Bartosz Dudek

Bartosz Dudek is an experienced teacher and a PhD student in linguistics at Marie Curie Skłodowska University in Lublin, Poland. His research interests mainly focus on cognitive linguistics, new media and pedagogy. More specifically, Bartosz is currently writing his dissertation on player-character relationships in digital game narratives. It focuses on the cognitive side of such relation, discussing such problems as self-identity, self-modification, empathy, interaction, concise storytelling, visual representation as well as resistance to multimodal narratives.

Contact information:
bartosz.dudek at

A Sense of Fear and Anxiety in Digital Games: An Analysis of Cognitive Stimuli in Slender -- The Eight Pages

by Bartosz Dudek


Fear and anxiety are two powerful and fundamental emotions. The burning need for these emotions to be experienced in a controlled environment is addressed rather widely in fiction. Literature, games and films all invent and develop new ways of delivering truly horrific experiences in order to meet a growing demand, but only digital games with their complex structure seem to be able to fully satiate this demand. This structure is comprised of a network of multifaceted game mechanics which, if harmoniously set together, is able to exploit human cognitive potential remarkably well. This paper will argue that horror digital games make use of several fear- and anxiety-inducing techniques, making their gameplay not only narrative-driven, but also fully embodied experiences. In doing so, I identify a number of cognitive stimuli in Slender -- The Eight Pages (Parsec Productions, 2012), explaining their form and purpose. The results show that although relatively simple in structure, especially when compared to other horror digital games, Slender is a great repository of fear and anxiety inducing mechanics. The game’s components, such as game world design, weather conditions, objectives, the elements with storytelling potential, perspective, interactive items as well as the opponent, prove to be fully capable of inciting a multimodal feeling of dread. The article also emphasizes the importance of making a crucial distinction between a number of key concepts used in the study of horror. This article’s findings and novel approach may be relevant to horror game designers and media scholars interested in in particular. It may also be useful to game researchers involved in the study of multimodality in fiction.

Keywords: slender man, fear, anxiety, digital games, cognitivism, emotions, game design, horror, closure, game mechanics, multimodality



In 2010, two years before Slender Man became the center of international media attention due to horrific events that took place in Wisconsin (Astor 2018; Coscarelli 2014), Mark J. Hadley was completing his amateur horror game Slender -- The Eight Pages. Although intended to be a small project, it later became one of the most popular horror digital games of that time; receiving a substantial number of positive reviews. Charles Onyett (2012), for example, called it a “devastatingly effective game of harrowing escape,” and according to Kirk Hamilton (2012), it was one of the scariest games of the year. The game was a great success due to its simple design, free-to-play model, and the fact that many players have reported it as a great inducer of deep fear and constant anxiety [1]. Its renown, however, was not only earned for the gameplay, but also its culturally-iconic villain. Overall, the titular Slender Man is an important symbol for the exploration of contents spread on the Internet (Maddox 2017), and the game itself is a testimony of how something simple in structure is able to incite a feeling of constant dread.

The game, however, is, the focus for this article’s attention, raising several questions: (i) how is a mere indie game able to invoke strong emotional response without more elaborated narrative content? (ii) in what ways is it different from other, often much more advanced games of the same genre? and, finally, (iii) what specific mechanisms does the game use to invoke these horrific experiences? I address these questions by proposing a theoretical explanation and empirical analysis, explaining how Slender instils a sense of horror.

Starting with a broader view of horror digital games and their position in today’s game industry as well as proper scientific research, it is crucial to note that digital games have grown in popularity over the last four decades as an entertainment medium. Although popular and widespread, horror digital games have been relatively unexplored in academic settings, especially when compared to other digital game genres. Nevertheless, there are some studies that investigate how new media induce fear in children (Cantor, 1994; Cantor, 2012; Cantor et al., 2010) and empirical evidence on fright experience invoked by digital games (Lynch & Martins, 2015). Bernard Perron in his The World of Scary Video Games (2018) outlines a historical account of this genre, examining how digital games structurally elicit horror and feelings of fear. In general, however, little has been written about the way digital games induce a sense of fear and anxiety, and the existing work has not utilized a fully operational, theoretical and empirical approach. There are, however, other rapidly growing studies in both cognitive science (Herman, 2013) and the study of transmedial narratology (Thon, 2016), which provide groundwork for the analysis of digital games. There is also Perron’s (2018) videoludic treatment of horror digital games which puts players in a position of active participants in the experience of play. Broadly speaking, the article draws on the aforementioned frameworks and they will be elaborated on in the methodology section below.

The article is divided into four sections. First, I provide a brief introduction to the game and a short narrative description of its gameplay. I believe it is necessary to provide a human-oriented perspective and game-specific context for further investigation, otherwise it may prove difficult to discern in the analysis which follows. In the second part, I describe what fear and anxiety specifically are and how they might be induced. The third section presents the methodology and the fourth part identifies several fear- and anxiety-inducing elements of the game.

The Game

Slender -- The Eight Pages is a horror indie game produced by Mark Hadley and released by Parsec Productions. The plot and the game design are, to a large extent, based on the internet myth of a fictional character called Slender Man. The game underlines its mythos by embedding several references in the opening screen. Some of them are no longer active links, but the remaining ones encourage the player to visit several websites and video channels dedicated to spooky and confusing videos. These references introduce the lore of Slender Man. The starting screen itself is a combination of ominous music, chilling sounds and background animations. The animations present a few snippets of notes that are, as the title suggests, the main objective points of the game.


As a player now, I leave the starting screen and venture into the game’s realm. There is a fixed difficulty level, which means that the following description of my playthrough is relatively close to the one experienced by other players engaging in the game for the first time. The on-screen credits inform me who is responsible for the sense of anxiety I am about to experience, while in the background I hear footsteps and a strange metallic sound, indicating someone hurdling over fencing. My guess appears to be right when I finally see the game world and a fence behind my character. The very first thing I notice on screen, however, is not a fence but text which reads, “collect 8 pages.” My goal becomes clear, although my motivation remains unknown. I am in control of the character now. It is night, with only a flashlight to light the way ahead; I have no other option but to set out on a journey into the dark wood rising in front of me. It will be a dangerous and demanding task, but since the game has set the objectives clearly, I perceive them as a challenge. The horror begins.

The first-person perspective allows me to see the game world directly, without any mediating 3D character model in between. This strengthens my identification with the character, allowing me to refer to it in the first-person singular. Thus, in front of me, there are two narrow woodland paths. Each of them leads into the darkness. I choose left, curious what will happen next and what sort of information the first note will contain. With the flashlight turned on, I take several steps and approach a large scary-looking tree. It is the first noticeable landmark in the game, so it is quite likely that there is something that might be worth investigating. After taking a few steps around the tree, I notice the object of my pursuit. It is a dirty piece of paper, which depicts a crude drawing resembling a few trees. The meaning, if there is one, remains unclear. I am back on track and notice that right after collecting the first page a regular pounding sound has started. I carefully examine my surroundings. The effort proves futile because nothing unusual comes into my sight. I do not know what lies in wait, so I decide that it is better to get going. I look for more clues, which should lead me to the end of the game. Hopefully, the next note will contain something more to think about. While pacing from one side of the path to another, I finally spot a large rusted object -- it is a silo. As previously, I take a look around it carefully, but no luck this time. It has been almost two minutes since I have found the first note. Two minutes in this godforsaken dark wood, I remark.
I make my way back on the path, not being fully confident if it is the right direction. “Lost already?” I ask myself. I notice that the game world seems to be graphically straightforward. There are dozens of trees which look the same and nothing unusual to draw my attention. That is why I start focusing on other game elements instead. I notice, among other things, cricket sounds, which have accompanied me since the very start of the game. There is also that constant regular pounding and the sound of my steps. I further wander along the path for another minute or two and finally notice another landmark.

This time it is a single-story derelict building that stands in the middle of a wasteland. I enter and move through a long and narrow corridor. I turn left into a dark room, but there is nothing except a wooden chair in the corner, so I return to the corridor and move onward. After turning left, moving straight and turning left again, I notice another room around the corner. It is yet another disappointment. This time, there is no chair but a big black smear on the floor, which could signify several things. I go back and scrutinize the remaining rooms. Finally, in the last room there is another note on the wall. It says, “Always watches … no eyes.” Under the caption, there is also a drawn circle with two lines resembling a head. “What does it all mean?” I wonder. A few moments later, I find the third note among rusted water tanks. This time, it says “Help me.” At this point I feel completely lost. Now I feel as if I am in a labyrinth, not knowing where I have come from, nor where should I go next. As if that were not enough, after collecting the third page I have started to hear a new haunting sound. I move deeper into the darkness, but suddenly a loud scary piano sound resonates. It instantly gives me shivers, making me alert and vigilant. My heart beat increases. I look behind me, and there is something staring at me. It was not there before. It just stays there still. I cannot take a good look due to the static distortions that fill in my computer screen. It is not a good sign, so without much thought, I start running in the opposite direction. Staying here would be a mistake. This creature did not look friendly. Now I feel that I need to avoid it at any cost.

Nine minutes have passed since I started the game, and there are still five notes that I have to collect in order to finish. I did not learn anything new either, except about the existence of a supernatural creature, which haunts me now. I find the fourth note on a large peculiar boulder and once again try to make sense of all these messages. It says, “Can’t run.” The feeling of mounting anxiety overwhelms my mind. The music gets louder. I turn around once again and I am surprised by that dreadful gaze that I have experienced before. Scary piano sound and distortions strike me at the same moment. Empty eye sockets slash me with their gaze. I am not able to withstand it, so I press the sprint button as hard as I can and flee. Now, I am sure that it is following me. There is no escape because the fence surrounds the area and even if there was a way out, I would probably not be able to find it. The only way to survive is to find these damned pages. Unwilling to remain here a minute longer, I am on the move again. This time I seem to be fortunate enough to find the fifth and the sixth page, but that constant creepy sensation of danger lurking behind me follows me constantly. I am even afraid of looking back. “What if this ominous faceless giant stays there?” I ask myself. I do not know who or what my pursuer is and what it is capable of. I have even forgotten to read the pages. Collecting them is all that matters now.

Fourteen minutes have passed. Still, I’ve only found six pages. I feel completely lost. It seems that I was everywhere. I wander aimlessly, crossing the same looking paths and looking at the same crossing branches. The only friend I have is the flashlight that courageously illuminates the darkness on my behalf. Although I have chills and my heart pounds in the same rhythm as the sound I hear, it is time to move on. A minute later, I find the seventh page. It says, “Follows.” Being surprised by the ironic acuteness of this information, I still cannot make sense of the overall meaning hidden in the notes. I turn around certain that the last page should only be inches from my grasp. Unfortunately, something unexpected happens. My dear friend, the flashlight, has just ceased to function. I did not know that the batteries would last for fifteen minutes, nor that I was supposed to save them. Not only aimlessly, but also blindly, I search for the last page. My tension peaks, and the only thing I know for sure is that the creature is staring at me, but there is no courage to find out. I panic and decide to run instead. After just a few paces I run out of breath. The sound indicates that my character is a female. This is the first thing that becomes clear at this point of the game, but it is too late. Me, or rather my character, starts to lose her sanity and static distortions once again appear on the screen. After a short while it catches me. A static-covered close-up of Slender Man fills the screen, and it becomes obvious that I have just failed and apparently lost the game.

Fear and Anxiety

Similar gameplay experience to the one I have just described can be found in other players’ playthroughs due to the game’s relatively simple structure and fixed difficulty level. The game affords elements that are clearly able to induce a sense of fear and anxiety in its players. It brings me back to the main question posed at the beginning of this paper: how it is possible for me to experience fear and anxiety when I am perfectly aware of my privileged position compared to Slender’s in-game victim -- sitting in a comfortable chair where nothing can harm me. The following theoretical part shows that there are a number of factors that contribute to this experience. To explore them, I must first take a closer look at how fear is induced in general.

Fear is one of a few ubiquitous emotions among humankind that has developed as a product of natural selection during the process of evolution. It has served as a defense mechanism against threats that jeopardized our ancestors and their kin, such a s heights, enclosed spaces, or water. Nowadays, however, these primal threats have been reduced in favor of social and culture-specific conditions, such us uncertain relationships or difficult situations at work (Gill & Burrow, 2017). Arne Öhman (2008, p.709-729) underlines, nevertheless, that people are still more likely to be afraid of potentially deadly predators than cars or handguns due to their evolutionary developed capacities. Humans also seem to know more about fear and its relation to anxiety, which reduces these feelings even more. Öhman says that fear “denotes dread of impending disaster and an intense urge to defend oneself, primarily by getting out of the situation,” when anxiety is “an ineffable and unpleasant feeling of foreboding.” In other words, anxiety is an anticipatory feeling to a stimulus of a threat in an aversive context, that is when we expect that something bad may happen. The time and setting of a threat might remain obscure or unknown, so it becomes more difficult to cope with it effectively. In the case of fear, it is a direct response to an identifiable eliciting stimulus. A threat, such us Slender Man, must be obvious, albeit not necessarily clearly perceived. Moreover, natural human responses to anxiety as well as fear operate on both the conscious and unconscious levels. Furthermore, humans may acquire fears from new unpleasant experiences (Miller, 1948; Olsson, 2007). In Slender, as we have seen, the player may develop a sense of anxiety, which later accompanies him or her when collecting the pages. Coltan Scrivener agrees (2021) saying that threat “holds a premium on our visual attention [and] other domains of cognition, including memory, learning, and the social transmission of information.” Suppose that Slender Man appears just after collecting the first and second page. Then, in the case of the third page, one will anxiously expect it to appear once again. It is a direct way of learning, where a stimulus associated with previous unpleasant situations evokes the same emotional response in a similar situation. Moreover, one may also feel anxious by mere observation of what other people experience at a given moment, or experienced in the past (Moors, 2009). It can be invoked in a number of different ways. One of the game’s hidden affordances could be the secret meaning concealed in the notes. By interpreting them accordingly, one might conclude that the fate of the person who wrote them was rather tragic; therefore, one may also become afraid of suffering the same fate. This is a case of social transmission mentioned by Scrivener.

In addition, it has to be stressed that human fear is a multifaceted response of the nervous system. It can be induced by both direct (physical) and indirect (nonphysical) stimuli. Hence, it is important to notice that in general, digital games do not impact us physically, but through our own mental effort. And to answer the question how they affect us, it is necessary to review the ways it can be done. Keith Oatley (1994) provides a helpful theoretical explanation for the way fictional worlds induce emotions by a mere act of reading. According to Oatley, fictional worlds enable their narrative recipients to experience various emotions via identification with their characters and/or their situations. Moreover, emotions accompanying people while reading are consistent with those of the real life (Reeves & Nass, 1996; Cantor, 1994) and these emotions may provoke reflections on themselves, or even change them permanently (see Martínez, 2018). Although Oatley discusses literary examples, his theoretical framework is essentially cognitive and thus can be used for interpretation of other media narratives. The main provision for emotional response activated by fictional simulation, such as the game in question, as Oatley says, is to identify with one of its fictional characters. Oatley refers here to Aristotle’s concept of mimesis, redefining it as a simulation, rather than imitation and further arguing that humans simulate actions in a form of mental models. Furthermore, he provides four necessary conditions for identification with simulation, which are: (i) adopting the goals of a protagonist, (ii) creating a mental model of an imagined world, (iii) the relation of the author to the reader and (iv) potential for constructive integration of disparate elements.

Slender abides by all these conditions for the following reasons. First, by being able to control a game character, players adopt not only its perspective, but also most of the goals defined by the game (for example Carlson & Taylor, 2019). Second, as Ryan (2001) says, engagement is present not only in literary texts, but also in advanced audio-visual technologies. It enables players to create mental constructs -- in literary studies called text worlds. This imaginative act is not a perquisite to any specific medium, but a natural human mental capacity. It helps players to become involved in the life of fictional characters. Third, as I have said before, playing games is a form of understanding, which requires a cooperation between the parties. For this reason, both games and their players create a specific relation based on their cooperation and understanding. Fourth, Slender requires us to make sense of its disparate elements, such as the meaning of the pages found in the woods, or the relation between audio-visual stimuli that prompt specific emotional response. This is the potential for constructive imagination, which is discussed further in the next section.

At this point, it is clear how digital games enforce identification, but we still do not know how this identification translates into a sense of fear and anxiety. Crucial is the insight of the so-called transportation theorists (for example Gerrig, 1993; Green and Brock, [2002] 2013), who see reading as transportation of our self. They go on to argue that when interacting with text, readers engage in a fictional world’s narratives, and become somewhat altered. For Eder, Jannidis and Schneider (2010, p.413), this transportation may transform the readers’ self-concept and impact their identity, knowledge about the world or judgments towards certain people or events. Martínez (2018, p.105) explains that self-concept is “a complex mental structure containing episodic, semantic, and procedural knowledge, which consists of two main types of interrelated networks: self-schemas and possible selves” (italics in original). Self-schema is a theoretical explanation of how humans perceive themselves through the prism of their past experiences. Possible selves, on the other hand, contain “individuals’ ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become and what they are afraid of becoming” (Markus 2006, p.xi). If a self-schema is inscribed into a fictional world and it approaches an undesired possible self by being in a frightening situation (for instance, see Martínez 2018, p.25), one may experience the feeling of fear and anxiety. In similar vein, projecting oneself in a virtual game world by aligning with a game character’s perspective, players not only empathize with their sense of fear, but also may experience a sense of fear on their own.

In general, fear and anxiety are fundamental and universal emotions to human existence. A great number of stimuli may induce these feelings and all of them may trigger different emotional responses, which depend on particular individuals. As observed in the cases of in-game static distortion or pounding sounds, some fear stimuli may be learned through context-cues or are culturally specific [2]. In games and other media, such us movies and books, it is possible to feel fear and anxiety through engagement with fictional worlds, and identification with their residents. These two contributing factors enable players to inscribe a part of their self and even to undergo internal change. If a part of their implied self is somehow endangered, that is drifting towards an undesired possible self, it is a case for inducing fear and anxiety. This illustrates how, shortly speaking, from a comfortable chair, horror digital game players can go through horrific experience by the mere act of playing a game. The last question that remains unanswered is as follows: what in-game elements incite a sense of fear and anxiety in digital games?


Before answering this question, however, it is important to delineate the scope of this article more specifically and to impose a few necessary constraints. This article aims to identify stimuli that trigger a sense of fear and anxiety in digital games. As such, it must be carried out in terms of the theory of videoludic treatment of horror digital games (Perron, 2018). Of interest here are the second and third tiers on Perron’s pyramid of scary digital games. On the second level, there are games which “use scare tactics to create sporadic fear and/or horror effects …” and on the third level, there are digital games that take “fear explicitly and intentionally as an object. The fear induced in a gamer’s mind is one of the primary features of these games and a gamer must recognize/receive it as such (Perron 2018 p.118-126; italics original).” Perron (2018, p.114-116) specifies four main categories, which can be considered as the building material for the videoludic experience of fear. These are: (a) the environment, (b) the point of view, (c) the behavior of monsters, and (d) resources. Each element can be further divided into a set of particular game design elements, which will be described in more detail in the following analysis and further extended to include the feeling of fear and anxiety.

It also must be said that the game in question cannot itself be the sole source of fear and anxiety, since it is heavily concerned with potentially scary culture-specific myths, tales and even real-life events. For these reasons, I do not take into consideration extradiegetic fear and anxiety inducers and limit the analysis to the diegetic gameplay and narrative elements only.

Let us once again underline the main research questions. First, it is important to understand how Slender is able to invoke strong emotional responses in its players and in what ways it is different from other games of the same genre. These questions are explored with the help of the material taken from my own first gameplay experience, the experience of other players recorded on platforms such as YouTube, on the comments of anonymous game reviewers and on online discussion forums about the game. In the analysis the material was introduced and confronted with psychological data explaining how humans cope with cognitive stimuli responsible for invoking fear and anxiety.

Digital Realizations of Fear

Game World Design

Slender is an amateur undertaking with a relatively simple structure, especially when compared to other games of the same genre set in a similar world setting -- for example Blair Witch (Bloober Team, 2019). Thus, Slender appears to be easier to analyze in terms of its fear inducing elements. One such element is what can be described as its spatial narrative. As we have seen in one of the previous sections, as is the case with other digital games (see Costikyan 2002, p.13), Slender is based on exploration. In horror games, it is a common schema to isolate a character controlled by the player in some restricted area in order to set a goal of escaping from it (Perron 2018, p.111). In Slender, such design not only forces players to venture around the area and collect the pages, but also misleads them. There is no map, which could help players to navigate around the woods. Moreover, a limited number of trees and path models may confuse players into mistaking a new path for one they have been to before. In other words, limited graphic representation plays in favor of effectively building a sense of anxiety through a labyrinth-like area, since it is well known that labyrinth structures provide a sense of isolation and confusion for those who find themselves within their borders. Furthermore, as is common in most digital games, there is always some opposing force which tries to stop players from achieving their pre-set objectives. In Slender, when the monster finally appears, it is even more difficult to have a clear understanding of where “here” is due to the static distortions filling the screen. This horrific combination of clear, but elusive objectives, forking paths and an unknown threat during the actual gameplay proves to be very effective. The game world is specifically designed to generate a tense atmosphere and mental pressure on those who, eventually, will lose track of where they are. The only way to survive and reach the main objective involves finding and collecting all eight pages.

Mist and darkness are the veils that blur a larger part of the game world territory. The fear of darkness, as we have noted, is a human evolutionary disposition. It deprives us of information necessary to identify and appropriately respond to threatening stimuli (Öhman, 2005). It seems to be a common trope, not only in horror digital games, but also other horror visual media, to use mist and darkness as anxiety inducers (Noles, 2011). In Lynch and Martins’ empirical study (2015, p.312), the players reported that darkness was one of the most terrifying elements of the games they have played. In harmony with the labyrinth, mist and darkness create a horrible combination. To collect the pages, there is no other option than to risk potential dangers, being unaware of time, place or even the possibility of their occurring. One of two other functions of mist and darkness in Slender is to restrict field of vision, making it difficult to notice crucial landmarks that are necessary for appropriate navigation. The second function is hiding. There are in-game elements that should remain not visible at first sight, such as the pages or the monster. For these reasons, everyone playing the game, not only does not know where they are in the forest, but neither where they were, nor where they are going.

The way digital games impact their players is through such design techniques as described above. Scientific evidence justifies these techniques. The feeling of anxiety, please recall, increases when a person has no knowledge about the potential threats in his or her vicinity. Playing Slender, therefore, may cause continuous feeling of foreboding, for there is virtually no information about the opponent. According to Hadley, interviewed by Chris Lock (2012), such game design is a deliberate intention. As Hadley says, “The art behind building up a meaningful jump scare is making the player aware that something’s out there and building the tensions by not necessarily having it visible.” This claim corresponds to Nicholas Carleton’s study (2016) on anxiety disorders. The study reveals that perceived absence of information -- that is, fear of the unknown -- may be the main cause underlying anxiety and therein neuroticism. When commenting on the cause of fear, Carleton says that “appraise elements, context, the relative number of unknowns, may be the critical determinants of an emotional response.” This response, in Stephen King’s words (1981), is “the terror,” that is the dread of what can happen next, instilled by fiction with the help of a feeling of unease and suspense. It allows people to activate their imagination and guess what will happen next. In summary, the main drive of anxiety in Slender is being aware of the existence of the threat, but uncertain of its appearance, nature or intent.

The Objectives

Most, if not all, digital games provide a goal that their players must pursue. These goals present new kinds of challenges so that the player becomes more engaged with the game’s structure. In Slender, the goal is clear -- collect the eight pages, and by extension, try to make sense of them all. It is a search for the truth and the players are the subjects exploring it. Four of all pages, interestingly, suggest how one should play the game. More specifically, messages such us “Always watches… no eyes” or “Don’t look… or it takes you” prompt the players to avoid Slender Man’s wrath. The other group says “Help me” or “Leave me alone,” which signifies that the person, presumably a child who has left these notes, has already encountered Slender Man and that it was not, to put it mildly, a nice experience. All the notes are presented below.


Figure 1. The eight notes found in Slender -- The Eight Pages (2012); all screenshots taken by the author.

During the first playthrough, however, the meaning of the notes is rather difficult to interpret. Mounting anxiety can successfully divert a player’s attention from interpretative effort. Invoked emotions, in other words, interfere with game objectives. If it is impossible to make sense of what is on the notes, one may choose to collect them instead. The effectiveness of this design lays once again in the unknown. First, it is unclear where the notes are. Second, even if one or two pages of the notes are found, it still may be difficult to understand them or the relation between them. Third, even if one eventually interprets the notes, their interpretation may appear to be ambiguous. Instead of forming a coherent whole, the notes are divided in two categories, as we may clearly see in figure 1. Nevertheless, the notes are essential. If the players are not able to interpret them, they will solely focus on collecting them, without paying attention to their meaning. Four, as we have already mentioned, collecting the notes is not a simple task. Not only are they scattered randomly around the area, but they also attract Slender Man and other culture-specific fear inducing stimuli, such as chilling background sounds.


Figure 2. The game map of Slender -- The Eight Pages (2012).

All things considered, the notes are the one and only objective marker in the game, and so are the main causes of fear and anxiety. Their function touches on Oatley’s point that fictional worlds engage us through constructive imagination, and the same thing happens when the players decide to interpret their meaning. There are, of course, other active goals that one may want to pursue. One of them could be finishing the game through surviving the night, which, incidentally speaking, is based on the human primal desire to survive, so it does not even have to be spelled out by the game’s system.

Another point worth discussing is narrative, or rather its potential. In case of horror digital games, there are many titles, which exploit narrative for the purpose of engaging and scaring the players rather successfully. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (Capcom, 2017) is one such example. The same rule, although to a limited degree, applies to Slender. Its narrative does not play a big part in the overall experience, but for some players, especially those playing with “dramatist” attitude, certain narrative elements that may be casually linked are set within the game world environment. This decision was commented by the game’s producer in one of the interviews, where Hadley says that the main idea behind its design was to provide truly intense experience. In his opinion, it can be best achieved when the game world and the story are left up to the player’s imagination, so that they should be the ones who “determine why there’s an abandoned truck or what the purpose is for the pillars in one of the back areas.” The game world has ten distinctive areas (see figure 2), where some of them are natural and others, such as the truck, hold storytelling potential. Despite the fact that the truck does not hold too much specific information about the world, it does permit one to make certain generalizations. It raises the questions, such as where this truck came from or why it was left in the middle of the woods? By depriving the game of its story, Headley has left the game full of incomplete elements and limited clues, which could explain what had happened there. This burden, imposed on the player’s imagination, may also increase their engagement with the world, broadening the overall experience. This system of spatial challenges and unclear objectives is highly effective, interrupting the players pursuing objectives that are unclear from the start and pointless at the end.

The Character, the Villain and Other Game Mechanics

The game world is presented from a steady first-person perspective through intradiegetic external narration. The players see the world through the eyes of their character, but do not have direct access to her feelings or memories. Some scholars argue that such focalization brings greater focus toward the feelings and perceptions of game characters. Mäyrä (2006, p.107-108), for example, says that first-person narration makes a difference in the way players conceptualize their characters -- adopting the perspectival viewpoint and enabling them to impose their self onto the character --, rather than empathizing with them as if from a third-person perspective. Mäyrä continues this thought by saying that from a first-person perspective, the players have a strong sensation of being in the game world, which makes this experience even more engaging. These also seem to be the reasons why most horror digital games are not narrated from the third-person perspective widely used in other game genres. In horror digital games, this perspective would normally equip players with additional maneuvers, such us seeing around the corners without exposing their avatars to the threats hidden on the other side of the wall, but with first-person perspective there is no such safety net. When a character under a player’s control suddenly walks out from around a corner, the player is exposed to potential threats that could not be detected earlier. The choice of focalization, therefore, clearly impacts the way a game is played and experienced. It plays a crucial role in horror games too, since corners are perfect locations to surprise players with jump scares or other scripted events. For these reasons, first-person narration is a leading focalization in other games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) or F.E.A.R. (Monolith Productions, 2005). In Slender, this form of narration strengthens the players’ emotional responses by restricting their field of vision and maneuvers, so that detecting Slender Man takes more time and is more surprising than it would be from a third-person perspective.

Another aspect worthy of attention is the player’s defenselessness. In the game, the only tool the player can carry is a flashlight. Other horror games, such as the two mentioned above, allow their players to find various kinds of weapons to protect themselves. Against Slender Man, however, the players do not stand a chance, as there is nothing to protect oneself with. Recall that fear denotes dread of impending disaster and an intense urge to defend oneself. In the game’s context, if players are deprived of this indispensable tool, their emotional response to a threat may intensify. Lack of control over a subject of dread has a well-documented history of negative effects (Maier and Seligman, 2016). Additionally, several studies show that perceived control over such a threat, even if imaginary, decreases anxiety (Salomons et. al. 2015) and reduced activation of brain regions responsible for responding to threats (Limbachia et. al. 2021). In Slender, the only choice one has is to move away from a dangerous situation by running. But apparently, this was predicted too. It is no coincidence that one of the few rules that govern the game is a drastic movement limitation. This smart design leads to just two choices: to walk, that is to perform slow movement by pressing a movement button, or to sprint for a short period of time, after which the character runs out of stamina and returns to walking. Apparently -- besides the flashlight with limited battery life and visibility -- running is the only game mechanic that allows the players to survive an encounter with Slender Man. To make matters worse, if players encounter it and decide to run away, their fast movement lowers the flashlight, making it impossible to see what is ahead.

The last element discussed here is the villain. Perron (2018, p.111) argues that every horror digital game must inextricably have some type of a counterforce that players have to face. Let me remind you that Slender Man is a mysterious humanoid creature of unknown origin. It does not correspond to any traditional fantastic creatures, like zombies, vampires, or ghosts -- common in bestiaries of many other horror digital games. In our case, the monster wears a grey suit and resembles a human, although it is difficult to recognize it as one, since it has exceptionally long arms and is deprived of any salient facial features. Slender Man’s 3D model is disproportionately distorted, which is the reason why its body seems to be deformed. There are studies showing that depictions of disfigured humans and zombies could induce responses consistent with aversion to disease and corpses (Curtis & Brian, 2001). Unlike other horror digital games, such as Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve Corporation, 2009) or already mentioned Resident Evil VII: Biohazard (Capcom, 2017), in Slender there are no other hostile creatures, which could distract the player’s attention. For these reasons, when Slender Man finally appears, the sight of it may be terrifying, but it will definitely be in the spotlight of the player’s attention. The model of Slender Man is visible in figure 3. It is difficult to make any cultural associations with Slender Man that could invoke certain horror schemas, but if there are some, these could be, for example, elements of Lovecraft’s horror stories or some type of psychological drama in which “man-in-black” may be associated with the appearance of the devil (Lewis 1995, p.218). Slender Man, thus, is a modern fictional character and a product of popular culture around which certain myths tend to rotate.


Figure 3. A model of Slender Man represented in Slender -- The Eight Pages (2012); screenshot taken by author.

Whether these myths have some impact on the overall experience is beyond the scope of this article, although the creator of the game says that Slender Man’s design as a mythological creature was in fact intentional (Lock, 2012). Likely, it was a similarly intentional decision to make Slender Man the only adversary in the game. Other horror games, such as the first-person shooter Killing Floor 2 (Tripwire Interactive, 2016) for example, feature a great number of opponents, making the game focused more on fast paced action. I agree here with Hamilton (2012), who says that it is “scarier [to be] haunted by a singular being with a singular focus, rather than a horde of beasties ….” This is where Slender is different than many popular horror games. There are, of course, a number of games, which center their whole system or particular mechanics around a single adversary, most notably: Outlast (Red Barrels, 2013), Alien: Isolation (Creative Assembly and Feral Interactive, 2014) or the Tyrant in Resident Evil 2 (Capcom, 2019), to name a few.

Finally, there are other mechanics associated with Slender Man that increase the intensity of the game’s horror. Two more of them are the randomness of Slender Man’s appearance and stalking. As Hadley says, “I still do find parts of the game scary, simply because I made SM’s movement [(teleportation)] so randomized that I can’t even predict it myself.” This random game mechanic seems to be one of the keys to Slender’s success in invoking a sense of fear and anxiety. Unable to make any judgements about The players, instead, are left with the feeling of being stalked. The feeling of lacking crucial information stays in direct contradiction to the human natural tendency to make sense of the world. Incompleteness in any discernible way, including fictional world structure, may provoke emotional arousal, such that one may engage in assimilating new information about it (Oatley 1994, p.57). As the study on fear shows, if an individual finds themselves in an alien world, which is difficult to make sense of, they feel anxious and uncertain of their position. The unknown about the world or a beast inside it is yet another technique to induce fear.

One more and final fear-inducing aspect of the game is the villain’s uncanny stillness when he is finally seenIt is well known that remaining in the same position is one of a human’s natural defensive behaviors (Koutsikou et. al., 2014). Many animals, including mammals, have a natural tendency to “freeze,” when they notice something potentially frightening. This is also true for humans. If an individual happens to notice something unknown and potentially dangerous, it is highly probable that this individual will stop for a few moments in order to recognize and assess the object that has just been noticed. After this time, a quick decision about ignoring or copying the object of interest is made. In the game, however, this aspect is inverted. It is Slender Man who is motionless. Slender Man does not have any movement animations, so it teleports around the area instead. As the author says, “I always wanted him [Slender Man] to be still, I just thought it was creepier that way, never actually seeing him move” (Lock, 2012). How might a still Slender Man induce fear? An encounter with an opponent who does nothing but stare at the player creates a sense of tension that must be alleviated. Normally, in a hostile environment, when some wild and dangerous animal is noticed, it takes humans just a second to recognize it and to decide that it is probably best to run away. As Dean Mobbs (2015) explains, many animals, including humans, have a suite of neural systems, optimizing defense mechanisms, which enable us to monitor the environment for threats and to determine the best course of action. Boars or any other dangerous animals for that matter are also expected to make a move when they see a human, but the case of Slender Man is different. When the players finally notice the monster, it is difficult to recognize it as a threat, and thus to assess its abilities. It is unknown whether it can attack or how fast it is.


This analysis has shown that horror in Slender is not only framed by traditional elements, that is narrative and its stories, but also by embodied experience and a form of play on multiple levels. The experience of horror is thus multifaceted, In order to understand how these stimuli are processed, understanding the relation between fear and human cognition was in order. In section three I have explained the difference between fear and anxiety and how they impact players. I continued this thought by presenting a theoretical explanation of the way players experience these feelings during gameplay, that is by inscribing their self into the game and creating mental constructs about the world. In section four, mostly by focusing on Slender, I discussed the numerous in-game techniques used to induce horror. More specifically, it has been said that humans experience anxiety because of unknown threats, aversive locations, and unclear motivations -- all these stimuli have been found in my analysis. Fear, moreover, is a reaction to an observable threat that people must cope with. It can also be acquired by direct and/or indirect experience with fear-inducing stimuli. To meet this end, I have argued that Slender effectively makes use of these inclinations, that is: it deprives the players of tools to defend themselves (e.g. through movement, and the flashlight); it induces a sense of anxiety by both encouraging and yet punishing players for reaching game objectives (through static distortions and pounding sounds); it raises tension through first opening the potential for constructive imagination only to limit it later on (the meaning of the notes, the purpose of certain landmarks, the purpose of being in the wood). In general, the widespread sense of the unknown, the potential for constructive imagination and other elements were the game author’s aim. They exist to provide as few details as possible to stimulate the player’s imagination, but not to satiate it. Combined with no scripted sequence of events and ambiguous messages, exploration of the game’s content results in a suspense that Mark Hadley wanted to keep up. In his own words, “pacing is very important … if you toss something at the player without this build-up of tension, all you get is taken by surprise and that’s not really a full scare, [it is startling] (Lock, 2012).”

This article has argued that even a small, amateur project like Slender has an abundance of elements, which aim at inducing horrific experiences. It has shown and underlined the importance of close cooperation of several in-game mechanics, utilization of human capacity for constructive imagination as well as close and careful selection of fear and anxiety inducing stimuli. In the end, I would also like to call attention to the distinction between a full scare versus mere startling, or fear and anxiety, which may prove to be useful to game developers as well as scholars interested in the subject. For this reason, the findings may be of use to everyone who wants to improve and further develop the digital horror game genre, and contribute to new theoretical and empirical investigations.



[1] Out of 49 Metacritic user reviews about Slender (PC), 37 mention that the game was frightening in some sense. The remaining reviews don’t mention any terrifying experience (7 reviews), or mention that the game was not scary (4 reviews) with one user providing an ambiguous review. Versions of the game may differ.

[2] Horizontal static distortions, for example, are culture-specific fear inducing stimuli, which can be found in many videos and movies. This is a remark made by one of the anonymous reviewers of the first draft of this article.



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