“The Slender Men”

by David Erik Nelson

©2012/2013 David Erik Nelson
All Rights Reserved

James Hodge would later claim to have immediately liked the slender young woman who stopped him in the bustling lobby of the Mount Pleasant Doubletree Hotel and Conference Center—but that wasn’t true. And it wasn’t just because Hodge wasn’t much of a “people person.” Even before she spoke—even before she’d stopped him—the young woman in the awful glasses had made him nervous. Puzzling over this later, Hodge decided that what had made him nervous was the way that she’d approached him: Not obsequious or shy or aloof or uncertain, but with the trotting confidence of the predator advancing on prey that has no hope of escape—an absurd first impression that evaporated as soon as the girl extended her hand for a smirkingly ironic parody of the businessman’s double-pump handshake.

“Professor Hodge?” she asked.

Hodge nodded, and didn’t bother to correct her; 90 percent of the time, when someone addressed him as “professor,” that person was ultimately both confused and annoyed by any correction. Hodge could see where these folks were coming from: What the hell were they supposed to call him? “Three-Year-Renewable-Contract Lecturer Hodge”? “Stuck-on-the-Non-Tenure-Track-Hamster-Wheel Educator Hodge”?

Besides, being mistaken for an actual professor on a bright October afternoon by a young woman in godawful glasses and a flippy, summery skirt—well, that was far from the worst indignity suffered by short, overweight folklorists from third-tier Indiana corn-colleges.

“My name is Kadie Kay.” She had a large purse slung across her chest and clutched a small journal in both hands. She was young for an academic conference. Hodge assumed she wrote for the school paper at Central Michigan University, which was hosting this Annual Meeting of the American Skeptical Society. “You gave the slender men talk yesterday afternoon?”

“Yes,” Hodge replied, smiling, “Well, no. I mean, I did make passing mention of the Slender Man—singular—in yesterday’s presentation, because of my more recent work. But that was an aside; I was invited to speak about late-19th and early 20th Century spirit photography, which is the area of my expertise—”

“You’re the guy claiming that slender men are a hoax?”

The word claim clanged in Hodge’s ear, and he proceeded cautiously. “Ms. Kay, the Slender Man is a hoax, an Internet photo-manipulation meme begun in June 2009 by someone using the pseudonym ’Victor Surge.’ That’s documented.”

“It’s not a hoax,” the girl said simply. “And Vic’s pictures weren’t photoshops. They were mine.”

“Your art?” Hodge suggested.

“My snapshots. From my dad.”

Hodge’s heart raced. A chill frisson swept over Hodge. He indicated a secluded pair of leather wing-backed chairs, leaning together conspiratorially to either side of a tiny side table dominated by a large pumpkin. “Let’s take a second to sit and chat.” He said. “You’d like a danish? A coffee?”

The young woman brightened as only an undergrad can at the offer of free pastry. “Coffee with cream and sugar, and something to munch, please.”

Hodge bustled back to the panelists’ hospitality suite, where he filled a paper Starbucks cup with generic hotel coffee, topped it with skim milk, dumped in sugar, and plated two blueberry danishes. He quick-walked back to the lobby, half expecting the girl to have disappeared . . . or his colleagues to have gathered to rib him for being such a rube (and at a conference for skeptics, no less.)

But she had not left the cozy corner, nor had she spawned co-conspirators. The thin girl sat upright, dwarfed by the deep chair, her large bag at her feet like a faithful hound. She held the little black journal beneath crossed palms, pinned to her lap as though it was liable to flutter off on its own.

“What do you think you know about slender men?” she asked as he handed her the coffee and set the plate of danish on the edge of the tiny side table. The question nettled Hodge. First, it smacked of someone preparing to tell him his businesses—and, even more so than with spirit photography, there was almost certainly no one in the world whose familiarity with the Slender Man mythos exceeded his own. And second, because this girl—Ms. Kadie Kay—kept using the plural.

Man,” Hodge corrected, settling into his chair and adjusting his belt and trousers so as not to pinch his girth. “It’s the Slender Man. The character was introduced to the Internet on June 10, 2009 by a Something Awful forums member calling him-, or her-, self ’Victor Surge’—which you clearly already know. This was part of a photoshopping thread dedicated to creating paranormal images.”

The girl had already downed half of her coffee and set the cup down. She plucked up one of the danishes and tore a long curl from its side, like a cat peeling back a strip of flesh from an abandoned carcass. She smiled absently as her teeth and tongue made contact with the glistening pastry. The gesture, which was unexpectedly graceful, fascinated and distracted Hodge. He cleared his throat and leaned back in his chair, away from the hungry girl, before going on.

“Surge’s photos depicted an improbably tall, improbably gaunt character. In contrast to most other postings in that thread, this character was tucked into the background of these images—as though captured accidentally. In the photos the figure is blurry and appears to wear a dark suit. Its facial features are indistinct, possibly entirely absent. The Slender Man’s height varies wildly from picture to picture—especially now that Surge is no longer the sole author of the works. Seven to ten feet tall seems like a fair range, but I’ve seen pictures in which the Slender Man figure appeared to be at least fifteen feet tall. That’s quite a tall man to not notice looming about the fringes of your wintertime hike, don’t you think?”

The question was rhetorical; Hodge was a college lecturer, and accustomed to speaking in uninterrupted 1000-word runs. But the girl answered anyway.

“You can miss lots of things if you aren’t expecting to see them,” she said, carefully peeling back another strip of danish. “There were all sorts of naked ladies in the first few Where’s Waldo books, but no one noticed for years.” She took a small bite and swallowed, “No one that made decisions, I mean. Kids noticed, but no one really took that seriously. Then finally someone saw what their kids had been telling them was there, and there was this big stink. The publisher had to touch up a bunch of the art for the reprints. No one believes me about that, but it’s true; when I was a kid I only had these beat up library-sale copies of the Where’s Waldos, and there was some pretty rank stuff tucked into those drawings. Topless chicks. Torture. Murder. A guy about to get raped by a lion.”

“That’s absurd,” Hodge said, disoriented by the conversation’s twisted trajectory. “Those are children’s books.”

The young woman smiled wryly. “Like I said, no one believes me about that when I tell them. Google it. The world is full of things that are basically invisible because they don’t fit people’s expectations.” She took another smiling bite of pastry.

She was sharp, this girl. If one of his colleagues had asked, Hodge would have said he’d love to have a student like this, someone with a hungry mind ready to lock its jaw on whatever text wandered too close. But he again wondered if he’d really enjoy having her in class. It might be thrilling to spar with her at first, but he suspected that before long he’d feel like he was trapped in the center ring with a lioness that had realized the trainer only had a wooden stool and blanks in his pistol.

“Yyyses,” Hodge grudgingly acknowledged, “But what about the human tendency—maybe even more aptly a compulsion—to find patterns where there are none? The blurs in the background become faces, the murmurs of an oscillating fan become muttering voices, and so on. We don’t only miss things we don’t expect to see; we also find things we do expect to see, even when they aren’t there.”

“And that’s what you think the slender men are, right? A muttering fan? A smear on the film?”

“What else would it be? Even suggesting it’s a ’hoax’ is nonsense. It’s like saying ’Star Wars was a hoax.’ The Slender Man is a work of fiction, a work of art—which is to say, it’s a creative expression of deeply seated human anxieties.”

She’d somehow already finished the danish—without getting a crumb on her—and was rummaging through her oversized purse. Kadie Kay came up with a plastic pouch of trail mix and began munching. “Then how is that all sorts of people are accidentally taking their own pictures of slender men now? It’s all over the Internet. I’ve never heard of anyone suddenly noticing Yoda or Chewie lurking in the background of their New Year’s Eve selfie, but lots of people find slender men lurking in their photostreams these days.”

Hodge smiled and relaxed. The conversation had meandered back into his domain. “Well, some of those are photoshops too, regardless of what anyone claims. The manipulated photos are actually pretty easy to spot. But I grant that there are an increasing number of ’genuine’ Slender Man photos appearing ’in the wild,’ and that the people who find the Slender Man loitering in the distant background of one of their family photos honestly and legitimately believe that what they see in that photo is ’real.’ That’s what’s so wonderful about the Slender Man phenomenon.”

Hodge leaned back now, adjusting his belt and sport coat as he did so. “As it turns out, there’s a very common flaw in the CCD light sensors at the heart of many mid- to low-grade digital cameras, and it creates blurred vertical striations that, in the right conditions, can quite convincingly look like a tall, dark figure. It’s a phenomenon not unlike the internal reflections and light leaks that plagued low-end Eastman Kodak ’Brownies,’ giving us such a rich variety of ’ghost’ photographs in the 1930s and 1940s.”

The young woman seemed unimpressed. Hodge faltered. “Most iPhones have just such faulty CCD sensors. You were at my panel?” She shook her head. “Oh; I’d assumed—well, let me show you my final slide.” He dug out his phone, turned it on, and swiped through several photos. “The vertical-striation error—the, um, ’Slender Man Effect,’ if you will—it’s readily reproducible. See, this is the picture I included at the end of my PowerPoint presentation yesterday.” The photo showed Hodge standing in the hotel conference center’s parking lot, washed in the golden October light of late afternoon; judging from the weather and his herringbone jacket—which he still wore—the picture was taken the day before. Hodge was in the foreground, capped with a set of Mickey Mouse ears and a big goofy tourist smile. The hotel was in the distant background, flanked by maroon-leafed Japanese maples. Look twice, and it was hard to miss the gaunt, indistinct figure looming among those flaming leaves, its pale, misshapen head level with the second-floor windows.

“Even backlight is really the key,” he offered, “Plus sudden background movement. I made this by asking the concierge to toss a cantaloupe in the air with a strip of black plastic garbage bag pinned to it. But all manner of vertical movements can trigger the effect: A falling bird or branch or clump of snow, a rising balloon or plastic bag.”

She leaned forward to retrieve her cup of coffee. Hodge was struck by a warm wave of air carrying the intimate honeysuckle smell of her soap or body wash or whatever they called it now. “You’re saying this is why more and more people are seeing slender men?” She said. “It’s just because we all have the same crappy camera phone?” Kadie twisted the final phrase scornfully. He slid the phone back into his pocket and shrugged.

“I wouldn’t say it’s ’just’ because we all carry around the same low-cost digital cameras. I think that whoever created the Slender Man was a very lucky genius. The original Slender Man photos are excellent works of craftsmanship. Instead of inserting elements into photos, the creator found pictures which were already menacing—slightly blurry photos showing crowds of somewhat distressed looking children, unposed pictures with no clear intent—and subtly reworked background elements, smearing and blending existing areas of light and shadow in a way that human minds would find irresistible. Speaking strictly in terms of the artist’s craft, it is exemplary work. As for the lucky part,” he continued, “what do you think of when you hear ’wendigo’?”

Hodge was both relieved and disappointed when this word provoked only a blank look. “Um . . . those RVs?” she hazarded.

Hodge smiled pedantically, “Those are Winnebagos, Ms. Kay.” She blushed, and Hodge rushed to reassure her. “But it’s an understandable mistake, since both are Algonquin words: Winnebago is the Algonquin name for the Ho-Chunk people, their neighbors in the Upper Midwest. And it’s from the Algonquin Nation—most notably the Ojibwe native to this region—that we learn of the wendigo. So, apart from RVs, what do you think of when you hear ’wendigo’?”

“Maybe a yeti-bigfoot thing? I think there was a wendigo in a Scooby Doo I saw as a kid, or an X-Files. Something big, pale, and shaggy.”

“OK. That’s a good start. ’Wendigo’ has basically become a synonym for ’yeti’—I blame the orthographical similarity to the yeti-like ’wampa’ that Luke battles on the ice planet Hoth. But the creature described by the Ojibwe was nothing like that. Their wendigo is a tall, gaunt figure, associated with winter, gloom, and starvation. It is a cannibal, but it cannot be satisfied because with each person it devours, it grows even taller. It is an ever-yawning maw of want that can never be filled. To anyone who’s overwintered in the upper-midwest, the mythical wendigo is a fairly intelligible personification of seasonal famine. It’s been a long time since famine stalked this land,” he pointedly looked first at his danish on the side table, then at his ample gut, “But over the last decade I’d argue that we’ve grown increasingly frightened of a new sort of famine. The wendigo is thus an apt boogeyman for our age, isn’t it? In a land of plenty where so many people are economically starved, and the landscape is invisibly stalked by deathless debt-monsters which devour all, yet are never satisfied?”

The girl looked drawn, her lips pressed to a thin, pale line. She sipped her coffee again, as though to warm herself. Her sudden pallor worried Hodge, but the notion that he’d struck a nerve also excited him, tickling some deep hunter’s instinct.

“The parallels between the Slender Man and wendigo are fairly obvious. It had been my hypothesis that Surge—or whoever had created the Slender Man—had done so with the Algonquin myth as a model. That, more than the craftsmanship, was this lucky genius’s true genius: Crafting a monster that so perfectly personified this neglected—and once again very vital—universal archetype. The luck came in the fact that his—or her—pitch perfect re-introduction of the wendigo into popular culture just so happened to be so easily evoked by a relatively common digital camera malfunction. He—or she—gave us something to see in that digital noise, and that gave us a way to articulate a powerful and ubiquitous modern dread.”

Kadie Kay finally opened her little journal. Hodge expected her to jot down what he’d said, but instead she removed something he hadn’t seen in almost 20 years: A Polaroid snapshot. He smiled despite himself. “That’s from an SX-70 Land!” he marveled, immediately identifying the camera model from the dimensions of the white-framed picture it had produced. “I had one once. I loved that camera. It had leather curf skins, rubber bellows, and a really nifty split focus.”

As she handed him the photo, Hodge realized how long it had been since he’d handled a Polaroid picture. They never came up in his research because there were very few “paranormal” Polaroid snapshots: the self-contained, quick-developing film pack made Polaroid photos notoriously hard to manipulate, while the high-quality optics and short exposure made them resistant to the visual artifacts that people insisted on interpreting as ghosts and monsters.

“If that’s true,” she said quietly, “If these slender men are half-prank, half-coincidence, a collective delusion we pluck out of the digital background noise either because they are carefully crafted to take advantage of a forgotten universal archetype, or because they happen to so aptly personify our ubiquitous modern dread of economic famine—or a little of both—then please explain this.”

He expected the content of the picture to be as old as the camera that took it. Instead, the picture showed a newish burgundy Scion hatchback parked just at the edge of a narrow dirt road. Behind the car was a seemingly endless break of young birches. The photo was fairly gloomy—perhaps it was early evening on a cloudy day—giving the birch backdrop the look of a smudged bar code. Then he saw why she’d been so careful with this photograph.

Hodge was speechless. This was, he realized, the photograph he’d been unwilling to admit to himself he’d been hunting for ever since he’d laid eyes on that first startling Slender Man photoshop.

“I took it myself last week,” she offered, trying to coax a response.

When Hodge finally spoke his voice was flat and distant, hardly his voice at all. “Where . . . Where did you even get film for an SX-70?”

“Some guys in Brooklyn started making it after Polaroid stopped. It’s pricey,” she said, “like, five bucks per shot. But it was an investment: I wanted people like you to believe with as little bullshitting around as possible.”

The thing she wanted him to believe with the minimum amount of bullshitting was that the Internet-Famous Slender Man—which Hodge was making a career of explaining away as nothing more than the confluence of cheap hardware, overactive imaginations, and ancient myth—was real.

Ms. Kadie Kay leaned forward and tapped her decidedly non-digital photo, indicating something in the background: Rearing up from that break of bare birches was a Slender Man.

This was different than any other “Slender Man” Hodge had ever seen—and he’d have wagered that he’d seen more of these photos than anyone who had ever lived. The Slender Man shown here was taller than average, almost twenty feet tall, but that wasn’t its most striking feature. What was most striking was that this Slender Man was moving. It writhed against the gray, depthless sky, its head thrown back as though in agony, its arms blurred by the speed with which they whipped around the figure.

Every other Slender Man depiction Hodge had ever seen had shown the figure stock still, statuesque and staring fixedly—because that was all the CCD’s vertical-striation error could produce, and that was the aesthetic that Slender Man photoshoppers had collectively embraced, just as ancient Egyptian artists had always depicted their subjects in profile.

What Kadie Kay was showing him was not a trick of the light and mind, not a digital blur. Not a fake.

It was a real picture of a real Slender Man. And Hodge had no idea how it could possibly exist.

“Where—” he asked, but found himself out of breath and tried again. “The location where you saw this, it’s near here?”

The young woman was clearly delighted Hodge had asked. “Yes!” she said. “Well, near here by Michigan standards. I took these in Sanilac—”

Hodge blanched. “Near the petroglyphs?”

She cocked her head, confused. “The what?”

“Native American, um, rock carvings,” he expanded, his thoughts elsewhere. “Late Woodland period pictographs, some warning of, uh, mythical creatures.”

“You’ve been to Sanilac?” she asked cautiously.

Hodge, preoccupied, didn’t notice. He didn’t even answer.

“It’s about two hours away,” she offered, “but an easy two hours. You’ve got a car?”

He did.

As Hodge drove through the sprawling soy fields of Michigan’s Thumb, Ms. Kadie Kay explained about the elusive “Victor Surge”—who was actually Victoria Sturgeon (a name that, to Hodge, sounded more made-up than her pseudonym). The girls had lived together for about a semester while they were both studying at the University of Michigan. Then one day Ms. Sturgeon had abruptly moved to New York, taking a seemingly random assortment of Ms. Kay’s property with her.

“It more a bitter thing than a criminal thing.” Kadie Kay plucked a twist of jerky from a ziplock bag she’d dug out of that seemingly bottomless messenger bag. “I didn’t have much valuable stuff—a crappy laptop, a decent stereo—but she didn’t even touch those. She took my favorite old books, though, and some cool vinyl I had, my high school yearbooks, these cute barrettes I found at a thrift shop—stuff you don’t miss until you can’t find it, and then you’re pissed off all over again.”

Among the things Victor/Victoria stole were some old snapshots. “My dad had them,” she said between bites. “He’s from out here. His folks were farmers, and he tried to do that for a while, too. A few of the pictures were old—those were the ones that Vic posted with her ’Slender Man’ stuff—but there were other ones, ones Daddy’d taken himself, too. Three of those, all clearer than the ones Vic used. The way he told it, he’d see slender men once every other season or so, when he was hunting in the late fall. They never came close—never even seemed to notice him, sitting up in his deer stand—but they’d stalk through the misty, bare forest like circus stilt men, always seeming to be in sort of a rush to get where they were going. It was awful luck to glimpse one, he said, because it meant he’d have to move his blind: The deer wouldn’t come back through where the slender men had walked.” Hodge nodded, his compulsion to believe in Ms. Kay’s improbable slender men growing stronger with each passing mile.

The future Victor Surge and Ms. Kay had held a Halloween dinner party in their small apartment—as, evidently, was the fashion that year among attractive young people with criminally ugly spectacles. Kadie had trotted out the pictures and her father’s stories to great acclaim. In the mellow haze of camaraderie and candlelight—made all the mellower by the rapid emptying of several bottles of cheap red wine—it was easy to portray the slender men as delightfully creepy. It was easy to forget the terror she’d felt as a girl, watching the featureless faces floating past her bedroom window on snow-dusted, moon-bright November evenings, her stomach growling because she and her father had shared another dinner solely consisting of food-pantry cereal with powdered milk.

“Your father’s home is near here? Could we visit him? I’d love to ask if—”

The girl seem startled. “No. I mean, he . . . he wouldn’t like that. Daddy’s a . . . he’s a private guy.”

The miles rolled past, the fields dense, but the farms themselves seeming all but abandoned. Hodge was careful to keep his eyes locked on the road ahead, but still the girl’s profile was distracting. The high, sweet smells of her jerky and her soap and her body filled the car. Hodge felt aroused and ridiculous. He watched her chew, his eye sliding over her slender neck, fascinated by the tendons working beneath her pale, clear skin.

Hodge finally broke the silence by asking, “And Ms. Sturgeon?” as though their conversation had only lapsed long enough for everyone to sip coffee.

“I didn’t really understand until later, but we ended up getting in a big fight a week or so after the party. It was about some other stuff, but really it was about how much everyone had dug on the slender men stories. She was in a writing program, but her fiction—I mean, they were beautiful stories, but they were sort of beautiful foggy meditations. You’d turn the page, and there’d be no more pages, and then you’d say to yourself, I guess that was the end. There wasn’t any there there, you know? And she didn’t take criticism well. Anyway, I don’t think she stole the slender men photos on purpose; she just took a bunch of stuff to fuck with me. But when she found them, I guess something finally clicked. The creepypasta she wrote to go along with the pictures was new, not stuff I said that night. And it was good, but still, fuck her, you know? She got New York and a TV deal; I got stuck with our lease and had to drop out and move home to Sanilac County.”

Hodge was only half listening, his attention divided between the images of slender men dancing in his head, and Kadie Kay’s teeth and lips and tongue as she gnawed at the dried meat. Nonetheless, something in his posture gave the impression that he shared her indignation.

“Yeah! I know, right? I heard she’s laying low because she’s working a deal with AMC to do a series like Breaking Bad, but in ’Great Recession’ Michigan and with slender men shoehorned in—which kinda burns me worse than anything, ’cause now it’s like she’s swiping the rest of my life. I mean, she’s from fucking New Hampshire, for fuck’s sake!” Kadie said “New Hampshire” the way a world-weary 5th-grader might say “kindergarten.”

“Oh!,” she exclaimed, “Here, turn in up here.”

The trees had steadily overtaken the open soy fields as she spoke, and now she was pointing at an unmarked two-track winding back into the color-soaked birches. Hodge slowed, turned in, then slowed further. The road was deeply rutted and cratered with water-filled potholes. It was not ideal terrain for his dinged-up little hybrid. Kadie rolled down the window, letting in the autumn spice of dry leaves and wet earth. They’d slowed enough that the car had kicked into silent all-electric mode. Hodge could hear the wickering of the tall grass against the car’s spinning drive shaft.

As they rolled deeper into the woods the old pines grew taller. It was cold in their shadows, a premature winter that robbed the birches of their fiery leaves and left the ground frost crisp. The breeze coming in Kadie’s window had teeth.

“Here!” she said, and Hodge parked and killed the motor without a word. She was out of the car as soon as it rocked into park, and Hodge followed without thinking.

“This is where I took the Polaroid.”

Hodge rotated slowly, momentarily awestruck, and then almost immediately sheepish at being awestruck. It was just a copse of birches shaded by towering old jack pines, indistinguishable from hundreds of similar spots in the forest.

The pieces came together for Hodge with quiet inevitability: Kadie Kay, who was so pale and slender and hungry. Kadie Kay, who had sought him out with such confidence. Kadie Kay, who was so certain that there were physical slender men—plural—haunting these woods, not just a single digital Slender Man haunting blurry photos.

A frigid, silent breeze washed over him, noisome with the smell of rot and corruption. Hodge turned to look at Ms. Kadie Kay. Clouds occluded the sun. The girl seemed to grow subtly taller in the dim chill. Paler. Even more slender.

“Professor Hodge?” she asked, her voice hollow and echoing through the abandoned, void wilderness.

He closed his eyes, tipped his head back, and held his arms wide, preparing to release himself into her long, cold, mutually devouring embrace, the perfectly apt communion he never could have imagined a few hours earlier.

But it did not come. Instead the wind abruptly picked up, becoming a moan, and then a shriek. Hodge’s eyes involuntarily sprang open. The trees were perfectly still; there wasn’t even a breeze. But the wind shrieked more fiercely yet.

To Hodge’s surprise Ms. Kadie Kay—young and slim and pale, but not remotely supernatural—still stood where she had, watching him uncertainly, a hip little plastic 35mm camera in hand. The cloud passed and the air brightened, then cracked with the sound of enormous bat wings unfurling and beating furiously against the damp, pine-shaded air, questing for the bright sky. Hodge spun and craned back.

It was more horrible, more awe-full, than he could have anticipated. Black and lean and lithe, its head and shoulder were well above the naked birches. It did not walk as he had expected, but instead twitched and swayed and convulsed against the clear blue sky, its arms whipping and cracking, its whole body bowing back and then wrenching forward, as though in agony. Its faceless face was flung to the sky in a silent scream.

It was awful, and it was beautiful, and it was real and here for him, and not at all what he’d expected.

Hodge’s heart pounded in his ears, deafening him, making his vision throb. His hands flew reflexively to his cheeks. His head swam. His throat clicked with tiny little trapped-rabbit cries—although he could not hear these over this slender man’s terrible, constant, keening moan, a moan that never drifted in pitch or flagged in volume, never paused for a breath.

Almost, Hodge thought desperately, ludicrously, struggling to hold himself together, almost like a vacuum cleaner.

And then the other sounds seeped in: His pitiful squeaks came first. And then Kadie Kay’s snorts of suppressed laughter. And then the clack and whir of the Polaroid held by the shaggy young man in the Trilby hat and unfortunate glasses.

The boy’s vintage Polaroid SX-70 flashed, clacked, and whirred again, then stuck out its still-developing picture, like a one-eyed robot giving Hodge the ole raspberry. Kadie Kay’s slender man fluttered flaccidly behind the young man, like an inverted windsock over a whooshing steam grate.

The shaggy young dandy plucked the second picture from the camera, self-consciously shaking it like a Polaroid picture. He glanced at Hodge, and the smile dropped from beneath his Victorian mustache. “You OK, m’man?” he asked, his concern both obvious and honest. He set the picture-holding hand on Hodge’s shoulder, and looked into the lecturer’s face, scanning his eyes.

Hodge caught his breath. “Yes,” he said finally. “You just, um, st-startled me.” Someone cut the power to the slender man midway through Hodge’s sentence, and he realized he was yelling. The mustachioed elf smiled honestly and patted Hodge on the back.

“You’re OK, m’man,” he said. “And that whole thing, that was priceless.” Hodge watched the fake slender man list to starboard, lean into the pines, and gracefully deflate. He finally saw it for what it was: One of those flailing-arm inflatable tube men, the kind used-car dealers use to draw the attention of passing motorists. The only difference was that this arm-flailing inflatable tall boy was entirely matte black, instead of bright googlie-eyed spangles. Hodge wondered it if was custom-made, and then wondered where one got a custom-made parking lot arm-flailer. Then he wondered if he was about to swoon.

“Check out the pics!” the mustachioed boy enthused, pulling Hodge back to solid ground.

The first wasn’t that great, just a pudgy man in a herringbone jacket with leather patches at the elbows cowering before what was quite obviously an inflatable “air dancer.” But the second was pretty priceless: Hodge had evidently sprang back on his heels and thrown back his head after cowering failed to dispel the terrible dark interloper. In the picture, it seemed as though he was so frightened that his hair was actually standing on end. With his hands to his cheeks and eyes wide, he looked like a spontaneous parody of Edvard Munch’s “Scream”—with the added refinement that, for whatever reason, Hodge had stuck out his tongue in mortal terror.

In brief, he looked like a complete blithering jackass.

Hodge offered a smile composed equally of embarrassment, relief, and fake bonhomie.

As it turned out, Kadie Kay was not the daughter of a Sanilac soy farmer, let alone a U-M drop-out. She was from Cincinnati, and was in her final year of Central Michigan University’s New Media program, just back from a New York internship with the Gawker Media Network—for whom she was on assignment, and by whom she hoped to ultimately be employed.

Hodge signed the photo release forms—he didn’t want to seem like a bad sport—and accepted a case of Monster Energy Drink, which wasn’t really related to this project, he was advised, but leftover from “some promotional thing.” The kids—who seemed like basically good kids—didn’t want him to “go away empty handed.”

The young man with the camera thought Gawker would send Hodge an iTunes gift card once the article went up, but wasn’t sure. Hodge nodded, and asked if that was all.

He was pleased to learn that he would not have to drive Kadie Kay back to Mount Pleasant—the mustachioed young man, it turned out, had plenty of room in his burgundy Scion.

Gawker published the piece a week later, and Hodge was surprised to see that the byline for “10 DEBUNKERS GETTING PUNKED” was indeed “Kadie Kay.” He’d just assumed it was a fake name as he mulled it all over during his long drive back to Indiana, the hours of corn and light industrial park punctuated only by brief stops at any available public toilet. The Monster evidently did not agree with his stomach.

The article came to the immediate attention of his colleagues. The ribbing was light, but persistent. If there was any comfort to be had, it was that the Polaroids of Hodge’s comical terror were had earned the place of honor at the end of the remarkably ad-festooned, pointlessly paginated “article.” A good portion of Hodge’s cohort got annoyed before reaching his photo. Those who persevered through all the click-thrus made a point of emailing him, so that “Professor Hodge” knew they were up to date with his “latest publication.” Yes, they were mocking him, but he took some comfort in knowing that at least he was worth mocking. Even that was an achievement for a folklorist. His editor, who was optimistically young, thought the article—which was moderately popular—would help spur advance sales of the monograph Hodge had been preparing about the “Slender Man phenomenon and wendigo imagery in digital America.” He offered to double the print run. There would still be no advance.

One Monday afternoon a month after “10 DEBUNKERS GETTING PUNKED” went online, Hodge made the long drive back to Mount Pleasant, Michigan. Autumn had dried, shriveled, and blown away by then, leaving a hard, frosted husk. Fitful little eddies of snow periodically swirled through his headlights, but nothing seemed determined to stick.

Hodge, who had been following @TheRealMsKadieK on Twitter, drove directly to the little pin on Google Maps corresponding to the location of most of her Monday-evening tweets. He wasn’t surprised to find himself parking in front of an architecturally ambitious building with “NEW MEDIA” etched into the green-tinted glass facade.

Hodge sunk low in the driver’s seat as Ms. Kay exited the building, the same large messenger bag slung across her chest. She walked quickly, munching an apple, her shoulders drawn up against the night chill. Hodge slipped out of his car and jogged up behind her.

“Ms. Kay?” He called from a good dozen feet away, “Ms. Kadie Kay?” She turned, and Hodge immediately smiled in greeting.

“I thought that was you!” he said jovially, like a teacher greeting a much-adored former student.

Kadie puckered in bemused confusion. “Professor Hodge?”

He didn’t correct her. “How nice to run into you!”

“Why are you—?”

He waved his hand dismissively, said “professional affiliation” as though the phrase explained his inexplicable appearance in mid-Michigan, then rushed on. “I’m so glad to have bumped into you; I never got your contact information after we met.” She looked even more confused. “I was hoping you could do me a favor.”

Her features clouded. “Maaay-be . . .” she said cautiously, glancing from left to right. The street was empty, but Hodge saw her eye catch on the blue emergency phone three quick strides down the sidewalk.

“Do you still have the Polaroid—”

She was already shaking her head. “Gawker kept those, when I mailed them to scan. They loaned me the camera and paid for the film—”

Hodge smiled and shook his head. “No, not those pictures; I can download those. I mean the, um, the bait picture, the Polaroid you initially used to fool me. It wasn’t reproduced in the, um, article.”

She smiled, clearly relieved. “Yeah, I’ve got that.” She snorted, digging into her large bag. “Actually—this is funny—it’s still in my bag. I came across it when I was looking for my soda in the middle of class.” She dug and dug, finally surfacing with the creased Polaroid showing the burgundy Scion and denuded birches and ersatz slender man shucking and jiving beyond.

She handed the photo over. Hodge glanced at it—he didn’t want to draw attention—struggling not to stare before slipping the Polaroid into his jacket pocket.

“All yours. Why do you want it?” she asked lightly, more conversational than actually curious.

Hodge wasn’t prepared for this question. “My editor,” he blurted. “My publisher, for my upcoming Slender Man book, thought we should perhaps include an afterword about the Gawker piece, and it would be nice to include this photo. We might . . . we might even go four-color, to catch those wonderful reds and earth tones.” This was a lie: Hodge had never told anyone about this picture’s existence, and didn’t intend for any living soul to ever see it. “Thanks so much!” he said, “This is going to be great!”

He offered her a ride, which she gladly accepted; it turned out her apartment was not at all close. It was a white-knuckled drive for Hodge.

He sat in his car and watched as she punched in her code at the front door, before the watchful eye of the apartment’s security camera. He wanted to be sure she got home safe and sound, and that her doing so was documented.

Hodge did not drive home from Ms. Kadie Kay’s apartment. Instead he drove dead east, to Sanilac. But before he got to the little two-track he pulled off the road, tucking his protesting hybrid beneath the low trees. He looked at Kadie Kay’s Polaroid for a long, long time, marveling not at the colors he’d admired out on the winter-cold sidewalk, nor at her terrifying, spastic faux slender man. What kept him rapt was the tall, gaunt, indistinct figure almost out of the frame at the far left edge of the photo.

This slender man also stood tall, and was also blurred with motion. It beckoned with one elongated arm, its penetrating gaze seemingly fixed out of frame. To whom did it beckon, Hodge wondered. How many slender men walked these woods?

He had not seen this figure when Kadie Kay had first shown him the photo, only later, as he brooded over the picture of her picture that he’d taken with his phone. And once seen, he could not unsee it, nor tolerate the notion that someday she or anyone else might glance at the photo again and abruptly see that other slender man in her Polaroid, that true Slender Man—the one they hadn’t been prepared for, and thus could not notice.

Hodge marveled at this slender man because he seemed to almost be able to distinguish features on that void head, cocked with bemused curiosity. He marveled because the picture was taken in Sanilac, near the petroglyphs warning of the deprivations of the wendigo. The last time Hodge had walked those forests had been long before the advent of photography. And even then he’d never beckoned to anyone; there’d never been anyone to beckon to.

Finally, Hodge marveled at his own restraint: Ms. Kadie Kay had been in his car, so close that the summer fruit-market smells of her shampoo and conditioner had enveloped him and still clung to his winter coat. And he was so hungry. He hadn’t eaten in months, and the weather was growing cold and tight and hard, when the hunger had always been its worst.

He got out of the car and stretched, his back and neck cracking as he wrung the stiffness from his shoulders. He undressed, folding his clothes neatly on the driver’s seat. Then he stretched again, stretched differently, extending up into the depthless, moonless air, his arms and legs pulling like darkening taffy, growing slim and, in some respect, dim. Growing cold. His breath was icy in the icy breeze, his taut skin crinkled like dry leaves. The dark forest seemed to grow day-bright to his new ice-film eyes.

The Ojibwe used to say that the most important thing for a hunter is to help the prey reassure itself that he doesn’t even exist. Over time, the wendigo that concealed itself within chubby James Hodge—which had even begun to think of itself as the “Slender Man”—had grown to agree.

It held the Polaroid picture pressed between its long, pale, icy palms, until the sudden cold spoiled the emulsion. When it released the photograph it was just a black square framed in white, a dark window in which one might only see herself. Bad film.

Despite its hunger, the companionless thing that had followed the Ojibwe to this land did not turn towards the twinkling lights of the isolated farmhouse out in the stubbly, shorn fields. It turned instead to the dark forest, slashed with the spectral white birch trunks. More urgent than the opportunity to ease its insatiable hunger was the very real possibility of finally sating its loneliness.

And the Slender Man smiled, despite the cold and the hunger that twisted in its guts like wire, because it’s always nice to be somewhere where you can just be yourself.

David Erik Nelson is an award-winning science-fiction author and essayist. Some of Mr. Nelson's speculative fiction is available for free online—occasionally without his knowledge or consent (no hard feelings, though). Other bits can be purchased. Subscribe to the e-newsletter for more-or-less monthly updates.