If you woke up this morning to a cup of orange juice and some pseudoephedrine for your allergies, I envy you, because that’s not what I woke up to. Instead, I awoke to the sound of an anchorwoman, her voice dripping with faux concern, saying the word “Creepypasta.” Que? Is cable news Reddit now? I was mildly puzzled until I saw that it was just about some kids stabbing another kid. Oh, all right. Nothing new here.
This week marks one of those rare occasions when you can make reference to a stabbing and someone is liable to ask you, “Which one?” In New York they already have a possible serial killer on the loose, but at least in this Midwestern suburb of Waukesha they’ve caught the prepubescent would-be killers. These are our two publicized stabbings of the week. The professed motive in the Midwest? Slender Man.
Slender Man is an enormously popular urban legend among middle-school nerds who liked to drop his name as a punch line to any sentence, expecting laughs in return. These jokes usually went like this:
“Hey, whose shadow is that?”
“Hey, whose hand is that?”
“Crap, I spilled my milk.”
“Did we get gas at the last stop or the stop before that?”
I never got why Slender Man was supposed to be funny, or spooky, or whatever he was supposed to be. Another public-school word-drop that’s still popular among the hepcats and coolsters is the phrase “Illuminati”:
“That’s funny. I can’t find my car keys. Have you seen them around?”
“Hmm, Joe Biden spoke shorter than usual today.”
“I have a dog.”
All of these juvenile catchphrases are symptoms of what young people experience when they’ve just found out about ideas that are new to them but still think they’re the only ones in the world who know. I was a freshman in high school the last time I had to hear about Slender Man, often from the same tall, slender nerd who would never shut up about Dr. Who, the Arctic Monkeys, and Sherlock. Slender Man this, Slender Man that. I’d hate to be his parents or his girlfriend. I don’t think he had one. This was the type of guy who ran twice for student government and failed both times. (I ran once for student government and was barred by the supervisor from reelection after my first term.) No matter how bad I feel about myself some days, I can think to myself, well, at least I’m not that awful guy who could only talk about BBC programs and Slender Man. How would you like to be defined by people who knew you in high school as the guy who made stupid jokes until the subject of his jokes turned into a murder motive?
Or did he? When school massacres were slightly rarer, it wasn’t rare that industrial pop and video games were put under intense scrutiny in the weeks it took to re-panel the walls and change the carpeting, whether the killers had connections to said artifacts or not. Now the killing-spree discussion is about firearms and psychiatry; there’s the material reality of an object propelling metal at mortal flesh on one hand and a religious cult that grew out of neurology on the other. Columbine was the first widely publicized post-modern killing spree. Paul Virilio is hiding off somewhere eagerly writing a borderline-coherent theory about murder and how we’re into the post-post era of spree killing and child killers.
The murder of James Bulger—it’s James Bulger, not Whitey, so he’s not to be mistaken for the Irish-American mobster—by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson is somewhat similar to this case, though not as much as it might seem at first glance. In the case of Bulger’s murder, two ten-year-old boys—two years younger than the Slender Girls—kidnapped a three-year-old and beat him to death outside of the city in a train yard. So at least kids murdering kids isn’t a terribly new phenomenon.
It’s worth mentioning, then, that Venables and Thompson didn’t blame any Internet urban legends for their crime. Both used the age-old “I wanted to know how it would feel” explanation. In 2000 a student at my current high school was shot to death while riding his bike in North Minneapolis. When the perps were on trial they were asked why they’d picked him out. “We saw him,” one of them said, “and we felt like killing somebody.”
In the case of events such as Columbine, in which the perps left the building with their brains on their sleeves, the two also left behind reams of writing in which they stated that their only motive was hatred. Being that blunt is a lot harder to do if you survive your crime. Why do you think killers who aren’t schizophrenic continue to feign paranoid delusions even after the insanity defense has been struck from the list as a possible excuse?
It’s often easier to blame violent behavior on music, books, or voices that tell you in schizophrenic stereo to kill than to admit that you wanted to hurt someone. I’ve spent time in multiple psychiatric hospitals and heard therapists tell me and other patients on countless occasions that “You are not your disorder.”
Imagine you’re the Brooklyn Ripper and your mother has asked you why you’ve killed. Would you say that it was because you’re a sick sadistic psychopath who loves to see others in pain, or would you tell her it was because you heard voices telling you to? If you were a twelve-year-old girl and someone asked you why you attempted to kill someone, would you rather look them in the eye and say that it was an honest desire to inflict pain, or would you blame it on a juvenile website dedicated to campfire stories? If you care about your image, you’d rather be the victim.