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Slenderman is whoever you want him to be.
Reading the police report surrounding the arrest of two Wisconsin tweens for the attempted murder of their friend—to build cred with the online folk character Slender Man at the girls’ own admission—often feels like reading a “creepypasta,” a horror story written by amateur Stephen Kings online that have especially become popular amongst young teens.
The response to this horrific incident—one that will ruin the lives of all three children and their families—has been typical on both sides. From the mainstream media, we find conflicting reports about the nature of Slender Man (Slenderman? The Slender Man?). Journalists seem content to take the girls’ word on his mythology, pinning him as “the head of Creepypasta,” who urges others to kill (even going so far as to call the fandom “a horror-cult”) and has a mansion in a Wisconsin national park. The story is ripe for such a misguided moral panic, reminiscent as it is of the supposed plague of Satanic killings that swept the U.S. in the 1980s.
The Internet is regularly the target of such erroneous outrage for largely the same reason Slender Man has become the target of press coverage: It’s nebulous, amorphous, and absurdly popular amongst children. Because the Internet manages to be a mirror of society while still existing on the outlands of it (for some, anyway), Internet culture is too complex to fit into such easy narratives, and Slender Man comes from such a varied community—born out of the imaginations of any individual that wishes to add to his folklore—that nearly any title or sin you wish to place on him can fit.
It’s a habit you frequently see amongst such deranged populations as cults, psychopaths, and cable news anchors. A comet in the sky means the end is near. A dog’s bark means you should kill your neighbor. A dream of a fictional character means he wants you to stab your friend.
When any stimuli comes from a place unknown, a facsimile of meaning can be applied to it. This is what Slender Man is good for in the media or even on Creepypasta, the Wikia-based site that houses Slender Man stories and other fictional bugaboos. Any fact of his origins or attributes—save a few facts about his appearance—can be altered to fit whatever narrative you’re trying to tell. You can alternately make him a hero or a villain, whether you’re an aspiring storyteller or a journalist.
More often than not, the stories on Creepypasta are not Saw-style ventures into gore porn, nor are they campy odes to B-movie cliches. They tend to play into the fear of the unknown, forcing your mind—filled as it is with desires and nightmares and ambiguity—to place your own demons in the darkness.
That’s why there’s a very tragic irony to these girl’s finding reasoning within the Slender Man mythos for their brutally horrific acts. When Elliot Rodger tells us he killed because woman wouldn’t give him the sex he felt he deserved, we observe his delusional belief and state it as the cause. But in the same way all Slender Man fans aren’t stabbing their friends, not all frustrated young men are gunning down young women.
What’s left is the unknown: What inspires such horrific acts? We rush to fill the void of uncertainty the same way our mind reacts to creaks in the house or a darkened wood—or a villain in a story we cannot see: By filling it instead with either our own fearful apparitions or comforting thoughts, such as the idea that murder can even have one cause.
Two administrators of Creepypasta have spoken out on the incident. “The human race has long held and encouraged a fascination with things that go bump in the night,” writes derpybutt. “So while I understand and accept that some people will blame us as a way to channel their anger and grief, I simply cannot agree.”
“These are the same people who think violent video games help create mass murderers,” writes Sloshedtrain, “because it is convenient to blame and point fingers.” While both admins are right to compare Creepypasta’s role in the Wisconsin stabbing as equal to horror stories or video games, they miss a crucial point.
As mentioned before, much of the reporting on this story has been based upon the two would-be murderers’ own testimony. Unlike instances such as the Newtown massacre or the Virginia Tech shootings, authorities have the perpetrators alive, available for questioning, and they are pointing their own fingers at Slender Man for having inspired their acts. Outside of a few crazed Judas Priest fans two decades ago, it is a very rare occurrence in stories like this to have the perpetrators point to an outside cause for their actions, so it’s not entirely unfair to call out the role of Slender Man fandom in these acts. However, that is a long way away from distinctly blaming Creepypasta or its users for this attempted murder.
In the writings of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, for example, we see stories of being bullied and fantasies of revenge. They don’t say “Doom is making me do this” or “Antichrist Superstar makes me want to shoot up my school.” While both violent video games and heavy metal became the scapegoats for their actions, one of the reasons those arguments are absurd is Harris and Klebold never cited them as a cause or even an inspiration. Had they done so, the blame would still rest solely on Harris and Klebold’s psychopathy, but analyzing what about those influences would have had such an impact would still be worthwhile.
In the case of Slender Man, these two girls are explicitly saying that if they did not kill their victim, then “[Slender Man] would kill our family.” However, this does not make the Slender Man mythos or Creepypasta as a community any more responsible for these girls’ actions than Counter Strike should be held responsible for the Virginia Tech shootings back in 2007.
The media’s focus on Slender Man, Creepypasta, and both’s supposed role in Saturday’s stabbing is eerily reminiscent of the girl’s focus on Slenderman as the cause of their actions. By pinning the blame on a collective of poorly written fanfiction and Lovecraft wannabes, both the girls and the media are avoiding what is clearly some deeply driven mental health issues (one of the girls remarked to police “it was weird that I didn’t feel any remorse”).
From a writer’s perspective (since Creepypasta is first and foremost a community of writers), Slender Man is a folk character in the truest sense of the term. He has spawned a massive online fandom, one driven by the ability to manipulate the lore and storyline of their focus.
The cost of not existing in any concrete, permanent state, however, means anyone can give Slender Man any attribute they like. He’s a bogeyman as dues ex machina, fulfilling whatever role you need him to, and that’s exactly how the girls and the media have used him: as a Rorschach scapegoat for this awful tragedy, one that can be shoehorned easily into whatever cause or narrative you desire, whether it’s justifying a murderous delusion or falsely explaining one just to calm your mind from inventing what hides in the shadows.
Photo via fc07/deviantart
Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.