Among the many misunderstandings of the Slenderman saga is that there was a murder at all.
So writer Kathleen Hale reminds us early in Slenderman: A Tragic Story of Online Obsession and Mental Illness, a comprehensive reckoning with the infamous 2014 story of two pre-pubescent girls transfixed by a malevolent online monster who attempt to murder their friend to appease this phantom incarnation.
For the uninitiated, Slenderman is a slim, gnarly male figure of darkness, who is often dressed in sinister black suits and sports long tentacle-like fingers. He is no friendly being but rather a “dangerous stalker, tormentor and murderer of young and vulnerable people.” Slenderman is also an internet hoax. The character was first imagined on horror story blogs (including the now infamous creepypasta.com blog the two girls read) that mythologized this villainous presence in forums and spurred enthusiastic contributors to pen outrageous and wild “fan fiction” about the legend and his “history.” It’s these fringe blogs that planted the seeds for this crime.
Most readers understood Slenderman as a figure of fantasy. Others read these websites “as if they were entries on Wikipedia”—including one of these girls.
It’s this elusive online entity that coaxes two pre-teens to plan the murder of their friend. Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, Wisconsin girls either enchanted by fantasy or besieged by hallucinations (as is Morgan’s case), make plans to murder friend Payton “Bella” Leutner to propitiate Slenderman and act as his “proxy.” Over several months in 2013, as Morgan’s delusions worsen and Anissa’s obsession with Slenderman fiction deepens, the pair plan a birthday sleepover to do the deed. Their shared obsession with the bizarre internet world of Slenderman’s singular existence continues unchecked. When the sleepover doesn’t go as planned, they then ask to take an unsuspecting Bella to a nearby wooded area—where Slenderman may lurk somewhere to watch the spectacle—and try to kill her with a kitchen knife. Morgan takes the stolen blade and wildly starts stabbing Bella, leading to almost twenty wounds. Bella is then left for dead, where a traveling cyclist later finds her and calls for help.
The Slenderman myth proves to have an irrevocable hold on Morgan and Anissa, creating a kind of warped folie à deux. Both girls are attracted to the Slenderman for varying reasons: Morgan, with undiagnosed early-onset childhood schizophrenia lives in a world with imaginary friends and wild hallucinations that parents and teachers overlook as simply child-like innocence; Anissa, somewhat collateral damage after her parents’ divorce, develops some unsound anti-social tendencies while being drawn into online horror fiction that gives her escapist comfort.
This juncture is where Hale spends time carefully unfurling how Morgan’s rare, undiagnosed childhood schizophrenia created her fraught and hazardous inner world. For parents and teachers, her whimsical and fantastical nature—talk of imaginary friends and obsession for Harry Potter—doesn’t register as anything but a little immature play for an eleven-year-old. It’s almost mystifying then that Morgan’s father too suffers schizophrenia but doesn’t recognize the increasingly alarming signs of his daughter’s condition. (Perhaps he is also the least appropriate to register it either, as he was largely untreated during this time too.) Meanwhile, Anissa’s father is caught up in a series of difficult family matters that leave Anissa stuck in his blind spot, including her private peccadilloes of fixedly reading horror stories until all hours of the night. It’s this constellation of unchecked mental illness and private fixation—with one girl aiding and abetting the others’ dark Slenderman obsession—that see “Morgan and Anissa … embark on their plan to murder Bella in self-defense against a fictional internet character.”
After the attempted killing goes awry, Morgan and Anissa are soon taken into custody where the police prove mystified by the entire story and the “Slenderman angle.” Bella recovers after the attack in hospital—with a $270,00 hospital bill, no less—as the media frenzy begins, igniting a moral panic about crazed teens going on mad killing sprees all because of the internet. Hale, however, with clear-eyed prose and deep legal research, reminds readers how the judicial system sometimes remains myopic in its search for justice for all parties. As Hale explains, Morgan’s childhood schizophrenia proves little relief to her chances in the court system, all the while her mental health degrades as she languishes in juvenile imprisonment. The state doesn’t make attempts to improve her mental health despite assessments by psychiatric professionals that she is mentally unwell. Instead “the focus would be on restoring her to legal competency, not on making her well.” It takes almost a year but Morgan is declared competent for trial, with her meeting a narrow legal definition.
Importantly, Hale couches her commentary on the ensuing courtroom saga with reference to the debunked but popular 1990s “super predator” theory that continues to hold sway in American courts. It’s the psycho-cultural theory (reflected in movies such as Basketball Diaries and Natural Born Killers) that America was breeding more and more young criminals who mercilessly committed violent crimes without remorse, and should be considered adults. While it’s been widely debunked, its legacy still pervades legal systems like those of Wisconsin, which unapologetically continues to try children as adults—even if they may present serious mental health concerns in their youth. This thinking held sway and the girls were separately tried as adults: in 2017, Anissa was found “not guilty by mental disease or defect” and given a 25-year sentence; Morgan similarly was found the same, after accepting a plea deal and given 40-years to life. Hale makes no doubts that these punitive sentences were shaped by the pair being tried as adults and the lingering superpredator attitudes of communities like those in conversative Wisconsin.
Hale, herself no stranger to courting public infamy, is a welcome narrator to this strange saga, especially in covering Morgan’s difficult and largely untreated circumstances. For those unfamiliar, Hale faced enormous, and somewhat unrelenting, public backlash after she published a Guardian op-ed explaining how she pursued—and even tracked down, almost knocking on the front door—the identity of a Goodreads reviewer that left her with a one-star review. Since then, her pivot to Slenderman seems like an appropriate project (after two other young adult novels and a rather ordinary essay collection), as Hale is a Wisconian herself and deftly sketches out the cultural and political social fabric of this unremarkable community where Slenderman put it on the public map.
It’s useful to also know that Hale is somewhat suspicious of the internet, a place she attempted to scrub herself from and disappear after the fallout of the Goodreads story. This seemingly cautious and wary distance Hale sets helps readers more fully understand the gripping hold that Slenderman—as a real fiction but captivating fantasy—can have on those coming-of-age during this time with a steady diet of new social media, online ubiquity, and pleasurable internet escapism. Hale reminds us that what makes the Slenderman story so compelling then is how emblematic it seems for 2010s culture: the rapid rise of online fan fiction, popular Tumblr identity culture for teens, even the residual cultural legacy of Twilight and Harry Potter amongst teens growing up online then. And, of course, (mostly) media moral panic shaping it. While decades earlier these was widespread panic over Marilyn Manson, video games and the Columbine shootings, and then years earlier, the panic over Dungeons & Dragons and the game’s problematic role play seemingly dictating the script of a the 1988 Lieth Von Stein murder case, what’s old is new(s) again for youth moral panic, Hale says.
While Hale was unable to speak to Anissa or Bella directly for Slenderman, her conversations with an imprisoned Morgan are sobering reading, as we see the depths of Morgan’s former mental illness and its painful hold on her formerly impaired eleven-year-old mind. It’s not to say that sympathy isn’t also reserved for Bella too (the victim in all of this), but it’s really the tragic ends of these two misguided and mistreated eleven-year-old and twelve-year-old girls that takes up much of Hale’s tale. On August 11th 2022, Morgan Geyser withdrew her request for early release. Anissa Weier was released early in September 2021.
Slenderman is a skilled and detailed retelling of a story that still mystifies many years later. “Slenderman” has since become a kind of contemporary shorthand—much like Columbine and video games or the Charles Manson murders and the Beatles’ White Album—for the dangerous marriage between young people and a new dangerous medium. Hale’s intervention into this recent saga of American moral panic is a fulsome, if sobering, story of misdirected pre-teen social angst and cyberspace obsession. Slenderman may have been debunked in the popular imagination but he lives on as an enduring metaphor for the shadowy corners of the internet and the corrupting danger that our online existences can have to our offline realities.
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