I have a huge soft spot for archival preservation of disposable internet ephemera. Even from just running this blog, I’m constantly reminded how vulnerable online content is to digital rot, with most of our posts from over a year ago featuring dead links to nonexistent YouTube clips that used to bolster & illustrate our lukewarm film takes. Internet culture documentaries like The Road Movie (which archives Russian dashcam footage), Wrinkles the Clown (which chronicles the online hoax of real-world horror clown sightings) and We Met in Virtual Reality (which documents a community of VR enthusiasts navigating the early stages of the pandemic) aren’t widely beloved or even respected, but they are loved by me, and I believe their cultural value will only increase the further we get away from their subjects. We spend a lot of our time online interacting with temporary, disposable imagery that will be lost to time without active, academic preservation of the user-interface hellscape we’ve trapped ourselves in. It’s a shame that most cinema is too timid to do that work, mostly out of fear of appearing cheap or dated. This kind of serious, thoughtful archival work was especially hard to come by back in 2017, when I positively reviewed the HBO Doc Beware the Slenderman even while noting that it devolves into true crime exploitation and “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” fearmongering. It turns out I should have just waited a year to see the definitive Slenderman documentary, A Self-Induced Hallucination, directed by Jane Schoenbrun before developing their breakout indie hit We’re All Going to the World’s Fair. Comprised entirely of 2009-2018 YouTube clips, Schoenbrun’s document of the Slenderman creepypasta phenomenon is such a comprehensive, insightful record of its ephemeral online subject that it even includes criticism of & fallout from the exploitative HBO documentary that was released to a much wider audience & higher praise a year earlier. It’s undeniably great that Schoenbrun has been able to graduate from D.I.Y. bedroom art to professional productions in the years since, but A Self-Induced Hallucination is not just background prep work for World’s Fair. It’s a significant work in its own right, especially as an internet culture time capsule from one of the darkest moments in the history of memes.
YouTube is a brilliant catch-all for chronicling the full history of the Slenderman tragedy, which played out on much less cinematic (and only slightly more toxic) platforms like Something Awful, 4Chan, and Reddit before it was regurgitated as viral video content. In the earliest stirrings of Slenderman creepypasta memery, a loose collection of juvenile “experts” explain to their small audience of YouTube subscribers exactly how & where the Slenderman legend spread online, and how you can tell that the “evidence” presented on the originating forums were fake (or real, depending on the poster’s perspective). The meme evolves from that Slenderman 101 crash course to include Slenderman short films, Slenderman novelty raps, and Slenderman confessionals from World’s Fair-style loners desperate for online community. There isn’t much to the tall, faceless, suited figure in either iconography or lore, which makes him the perfect blank screen for users to project meaning onto. Of course, that memetic potency eventually proved deadly when two 12-year-old girls repeatedly stabbed a friend at the supposed command of the Slenderman. That’s when Schoenbrun’s archival work gets really interesting, pushing beyond the rundown of basic creepypasta mechanics that you’ll find in Wrinkles the Clown & Beware the Slenderman to examine how real-life tragedy is digested into entertainment #content, both online and in traditional media outlets. On the amateur level, YouTube creators casually discuss & dissect the details of the stabbing case while playing Minecraft and 1st-person shooter games. Meanwhile, professional media turns the Slenderman stabbing into vapid news chatter and then, worse yet, fictional fodder for the aforementioned Beware the Slenderman documentary, an official Slender Man horror film, and a legally shaky “inspired by” Lifetime movie of the week: Terror in the Woods. We catch glimpses of these Slenderman-branded true-crime cash-ins through Fan Reaction Videos to their various trailers and through YouTuber interviews with young actors making their PR rounds. A Self-Induced Hallucination documents the full metamorphosis cycle of amateur content to real-world tragedy to professional product back to amateur content again that the Slenderman creepypasta uniquely traveled, only commenting on the phenomenon through the sequence of its presentation.
There’s something wryly funny about Schoenbreun’s editing style here, which simulates what it would be like if the Everything is Terrible! team remade Unfriended entirely through amateur YouTube clips (the same way they “remade” Holy Mountain with pet videos in Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!). Its opening credits’ presentation as real-time screen capture of a word processor document, its full-spectrum omnibus of the embarrassing shades of YouTube Voice, and the throwback CG news recaps from TomoNews are all amusingly absurd, even if only in fits. Mostly, though, A Self-Induced Hallucination is just deeply eerie & sad in the exact way that We’re All Going to the World’s Fair eventually proved to be. If the heartbreaking isolation and vulnerability of the literal children posting about their personal experiences with Slenderman doesn’t hit you by the time one of those children are stabbed by their schoolmates, it’s certain to sink it during the end credits, where each featured video is listed alongside their view counts as of the film’s final edit in 2018 – typically millions of views for professional content like Sony Pictures’ Slender Man horror trailer and dozens of views for amateur users’ bedroom broadcasts into the online abyss. As someone who regularly posts sincere diaries of my day-to-day Movie Thoughts for a near-nonexistent audience, I’m highly sensitive to that embarrassment & loneliness. I assume Schoenbrun is too, or at least they were at the time of assembling this completionist’s archive of Slenderman lore & cultural fallout. This is clearly the work of someone who’s submerged in online culture. It’s both heartwarming to see that disposable culture taken seriously as its own cinematic texture and devastating to see how destructive & isolating it can be to users with no other outlet for social interaction. There’s no doubt this earlier text deepens & enriches what Schoenbrun would later achieve in We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, but in a lot of ways it’s a purer, more streamlined version of the same story, one that clearly deserves to be engaged with as substantial art regardless of its connections to its dramatic sister film.
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