The Slender Man story stabbing: How viral fiction lead to murder

The Slender Man story stabbing: How viral fiction lead to murder

The Slender Man is unique among all the legends of human folklore. He stands, true to his name, head and shoulders above other cryptozoological monsters like Bigfoot, the Jersey Devil, or the Mothman and, for years, disturbing pieces of short fiction and mock vlogs have sprung up on forums and YouTube, detailing the many varied stories of the weird, eldritch figure. The Slender Man story is an ongoing narrative that will not be forgotten anytime soon.

The Slender Man story is a rare instance where we can actually trace the origins of the folklore all the way back to its humble genesis, namely on a Something Awful thread from 2009. Eight years later, that thread has inspired countless tributes and the story of the Slender Man has been retold again and again, each new iteration adding some new depth or disturbing detail to the modern-day mythos for the digital age. But tragically, for some fans it hasn't been enough to tell Slender Man stories through words or video. For some, the only way to do the Slender Man justice has been to turn viral fiction into real-life murder.

An image of the Slender Man playing with children in a black and white photograph. Credit: Creepypasta.wikia

But what is the Slender Man, and what are his origins? The creation of the Slender Man can be attributed to Something Awful user "Victor Surge" in a thread where users were challenged to create paranormal images in order to unsettle others by photoshopping period photographs. Surge (real name Eric Knudsen) edited two black and white photographs of children to include a tall, gangly humanoid leering over them. The figure had a blank, white face, wore a dark suit, and boasted strange, dangling limbs. Inspired by video games like Silent Hill, and movies such as Phantasm and the works of Howard Philip Lovecraft, Knudsen claimed that the Slender Man was a gothic, uncanny being who kidnapped children; capable of mind control, teleportation and telepathy.

Almost immediately the Slender Man became a viral hit, and the character's ambiguous motives and eerie nature made him easy for other authors to adopt and adapt to suit the purposes of their fiction. Soon the Slender Man "creepypasta" (a form of memetic online storytelling where short horror fiction is copied, pasted and shared on other relevant threads) had managed to cross over into new mediums, such as the horrifying vlog series Marble Hornets, or the indie first person horror game Slender.

An image of the Slender Man playing with children at a park in a black and white photograph. Credit: Creepypasta.wikia

The Slender Man story gradually spread to other places, such as 4chan's paranormal board, and eventually, people who heard third or fourth-hand stories of the character assumed it was a real urban myth, or at least partially factual. The fact that Slender Man stories could be adapted or retold to suit virtually any context, setting or time period also helped to give the character extra verisimilitude.

In an interview with Know Your Meme on the subject of the phenomenon, Slender Man creator Eric Knudsen stated: "An urban legend requires an audience ignorant of the origin of the legend. On the Internet, anyone is privy to its (Slender Man's) origins as evidenced by the very public Something Awful thread. But what is funny is that despite this, it still spread. Internet memes are finicky things and by making something at the right place and time it can swell into an internet urban legend."

Unfortunately, as fun as it is to make up ghost stories about supernatural evil online, it's a lot harder to deal with the consequences. The trouble with creepypasta fiction is that is so easy to share and propagate on virtually any number of outlets and unlike movies, TV shows or books, there's no rating system or watershed mark to prevent vulnerable children from reading or viewing material that might be harmful to them, or influence them to commit violent acts.

For years, in any number of tragic cases, we've had moral guardians bemoaning childhood exposure to adult material that leads to copycat crimes. Just look at the media furore surrounding the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger, or the Columbine high school massacre, in which video nasties and FPS video games were respectively blamed for inspiring murder in minors. In both instances, experts stated that neither of those things had anything to do with the homicides carried out by the perpetrators in question and yet in the case of the Slender Man stabbings, the stories appear to have unwittingly inspired an act of shocking violence.

On May 31, 2014, in the little town of Waukesha, Wisconsin, two young schoolgirls led a fellow classmate into the secluded woods, in a bizarre attempted ritual. Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both a mere 12-years-old, were arrested by local law enforcement and charged with first-degree homicide after they brutally stabbed their mutual friend Payton Leutner a total of 19 times. The community was left stunned by the attack which left Leutner critically injured and clinging to life in hospital. What transpired in Waukesha that summer was more frightening than any internet tale.

The evening before the incident, the three girls had been at a sleepover at one suspect's house. It turned out that, some months before, Weier and Geyser had logged onto the creepypasta wiki and discovered the Slender Man story together; triggering a morbid fascination with, and dread of, the fictitious monster.

Believing the abomination to be real, the girls developed an unhealthy fixation and became obsessed with seeing the Slender Man for real. The two girls wanted to become his proxies, and to that end plotted for months to sacrifice a friend to the Slender Man in order to gain his favour. Had the girls known that the character had been created innocently enough in photoshop by Eric Knudsen, they might have stalled their plan.

Weier and Geyser lured Leutner into the woods in a game of hide-and-seek, before pinning her to the ground. They stabbed her multiple times with a kitchen knife; hitting two major arteries and barely missing her heart. Weier and Geyser fled the scene shortly after. The victim dragged herself to a ditch by the side of the road, and alerted the attention of a passing cyclist, who promptly called 911. The police instigated a manhunt for the two perpetrators, who were later apprehended, still carrying the murder weapon.

Upon capture, the girls stated they felt guilty about the murder, but felt that their crimes were justifiable in order to appease the Slender Man. Both were tried as adults, as opposed to in a juvenile court, and were psychiatrically evaluated. A court psychiatrist testified at a hearing that Geyser was schizophrenic and exhibited numerous schizoid traits, such as delusional thinking, hallucinations, paranoia and splitting.

Investigators later discovered disturbing doodles, mutilated Barbie dolls and notebooks covered with the Slender Man symbols in Geyser’s bedroom. Psychiatrist Kevin Robbins stated Geyser believed that Slender Man and other fictional characters, (such as those from the Harry Potter books), were her friends who communicated with her. Weier was evaluated and found to be cognitively normal, and later pleaded guilty to second-degree homicide. Investigators speculated that severe peer pressure had forced her into the murder.

It's clear that Geyser's deep-seated mental illness led her to seriously wound her friend, and it's likely that, were her schizophrenic tendencies left untreated, Geyser might well have committed the same violent act. However, the Slender Man stabbing still manages to raise uncomfortable questions about the nature of web media, and how it affects vulnerable, easily-influenced people. The Creepypasta Wiki, a repository for horror-oriented web content, released a statement in the aftermath of the incident. Sloshedtrain, the admin of the wiki, said that the stabbing was an isolated incident that did not accurately represent the creepypasta community.

Yet the creepypasta wiki is completely open, anyone can browse, read and contribute to it, and there are no warnings whatsoever about the disturbing content. This seems to suggest a double-standard. Were this a hub for erotic fiction, the site would have had warnings to deter minors. Yet horror stories, often containing graphic accounts of mutilation, are apparently considered fair game.

I myself am a passionate fan of horror fiction and have been since childhood. But although children enjoy being scared in small doses, there are definite standards when it comes to what content is appropriate for their age level. I can remember being absolutely terrified by the X-Files as a child, and that TV show definitely wasn't for kids. Luckily, my parents would always turn off the TV when things got too frightening and would assure me that the episode was make-believe.

It is perhaps even more crucial that parents and guardians keep an eye on their kids' browsing habits, especially when many creepypasta stories are written under the pretence that they depict real-life phenomena. But it's all too easy to point the finger solely at parents - web administrators also bear the burden of responsibility. Simply put, there is a difference between a family television viewing experience and browsing the web alone, or with an accomplice.