2018 Film Essays

In Real Life: ‘Slender Man’ and the Clash of Media

There is a distinct imbalance in the interplay between memes and movies; the ephemeral nature of memes and the mechanics of filmmaking preclude their easy adaptation to the cinematic form. This may be due to the fact that memes are an inherently parasitic mode of expression, twisting pre-existing material into new shapes — which is why movies make better memes than vice versa. By the time a popular meme hits the screen, it already has the feel of a retrospective. This fact should be disquieting to the film industry, as it points increasingly towards cinema’s position in the cultural ecosystem. Cinema has come to signify an endpoint; it is the graveyard of the meme: less dynamic, less vibrant, less malleable.

Sylvain White’s Slender Man points acutely towards cinema’s existential crisis in relation to the Web’s endless capacity for mutation. Not without some justification, the movie assumes a reactionary stance against online culture, harking back to the broadsides against the destructive potential of home video in its invocation of a virus infecting the family home. But for its argument to carry any validity, Slender Man had to take the crowdsourced mythology of the Slenderman meme and imbue it with uniquely cinematic attributes, a task it singularly fails to achieve. This failure is all the more remarkable when one considers the abundance of symbolic resonances implicit within the Slenderman character, and the fact the screenplay was written by David Birke, who penned Paul Verhoeven’s slyly subversive masterpiece Elle (2016).

Removed from the context which formed it, the Slenderman character is trapped inside a generic chiller which draws on K-horror/J-horror tropes and seeks in vain to construct an approximation of the Lynchian uncanny. It is perhaps ironic that Slender Man is so blatantly beholden to other sources for its aesthetic makeup — it could indeed be argued that the self-reflexivity and reference culture which infested 90s cinema constitutes the origin of the meme. It is quite evident that the female stars of Slender Man are delivering dialogue written by a middle-aged man; they are narrative vessels exhibiting little in the way of character growth, quickly slipping into the depressingly retrograde “teen girl in peril” archetype.

Cinema’s closed, linear storytelling model has struggled for some time to adequately dramatise contemporary models of media consumption. Olivier Assayas did a decent job of integrating text messaging into Personal Shopper (2016), but such devices often feel like an adjunct to the primary plot, lending a sheen of modernity to the same old story models. In the case of Slender Man, the copious use of text and IM merely serves to engender a sense of inertia. Perhaps this is intentional on the part of Birke, as the central message of Slender Man is that the internet is a morass of moral degradation which erodes your sense of self.

Having already been presented with a chilling exploration of the Slenderman phenomenon in the HBO documentary Beware the Slenderman (2016), it is perhaps more interesting to explore Slender Man as a manifestation of the antagonisms which exist between old and new media. It is certainly not difficult to construe Slender Man as one medium condemning another. The Web is to Slender Man what premarital sex was to countless 1980s slasher films: a portal into social transgression for which there will be a reckoning. The character of Wren (Joey King) is a case in point: she is a budding edgelord who has become infected with the toxic irony of chan culture — her bedroom is festooned with slogans like “make America weird again” and “morality is the weakness of the brain.” In this context, Wren is the promiscuous female whose sins will be cleansed by an avenging, typically male, figure.

It is equally possible to read Slender Man as an anti-Trump “#resistance” text. Just as the internet unleashed the Slenderman, it is culpable in bringing forth another seductive monster who uses this technology to warp minds and sow division — the setting of the film in a small town is another signal in this direction, invoking the kind of rustbelt rage and opioid anomie which has come to represent the raging id of Trumpland to many liberal elites. Like the language virus conceived by William S. Burroughs, “the more fear he creates, the more fascinated we get.” This is merely another angle of attack for the movie’s castigation of online culture; the virus has entered the bloodstream and left its victims in a state of mental weakness which the Slenderman will exploit to the utmost, signified by the use of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain.”

Slender Man amounts to a slightly more sophisticated take on Mazes and Monsters (1982); much of what made the original meme so hypnotic is jettisoned in favour of predictable jump-scares and moral hectoring. Ironically, Slender Man is constructed rather like a creepy YouTube playlist; one set-piece follows another, none of them grasping why the Slenderman had the capacity to unsettle in the first place. The character is shown too often, viewers get too close, he is too distinct a presence, and his aura is destroyed. A horror auteur on the level of Wes Craven or John Carpenter may have been able to articulate the allure of the death drive the Slenderman character embodies, but he already seems like a relic of a bygone age — new and very real monsters have supplanted him. What remains is an odd kind of proxy war between competing media; cinema’s inability to keep pace has placed it in an adversarial position, and one cannot escape the feeling that this is a clash in which cinema is hopelessly outgunned. 

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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