Just when you think you’ve heard everything, there’s a new story in the news to shock you. One week ago, two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, lured a friend to the woods and stabbed her 19 times. Miraculously, she survived. When arrested, Geyser and Weier displayed a callousness that is surprising even in this day and age.
And most bizarre of all is the alleged motive: to impress a fictional character named Slenderman.
What does that even mean? Are they insane? If they knew the character was fictional, how could they hope to impress him? And what kind of character requires that his devotees commit acts of violence?
To make it more confusing, there are two answers: The simple history behind the cultural reference, and the more-complicated question of what it should tell us about the world we live in.
Let’s start with the easy part. I knew about some of this recent internet history and did a bit of research to fill in missing pieces, but I thought it would be helpful to spare others the trouble. So …
Who is Slenderman?
It all starts with a website launched in 2003 called 4chan. Originally a site to share images and info about Japanese anime and manga, 4chan attracted a huge following of young people and became a phenomenon. It has spawned an explosive number of spin-off sites for image- and link-sharing, as well as chat forums.
Some of these are interested in newer, hipper modes of internet humor – if you’ve seen any of the LOLCats memes, you can thank 4chan. But to say that 4chan has a darker side is putting it mildly.
As an unstructured community of young people who feel disengaged from the “normal” world, the site members of 4chan and its spin-offs have a morally ambiguous, ‘no rules’ attitude that leads them into some very dark places. Not all the members of these sites go in for gruesome violence or internet bullying or pornography, but when they do, it’s at a level that most of us can’t comprehend.
But this character, Slenderman, didn’t come from one of the more extreme sites. It came from a site called Creepypasta that is a play on a 4chan term – copypasta – that was coined around 2006.
Copypasta just means the kind of silly urban legend that goes viral on the internet with everyone copying and pasting (copy paste = copypasta) a fictional account without realizing that it never happened. By extension, Creepypasta has to do with those same viral stories when they’re the kind that just creep you out – modern-day ghost stories of crimes, paranormal occurrences, and all that.
It became a term, a website and a subgenre of fiction.
Understandably, given the irreverent nature of the 4chan crowd, people didn’t want to just talk about Creepypasta memes, they wanted to write them. They wanted to generate utterly fake stories and images and then see if they could get them placed in well-meaning, gullible aggregators of weird or paranormal stories.
And that’s where Slenderman comes in.
He was the invention of site member Eric Knudsen. In 2009, he Photoshopped images of a strange, undefined figure lurking behind pictures of children and called it Slenderman. And with that kind of a sendoff, the inside joke was just too irresistible for other creators. And so other versions of this imaginary, malevolent crypto-human started showing up, and he became a kind of cult figure. (CNN reported Tuesday that Googling the name brought back over 4 million results.) People would change the way he looked to suit them – he’s always tall, thin and featureless, but sometimes he’s got tentacles; sometimes he looks like a sort of horrible tree. There’s a video series, presented in a ‘Blair Witch Project’ type of faux-documentary, not to mention endless other stories and made-up details about this character.
The images and details are catalogued in one page of an online encyclopedia of this weird subgenre – a Creepypasta wiki page just for Slenderman — and that page is where Geyser and Weier read up on him.
If it had stopped there, I suppose I would have been reminded of my friends and me swapping murderous ghost stories or listening for clues to determine if Paul McCartney was dead. But the problem is, it’s not 1970 anymore, or 1980, or 1990. Longstanding moral codes are being eroded, and the Christian foundation that once held the civilized world together is being progressively undermined. In that new 21st century niche, horrifying new anti-heroes emerge. Slenderman is not just some goofy boogeyman – he is a homicidal terrorist character who supposedly abducts, tortures, and kills children. That is a long way from the old Creepshow type of thing I grew up with.
To be fair to the 4chan and Creepypasta communities, not to mention Slenderman creator Eric Knudsen, no one ever said that the character could be – or would be – pleased if you murdered a friend in his name. That part of things seems to be entirely the fabrication of Geyser and Weier.
But there is still something behind all of this that I think deserves attention.
Firstly, there is something new about this purported motive for a sociopathic crime. We have all (unfortunately) gotten used to hearing of stabbings and shootings by children or young adults. But usually, whatever reason is given was believed to be real by the perpetrators. Whether it’s a childish rage or a wish for fame or a psychopathic delusion, the perpetrator believes in that reality and considers that it justifies violent action. As near as I can tell, both of these girls know that Slenderman isn’t real.
So why betray and stab an innocent friend over him?
I think the problem for the 4chan subculture, and where I think they should take a share of the blame for what happened, is that if Slenderman wasn’t real, the celebration of sadism, violence, and murder definitely was. No one ever said that Slenderman would be impressed by a cold-blooded murder, but would the site members really deny that they would impressed? And while I can compare that weird cult of Slenderman to some of the creepy stuff I grew up with, there is a scope and dimension to it that is unprecedented. When you make very realistic, fictional accounts of violence seem powerful and magical, can you be totally surprised that impressionable people will want to bring the fantasy to reality and experience that power and magic?
It’s not news that our culture is growing coarser with every generation. You could state as a long-standing rule that every generation will loosen restrictions and shock the previous generation. Boomers did it to their parents; Gen-Xers do it to their parents; Millennials do it to their parents. Most likely nothing will stop the downhill slide unless a big societal “Reset” button gets pushed – a major catastrophe, world war, or revolution. But that doesn’t mean we should just accept it as normative. In fact, as Orthodox Christians, we are committed to fighting to make sure that it’s not.
Weapons in our arsenal
We don’t have an easy struggle on our hands. And although it’s tempting to want to go on a witch-hunt after one agent of this or even rail against the internet in general, that seems like a mistake.
Our problem as Christians is not that there are websites that are depraved; our problem is that these websites are extremely well-populated. In other words, this isn’t a little infestation that can be swatted with a newspaper – it’s a major problem. Our shared culture has a case of rot eating away from the inside.
It is our cross to bear that we live in the times that we do. But since we do, let’s not kid ourselves and then be amazed at the violent acts young adults perpetrate.
None of that is to say that we have to cower – I hope and pray that we never do. So what should we do?
Raise children to celebrate Life and Beauty – It used to be a natural inclination shared universally, but increasingly, the pursuit of something powerful, edgy, and original has driven young people to rejoice in images, music, and videos that glorify death, as well as ugliness in all its forms. We may not control the culture at large, but we can still exercise influence over the children that we raise. Not only should they be exposed to things that glorify life and beauty (with lower case letters), but they should be taught with great love of the universal Beauty of our faith, and the Life we share in Jesus Christ. What other proposed solution could hope to compete with that?
Stay vigilant – That is such a cliché that I wish I had something better to replace it with. But being aware matters. If you’re a parent, just know that this stuff is out there. And even those of us who aren’t raising children are going to be affected by the culture that is developing. We need to be aware of where the lines are being drawn, and the extent to which old lines are being erased and redrawn every day. Are there parents and friends of the three girls who could have seen danger signals? Only if they knew what to look for.
Be transformed and transformative – St. Paul still gets the last word on our right-minded relationship with the world: “Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:2)” Don’t let the world’s culture mold you – grow in Christian understanding and maturity so that you can make the most of opportunities to change the world. It’s our lifelong mission; it is still the most important answer to what is wrong around us. And then, have courage. Speak up when you have a chance of being heard. If you know you won’t be heard, pray.
This is a new strain of an old cancer. It may turn out to be more virulent than the others, in which case I wish I had something better to say. But maybe it’s for the best. The Truth is still the best answer to all lies. It may be old advice, but the generation that commits the most to that Truth is the one that will see a profound change for the better. If so, it’s worth hoping that horrors like Slenderman will no longer stalk the internet, driven out of the woods not by witch hunts but by a stronger poison – being simply unpopular.
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