I have seen it happening over and over again. Comic books, horror movies, rock & roll, violent videogames… So I wasn’t surprised at all when an Internet meme made it to the headlines as the new outcome of creativity to be blamed for spreading fear, threatening order and transforming children into psycho killers.
Whether a fan of horror stories or not, you might have heard that we have a new bad boy in town: the so-called Slender Man, also known as “the Internet’s disturbing boogeyman.” He is a thin, tall child stalker wearing a black suit, with long sprawling arms and no face. According to the mythology surrounding him, he is supposed to live in the woods, waiting to kidnap and kill the next innocent victim.
This fictional character, currently under media trial as the source of the attempted murder of a 12-year-old girl in Waukesha, is not only a meme but an urban legend (if not a form of fakelore) that also circulates in the form of meme. Call it folklore 2.0 if you want – Slender Man was created in 2009 by Eric Knudsen in a Photoshop contest hosted on the website SomethingAwful.com.
What happened later is well-known to everyone is familiar with online fan art. Slender Man grew. And grew. And grew. He went viral, taking over the short writings developed on Creepypasta Wiki, spreading in a mythology made of thousands of stories, photos, videos and video games (see this map of content by Know Your Meme), and leading to successfully crowdfunded films on Kickstarter.
From June 2009 YouTube has been flooded by the so-called “entries” for the Marble Hornets series, which soon became very popular.
Nowadays there are two ways to experience an urban legend online: either you play with it, or you read about it in the headlines when something (usually bad) happens. Given its origin, Slate defined Slender Man as “the perfect metaphor for the becauses we collectively brainstorm – an Internet phantom who looks a little different to everyone”, while NBC News sees him as “a ghoul for the Internet era… a crowd-sourced creation.”
After what happened at Waukesha became public, CBS reported that psychiatrists and educators encouraged parents to monitor their children’s Internet consumption. Adults’ concerns reached a peak when mothers and fathers started to call for the shutdown of Creepypasta, which issued a clear statement about the fictional nature of the stories presented on the wiki.
My point of view here is simple: I obviously condemn real violence in any form, but I think that creativity must be sheltered from censorship. To protect Slender Man as a form of online fiction means to respect the need of users to create fan art, regardless of whether you find playing with horror themes inappropriate, or even morbid. In this respect, The Daily Mail maliciously noted that the father of one of the assailants was a death metal fan, while the mother posted photos of skulls on Instagram, embracing “darker themes in pop culture.” It’s an old story.
As a fan of horror fiction, I share Icons of Fright‘s closing sentences on this event: “Instead of focusing anger and judgement towards an imaginary creature, we should do everything we can to better understand how two little girls could completely lose all sense of reality, and commit such a heinous act. Dismissing horror as the responsible party is just going to continue to perpetuate the American stigma towards mental health, and keep us from preventing more tragedies.”
I fully understand rage and fear in the wake of a tragedy, but after the initial shock common sense must prevail. Because nobody can deny that memes don’t kill people. People do.
You provide an interesting take on a complex issue. While I agree that memes don’t kill people, they can certainly have a virus-like effect on unprepared brains. What to do with that? I don’t know. I wrote my analysis of the events here: http://thestake.org/2014/06/20/the-slender-man-revisited/.
Your analysis is very interesting, Levi. Some of the aspects you outline are usually discussed within the debate on media and violence, without getting to a shared point of view. I think that the best approach is to provide the safest environment possible for the ones that want to have fun with pop culture, avoiding to blame users for what can be considered only a creepy hobby (which is the best sport for some media outlets). On the other hand, how to educate youngsters to take the best from the Internet avoiding its darkest corners is a matter of personal judgement, culture, family and school education. As for all things related to creativity, we cannot censor ourselves just because we fear that someone suffering from mental issues will misinterpret topics or the sense of reality itself.
Thanks for reading my take.
I agree completely that we cannot censor ourselves artistically. That would be a dark road all its own. And I don’t think the people falling for outlandish stories is just in fan fiction circles. Look at those who think vaccines cause autism, or those who fall for the claims of “psychics” and other hucksters. It’s quite difficult for anyone to know fact from fiction online, and extremely difficult for those who have little critical thinking training (child and adult alike).
I don’t know what to make of the mental illness angle. Sure, it’s possible the girls were mentally ill. (Last I read, one was getting screened and one, curiously, was not.) But what if they have a clean bill of health, in a clinical sense? I think just assuming someone has a mental illness, and that was the cause of the tragedy, can sometimes be a convenient way of turning them into an “other.” As in, sad that it happened, but that could never be me because I’m sane.
It just seems like we underestimate the way we can ALL fall for superstitions, and that it is not an uncommon phenomenon. If someone leads an otherwise normal life, but is way into their astrological sign, to the point they spend hours devoted to studying it, are they mentally ill? What about a stand-up citizen who is intensely Christian? Or the person who is a conspiracy theorist? Are they mentally ill? Are they sane until they commit a crime? There’s so much wackiness for humans to be duped by, that it seems like a collective mental illness, not a specific one.
Comments are closed.