I slept with the lights on the other night. Not including the times I've staggered home so drunk that I've been unable to master the complexities of an on-off switch, I don't think I've done that since I was a child.
I slept with the lights on because every time I turned them off and peered through my open bedroom doorway into the darkened living room beyond, I could swear there was something tall, thin and vaguely man-shaped lurking deep in a shadowed corner.
Though I've had my brain twisted by a small handful of truly scary movies over the years -- The Exorcist, The Shining and The Blair Witch Project, before the hype machine caught up to it -- my unreasonable fear on this night was caused by, of all things, a video game.
Slender isn't a game you'll find for sale in stores. Until it recently found a home at slendergame.com, download links were being passed around from person to person, sort of like a VHS tape that kills you seven days after you watch it.
It's a short, free game for the PC and Mac, designed by a guy named Mark J. Hadley, using a set of off-the-shelf game development tools. The premise is simple: you're in a deserted forest at night, armed with nothing more than a flashlight, and you must find eight notebook pages related to the Slender Man, a mythical being that appears to be a tall, thin man in a dark suit. With creepily elongated arms. And a tiny head. With no facial features.
What makes the game so terrifying is the moment you locate the first of the eight pages -- scrawled with warnings such as "don't look... or it takes you" -- the Slender Man begins stalking you. You can't hear him, and you never actually see him move. He'll just suddenly appear in the distance among the trees, or around the corner of an abandoned building, or RIGHT BEHIND YOU OH MY GOD OH MY GOD! AHHHHHH!
The game's mix of a first-person perspective, a flashlight that slowly loses power over time and a truly ominous soundtrack combine to form an interactive type of fear, paranoia and dread that simply can't be matched by passive entertainment like movies and TV. In the past several days the game has gone massively viral, even spawning online videos of people filming themselves as they play. More often than not, there's a lot of screaming.
Interestingly, the Slender Man myth was created from scratch by users of the popular SomethingAwful.com website and has spread through Internet culture over the past few years, resulting in Photoshopped images of the creature, elaborate artwork, alternate reality games and online videos such as the terrifying-in-its-own-right Marble Hornets series, found at Youtube.com/user/MarbleHornets.
With formerly frightening video game franchises now more interested in delivering action than scares, it's refreshing to see a small, simple game that can cut right to the heart of what fear is about. Even if it does mean sleeping with the lights on.