Crime Research In The News

Murder For Slenderman: Fiction Vs Reality In Children

In 2014 in Waukesha, Wisconsin two 12 year old girls led their friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. When in police custody they talk of Slender Man, a fictional internet character which according to them, drove them to kill. This 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 a 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.”

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, two girls have now been charged with first degree attempted homicide.

If their trial goes ahead in an adult court, they are now two 13 year old girls facing up to 65 years in an adult prison.

The Slender Man Stabbing Case

On 30th May 2014 the girls invited their friend for a sleepover. According to the criminal complaint filed against them, this was the night they had planned to kill her, 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. They 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.

Telling their victim they were going for help, they left the scene and began their journey towards Nicolet National Forest where they believed Slender Man lived. Now they had committed murder, he would appear before them and invite them to live with him in his mansion.

The brave 12 year old victim dragged herself out of the woods and to the side of a road telling her parents afterwards “I wanted to live”.

Found by a passing cyclist, she was taken into hospital and surgery where she survived her injuries. Her two friends were found hours after the stabbing wandering along Interstate-40 with a bloodied kitchen knife in their backpack.

Charged with first degree attempted homicide, the law in the state of Wisconsin states that over the age of 10 years old and for a charge this serious, these two young girls will be tried in an adult court. An adult court means an adult trial and an adult sentence if found guilty.

Related: Child Criminals and The Juvenile Justice System: The James Bulger Case

The Slender Man Myth

The reported motive behind this brutal attack is most unusual. The two girls had discovered the story of Slender Man on a website which features 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 photo shopped versions of everyday images. One user with the username ‘Victor Surge’ submitted two black and while 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 has been expanded on and used in many different mediums with fan art and online fiction being prominent in its expansion.

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.

Who Is 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 can 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 centre, 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 Verses 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 where events were ordinary and everyday such as a character going to the park or attending an event in their local area
  • religious stories including events which may have been due to divine intervention, such as the parting of the seas or turning water into wine
  • fantasy stories where events were impossible in real life such as talking animals or humans flying and may have happened with or without magic

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 verses 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.

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.

Related: Teenage Brain Development and Criminal Consequences

Although it is clear to adults that such works on the internet and a character such as Slender Man is fictional, it appears some children may be picking up a different message. Psychologists have long been examining the relationship between violence on television, in films and in video games and childhood behaviour with many child violence incidents being related back to their interests in such media.

The fear is that exposure to such behaviour on the television screen can feed into childhood fantasies and for some; encourage thoughts on how to make such fantasies into a reality. Video games in particular have raised the most concern. While playing, children can ‘be’ the character carrying out violent acts within the game.  Such games are of course not reality and although each new game is more and more realistic in its graphics, they rarely portray the true nature of violence and the consequences of carrying out such acts in real life.

Research by the National Institute of Mental Health has highlighted that exposure to violence through media can desensitize a child where the pain and suffering of others does not impact them as much. Furthermore, they are more likely to show aggressive behaviour in real life. However, fictional stories on the internet lie out with most of this research bringing a new aspect to this case.

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 this, it is expected, will be a central focus of the trial in this case whether it takes place in an adult or a juvenile court.

An Adult Crime Committed By Children: Juvenile or Adult Court?

On 16th February 2015 a preliminary hearing took place in Waukesha County.  Reports suggest one of the girls not only wholeheartedly believed in Slender Man but that she also believed other fictional characters were real, such as characters out of the Harry Potter books and films.  Psychologist Deborah Collins testified one of the girls “truly believes that Slender Man exists”.

The Slender Man stories are set in real life locations with real life events and occurrences which are all entirely possible that a real human being could carry out.  These aspects of the Slender Man narrative may have encouraged these two girls to believe the stories were real and that Slender Man was a real person.  The narratives which then go along with that, proving yourself to him and becoming his proxy for example, are easier to accept as real things if you believe the character himself is real.

One argument put forward by the defence team highlighted evidence indicating one girls obsession and belief in Slender Man. Numerous drawings, dolls and writings about the character, some referencing murder, had been found on one girls bedroom which he claimed, should mean a lesser charge of second degree attempted murder that should be dealt with in a juvenile court.  This argument however was rejected and the trial of these two girls has remained scheduled to move forward in an adult court.

What Is The Difference Between The Juvenile And Adult Court System?

Trying a child in an adult court begs the question of whether that child will understand the proceedings and the meaning of what is going on around them.  In December 2014, both girls were ruled competent to stand trial. This means both girls have been assessed and judged that they are able to understand the proceedings and are able to properly assist their legal teams in their defence.

This includes that they fully understand the charges that have been made against them and what may happen to them if found guilty.  Often it is forensic psychologists who assess someone for competency to stand trial where they are looking to see if there is a mental disorder or a disability which would mean that person could not understand and cooperate.

The Wisconsin standard for competency to stand trial indicates that:

“No person who lacks substantial mental capacity to understand the proceedings or assist in his or her own defense may be tried, convicted or sentenced for the commission of an offence so long as the incapacity endures.”

In August 2015, not guilty pleas were entered for both girls with their legal teams still fighting to have their case moved to juvenile court. In the case of one girl, questions over her mental health have been raised with one psychiatrist testifying she suffers from “schizophrenia including delusions that fictional characters are real

Their trial was scheduled for October 2015. Defence attorney Anthony Cotton has filed an emergency petition to reverse the judges’ decision.  As a result, on 21st September 2015 the case was suspended to allow an appeal investigation. The case therefore is currently on hold until further arguments are heard and a final decision is made on where the case will be held. It is believed both girls legal teams will be arguing the girls suffer from mental illness and require treatment and not, an extensive period in an adult prison.

Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From
Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds

Journal: Cognitive Science
Authors: Kathleen H. Corriveaua, Eva E. Chenb, and Paul L. Harrisc

ABSTRACT
In two studies, 5- and 6-year-old children were questioned about the status of the protagonist embedded in three different types of stories. In realistic stories that only included ordinary events, all children, irrespective of family background and schooling, claimed that the protagonist was a real person. In religious stories that included ordinarily impossible events brought about by divine intervention, claims about the status of the protagonist varied sharply with exposure to religion. Children who went to church or were enrolled in a parochial school, or both, judged the protagonist in religious stories to be a real person, whereas secular children with no such exposure to religion judged the protagonist in religious stories to be fictional. Children’s upbringing was also related to their judgment about the protagonist in fantastical stories that included ordinarily impossible events whether brought about by magic (Study 1) or without reference to magic (Study 2). Secular children were more likely than religious children to judge the protagonist in such fantastical stories to be fictional. The results suggest that exposure to religious ideas has a powerful impact on children’s differentiation between reality and fiction, not just for religious stories but also for fantastical stories.

Read the full paper

References:

  1. Huffington Post,. (2015). Police Reveal Dark Details About 12-Year-Olds Accused Of Stabbing Friend For ‘Slenderman’. Retrieved 7 October 2015.
  2. Jsonline.com,. (2015). Charges detail Waukesha pre-teens’ attempt to kill classmate. Retrieved 7 October 2015.
  3. Mail Online,. (2015). Inside the notebook of Slender Man stabbing suspect. Retrieved 7 October 2015.
  4. Psycholegal Assessments,. (2015). Competency to Stand Trial. Retrieved 7 October 2015.
  5. Service, A., & Sanchick, M. (2015). Attorney: Girl accused in Slenderman stabbing belongs in juvenile court. FOX6Now.com. Retrieved 7 October 2015.

To cite this article: Guy, F. (2015, Oct 17). Murder For Slenderman: Fiction Vs Reality In Children. Crime Traveller. Retrieved from https://www.crimetraveller.org/2015/10/slenderman-stabbing-fiction-reality/

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2 Comments

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  • It just shows how 12 year old children are still that…children. This case is interesting as I think some people are wondering whether their story of slender man really is true and what caused them to hurt their friend or whether they have made it up as an explanation for what they did. It does sound to me like these two girls have been assessed by psychiatrists and for one girl especially there may be mental health issues relating to fictional characters and her belief of which is real and which is not. Terribly sad case. It will take the injured girl a long time to get over what happened to her and her two friends who caused this damage now have their lives ruined by their own actions and they are only 13 years old.

  • Hi Valerie, it is a very sad case and the fact the two girls are so young make it more surprising on one hand but more tragic on the other. At least the victim in this case survived but as you say she will have a long road to recovery from something like this. I think it is hard to believe for some that a fictional online character such as Slender Man could have been the reason behind such a vicious crime from two young girls. I found the research on how children differentiate between real and fictional main characters in stories really interesting and for me shed a bit more light on how psychologically the two girls may have believed he was real. I think there is also a mental health aspect which seems to have had influence over the girls thinking and resulting behaviour. It will be interesting to see whether the case will return to a juvenile court or remain in an adult court as the consequences for these two girls are really quite different in each court.

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