his was not a video game, a film or a television series which can be blamed for encouraging these children to carry out such a violent act, but an internet meme. A mythical character created through an internet Photoshop competition in 2009 which has been picked up and used in hundreds, maybe thousands, of fictional stories written by fans all over the world. “…Well yeah. He is anywhere from 14 to 60 feet tall. He constantly wears a suit. He doesn`t have a face. He targets children. He has tendrils on his back. I was really scared he could kill my whole family in three seconds,” one girl told the police.
Slender Man is a character which created fear and intrigue in the minds of two 12-year-olds who believed this character was real. Whether through healthy fantasy rolling over into a dark reality or through a distorted understanding and belief due to mental health issues, after committing a horrendous violent crime, two young girls were charged with first degree attempted homicide and have now, four years later, been sentenced to 25 years and 40 years in a mental institution.
Proving Slender Man Was Real
On 30 May 2014, 12-year-old Morgan Geyser and her friend, 12-year-old Anissa Weier invited Payton Leutner, also 12-years-old, for a sleepover. According to the criminal complaint filed against them, this was the night they had planned to kill Payton, to prove the “skeptics” wrong that Slender Man really did exist.
Unable to go through with their plans that night, the following day they went into the woods for a game of hide and seek. Making the decision to go ahead, they restrained their unsuspecting friend and passed the knife back and forth between them, both hesitant to be the first to stab her. At some point one did and there followed a total of 19 stab wounds, narrowly missing this young girl’s major arteries. Police believe it was Morgan Geyser who repeatedly stabbed Payton Leutner, while Anissa Weier watched and urged her on.
Telling their victim they were going for help, the two young girls left the scene and began their journey towards Nicolet National Forest where they believed Slender Man lived. Now they had committed murder, they thought, he would appear before them and invite them to live with him in his mansion.
A very courageous Payton Leutner dragged herself out of the woods and to the side of a road telling her parents afterward “I wanted to live”. Found by a passing cyclist, she was taken into hospital and surgery where she survived her injuries. Geyser and Weier were found hours after the stabbing wandering along Interstate-40 with a bloodied kitchen knife in their backpack.
The Slender Man Myth
The reported motive behind this brutal attack was most unusual. The two girls had discovered the story of Slender Man on a website which featured a range of different horror stories written to frighten eager readers. The Slender Man is a fictional character that originated as an internet meme in 2009. The character appears as a thin unnaturally tall man with no facial features wearing a black suit. Slender Man is a typical children’s boogie man. A character which terrorizes children through stalking and abduction.
Mostly featured in online written stories, Slender Man has appeared in videos and artwork and has also gained popularity in the video game industry, appearing in the game Minecraft and dedicated Slender Man video games.
The character was created in an internet forum where a Photoshop competition prompted users to submit photoshopped versions of everyday images. One user with the username ‘Victor Surge’ submitted two black and white photos of groups of children with this Slender Man image in the background. The photos were accompanied with text from apparent witnesses of child abductions as if they were real events. Soon going viral, this image and character have been expanded on and used in many different mediums with fan art and online fiction being prominent in its growth.
As the character is entirely fictitious with no historical roots, the writer has the freedom to change his appearance, actions, and motives with little restrictions, no doubt adding to its popularity. The imagination can be used in full swing when working with this character and this has been used to full advantage.
Proxies of Slender Man
The two 12-year-old girls in this case apparently believed if they killed someone they would become Slender Man’s ‘proxies’ and live with him in his hidden mansion. It is understood they believed that in order to win his approval they must commit murder. Even in today’s modern world, 12-year-olds are not as mature, responsible and wise as we often think they are.
It appears these two girls were fully enthralled with this character and no doubt egged on by each other, their delusion and belief escalated. It is unlikely this crime would have been carried out alone, the fact there were two of them to discuss Slender Man and how to please him, most likely increased his presence between them.
Most disturbing about this case is the indication by police that this attack and attempted murder on their friend had been planned for months. It was not a spur of the moment decision or a spontaneous act which became out of control. Various notes were found in the girl’s bedrooms detailing what they would need for the attack and plans for how they would carry it out. Their intention was to murder, to take the life of their school friend in order to achieve the recognition and rewards from the character in which they believed in, that of Slender Man.
“The bad part of me wanted her to die. The good part of me wanted her to live.”
This is not the only case regarding the Slender Man myth. One mother has reported her 13-year-old daughter was also influenced by the character to carry out violence.
Her daughter waited for her in the kitchen dressed in black wearing a mask and attacked her with a knife. The unnamed 13-year-old is now in a juvenile detention center, facing charges as a juvenile for the attack on her mother. The girl has a history of mental health problems and was reportedly very into horror fan fiction, writing a number of her own stories involving the Slender Man character.
Understanding Fiction Versus Reality
A child’s understanding of stories and which are tales of real events and which are fictional is something which develops as they grow up. While it would be expected that by the age of 12 years old recognition that characters such as Slender Man are works of fiction, research shows the complexity of this understanding and how life experiences and learning can influence a child’s perception.
A study published in Cognitive Science in 2014 detailed research with 5-6 year old children and their understanding of the leading character in different types of stories. The stories used included: realistic stories, religious stories, and fantasy stories. They found that all the children believed and understood that the leading character in the realistic stories was a real person. For the religious stories, children with religious exposure in their lives believed the main character was real, but children with no religious exposure believed the character was fictional. For the fantasy stories, children with no religious exposure were more likely than children with religious exposure to believe the leading character was fictional. How children differentiated between real characters and fictional characters was influenced by their exposure to religious teachings and this extended outside of religious stories and into stories which involved fantasy.
While this study focused on the influence of religious exposure on a child’s understanding of reality versus fiction within stories, their findings indicate that children of this age group use the narrative surrounding the main character of a story to decipher its meaning. This includes whether the main character is a real person or a fictional character and equally whether the story was fantasy or reflected real events.
If a fictional story was set in realistic circumstances with plausible events a child can relate to in real life, they are more likely to believe the main character was a real person even when they were entirely fictional. Fantasy fictional stories normally do not include aspects familiar to a child as being real, for example, places they know exist and people they have met in real life. They generally include things that are known to be impossible and places which they do not believe actually exist in the real world. These are the cues that tell children what is a real character and what is fictional.
In the narratives of the Slender Man, he is set in forests and in abandoned buildings. He follows people, kidnaps children and terrorizes those around him. He lives in a mansion deep in the forests not seen and not heard. In each story written by a fan, the surroundings change and his activities change however he is always set in real-world circumstances. The study also showed where children have confusion over whether a character is real or fantasy if an aspect of the story is confirmed by an adult, they are more likely to believe the story and the characters within it were real.
A Descent Into Mental Illness
The internet is a modern day advancement with information at the touch of a button. All over the world anyone can set up a website, publish an article or write fiction which they can publish online. The popularity of the Slender Man character with the sheer number of stories involving him may have provided an unintentional reinforcement that this character could exist, at least in the minds of two 12-year-olds whose minds where becoming unbalanced through mental illness.
Morgan Geyser was diagnosed with early-onset schizophrenia and psychotic spectrum disorder in the months after the attack, conditions characterized by delusions and hallucinations. In treatment for the past four years, although improved, Geyser is still an unwell young girl with psychiatrists believing she requires years of further treatment. In a 2014 interview, her mother Angie Geyser talked of a family history of schizophrenia but no outward signs from her daughter to suggest how unwell she was, along with their shock that their barely teenage child had planned such a violent attack on her school-friend. “She did make a conscious effort to hide her symptoms from us. I think part of that was because her hallucinations were her friends,” she said.
Anissa Weier was found to be suffering from shared delusional belief, a condition where two people with a close relationship share the same delusional belief and can feed off each other. In these cases, the ‘primary case’ almost always suffers from a mental illness characterized by delusions. In such cases, it is common for these beliefs to diminish once the individual is separated from the primary case, a situation which appears to have been the case with Anissa Weier. However, psychiatrists also feel Weier does need further support and treatment.
Some have blamed the internet for encouraging these two girls to act out in violence, others the stories and character of Slender Man itself. However, it is not the folk-tale or myth that is to blame for such actions; it is how that information has been interpreted by the child, and in this case, it is now clear that this interpretation was fuelled by delusions within the grips of spiraling mental health decline.
After a long debate on whether the two girls should be charged as adults after such a serious crime despite their young ages, each eventually entered guilty pleas to first-degree intentional homicide for Morgan Geyser in October 2017 and attempted second-degree intentional homicide for Anissa Weier in December 2017.
With extensive psychiatric reports on both girls, Anissa Weier was sentenced to 25 years in a mental institution and Morgan Geyser to 40 years. Both girls will be able to apply for release before the full length of these terms under the restrictions that they would be monitored and remain in out-patient treatment.
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