'Slender Man' Is a Convenient Target for Our Fears, Rather than Racism and Misogyny
It's easy to raise a moral panic about the Slender Man, a shadowy internet meme few people over 25 had ever heard of, at least until this week. Administrators and parents can ban the lanky specter – can put a face on the faceless figure – and reassure themselves that they are barring the door to the bogeyman. A fictional, tentacle-sprouting villain doesn't require us to examine any uncomfortable truths about society.
But when the purported basis for violence or hatred is something more deeply ingrained in our culture, the threat becomes more difficult to face head-on. When crime is linked to deep social problems like misogyny and racism, our temptation is very much to look anywhere else for answers – and that's dangerous in itself.
On May 31, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier of Waukesha, Wisconsin, both 12 years old, allegedly lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times. The victim survived the attack. Both suspects told the policethat they attacked their friend in order to become "proxies" of the Slender Man, a fictional character created in 2009 for a Photoshop contest.
Local authorities were quick to blame the culture of online ghost stories. "Parents are strongly encouraged to restrict and monitor their children's Internet usage," Waukesha police chief Russell Jack said at a news conference, and the local school district banned a website called CreepyPasta, where much of the lore lived, after the attack.
Reporters are savoring the lurid fantasy like kids around campfire, or an iPad. An Australian news report dubbed CreepyPasta an "internet horror-cult that almost caused a killing". "Many are wondering: What dark forces does this online urban legend potentially release?" asked a CTV anchor. CNN's digital correspondent, Kelly Wallace, worried that kids today might be at risk from nefarious fictional creatures because they are generally incapable of differentiating between fantasy and reality. Another CNN opinion writer suggested that "the made-up meme could have inspired monstrous acts in real life".
The anonymous creator of CreepyPasta stressed in a blog post that the site is a repository for fiction, not a cult. "Despite the story of Slenderman being no different to that of any other horror creation, it looks unlikely that the statement will appease those looking for someone to blame for the incident in Wisconsin," Gillian Orr predicted in the Independent.
As far as we know, the Slender Man has never factored into a murder before, despite having been seen by hundreds of thousands of people. Over the years, violent crimes have been linked, with dubious supporting evidence, to heavy metal music, violent video games, anime and other pop culture ephemera.
It's not uncommon for a bit of cultural detritus to somehow got associated with a violent crime – often, perhaps, as a lawyer for one of the girls hinted, because of underlying mental illness. But when it comes to larger issues in our culture, we have more trouble confronting where they intersect with violence.
Movie critics may have blamed Hollywood for the case of Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old who recently went on a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California. But Rodger wrote a manifesto in which he explained, in plain terms, something deep-seated and complex: that he was going on a killing spree to punish women for rejecting him sexually. Like the Wisconsin girls, Rodger was active online in special interest groups - not seemingly benign memes but forums focused on hating women.
Yet after Rodger's rampage, many commentators went out of their way to deny any connection between his misogyny and his violence. Conservative commentator Heather MacDonald accused the "feminist industry" of cynically manufacturing a connection between the Isla Vista shootings and larger social trends of misogyny. LA Times columnist Meghan Daum wrote: "No talking point, however, has proved nearly as tenacious or tendentious as the misogyny angle."
Rodger may well have been a mentally ill misogynist. But there is no conflict between the possibility of mental illness and the documented fact of his misogyny. The mentally ill live in the same culture as the rest of us.
The big difference between Slender Man and misogyny – between an indicator of pop-culture and an instigator of violence – is that Slender Man has never been linked to a crime before. The odds are overwhelming that the Wisconsin girls' preoccupation with this character was something like happenstance, but misogyny has been a source of violence against women for centuries. We don't see ordinary Slender Man fans committing or justifying smaller acts of violence or intimidation based on their love of the character, even if fans admit that "we can create our own history around it". But there is no Slender Man street harassment, whereas, we see misogyny driving all kinds of lesser abuses against women every day, even by people who are apparently perfectly sane.
When violence occurs, it can be comforting to define the problem as narrowly as possible. Focusing on a killer's idiosyncrasies, or a victim's supposed missteps, can distract us from the larger social forces at work. Some commentators bent over backwards to explain why George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin wasn't racially motivated. A new wave of quasi-revisionist accounts of Matthew Shepard's murder question whether the killing was really an anti-gay hate crime.
Our society is awash in misogynistic – and racist, and homophobic – messaging, yet very few people go on killing sprees. There are always additional factors that separate people who act on violent ideologies from those who do not.
When suspects say they stabbed a friend because of a fictional character, your Facebook feed lights up: This Slender Man meme is dangerous! But when the perp says he wanted to shoot up a sorority house because he hates women – the very definition of misogyny – people hedge and equivocate: Let's not jump to conclusions….
Ghost stories like Slender play to our fears of the unknown. In a way, it's almost comforting to think that violence stems from a new online or youth-culture fad, in which we adults may have little stake. But sometimes the threat is more banal, more numbingly familiar, and therefore more difficult to face. It's a lot easier to censor a fictional character than to confront the real violence in our society, violence that is often tolerated in its less extreme forms – or worse, yet, encouraged.