ghosts are probably real, I’ve become obsessed with Slenderman, and all the different ways people are finding to tell stories about him.

Creepypasta And ARGs

If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet in the last 10 years, you’re probably familiar with creepypastas — spooky stories presented as totes real accounts of supernatural happenings, like haunted video game ghosts and black-eyed demon children.

Perhaps most notably to come out of this culture is the tall, faceless Slenderman, a Lovecraftian-style being of mysterious origin and motives, who selects targets to haunt and compel into acts of violence.

One of the most enticing aspects of Slenderman is his origins. Created in 2009 in a photoshop contest on the Something Awful forums, this modern urban myth grew out of a collective world of fanfictions and artwork, with multiple creators building upon the lore the same way other urban myths were built, from hundreds of retellings and aural tradition — but this time accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world.

Marble Hornets, and the other two major players in Slenderman fiction, Tribe Twelve and EverymanHYBRID, are known as Augmented Reality Games (ARGs).

Beyond simply videos, these series are multi-platform narrative and puzzle-solving experiences, that take you from YouTube to Twitter to Tumblr, with the characters posting and interacting with their audience as real people.

Paired with their “found-footage” style of their videos and a lack of over-produced CGI monsters, the walls between narrative and audience have been well and truly shattered, and you have something that can almost feel real. And that’s where the thrill lies.

Slenderman And Other Fake Horrors

Horror as a genre has always been most effective when it can convince you that the danger is maybe real.

This is why The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity were such big hits. The characters act like real people, not actors, and their reactions seem genuine. And this is why the internet, playground of the “ordinary celebrity”, is such an effective platform.

Anyone can film, edit and upload a video and go viral to thousands, if not millions, of viewers around the world. And while these days we’re a lot more accustomed to the “manufactured reality” of scripted prank videos and sponsored YouTuber feuds, there’s still the vein that the internet is full of real people.

Or at least more so than the people we see in Hollywood films or The Bachelor.

This is the realm where ARGs thrive. The limited perspective, the slow drip of information, even the long distances between uploads building suspense, all lend themselves to creating realistic, lived-in universes and characters that feel like they’re growing in real time. Plus with the added interactivity and community, the audience is invited to become part of the story.

EverymanHYBRID frequently arranged real-world item drops where followers would track down a series of coordinates and upload an unboxing of a sinister package of clues that would move the story forward. How many other stories sent you out into the woods to retrieve a torn photo from a blood-splattered cardboard box? Or dared you to film yourself burying your five most treasured possessions to satisfy the demands of a fictional demon?

While I’m more than happy just being an observer to these games and trials, I love these Slenderman series for their creativity.

I’ve since developed a real love for the weird, chasing down as many spooky ARGs, podcasts and even Twitter feeds, that try to tell stories in new ways, as I can. These independent and highly accessible mediums are capable of creating stories and reaching audiences that Hollywood can only dream of — as we can see from their pitiful attempt to capitalise on Slender Man earlier this year.

And there’s something satisfyingly punk-rock in revelling in a shared fictional world that you can contribute to that defies the traditional gate-keepers.