Two girls dreamed of Slenderman, and tried to kill a third. It's a Gothic story, one that crosses between the boundaries of Gothic fiction, real-life horror, and digital media. It is in some ways the ultimate Infocult story, and deserves our attention, dear readers and minions.
If you don't know the Slenderman mythos, it's a fascinating one. Users at the Something Awful forums concocted it out of whole cloth as a kind of DIY internet horror meme.
And from there Slenderman just grew. The subject of games, movies, photoshops, and especially short fiction. Call him the first native boogeyman of social media, or the spook of prosumer culture.
So how did fictional Slendy cross over into real life without a Borgesian pathway? It's hard to say much, given that the story is only a few days old, and wrapped up in multiple layers of secrecy. But we can tackle this from a number of angles.
For example, this affair is a story about stories and horror. Listen to this account of events, starting with the worldview:
[accused attacker Anissa E.] Weier told police that Slender Man is the "leader" of Creepypasta, and in the hierarchy of that world, one must kill to show dedication. Weier said that Geyser told her they should become "proxies" of Slender Man — a paranormal figure known for his ability to create tendrils from his fingers and back — and kill their friend to prove themselves worthy of him. Weier said she was surprised by Geyser's suggestion, but also excited to prove skeptics wrong and show that Slender Man really did exist.
The suspects believed that "Slender," as Weier called him, lived in a mansion in the Nicolet National Forest in northern Wisconsin.
What a fine imagining. There's the fairy tale castle grounded in the upper midwest (a mansion? did Slendy join the 1%?). There's the cult-like sense of shared sacrifice and crime. Then the fusing of identity, whereby the girls would become part-Slendermen, proxies. And the faithfulness to the source material, locating the fearsome tall man in darkness and horrible acts against children.
The plan was to kill the victim and walk to Slender's mansion. After school on Friday, Weier told police, she and Geyser went to Weier's house, where she packed a backpack with clothes, granola bars, water bottles and a picture of her mother, father and siblings. She didn't want to forget what her family looked like after leaving for Slender's mansion.
And the tactics:
Geyser and Weier originally had planned to commit the murder at 2 a.m. Saturday, according to the criminal complaint. They'd duct tape their victim's mouth, stab her in the neck and pull the covers up to make it look like she was sleeping. Then they'd run.
But the plans changed after they'd been out rollerskating Friday night. Instead, they'd try to kill her in a bathroom at a nearby park the next morning. Weier knew there was a drain in the floor for the blood to go down, she told police.
Very practical. How much of this was drawn from crime fiction, and how much from solid DIY instincts?
Then there's a blend of crime and young adult chaos:
Weier said Geyser then tackled the victim and started stabbing her. The victim was screaming. Weier said when Geyser got off the victim, the victim screamed, "I hate you. I trusted you."
Weier said the victim tried to walk toward the street but was stumbling. They didn't want anyone to see her, so Weier grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the street. The victim fell. Weier said the victim couldn't breathe, see or walk. Weier told the victim to lie down and be quiet — she would lose blood more slowly. Weier told police she gave the victim those instructions so she wouldn't draw attention to herself, and so she would die. Weier told the victim they were going to get her help; but they never planned on actually doing so. They hoped she would die, and they would see Slender and know he existed.
The victim lived, so far.
This is also a fearsome digital media story. Slenderman is a "demon creature" spawned by the internet, according to the Associated Press. An Australian site refers to "an internet horror-cult that almost caused a killing." That's probably the most extreme statement. Fox News dwells on the "internet monster". For NBC and the LA Times the internet meme "inspired" the stabbings. Time thinks the creepypasta world is the scary source. At CNN, always eager to spread fear both cyber and analog, the attack was an "homage." CNN also gets lyrical:
He's the Internet's own monster, a ghoul who lurks in its darkest corners and, like the Web itself, has mutated time and again to suit the dreams and desires of his devotees.
Other media outlets ran with the scary, uncanny dimension:
Anchors, producers and reporters hauled out the sober hyperbole. WITI-TV (Channel 6) used eerie, music-like sound effects. The victim was "a millimeter away from certain death," said co-anchor Mary Stoker Smith. Her co-anchor, Ted Perry, called the crime "the shock rippling through Waukesha." Earlier on "Studio A" on WITI, he said the story will "chill you to the bone." But he probably wished he could take back speculation about whether Slender Man "really exists or not, I'm not sure at this point."
eCanada Now wades in further:
the girls in question became convinced the stories of Slenderman were true and were prepared to make a blood sacrifice of their friend in order to become proxies for the creepy thin man. Their plight is raising concerns about the impact of websites such as creepypasta.com which are the principal sources for information on the paranormal.
And on Twitter:
So far this event has many classic outlines of cyberfear and internet anxiety panics. It involves children, who are usually present as endangered and/or corrupted characters. For example,
If you're an adult, particularly an adult without kids, it's likely you've never heard of Slender Man before this week.
But if you're a kid, particularly an adolescent, you know.
The girls are nearly teenagers, drawing on the old fear of that population. The media involved are shadowy and amateur-created, not shiny and mainstream, making them both more sketchy and easier to denounce, lacking high-profile defenders. Slenderman's horror genre triggers an older American suspicion of fantasy (cf CNN). And the actions associated with the media - scheming, betrayal, attempted murder - are high octane badness.
the girls read about Slenderman here on this wiki, and of course the usual response lead to hostility and blaming towards the wiki by some "very concerned parents". Some calling for the censorship and shutdown of the wiki....
ALL WORKS PRESENTED ON THIS WIKI AND OTHER SITES (INCLUDING SLENDERMAN, JEFF THE KILLER, BEN, SONIC.EXE, ETC) ARE FICTIONAL STORIES AND CHARACTERS [caps in original]
Will this story inspire policies or other actions to corrall social media? It could, based on the history of internet panics.
Speaking of social media, this Wisconsin death trip presents still another angle for our consideration. The Slenderman mythos is an example of what Alan Levine and I called in 2008 Web 2.0 storytelling. It's based on Web content, lots of it microcontent: individual wiki pages, single images, video clips. These exist in a deeply social environment, getting shared, remixed, embedded, commented upon, edited, and spread around again.
There are no clear boundaries around the tale, as there would be for, say, a Hollywood movie or a novel, making the mythos more mysterious. Users participate in many ways, which is how myths and folklore have always spread. The digital architecture speeds up this process and renders both process and results far more accessible than oral stoytelling does. The internet platform or style which made the mythos successful also makes an anti-technology backlash more likely.
Let's pause at this point. As noted above, it's still early in this story. There are many details which can surface through the legal process. Infocult will return to the topic as it develops.
(thanks to my wife, Steven Kaye, Christel Broady, Steven Burnet, Jesse Walker, and all the other Infocultii)