News broke last night that, according to Wisconsin police, two 12-year-old girls recently lured a friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. Then, when questioned, they allegedly claimed they wanted to ingratiate themselves with "Slender Man," a monstrous urban legend created by the Internet.
The AP reports that one of the accused confessed they'd learned about Slender Man on the horror site creepypasta.wikia.com. Believing he was real, they plotted their friend's murder as a tribute to the monster, hoping to demonstrate their loyalty, become his "proxies" and go live with him in his forest mansion in rural Wisconsin. (Luckily, the victim survived.) According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, one of the accused told authorities she believed Slender Man would kill their families if they didn't act.
So: Who the fuck is Slender Man?
The character might be familiar if you spend time in Reddit-y Internet circles, but this case is basically guaranteed to unleash a wave of furrowed-brow explainers from cable news anchors. There's a moderate chance of a nationwide parental freak-out over the Internet's influence on kids. Here's the backstory.
The legend goes that there's a eerily tall, skinny faceless man, sometimes depicted with tentacles, who stalks and psychologically traumatizes his prey. His presence is so menacing, it's sometimes said to induce paranoia or coughing. He targets children, in particular. Slender Man is a little like Cthulhu (the horror, the horror!), re-imagined for the stranger-danger era.
But Slender Man is actually a very recent creation. People generally agree he was dreamed up by a specific person, a Something Awful user who went by the name of "Victor Surge." According to this interview with TL;DR, one day in 2009 he uploaded the first images of the monster to a thread where people were creating paranormal images.
The story spread from there, like a genetically engineered virus escaping from a lab. In other words, Slender Man is just another freaking meme.
Albeit a very popular one, with enduring appeal to Internet tinkerers. Like the Internet's own, busted version of Cinderella, Slender Man's story is told and retold and morphed and remixed. He became popular on 4Chan's paranormal board (that's where the term "creepypasta" likely originated) and is a recurring character in Reddit's /r/nosleep forum. He's been the subject of fan art and even video games. There's an ongoing YouTube "mockumentary" about the character:
Creepypasta stories are generally written in first-person for maximum shock value, and a lot of the activity around Slender Man involves creating the most realistic found artifacts and evidence possible. But basically, believing in Slender Man is like believing in the Blair Witch, or thinking The X-Files contains reliable information about a conspiracy to turn Earth over to aliens. Literally the first Google result for "Slender Man" is a Know Your Meme entry that describes the origin of the character. He's a great way to scare the shit out of yourself late at night in a darkened bedroom, but the paper trail is pretty clear, here.
Then again, how many 12-year-olds know about Something Awful? How Internet-savvy are kids that've spent their entire lives online, really? And, according to this report, there are grown-ass people out there who believe in Slender Man, so why not a couple of impressionable kids? (Though the prosecutors currently want to try the pair as adults.)
At any rate, media outlets are pretty much running with "a disturbing Internet thing called Slender Man made them do it." For instance, from NBC News:
The bizarre nature of the attack has stunned the community of 70,000. Even more unsettling, police say, is how the girls concocted their plan: They allegedly wanted to please an Internet meme known as the Slender Man.
Another story, from the local Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, pointedly mentions that school officials had issued iPads to all students at the beginning of the year but didn't monitor them much, and collected every one on Monday.
It's weirdly comforting to have an explanation for a story like this, even if it's appalling. But this story is really, really weird, and that confession could just as plausibly be an excuse dreamed up out of sheer panic. And it bears remembering how stupid everyone sounded after the Satanic Panic cooled down. So let's just keep it together, ok, America?