Alexander is a writer from Russia who enjoys researching folklore, myth, and history.
What Is Slenderman?
Nowadays, you hardly find a person who has not heard about the Slenderman (also spelled Slender Man). This creepy character is portrayed as a thin, unnaturally tall humanoid with a hairless head and a featureless face, wearing a black suit. His motivations are unclear, but horror internet stories commonly feature him stalking, abducting, or traumatizing people, particularly children.
The Slenderman was created on June 10, 2009, for the paranormal images photoshop contest on the Something Awful internet forum. User Eric Knudsen, aka Victor Surge, contributed two black-and-white photographs of groups of children, to which he added a tall, thin, spectral figure wearing a black suit. Soon, Surge supplemented his submission with snatches of text—supposedly from witnesses—describing the abductions of the groups of children and naming the character the "Slenderman."
Knudsen was inspired to create it primarily by Zack Parsons' That Insidious Beast, Stephen King's The Mist, and some urban legends, such as reports of shadow people, Mothman, and the Mad Gasser. Other inspirations for the character were the Tall Man from the 1979 movie Phantasm, the work of H.P. Lovecraft and William S. Burroughs, and some survival horror video games, such as Silent Hill and Resident Evil.
Other users appreciated the idea and then decided to contribute with their edits and fictional stories. Gradually, the Slenderman went beyond the Something Awful forum and quickly became the subject of countless stories by multiple authors within an overarching mythos.
The first video series with the participation of the Slenderman was the web series on YouTube, The Marble Hornets (2009–2014), a film adaptation of which was released in 2015, titled Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story. And in 2018, an American supernatural horror movie Slender Man was released. The character also was adapted into a video game Slender: The Eight Pages (2012) and, its successor, Slender: The Arrival (2013).
There are many mythical creatures in different cultures, similar to Slenderman, who could be its prototype but are not directly related to its origin.
One of these creatures is Zherdyaj (Russian: Жердяй), a character of Russian folklore. The name Zherdyaj, formed from the word zherd' ( Russian: жердь [ʐɛrtʲ] - pole), which means a thin long tree trunk, without branches, used in the construction of fences, sheds, roofs, etc.
Russian writer, ethnographer, and lexicographer, V.I. Dahl, wrote in his book On beliefs, superstitions, and prejudices of the Russian people (1880),
"Zherdyaj, from zherd', very tall and thin, sometimes wanders through streets at night, looks into windows, warms his hands in a chimney, and frightens people. He is some miserable vagabond, condemned to rove around the world forever without any purpose or position. It is hard to find out anything sensible about him, but, unlikely, this legend is not in connection with Koshchey the Immortal, who, perhaps, in one place or another was promoted to Zherdyaj."
Here we can see that Dahl connects Zherdyaj with Koshchey the Immortal (Russian: Кощей Бессмертный)—an archetypal male antagonist in East-Slavic mythology and folklore. Fairy tales commonly depict Koshchey as a thin, tall elder or a living skeleton. At the same time, he, as a rule, uses powerful magic and kidnaps girls. Also, a hero cannot defeat him in the usual way.
However, we cannot speak confidently about the connection between Koshchey the Immortal and Zherdyaj because there is deficient information about the latter. One can assume that Zherdyaj was not a very common character in Russian folklore.
To get rid of Zherdyaj and other similar demons, the people resorted to fasting, prayer, and holy water. They also painted a cross on a lintel, with smoke from a candle, taken from a church on Good Friday. In addition, it was customary not to put gates of a house to the north to prevent the penetration of various evil spirits.
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Graveyard Demon of Dagestan
Graveyard demons were a separate category of demonic characters in the traditional beliefs of many different ethnic groups inhabiting the Russian Republic of Dagestan. Although various ethnic groups described the graveyard demon differently, there are often similarities in the description. Therefore, it is possible to single out a generic image of this creature based on the most frequently described features. Also, the graveyard demons of Dagestan have similarities to the Slenderman.
Most often, people attributed these demons as the Hungry Ghosts. Commonly, Dagestanis imagined the Hungry Ghost as a thin and tall anthropomorphic creature, reaching up to rooftops or even up to the sky, usually pale and dressed in white. Sometimes people noted that its face was not visible. In addition, it could either be incorporeal or quite tangible.
According to legends, the primary habitat of the Hungry Ghost was the cemetery, although it could haunt an abandoned house. At night the demon wandered around a village. It slammed shutters, knocked on the windows, stomped its feet on flat roofs, and frightened people. Some ethnic groups, such as the Andalal Avars, believed that only sinners could see the Hungry Ghost, while others thought it also could scare righteous people.
Most often, the origin of the Hungry Ghost was associated with the restless spirit of a dead person who did not receive sufficient alms during the commemoration. Also, the soul of a sinner, after death, could turn into a graveyard demon. For instance, Laks believed that a sinner, after death, suffers in the grave and turns into the Hungry Ghost. They said that if you hear screams from the grave, it is necessary to dig up and finish off the deceased so he does not turn into a demon.
In most cases, meeting with the Hungry Ghost did not bode well for a person. Many believed that the one who met the Hungry Ghost became weak and sick because the demon took his life's energy. People thought that, in this case, it was necessary to chew a piece of bread to restore lost strength. Also, Khunzakh Avars, for example, believed that if the Hungry Ghost hit the met person, the latter would die later for sure. To prevent death, the person had to say aloud the Muslim prayer of Al-Ikhlas from Thursday to Friday (holy time for Muslims) and gave alms.
There were specific customs to protect against the Hungry Ghost. For example, Andalal Avars hammered a nail into the wall of a dwelling and strung on it an empty eggshell so that the souls of deceased family members sat on it and watched after the living.
In addition, Dagestanis tried to perform funeral and memorial rites strictly under the canons of Islam so that their deceased ancestors were satisfied. Also, before eating at the commemoration, it was customary to pronounce the following prayer formula, "Let the souls of dead ancestors sate!"
Other Slenderman-Like Creatures From Around the World
We also can find mythical creatures with similar characteristics in other cultures around the world. There are, for example, the Noppera-bō, faceless Japanese ghosts who like frightening humans. They appear at first as ordinary human beings, sometimes impersonating someone familiar to the victim. Then their features disappear, leaving a blank, smooth sheet of skin where their face should be. Their emergence is always a complete surprise, but the Noppera-bō never attack their victims, only frighten them.
Very similar to the Noppera-bō is Ohaguro-bettari. From behind, this Japanese demon looks like a beautiful woman. She usually appears at twilight and conceals her head from any viewers at first. Any man who comes closer to get a better look is surprised when she turns to reveal her face because it is white, featureless, and contains nothing but a huge, gaping mouth full of blackened teeth. She then begins to cackle terribly, causing the man to run away and scream in terror.
A similar creature in North America originates from Algonquian folklore. It is the Wendigo (or Windigo), an evil, cannibalistic, supernatural being. Nowadays, this creature has become a fixture in popular culture and is a frequent subject in movies and literature all over the world. But the Wendigo in mass culture usually looks like a werewolf, vampire, Yeti, or some combination thereof.
Although, according to most Native American legends, Wendigo's physical form was often human-like. These creatures were taller than regular human height, very skinny with a lipless mouth and sharp teeth, and a silhouette resembled a human. Their bodies were translucent. Wendigos also had a keen hearing, night vision and lured the victim with a whistle or the voice of a loved one. They were strongly associated with winter, the north, coldness, famine, and starvation.
There are many more similar examples in the world. Scientists offer different options for explaining the similarity of myths among peoples that are so historically and geographically distant.
The first option is that parallel independent development has produced similar results in different places, either because similar ecological and social conditions create similar myths or because the human mind contains archetypes that are expressed everywhere in the same way.
Another option is that the similarity can originate from a common source, multiple copying of the same myths from generation to generation and from one nation to another.
Anyway, similar stories appeared in the mythology and folklore of peoples on different continents. Mythological images, in turn, are reflected in modern popular culture. And, eventually, this influenced Eric Knudsen, who created his Slenderman, with similar features to mythical creatures from different parts of the world.
Sources and Further Reading
- The Complete History of ‘Slender Man’ | The Washington Post
Slender Man was invented on a forum in 2009. But since then, he's taken on a mythology all his own.
- The Origins of Slender Man | BBC News
Two stabbings in the US have been linked to the fantasy horror character Slender Man. What is it?
- What Is a Wendigo? All About the Algonquian Legend
What is a Wendigo? A Native American legend also depicted in movies and books, the Wendigo is a beastly spirit with an insatiable appetite for human flesh.
- Noppera-bō | Wikipedia
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.