Guest Post: The Slender Man, Fakelore, and Moral Panic

Guest Contributor —  June 10, 2014 — 20 Comments

[The following is a guest post from author and journalist Beth Winegarner. Winegarner’s latest book is “The Columbine Effect: How Five Teen Pastimes Got Caught in The Crossfire and Why Teens Are Taking Them Back.”]

On May 31, news broke that two 12-year-old Milwaukee girls, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, had stabbed a classmate 19 times and left her in the woods to die. Although those facts are startling enough on their own, much of the coverage has focused on the girls’ purported reason for the attack: they said they did it to appease the Slender Man, a fictional Internet character originally created by Eric Knudsen in 2009 during a Something Awful challenge. The Slender Man — or Slenderman, as he’s sometimes called — later joined the ranks on Creepypasta’s wiki catalog of fictional characters. Here’s what the site says about him:

Slender Man graffitti. CC BY 2.0. Photo: mdl70 (Flickr).

Slender Man graffitti. CC BY 2.0. Photo: mdl70 (Flickr).

Much of the fascination with Slender Man is rooted in the overall aura of mystery that he is wrapped in. Despite the fact that it is rumored he kills children almost exclusively, it is difficult to say whether or not his only objective is slaughter. Often times it is either reported or recorded that he can be found in sections of woods, and these generally tend to be suburban. He also has been reported seen with large groups of children, as many photographs portray. It is commonly thought that he resides in woods and forests and preys on children. He seems unconcerned with being exposed in the daylight or captured in photos.

The Slender Man story is a kind of fakelore; such stories have been since around long before the Internet. But in the days following the Wisconsin attack, some parents began demanding that Creepypasta either censor the article or shut down the site. Perhaps inevitably, in the days following the stabbing, some news outlets began targeting parents, asking if they know what their kids are looking at online. But such articles tend not to be too helpful. This one is full of vague half-statements about how kids always wind up in the “creepiest places” online, but offers few credible, concrete answers.

Such approaches to the attack suggest that the Internet in general, and the Slender Man story in particular, are to blame. Put another way, they imply that without Creepypasta’s wiki, the girls never would have stabbed their classmate. Even the mainstream press has done everything it can to connect the Milwaukee stabbing with the Slender Man story in readers’ minds: most are referring to it as the “Slenderman stabbing” now. In other places, headlines have made clear what they want readers to think: “Fantasy ‘Slender Man’ Meme Inspires Horrific Wisconsin Stabbing,” “Demonic Creature ‘Slender Man’ Motive For Waukesha Teen Stabbing?” “Could a fictional Internet character drive kids to kill?”

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier arrest photos.

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier arrest photos.

Even the Chicago Tribune, in the attempt to provide a more thoughtful piece on the killings, quickly concludes that children can lose the “boundary between fantasy and reality” when exposed to online fantasy violence, that 12-year-olds don’t understand that killing someone is permanent, and that “research confirms … that virtual violence raises anxiety and desensitizes kids to human suffering.” While it at least establishes that these kinds of events happened before Creepypasta, it plays up the shadowy specter that even young kids might become violent at any moment (which is true, but also incredibly rare). At the same time, it offers a seemingly simple solution: that if parents “restrict and monitor their kids’ Internet usage,” things will be just fine.

A writer for CNN Parents wrote an article discussing how parents can tell when their children are having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. It talks with a variety of experts, but when you examine their language, even they seem to be doing little more than guessing what might have led these two girls to attempt murder: “It may be kind of an inability to hold the potential consequences and reality in mind.” “”I think it’s the chemistry between these two girls. It was insane.”

Just about every time a teen or young adult commits a violent and seemingly senseless crime, society turns to media influences for an explanation. Whether it’s video games, extreme music, paganism, occultism or scary stories, it’s always some external factor — not the young perpetrator — that bears the bulk of the blame. The second scapegoat, particularly with younger kids or kids with developmental delays (like Adam Lanza) is their parents. As the news cycle on this stabbing matures, attention has now turned to Morgan Geyser’s father, who is allegedly fond of goth and metal cultures and who was also interested in Slender Man. But you can’t blame a man with countercultural interests — and who shares those interests with his daughter — for a killing. Not on that basis alone. There are far too many counter-examples.

The girls’ own attorney has openly acknowledged that they should undergo psychiatric evaluation. While “mental illness” is even more vague than “Slender Man” as an explanation, at least it begins the inquiry with the perpetrator. But others, including Joseph Laycock, have suggested that the girls aren’t mentally ill exactly: he cites other sources who say the intensity of their friendship might have been the spark for the crime, or that they simply blamed their acts on Slender Man to convince the police to go easier on them. Then he offers his own take:

I submit that Geyser and Weier were engaged in a form of play that extended the Slender Man legend complex through performance. Then, in a moment of lowered inhibitions, irrevocable consequences occurred, making the play world real. … The girls’ fascination with Slender Man was performative. Anna Freud noted that children often pretend to be monsters, acting out the very thing that they fear.

This difficult-to-comprehend crime comes on the heels of at least two others, including Elliot Rodgers’ rampage in Southern California and Miranda Barbour’s self-professed killing spree, which still hasn’t been proven. In Barbour’s case, she claimed she was a member of a Satanic cult. Journalists and police were correctly skeptical of Barbour’s claims, and that seems like an appropriate model for how we might approach the Wisconsin stabbing, too. In the wake of Rodgers’ spree, writer Mark Manson connected some of the dots on prior incidents of youth violence, from Columbine to Isla Vista, and came to an extremely important point about all of them: Nobody listened closely enough. He says:

Despite being relevant and important discussions, the glamorous headlines are ultimately distractions — they just feed into the carnage and the attention and the fame the killer desired. They are distractions from what is right in front of you and me and the victims of tomorrow’s shooting: people who need help. And while we’re all fighting over whose pet cause is more right and more true and more noble, there’s likely another young man out there, maybe suicidally depressed, maybe paranoid and delusional, maybe a psychopath, and he’s researching guns and bombs and mapping out schools and recording videos and thinking every day about the anger and hate he feels for this world. And no one is paying attention to him.

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  • Dizzy

    This hits it correctly on the truth of the matter. Thank you for this well written piece.

  • Sarah Butts

    I think when it comes to the media and their sources sex, blood, violence and hysteria make stories sell. I just read how in England the girl who stabbed her mother was mentally ill and everyone zeroed in on that. The media will cover stories of mentally ill by doing stories where they hurt someone or themselves. I have PTSD, Auspergers, possible borderline and may be bipolar NOS and the truth is I never liked hurting people even if I was angry and as a kid twenty years ago I was ANGRY. I came from a violent home. I had foster parents who were abusive. You know what I made the decision to change my life so I wouldn’t be like them. Out of that I think some people who are exposed to violence are not able to always make rational decisions. Mental illness is not the only factor that makes someone kill or hurt others. Psychopathic tendencies could. But psychopathic tendencies are very different from bipolar, borderline and all these other conditions. So, the media does not ever think about that. They just lump people up into one group. Oye. In our movies ‘murder’ done by a hero is glorified because he is protecting his family. Does our culture being exposed to violence make us as human more violent? Probably. But we also have a choice. And these girls I don’t think were able to make compassionate decisions for other reasons. Anyway, it is probably for the better that the media be ignored because they just like to sell a story and the byline uses sensationalism rather then common sense.

    • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

      I agree. Our society, led by the media, just lumps people with mental/emotional issues into one category: “crazy”. And “crazy” is equated with dangerous, violent and untrustworthy. That is not only unfair but also is an obstacle for people getting help when they need it.
      .

  • Deporodh

    The blame game hasn’t changed much since “the media” blamed this, that, or the other thing on the “Satanic content” of playing old-fashionged *vinyl LPs* backward…whether those LPs were Ozzie Osbourne or the Beatles’ White Album or Marilyn Manson.

  • Cat lover

    Devil’s advocate, here. Should we be so quick to dismiss the possibility that Slenderman is an actual entity? What about the concept of egregores? I’m not saying that is what happened here, but it seems odd that Pagans dismiss this out of hand when many, if not most(?) pagans believe in spirits and acknowledge that not all are benevolent. If you believe in faeries and drawing the goddess down into you, why not?

    • MadGastronomer

      I’ve seen quite a few pieces on exactly that. Look around.

      But even if we accept the reality of Slenderman, it’s still a good idea to discuss and educate ourselves on the psychology of how people get into situation where their fears and passions feed on each other until they start doing things like this. Accepting the existence of the Christian god doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about the psychology of Jonestown.

      • Cat lover

        Oh, you’ll get no argument from me. I just hadn’t seen the discussions you must have seen.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        I strongly agree. Any modalities of assessment and treatment must be acceptable irrespective of theology, i.e., products of a formally secular polity.

  • PixieAndGage

    Is it just me or does slender man look like Nergal from The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy?

  • David Craig

    I think it is stupid to blame anything on the media. Why hasn’t anything been blamed on Bugs Bunny and the old Loony Tunes cartoons? They were violent also. I guess people were smarter back then.

    • http://www.cernowain.com/ cernowain greenman

      David, the news media is very different today than 40 years ago. There is so much more hyperboyle, sensationalism, speculation and editorialism in news media that we no longer have “news reporting” but rather “infotainment”. Instead of informing us, the news media now provokes.

  • http://saffronrose.livejournal.com/ A. Marina Fournier

    Great article–but you’re in the habit of that, aren’t you? I seem to have read quite a bit of what you’ve written.

    The Slender Man reminds me of some of the mythology of homeless children on the street. Wish I could remember where I read about that.

    It has been suggested, from watching the rather violent play of toddlers, that children cease to be as violent as they grow older, but that some children never quite make that change, i.e., that violent teenagers didn’t become that way, but failed to outgrow it or to absorb empathy or civilized behavior. Interesting idea.

    However, lots of influences have been cited as the causes of Teenagers Gone Wrong. From the 60′s indeed up until now, and likely for quite a while in the future, whatever it is that parents object to will be hauled up by the media or various groups as What Turned Robin Into a Delinquent/Monster…. However those same items do not turn EVERY person interested in, or doing, them into sad stories in the news. There really isn’t a single cause, but few seem to realize that. Not everyone who reads/watches porn, engages in kink, reads erotica, uses sex toys, or has a household with casual family nudity ends up committing abusive crimes involving any of those, but any US agency concerned with abuse of children especially, will tell you that any of these lead to abuse or “unnatural sexual attraction” from either end of the power balance. Sure, I don’t think engaging in sexual activity/watching porn in public, or in the public areas of your home, in front of children, especially with kink involved, is a great idea. I had no problem with my son exploring sexual topics on the net after he was 12–it wasn’t forced on him, and I figured it was healthy curiosity. Haven’t seen anything odd coming from it, but I’m sure a county social worker would have objected strenuously.

    It’s another example of the activity or the item being bad in and of itself, but how it is used by the individual, and whether the individual understands its use, is *able* to understand its use and its consequences, and chooses to proceed. Mental health issues are rife in most of the mass shootings. Irrational hatred, such as misogyny or racism, is often present as well.

    Sarah, I’m bipolar NOS (I can’t seem to fit those convenient pigeonholes!), and without access to good and steady mental health care, everyone around me would be as miserable as I’d be feeling in the long & deep depressions I’d had. I never felt like killing anyone–too much empathy at the base of my personality for that–nor did I believe that it was ethical to use someone else’s agency to put me out of my misery. Suicide by police or by moving vehicle is just way wrong to me–it goes against the reasons most depressives of any strain want to die, such as to stop causing pain to themselves and to those around them, their family, and others who care about them. We don’t want to cause another pain, we just want to be out of *ours*.

    Sarah, good for you for deciding to be the last in a chain of abuse: that you yourself would not do it, even if it was only because it had been done to you. It takes self-awareness, I think, to break the chains of abuse, to say that you will do better, and NOT become like the perpetrators.

    I’m noticing that very very few of the young folk who go on killing sprees such as those on any number of campuses, seem to be anything other than Caucasian. Young people of color are feared by nervous caucasians as likely to do those things, but that’s not, for the very most part, who’s doing the mass shootings.

    • Robert Mathiesen

      Two good accounts of homeless children’s mythologies in specific cities are here:

      http://www.miaminewtimes.com/1997-06-05/news/myths-over-miami/full/

      and

      http://wildhunt.org/2014/05/the-lost-lords-of-neverwhere.html

      A very perceptive former student of mine, well grounded in esoteric and occult philosophy, told me that she grew up in a wealthy town where many teens received no parenting at all (their parents being uninterested in their children, or otherwise occupied). These unparented ‘teens improvised similar “tribes” with “tribal” mythologies of their own as desperate attempts to self-parent. So it’s not only the homeless children; it can also be children of wealthy and privileged families. The entire phenomena bears much more investigation.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      [V]ery few of the young folk who go on killing sprees such as those on any number of campuses, seem to be anything other than Caucasian.A look at the appalling death rate among young Black men suggests an alternative theory: Early violence persists in a small percentage across the board, but young Black men are in such a lethal environment that the hyperviolent ones get killed early and the media treat it as “just another death in the ‘hood.”

  • arsowen

    I’ve been wondering what on earth was going on at the homes of these two children that killing someone and running away to live with a demon seemed like the better option.

  • Kristi

    A child knows right from wrong at age 8. We live in a society that likes or needs to find some one or some thing to blame for our bad behavior. There are two people to blame, those two girls. They should be held accountable and responsible not the media, fictional character, gun makers or owners, knife manufactures, musicians, fantasy writer, or whoever else people want to blame. There are many people who feel disillusioned, have mental issues, have been a victim of abuse, and or just angry who never go around and commit acts of violence. The blame, consequences, and ultimately responsibility needs to and should rest on the person committing the crime.

  • http://www.walkofthefallen.com Labrys

    I find it rather horrifying that the media and the nation seem to jump on this with both feet — frankly, much as they do if anyone of a pagan derivation commits a crime — and yet, obviously impaired-in-various-ways individuals get guns and shoot multiple people almost daily now. And yet, the hue and cry rises loudest when children or females do something out of line and vaguely related to anything titled “occult”.

  • Trigon

    i played the game and he does not stab anyone

  • cathimeinecke

    If Slenderman had been censored these girls would have, most likely, found some other influence. Lack of parenting or parental involvement in children’s life is to blame just as much as the internet, videogames and television.