To create a legend is, seemingly, a herculean task. A legend not only has to have some essential components to its makeup, but it most also penetrate culture to some degree to achieve its legendary status. In the world of horror or dark fiction, it has to register on the conscious level as something worth taking note of, but the real trick is to get inside the subconscious, to get to that reptilian nub of gray matter that evokes the fight-or-flight response, to reach deeply enough to resonate in our dreaming life, too. I don’t know that one can set about to create something that iconographic, though I’ve certainly had many people ask. Film producers are quick to assume that imagining a creature or killer that will be worthy of franchising is simple enough – give it a name, maybe a back story, stir in some victims and – voila! – instant legend. A quick look through the films on Netflix or on the virtual shelves of an Amazon book search and you’ll see numerous attempts to create such a thing, most spectacular only in their failure. Yet, some make the leap, otherwise there would be nothing to discuss.
In examining what constitutes a legend of fear, I’ve attempted to identify a few rules for their creation, with the obvious caveat that none of this is easy, only universally applicable in my opinion. We’ll take two examples, one very old and one very new, and apply these rules.
Legends exist because the fact of them is communicated to others. Through a variety of media, from the ancient folktales to the modern internet message boards, the concept at the heart of the legend must be easy to convey from speaker to listener, and easy enough to grasp in a natural and often sudden way.
Our first example is the vampire. For hundreds of years, one variation or another of the blood-sucking undead has been with us. From the gothic to the gory and the old to the new, vampires have achieved a legendary status. There is an ease to the design of this creation that seems obvious. If the vampire were not yet a part of our culture, one could easily see how its inception could occur even today. So, let’s look at these poor undead folks. First, they have to consume the blood of the living to continue to exist. Easy enough to grasp. Then, the other side of the vampiric curse – should a vampire come to your door and you’re foolhardy enough to invite them in, they can feed on you to the point that you die and become one of them! Throughout dark fiction, the notion of being transformed or corrupted has resonated. The werewolf, invasions of body snatchers, zombies… all are corruptions of the self to one degree or another. This fear is a particularly nasty one in that the only thing we can truly say we possess is our own psyche, and some of us, not even that. To have ourselves altered in a way beyond our control is a horrifying notion, because we lose that essential “self” that we rely on to make sense of the world around us. So, the simplified version of the vampire rests on two primary fears: something wants to eat us and, if it does, we might disappear and become like it! Obviously, variations on this theme abound, but we’ll get to that.
The second example is a recent creation, born from the Something Awful message boards – The Slenderman. If you haven’t heard of this boogeyman yet, you will. It’s winding its way through fiction and film in a remarkable way. Here’s the original thread from the boards that introduced Slenderman: http://forums.somethingawful.com/showthread.php?threadid=3150591. The root of the Slenderman legend is that the too-long and too-lean figure appears in photographs of children, just before said children disappear. Later adaptations say that it stalks a victim, sometimes for years, especially adult victims of childhood trauma. As the fiction around it grew, the faceless Slenderman developed an additional nasty trait – if you look too long at the creature, you go mad. The figure itself is striking, often appearing in a black suit, with impossibly long arms and tentacular growths on its back. Most importantly, it seems to focus on children and the emotionally weak as its victims, though no agreed-upon canon exists to explain what The Slenderman does with said children and damaged victims exists. So, creepy appearance besides, let’s get to the simplicity of design here… The Slenderman preys on the weakest among us, and there may be nothing so devious in the weapons of a writer as putting a child or the infirm at risk. We have genetic wiring that makes the protection of children a priority for us, so the thought of something sinister taking our children is abhorrent to us. Likewise, we are taught, especially in American culture, to protect the weak, that we are our brother’s keeper. Look at the success of films ranging from The Exorcist to Poltergeist to the more recent Sinister. There is a long, bloody thread that runs through much fiction where a child is placed at risk and it’s up to the adults to save him or her. Often, the threat is mysterious and only by ascertaining the nature of the threat may we rescue the child. Similarly, Stephen King has all but created a cottage industry of having the disabled of one type or another be placed in danger, making us feel the knee-jerk urge to protect them at all costs. Yet, the insidious nature of The Slenderman is that he (it?) cannot be comprehended lest we be rendered incapable of aiding due to our own insanity. It’s a dark twist, but an effective one. There is a fatalism about this character that is uncomfortable. If he appears, there is nothing to save us or the children. It is inexplicable and undeniable. The fact that we are also driven insane by seeing him, by the confirmation of his very existence, speaks not only to the loss of self, but a horror that is almost Lovecraftian in nature. With H.P. Lovecraft’s work, his love of description of wrong angles and elder gods ultimately suggests that there are things beyond human comprehension and that, in attempting to understand them, we are opening ourselves to a madness borne of our own insignificance. Thus, with The Slenderman, we face two opposing base fears – the inability to protect our children and the weak and the inability to understand.
The second characteristic a legend shares is that of flexibility. Because our fears, especially our conscious fears, change, the legendary fear must change with us. Vampires, of course, have been warped and morphed into representations of any number of things. David Cronenberg’s Rabid gave us vampirism as social disease, just as sexual liberation in the United States found its footing. Anne Rice and her brooding vampires gave us the vampire as misunderstood outcast. Even Stephanie Meyer’s sparkly vampires (ugh) gave us a new metaphor for the vampire as unattainable lover. For the legend to exist beyond its origin, it must be adaptable to a new set of fears, highlighting or inventing new aspects to remain viable as a source of unease.
The Slenderman example is more fascinating, as its creation is so recent. The adaptability still holds true, however, as writers and filmmakers use the base elements of the Slenderman legend to wrap around their own stories. And, since The Slenderman is so new, his origin is still in flux, allowing the best ideas to grow into canon for the character. The idea that one cannot look long at him was introduced, to the best of my knowledge, by a video game, but has quickly been embraced as an essential part of The Slenderman’s makeup. A half-dozen films are announced or in development using this character, and there is every chance that a particular filmmaker’s vision of the creature may cement into popular culture the way Stoker’s take on the vampire became a standard. Regardless, The Slenderman evolves at a rapid rate, giving us a unique insight into the ways in which community variations may be shared and internalized like a virus. He has progressed from simple stealer of children to stalker of the damaged. The end result is often left a blank, sometimes hinted that he will lure his victim to the dark woods and steal their organs. But to what end? The empty spaces in the legend are often the most terrifying.
As we discussed, communication of the essential nature of the iconic fear factory is necessary for a legend, but so is the manner in which the legend is communicated. For something to exist only in written form, or only as a film, limits its influence, and, for something to be legendary, it must be pervasive. The vampire began as folk tales one can imagine around a fire, or told in the dark of night in whispers between beds. Vampire literature, including even some effective poetry, is so easy to find, whole sections of book stores have been devoted to the genre. The vampire legend was one of the first to be captured on film, from the pointed features of Max Schreck to our modern interpretations that resemble ourselves more than the vaguely lupine nosferatu. Books, movies, television, paintings… the vampire inhabits them all, and fires the imagination still. No matter what forms of media we invent in the future, it is a safe bet the vampire will find itself there.
Alternately, The Slenderman was conceived in a modern format – the internet message board. Like a story told around the fire, it was conceived as an image, a singular take on the thrill of scaring strangers. From Photoshopped pictures, it made the leap to storytelling via web video ( a particularly good set may be found here: http://www.youtube.com/user/MarbleHornets) , then film. Literature is available, but still in short supply, however the burgeoning popularity leads one to believe that plenty of authors will find inspiration in the mysterious and malevolent creature. And, because much of The Slenderman’s mythology is based on the notion that he may only be glimpsed quickly, the manner in which people consume media so quickly makes The Slenderman’s pop-up scares provide for modern media approaches, but the underlying mythology, the thing that makes the character really terrifying, exists narratively in wiki pages and message boards rather than traditional fiction.
There are other criteria that make a legendary fright, well, legendary, but these are the three that presented themselves consistently and without exception. And it does exclude some characters some may consider legendary… but I am hard pressed to think of one. It also speaks to the fact that something does not necessarily have to be old to be legendary, but only has to wind its way into the zeitgeist. While the vampire is the old granddad of horror fiction, The Slenderman represents an increasingly popular and modern trope which seems to be on the verge of tipping into popular consciousness on a grand scale. Whether it has the staying power of our fanged friends, only time will tell.