In 2009, the very first image of "Slender Man" was posted by creator Eric Knudsen on a Something Awful forum. That original Photoshopped image, of an unnaturally tall man in a suit lurking just within sight, was meme-ified to the point where Slender Man is the millennial Boogeyman. Social media, essentially, created a new thing to fear.
Now, nearly a decade after that first Slender Man image was posted, the horror icon has received its first narrative film. (A 2017 HBO documentary titled Beware the Slenderman focused on a case in which two young girls stabbed another in order to please the fictional character.) The new horror movie tells the story of a group of teen girls who use the internet to summon the viral sensation, only to discover that doing so has devastating real-life consequences.
It's appropriate, given the subject matter of the internet-centric film, that its star, Joey King, is a newly-minted social media superstar herself. Though the actress has worked steadily since a 2006 arc on Disney Channel's The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, it was her turn in this year's Netflix rom-com The Kissing Booth (itself based on a viral Wattpad story turned novel) that shot her Instagram following to a whopping 6.5 million.
According to IMDb, King currently has five movies awaiting release — among them Zeroville, starring James Franco — and an upcoming role as both star and producer in teen drama The In Between, recently acquired by Paramount Players. Yet in an age where celebrities make millions off of a single Instagram post, and clout is recognized in number of likes and followers, King's social media status suggests she's reached a new point in her career. The world is watching King now, more than ever — one piece of proof being how many fans are completely obsessed with her real-life romance with onscreen love interest Jacob Elordi.
If there's one thing King's new horror film Slender Man has taught us, it's that the internet is not always our friend. Yet despite her massive following, King doesn't see social media as something to be carefully, meticulously managed. That may be why King's fans like her so much in the first place: She keeps it as real as she can.
In conversation with Refinery29, King talked about Instagram, what attracts her to horror, and the love story she's bringing to the big screen.
Refinery29: You've done a lot of horror over the course of your career, including Wish Upon and The Conjuring. What attracts you to the genre, and specifically Slender Man?
Joey King: "I think what attracts me so much to it is that the horror fanbase is so loyal and dedicated. The reactions people always have to horror movies is just the greatest thing. Either people laugh because they’re scared. They hide. They scream. They cry. When I got the script [for Slender Man], I was like 'Oh my god this is such a cool take on this insanely famous fictional mythical character.' And I think the way the filmmakers did it, the way the story plays out, it came out so well, and so creepy."
Your Instagram blew up after the success of The Kissing Booth. What is it like having so many people curious about you as a person, not just as an actress?
"It’s exciting, because first people fell in love with the character, Elle — that was exciting for me because I fell in love with her, too. Now those people who loved her came and followed me, because they wanted to know what I was up to, and see what projects I have coming next. It's great to have this new fanbase of such excited people who are so supportive and so sweet. I am so stoked to share everything with them, and I hope they’re as pumped as I am."
Given your new social media status, do you now put more thought into what you share on the internet?
"Absolutely. Since I’m young, and most of my followers are young women, I want to be the best role model that I can be, while staying true to my absolute self. Every now and then I overthink what I put out there, but I try really hard not to — which sounds like an oxymoron. On my Instagram you’ll see a close-up of me making a funny face. I never want to take myself too seriously, and no one else should either. When I’m going around doing press today, I’m posting pictures of my glam team because everyone has to know that I did not wake up with curled hair and extensions and fake eyelashes. It takes a village, and it’s okay that it takes a village!"
You've signed on to star in and produce the film The In Between, about a teen who loses her boyfriend and connects with his ghost. What made you choose this project?
"What drew me to The In Between is the romance [at the center of the story.] Two people who love each other so much can’t connect the way that they want to after something terrible happens...I’ve been working for so long, but there are still so many parts of this industry that I have to learn about. [Producing is] such a learning experience for me. When Paramount Players decided that they wanted to work with us, it was this surreal moment. [This movie] is my baby now, which is really incredible... I think when women have a say in what we're doing and who they’re portraying, such strong, lovely lady characters are created."
Do you have any dream roles you would love to tackle?
"My favorite movie last year was The Greatest Showman, so doing a musical movie like that would be amazing. It’s hard to say that would be a dream role, though, because I don’t want to box myself in. Chances are, if I step on a set taking a role, it was such a big deal, and it was a dream. Every set I step on is an absolute love affair with my character and the story. Every time I work on something it becomes my dream role — until the next thing."
Slender Man hits theaters August 10.
Interview has been edited and condensed.