He was born on a Photoshop forum. The assignment was to add something supernatural to an unexceptional situation: a corporate meeting, a self help seminar, or a state fair.
I found a picture of a church picnic that was perfect. It took place in a field, there was a lot of space between the subjects, and the horizon was filled with evergreens. If viewers looked closely at the tops of the trees they’d see a figure in the canopy: a silhouette formed from the crisscrossing branches. A wooden giant poised to crash the gathering and have a picnic of his own.
I achieved this look by taping markers to my fingers and posing with my hands curled like claws. In Photoshop, I ran the lasso tool around my likeness, creating a clipping mask. Then I rebuilt my limbs with images of twigs, and positioned my creation in the image right in front of the sun. It took forever to replicate the scratches in the source photograph, but the final product looked real. Too bad no one on the message board noticed my straw man looming over the scene. He was too complicated for viewers to spot right away. So they just clicked the right arrow and moved on.
Slender Man on the other hand popped right out of the first picture to feature him. Even buried behind a group of dead-eyed children viewers eyes were drawn to him. He demanded to be seen.
He was so simple: a tall rail thin figure in a suit and tie, with a blank featureless face. He looked like a well tailored bank robber beneath several layers of pantyhose. Later other photo manipulators would lengthen Slender Man’s arms, give him tentacles, and an grotesque shadow. They’d make him distort the light around him like a broken VHS tape. In his first appearance the Slender Man looked like a balloon in a suit coat, but that was simple and frightening enough to catch on..
Slender Man struck a nerve. He became a lazy Halloween costume for tall men everywhere. Fan fiction writers built a mythology around Him. He stalked melodramatic actors through found footages movies and gamers through polygon blades of grass.
He was an exquisite corpse pieced together from crowdsourced nightmares. The fact anyone could use Wikipedia to trace his authorship to a Photoshop contest did little to demystify him. He was an urban legend whose manufactured origins only strengthened the world’s belief in him. Everyone had put a little of their own fear into the character and when it came to people on the internet we feared nothing more than each other.
It didn’t take long before the Slender Man was used as an alibi for a gruesome crime.
Meanwhile my meticulously crafted straw man continued to go undiscovered. There were more paranormal Photoshop contests and I kept on introducing him to the denizens of the net. I modified my creation with each new iteration, stretching his arms out, adding spikes to his shoulders, and antlers to his head. I gave him leaves for ears, vines for a beard, and stump hips. I gave him a pair of twinkling maple droplets for eyes.
I stayed awake until the sun came up flexing my Photoshop muscles, but every time I uploaded my creation something happened in the compression process. No matter how much I brought my Straw Man into the foreground a visual artifact obscured him. Sometimes it was lens flare. Sometimes it was mist, and sometimes it was a shadow stretching across his face.
I tried to save my images in other formats, but blockages kept appearing. A white orb obscured the Straw Man’s face. Straight black lines crossed through his hands, and wavy black lines crossed through his legs.
This is embarrassing, but I was still using a pirated version of Photoshop. I figured Adobe had found a way to tamper with my images, to allow me to sample their software, while preventing me from outputting anything. The problem with this theory was that none of the awkward artifacts showed up in any of my other images, only the Straw Man ones. Was someone at Adobe watching my designs as I made them? Did they see how much of my heart and soul I put into my Straw Man and decide to attack him?
I decided to put my theory to the test. I’d create a clear image of the Straw Man with no other subjects: no people, no trees, and no clouds, just a blank background. None of his pieces would blend into any branches. The image would only feature the logs, twigs, and bark that made up his body.
This was the most fully realized version of the Straw Man I’d ever built. I positioned the cinders that made up his face to give him a nasty expression. The sticks that made up his eyebrows made him look furious, and those twinkling beads of amber in his eyeholes looked like they had a soul. This version didn’t look the least bit digital. I’d used so many advanced shading techniques he looked like a picture of a sculpture. I kept tweaking the elements long after he was done, putting off the moment of truth for as long as possible.
I worked up the courage to save my Straw Man at the highest possible resolution. My laptop’s fan kicked on as Photoshop worked to flatten all the layers. I had to set the computer on the coffee table before it burned a hole in my thighs. A progress bar popped up on screen. It looked like this was going to be a while. I stepped out.
When I came back to the apartment I found someone had turned the lights off, and repositioned the laptop to face the entrance. The screen had gone to sleep. All I saw was the flashing light at the base of the trackpad. I hit the keyboard. The spinning hard drive sputtered to life. The screen flickered on and I fell backward.
Photoshop had finished saving, but there was no more Straw Man in my image. His body had been reduced to kindling. Ripped right down the middle by the Slender Man who’d made the image his own.