I’m sure by now many of you have heard the tragic story of the two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who stabbed a friend 19 times because they were inspired by the internet meme Slender Man. The story is sad on many levels, but it was particularly disturbing how the impressionable girls thought that the internet meme had a reality beyond fiction and that by engaging in real-life violence they could join Slender Man in some sort of communion.
Slender Man was invented as a piece of art in 2009 by Eric Knudsen on the Something Awful internet forum.
The police released the affidavit describing the girls’ confession. Because of the age of the girls involved, I’m not particularly comfortable using their names, which have appeared in the media, including the Los Angeles Times, so I have redacted them from the statement below:
[Suspect 1] told police that Slender Man is the 'leader' of Creepypasta, and in the hierarchy of that world, one must kill to show dedication. [She] said that [Suspect 2] told her they should become 'proxies' of Slender Man — a paranormal figure known for his ability to create tendrils from his fingers and back — and kill their friend to prove themselves worthy of him. [Suspect 1] said she was surprised by [Suspect 2]'s suggestion, but also excited to prove skeptics wrong and show that Slender Man really did exist.
The owner of Creepypasta, an online short horror fiction website, released a statement denying that the site’s fiction bore responsibility for the girls’ behavior.
I think that most of you will understand when I say it’s hard to justify pinning blame on an entire genre of writing. Unless you’re okay with blaming the world’s ills on Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft, I don’t believe that it makes sense to say paranormal writing or an interest in the macabre should be blamed or even used as an indicator of a “sick” person (as a few emails have already felt the need to call both myself and all the authors here). The human race has long held and encouraged a fascination with things that go bump in the night.
Coverage of the girls’ actions has tended to follow the typical pattern of witchcraft, vampire, and satanic cult scares, in which authorities issue dire warnings to parents about nefarious evil that corrupts the innocence of youth: “This should be a wake-up call for all parents,” Waukesha, Wisconsin police chief Russell P. Jack said. “Parents are strongly encouraged to restrict and monitor their children’s Internet usage.” Similarly, CNN reported that parents are worried now that their children are slipping into a fantasy world. One such parent, Mary Ellen Cavanagh, the mother of two teenagers, expressed distress that the line between fantasy and reality is “"thinning drastically among our youth.” She did not have evidence to support this other than CNN’s scare-mongering about the power of the internet to induce children to violence.
The Slender Man stabbings also have an uncanny echo of a recent episode of Supernatural (S09E15), based on the same internet meme, in which two disturbed young men commit murder in the name of a fictitious “Thinman,” invented as a publicity stunt by the Ghostfacers. There, however, Thinman served as an intentionally false cover for the killers’ underlying psychopathy. So far no one has blamed Supernatural for inducing anyone to kill.
This is not the first time that horror has had a direct effect on its audience. In American Exorcism (2002) Michael W. Cuneo traced the influence of The Exorcist on American exorcism rituals and belief in demonic possession and found that in the years following the film’s release the movie contributed to a spike in Americans’ belief that they or someone they knew was possessed by a demon. Similarly, ghost movies like Paranormal Activity and their non-fiction paranormal counterparts such as Ghost Hunters has apparently contributed to an increase in a belief in ghosts, at least in Britain, where belief has risen from 40 to 52 percent over the past decade, according to a 2013 survey.
What strikes me as unusual is the way that one of the girls specifically told police that her goal in stabbing her friend was the “prove skeptics wrong,” which is not something that one typically associates with those who take from fiction a belief in demonic possession, vampires, werewolves, or other traditional monsters. She is aping the language of fringe paranormal “investigators,” and here we seem to have crossed from someone who has taken fiction literally to someone who is also influenced by the (nonfiction) paranormal culture and its ideology. I’m reminded of the justification of the two men who defaced the Great Pyramid last year—they, too, said their reason was to prove a bizarre idea to a wider public, in their case that the pyramid was 10,000 years old.
It’s worth noting that within five months of Slender Man’s creation, it went from a piece of internet art to a subject of conspiracy discussion on Coast to Coast A.M. alongside other fringe topics like UFOs, ancient astronauts, and Bigfoot. It wasn’t only children who absorbed the fantasy.
Although 12-year-olds can’t be placed in the same mental category as adults, it is rather noteworthy that the girls’ bloody efforts to “prove” that a fictional supernatural creature had an underlying reality parallel to an extent what paranormal culture has argued since at least the time of Helena Blavatsky. The Theosophist wrote in the Secret Doctrine that the creators of speculative fiction had special access to the occult, which they accurately transmitted in fiction:
Our best modern novelists, who are neither Theosophists nor Spiritualists, begin to have, nevertheless, very psychological and suggestively Occult dreams […] [T]he clever novelist seems to repeat the history of all the now degraded and down-fallen races of humanity.
Today there are groups who practice “Magick” who believe that H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, while fictional, nevertheless resulted from Lovecraft’s unconscious communion with beings from another dimension. Lovecraft assiduously reminded readers that his stories were pure fiction, but nevertheless many took the Mythos as a true account of a real ancient myth cycle.
To that end, horror fiction has not exactly made it easy to distinguish fact from fiction, and this is something that dates back to the dawn of the genre. Horror was not the only genre to make false claims for factual reality, but it is the most famous. Horace Walpole purposely published the very first horror novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), as though it were a genuine Italian manuscript from centuries past. Famously, the Texas Chain Saw Massacre claimed to be a true story, as did the Blair Witch Project, which was one of the most elaborate multimedia world-building exercises of its era.
And of course urban legends all claim to be “true” stories even though they are little more than modern folklore.
Therefore, we should not be surprised that the Slender Man meme crosses the boundary between fiction and pseudo-fact. What makes it different than other urban legends is that we can mark the exact point of origin and know who created it and why. That isn’t the case for such urban legend figures as the “Hook-Man” or legendary creatures like the vampire.
Had the girls stabbed their friend to summon a demon or to engage in a vampire feast, the case would still have been shocking, but it wouldn’t have quite the same resonance. Even though demons, vampires, and the Slender Man have about the same amount of evidence in their favor, as a society we’ve decided that some myths carry weight and import, or are hallowed by tradition, while others are too recent or too tied to specific current concerns (in this case, the evil of the internet) and are therefore more threatening to our lives and families than others.
It strikes me that if the girls called it a human sacrifice to Hecate, infernal goddess of magic, or to Satan, the conversation would be very different than the same sacrifice made to Slender Man. The more interesting question is why that might be—and what that says about how our culture conceives of the realm of myth and legend. Satanic killing summons images of clandestine networks of dark seduction, though at a remove from daily life. But the internet is right there in your bedroom, making it uniquely frightening in a way that, apparently, other monsters no longer quite are. It can corrupt your children right under your nose!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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