A dapper besuited fellow with a blank face and elongated limbs, the “creepypasta” Internet horror creation known as Slenderman was at first the work of one person -- Eric Knudsen (“Victor Surge”) -- writing on a forum called “Something Awful” in 2009. The eerie figure, inspired by everything from the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and the Silent Hill games, soon found his way into YouTube series and video games of his own, and even influenced an infamous 2014 stabbing incident in which two young girls attacked a third girl in order to prove their loyalty to Slenderman.
But long before Slenderman slinkily infiltrated pop culture and the public consciousness, there were a number of other urban legends and cryptids (“hidden animals”) that laid the groundwork for the rise of the tall one. Here we take a look at a few of them, including one that was one of the direct inspirations for Slenderman’s creation…
Location of Origin: Possibly England
Description: Just a girl really, although sometimes blood-soaked Carrie style.
The Tale: For all those familiar with conjuring creatures by repeating their names (Beetlejuice, Candyman, the Bye Bye Man), the grandmother of them all is Bloody Mary, whose ghost appears when you look in a mirror and say her name three times. Early versions said that Mary could tell a young girl whether she would marry or die (because of course those are the only two options). More modern variations attribute horrific acts of violence and even fatal attacks to the otherwise benign ghost, and some stories link her with the childless Queen Mary I. And like most of the other beings here, she’s all over pop culture; she even gets name-checked in Paranormal Activity 3.
Cousins: Japanese ghosts like “Hanako-san,” “Teke Teke,” and “Aka Manto,” and “Moaning Myrtle” from the Harry Potter books and films
Location of Origin: Abilene, Texas, and Portland, Oregon (just to name two)
Description: What do you want? They’re pale little kids, and they have black eyes.
The Tale: These creepy critters show up on your doorstep, asking to be let in for a variety of reasons -- food, help, the consumption of your blood and/or soul (OK, they’re not up front about that part). Stories about these bone-chilling encounters began in 1998, and are part of the rise of the Internet-based “creepypasta” urban legends of which Slenderman is a member. Their presence inspires instant fear, and they’re persistent… but what are they? One interpretation is that they are “Grays” or alien agents attempting to abduct people by disguising themselves as humans, while others believe them to be a form of vampire or demonic entity.
Cousins: The alien “Grays,” The British Black Dog, that neighbor kid that never leaves you alone
Location of Origin: Pacific Northwest, United States
Description: A tall, hairy humanoid, often said to have a large Neanderthal-like brow and elongated, ape-like limbs.
The Tale: Surely you’ve heard of this one; after all, the Six Million Dollar Man fought him (well, not quite, but never mind)! A veritable library has been written about this star of the cryptid scene, even though some of the most famous “evidence” has long since been debunked. The shy, lumbering missing link has been one of the most popular tall tales in American folklore, with numerous scientific investigations and stories of “Sasquatch” (a name derived from a First Nations language) turning up on TV, in movies, comics, video games, and everywhere else in pop culture. Warning: Not all sightings involve a creature as benign as Harry, so don’t expect to take one home.
Cousins: The Himalayan “Yeti,” the Japanese “Hibagon,” the Australian “Yowie”
Location of Origin: Point Pleasant, West Virginia
Description: The name says it all; he’s a human figure with an insect-like head, reflective red glowing eyes, and seven- to ten-foot wings.
The Tale: One of the main inspirations for Slenderman, Mothman was first reported in 1966-1967. John Keel’s 1975 book, The Mothman Prophecies, credited the creature with giving locals visions of the future, including the 1967 collapse of a suspension bridge that killed nearly 50 people. Keel’s book later served as the basis for the 2002 Richard Gere film of the same name. The Mothman is sometimes regarded as alien or having some connection to alien abductions and the arrival of Men in Black (see that entry below for more). Point Pleasant embraces the history of the Mothman with an annual festival and a statue; might as well fleece the tourists, right?
Cousins: The “Flatwoods Monster,” the Cornish “Owlman,” Slenderman himself
Location of Origin: Across the United States
Description: Didn’t you read the header? OK, they’re usually wearing sunglasses too.
The Tale: Part of the vast tapestry of alien abduction and UFO lore that exploded post-Roswell in 1947, the Men in Black are apparently government operatives (who may or may not be disguised aliens) that turn up at sites of alien or flying saucer sightings and try to cover up the circumstances of those sightings through threats and intimidation. Among the many UFOlogists that claimed to have first-hand encounters with Men in Black is none other than John Keel (see our Mothman entry). Their most significant role in pop culture is as the basis for the Men in Black films starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, themselves based on a comic book by Lowell Cunningham. Now look at this light…
Cousins: The Alien “Grays,” G-Men, the Secret Service
Location of Origin: Puerto Rico, Caribbean Sea
Description: The wolf-lizard has been described in various ways, but its back is usually adorned by quills or spines, with its skin referred to as green or gray. However, there are accounts that lean more toward a hairless canine form with a humped spine.
The Tale: We got Chupacabras all up in here! Those of you that haven’t seen the gift to cinema history that is Chupacabra vs. the Alamo might not get that reference, but the vampiric “goat sucker” (the Spanish name translated) has been sighted since 1995, and hundreds of animal deaths have been attributed to the creature’s blood-draining attacks. The “Bigfoot of Latino culture” was actually first based on someone’s recollection of Sil, the main creature in Species, and US accounts are probably just bewildered people misinterpreting encounters with diseased coyotes.
Cousins: New Orleans “grunches,” Filipino “Sigbin,” Chilean “Peuchen”
Location of Origin: Wooded areas across the United States
Description: This spectral bear-like creature has a very flexible stomach, and can draw it in so far that it can flatten itself behind the trees. No, really.
The Tale: Perhaps the lamest cryptid on this list, this creature’s only shtick is to hide behind a tree and attack lumberjacks and loggers, bringing them back to its lair in order to feast on their intestines. If you want to keep the Hidebehind away, just drink heavily; they hate alcohol. Despite its limited legend and equally meager abilities, the Hidebehind has surprisingly made a disproportionate impact on pop culture, with references turning up in novels, television shows, and even a special news release from the world of Harry Potter on J.K. Rowling’s “Pottermore” website.
Cousins: Yogi Bear, that friend that hides behind a tree during Hide-and-Seek that you can totally still see
Location of Origin: Pine Barrens, New Jersey
Description: A bat-winged, horned, and hooved biped with features akin to that of a goat or even a kangaroo.
The Tale: A cryptid that’s lent its moniker to sports teams and an episode of The X-Files, the Jersey Devil lets out a shriek that makes those screaming goats on YouTube look like amateurs. As for its beginnings, the story goes that old Mother Leeds -- who may or may not have been a witch -- cursed her thirteenth child, transforming it into a demonic apparition. The Leeds Devil was already a legend by the end of the 1700s, evolving into the modern Jersey Devil of today. There have been “Devil Hunter” investigations and a few proven hoaxes, but the sightings continue.
Cousins: Ghostly denizens of the Pine Barrens, like the manifestations of Captain Kidd, the Golden-Haired Girl, and the White Stag (Expecto Patronum!)
Location of Origin: Frederick County, Maryland
Description: A winged, beaked, one-eyed bird-lizard hybrid with claws and tentacles -- sounds like a Lovecraftian nightmare, doesn’t it?
The Tale: Being a Marylander, I couldn’t very well write this article without a nod to one of our local legends, silly though it may be (although aren’t they all?). From the German “Schneller Geist” or “quick ghost,” this is another blood sucker that strikes from above. During one run of sightings in the early 1900s, no less a figure than President Theodore Roosevelt himself contemplated tracking down the creature. If you want to keep it away, paint a seven-pointed star on the side of your house or barn. Why? Who the heck knows?
Cousins: Not a cousin so much as an enemy, the werewolf-like Dwayyo or Dewayo is another local legend. This sounds like an Asylum/Syfy production: Snallygaster Vs. Dewayo. I’ll handle scripting, guys!
What urban legends are you particularly fond of -- or freaked out by? Let’s discuss in the comments!
Find Arnold T. Blumberg on Twitter at @DoctoroftheDead.