As a human, the story of two girls becoming obsessed enough with a fringe Internet legend to attempt to coldly murder their friend makes me sick. As a parent, it makes me terrified and heartbroken. As a former goth-adjacent who likes metal and other dumb shit, it makes me cringe.
First let me be clear that the recent story out of Wisconsin involving two middle schoolers accused of stabbing a friend 19 times to prove that the myth of Slender Man is real is bizarre and tragic. The charges are horrifying to read. I am not making light of the incident. I cannot.
But after reading about this awful act, I was relieved momentarily when a fellow parent lightened the mood on Facebook by saying, basically, you can't be a cool gothdad and not expect it to run off the rails eventually. It was a reference to a Daily Mail story with a big "reveal" — one of the girls in the case, Morgan Geyser, has a dad who is apparently into death metal and "stoner rock" and he and his wife have both posted photos of churches, graves, skulls, and assorted other gothy creepy shit on Instagram, in accounts now private. There's a photo of him with a terrible goatee.
Never afraid to draw a dubious link, Daily Mail ran with it: Matt Geyser, liker of things gothic or metal-y, "apparently encouraged his daughter's sick obsession." Here are the story's bullet points to that effect:
- The parents of Morgan Geyser, one of the two 12-year-olds charged with trying to murder their friend, have Instagram feeds featuring skulls
- In one Instagram post from mid April, Morgan's father Matt shared a photo of a drawing 'Mogo' made of Slenderman
- His handle is 'deadboy420' in homage to a 'stoner rock' band
- Both her father Matt and mother Angie have Gothic-themed photos
- Email addresses connected to Matt Geyser were various forms of 'ILOVEEVIL' and sometimes included '666' at the end
It goes on:
But far from being alarmed by the disturbing sketch, Morgan's father Matt seemed to find it amusing and posted it on his social network account.
Beneath the picture he wrote: 'Only Mogo (Morgan) draws Slenderman in crayon on a napkin when we are out to dinner'. He tagged Morgan's mother Angela in the post and four of his friends, 'liked it'
He also posted a photo of a ticket from a show for a band called Shadows Fall. In case you didn't know if Shadows Fall trafficked in the macabre, Daily Mail informs us the group has albums called Of One Blood and The War Within, which means they are terrible. They call the "discovery" a "worrying new development" in the story:
Questions will also be asked as to why the school girl was allowed to search the internet for tales of the murderous character and apparently become so obsessed by it.
Yes, why was she allowed to be obsessed. Of course, the Daily Mail will ask those questions (and the NY Post will also point out the father's knowledge of the sketch). And while such publications are rightly dismissed as being tabloidy sensationalism for good reason, I think it's worth noting that they mirror the tone of a certain way of thinking about everything that happens in the world that is all too real. It's a kind of petty gossiper's scorecard for how to judge and process the inexplicable, the average terrible Internet commenter writ large: nuance-free and out to point fingers.
We can't know at present what the situation was at home for either of the girls in this case, or what led them to believe fervently enough in an Internet legend to take such disturbing action. But we can say that being into dumb metal/goth and skulls and shit, while perhaps immature for fully grown adults, is not a recipe for nurturing murder. My friends and I obsessed over angsty punk and goth bands, Faces of Death, The Anarchist Cookbook. In one year at my high school, there were three suicides attributed to liking Ozzy, The Cure, and other assorted touchstones of the broad subculture of gothiness.
But I thought we were a bit past this thanks to The Osbournes, which showed us you could bite the heads off bats at work, and come home doddering to your family and not know how to work the remote like every other suburban dad. Dancing in the dark is not weird. It's normal, even. What's also normal is being drawn to weird shit as a teen. Part of being a teenager (for some teenagers) is finding out what's real and true. You have a keenly honed bullshit radar, and you're constantly confronted with the polite mask of society. Teens who are drawn to the darker underbelly are just testing out what sticks at a time when there is still a real sense of magic and discovery in the world. For most people, that's just a phase. For plenty who go onto stay as weird as they ever were, it still rarely involves a break from reality.
And when those kids grow up, they become gothy adults, and sometimes they breed. My friend's joke hit because it was about the dubious line between being a "good parent" and a "cool parent," because there is this sense when you enter the world of stewarding new life that you must cleanse yourself of your weird bad interests, because "good parents" give up all that, or at least do a better job of hiding it from their spawn. Meanwhile, "cool parents" play fast and loose with the rules to try to teach their kids about good music and cool films, while always risking corrupting them too soon. Debates like this are why you can buy lullaby renditions of Metallica songs.
I should note I'm using the term goth with wild abandon here. It's an umbrella term — both because I'd like to make a joke here about goths being super pale and staying out of the sun, but also because like hipster, it has kind of lost all meaning and now incorporates all sorts of dark, wayward, "alternative" counterculture things. There's Helena Bonham Carter's Victorian goth and Marilyn Manson rocker goth. Goth.net (lulz) insists goths are just freethinkers who absolutely cannot be pinned down (well, except for the black clothing and the macabre). Bullshit, but they're at least right that the subculture is stereotyped:
Many stereotypes of goths exist these days. It seems everyone has their own way to define 'what is goth'. From the stereotypes based on clothing to music right up to the stereotypes of all goths being satanists or part of some kind of cult. Categorically, all of these are false.
But the Daily Mail and the public at large care not about nuance. They care about tidy explanations that prevent them from having to actually grasp the fact that terrible acts are absolutely a product of the culture, but require the presence of something misfiring in the actor. It's the misfire we need to understand better. Yes, it's OK to look at the cultural context. Goths are an interesting bunch. They have been studied sociologically, and while many of us shed teen cliquish identities as we get older, many goths stay goth4life and go on to be contributing members of the middle class. Your fellow graphic designer is probably a goth!
Do former preps even bother asking if Lands End is compatible with motherhood? I doubt it. But there's enough of a stigma about being into gothy things that goths who become parents actually have to wonder if they can stay gothy. Baby Center posted a guide to how to stay goth while breeding. This goth recounts being asked by a former high school classmate if she also "dresses her son goth." This industrial goth finds herself in an identity crisis over how much goth she can maintain and be a good parent.
Lady of the Manners answers:
Too many people (including those who are part of the spookily-clad masses), being a Goth involves a regular schedule of nightclubbing, parties, and a wildly impractical taste in clothing. If that is all being a Goth is to them, then of course it seems as if being a Goth is incompatible with being a parent.
However, for the majority of the spooky creatures of the night, being a Goth means more than just clubs, parties, and eccentric clothing. (Though the Lady of the Manners is fond of all those things, and is rather infamously devoted to the "eccentric clothing" part of it.) Being a Goth means that you have an appreciation for the beauty that can be found in darkness or decay; that you have a healthy sense of the absurd, an appreciation for whimsy, and are not afraid to be your own person. In the Lady of the Manners' eyes, those seem like very good qualities for a parent to have, too.
For all we know, the Geyser parents are simply fans of the macabre and absurd, or perhaps they are running a training school for terrible things. I can't say. They did make a statement recently, and it sounded exactly as you would guess: heartbroken about what has happened.
But I would like to also point out to everyone naysaying that these girls were "allowed" to become obsessed with something on the Internet they should have never had access to, that even so-called developmentally appropriate stories for kids are often extremely morbid — nearly every fairy tale begins with the death of a parent, for starters. Incidentally, I just read Pinocchio to my daughter last night for the first time — a gift totally appropriate to a preschooler, and one I remembered as totally benign — and found myself thrown as I read aloud the part where Pinocchio has turned into a donkey, and a man buys him who "wanted to drown him, to utilize his skin to make a drum." I was totally creeped out. She wanted to read it again immediately.
There is nothing especially weirder about liking dark things than light things. Both are two sides of the same coin. And back on Facebook where my friend was joking about cool gothdads, there was an interesting discussion unfolding, and many former goths found themselves defending their own interests. Said one:
As a former weird kid who grew up writing and drawing horror stories and comics, listening to heavy metal and goth music, reading about disasters and mysteries and murders, playing D&D- all of which my parents allowed- who has grown into a compassionate adult dedicated to fairness, justice, and human rights... I call bullshit. I know plenty of goth parents and they raise their children as lovingly and with as much diligence to raising humans to treat others with kindness and respect regardless of how their house is decorated or what they wear or read. This article is stupid, and I take offense at the idea- seemingly regurgitated every decade or so, that having an interest in or affinity for the darker side of things is a stepping stone to becoming a sensational murderer.
In fact, people who do terrible things like all sorts of stuff you might think of as incongruous. Hitler loved dogs, and was a vegetarian. Yes, let's examine the context in which terrible things happen, but let's not do so at the expense of the complexity in which things misfire. Keep calling bullshit.
Illustraton by Jim Cooke.