Slender Man or slender minds?
The facts of the case, referred to as the “Slender Man Stabbing” for reasons that will become obvious, are as follows: A 12-year-old girl was discovered, barely alive and apparently having crawled to civilization, lying on a sidewalk after having been stabbed 19, allegedly by classmates Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier. According to Geyser and Weier, they were trying to impress the fictional “Slender Man,” a creature created by internet horror writers in a genre known as “Creepypasta.”
What is Creepypasta? An excellent December 2013 article from Aeon Magazine explains:
The word ‘creepypasta’ derives from ‘copypasta,’ a generic term for any short piece of writing, image or video clip that is widely copy-and-pasted across forums and message boards. In its sinister variant, it flourishes on sites such as 4chan.org and Reddit, and specialised venues such as creepypasta.com and the Creepypasta Wiki (creepypasta.wikia.com), which at the time of writing has nearly 15,000 entries (these sites are all to be avoided at work). Creepypasta resembles rumour: generally it is repeated without acknowledgement of the original creator, and is cumulatively modified by many hands, existing in many versions. Even its creators might claim they heard it from someone else or found it on another site, obscuring their authorship to aid the suspension of disbelief. In the Internet’s labyrinth of dead links, unattributed reproduction and misattribution lends itself well to horror: creepypasta has an eerie air of having arisen from nowhere.
Slender Man — a faceless albino humanoid creature between eight and twelve feet tall with multiple sets of arms, constantly depicted as wearing a suit (the tailoring is not explained) and preying on children — is one of the oldest, most infamous and widely acknowledged characters from this genre. Having originated with several photoshopped images purporting to show the creature in the background of old black and white photographs on the Something Awful forums, Slender Man (or “Slendy” as some fans call him) has since spawned his own exhaustive online mythos, as well as countless pieces of fanart, including stories, drawings, documentaries, web series purporting to be found footage of the creature (Marble Hornets being the most popular), and even a well-regarded video game in which players try to collect eight pages of a previous victim’s writing while being stalked through a dark wood by the creature. A full primer on the Slender Man mythos can be found here.
Naturally, since the stabbing, the creators of Slender Man and the administrators of the Creepypasta Wiki — the largest Creepypasta archive on the internet — have gone to great lengths to make it clear that the Slender Man mythology does not sanction or encourage violence. The Creepypasta Wiki has also, as of this writing, instituted an age check before allowing users to peruse its archives. These responses are understandable and admirable, but ultimately should have been unnecessary, for a very simple reason: While the girls in this instance may claim to have been inspired by Slender Man, who they appear to have believed is a real figure who would be impressed by their crime, their brutal act self-evidently bears no relation to the actual substance of the Slender Man mythos. For that reason, any attempt to lay blame at the feet of the creators of Slender Man is as unpersuasive as it would be to blame animal husbandry for the famous “Son of Sam” serial killer, who believed his neighbor’s dog was commanding him to kill.
Perhaps the most notable inconsistency between these disturbed children’s fantasy and the real Slender Man mythology is that it appears the girls believed Slender Man was someone to be sought out. According to one account, they believed he had a mansion in the Wisconsin woods where they would go to live with him after the attack. Not only is such a mansion not mentioned anywhere in the written material on Slender Man (the creature’s living conditions are entirely unexplained), but even if it were, no one who had read or seen anything of the Slender Man literature would want to set foot in it for any amount of money. The central element of Slender Man’s characterization is that he kidnaps unwilling victims, and that the attentions of the creature can be presumed to result in death or worse. To hope to meet him would be similar to hoping that there really is a monster in one’s closet and that it weren’t so shy, or that one might be spirited off to hell after reading Dante’s Inferno. Only a lunatic would wish for such a thing.
What does need to be acknowledged in this case is the degree to which mental illness remains one of the most difficult policy questions to resolve. Unlike previous cases — such as the shooting in Newtown, Conn., where warning signs of Adam Lanza’s mental illness could have been identified for the abnormalities that they were — there really is no easy answer here. It appears the only warning signs the culprits evidenced were vivid imaginations. In the wake of the stabbing, one published fantasy author shared reflections on a similarly morbid (though entirely nonviolent) creative relationship she shared with another girl at a similar age. It would surely be impractical, inhumane and silly to involuntarily commit anyone who displays signs of creativity or imagination that inclines toward the macabre. So what to do?
Ironically, I can think of one counter-intuitive answer, and that is to stop treating mental illness as something to be repressed or hidden. By this, I do not mean that we should abandon efforts to treat mental illness, but rather that we should cease treating its existence as a character flaw to be hidden at all costs. No one thinks less of an asthma sufferer for having asthma attacks and seeking an inhaler. No more should we treat mental illness as the functional end of a person’s ability to function in polite society.
Had these girls felt allowed to express their morbid fantasies, how much sooner might their murderous character have been noticed? How much easier, with the right treatment, would it have been for that dark creativity to be channeled into something better, such as writing or art of the kind that inspired the creation of “Slender Man” in the first place? Illness of any kind cannot be treated without first being detected, and our culture’s treatment of mental illness as a defect in one’s character creates systematic incentives for its sufferers to remain in the shadows.
Slender Man may be fiction, but it is time we stopped allowing society to encourage some of its simultaneously most dangerous and most vulnerable members to simply let themselves be kidnapped by the darkness in their own minds.