A grisly attack in Waukesha, Wis., in which two 12-year-old girls are alleged to have stabbed a friend 19 times, has shaken the local community and much of America, as have revelations that the girls' actions may have been inspired by their belief in a fictitious online character.
On Saturday, the two suspects allegedly lured the third girl, also 12, into a wooded area. One girl held her down while the other stabbed her repeatedly in her torso, legs, and arms, authorities say.
The victim, who was in stable condition Tuesday, crawled to a road, where she was discovered by a cyclist. According to the criminal complaint, the locations of some of the stab wounds near vital organs meant she was "one millimeter away from certain death."
The two suspects were arrested several hours later and were charged Monday with first-degree attempted homicide, as adults.
The attack is disturbing for its raw violence and the young ages of all involved. But the possible motive for the crime, emerging from what the girls allegedly told police, is particularly troubling to many parents, juvenile crime experts, and other observers, given its ties to online activity by youths. Even so, some experts caution against oversimplifying motives or drawing a direct causal connection between what the girls were reading on the Internet and their alleged roles in a terrible crime.
At the center of the episode, according to the criminal complaint, is the fictional character known as Slender Man. Generally depicted as faceless, tall, and thin, Slender Man is a somewhat common character on Internet horror sites. The two attackers aspired to become "a proxy of Slender," the complaint states, and believed they needed to kill someone to do that. They apparently thought Slender Man was real and, in the words of the court document, "wanted to prove the skeptics wrong." They are alleged to have been planning the attack since February.
Slender Man first appeared on the Something Awful website about five years ago, in two doctored photos depicting paranormal images, says Shira Chess, a media studies professor at the University of Georgia. The forum embraced the creation, and the character's popularity took off. Within weeks he was the subject of a Web show, and later more stories, shows, and a video game.
"It's just like with vampire stories. In different versions, they can do different things, and there is a wide array of different ways vampires are depicted," says Professor Chess. "In a similar way, Slender Man has all these different possibilities that people online pull from and use for horror storytelling. It's just another horror Internet archetype."
Adults can understand the character's genesis and history, and can pretty easily put it in context, says Chess. But it could be difficult for a 12-year-old, she adds, to have the "media literacy" and critical-thinking tools required to understand a figure like that and its literary meaning.
The suspects allegedly were drawn to the character as featured on the website Creepypasta Wiki, which reproduces a variety of horror stories gleaned from around the Internet. On Tuesday, a poster on Creepypasta sought to defend the site from the already-building backlash. "We are a literature site, not a satanic cult," it noted.
"This is an isolated incident, and does [not] represent or attribute the Creepypasta community as a whole," the poster emphasized. "This incident shows what happens when the line of fiction and reality ceases to exist."
Backlash against a particular site or character is akin to public reactions against violent video games whenever a video-game afficionado becomes violent in real life, says Patrick Markey, a psychology professor at Villanova University.
"Both arguments are saying that media is somehow influencing our actions," Professor Markey says, noting that concerns used to center on comic books as the catalyst for violence. What's important to remember, and what research bears out, says Markey, is that media don't cause violent behaviors, though they might influence how violent people behave or the form that their violence takes.
It's also important to keep in mind how rare an event like this is, says Markey. "Thousands of people have seen these stories and were not affected the ways these girls were," he says. "The same can be said of video games. More people are playing violent video games than ever before, but crime is actually lower than ever."
There may be good reasons to shield kids from certain sites, not so much because the children become violent but because the material is scary or age-inappropriate, Markey adds.
Waukesha Police Chief Russell Jack, meanwhile, called the incident "a wake-up call for parents" to monitor their children's Internet use. "It's extremely disturbing as a parent and as chief of police," he said at a news conference Monday.
Chess also notes that sites like Creepypasta have many positive aspects.
"Storytelling is such an important function of human life," she says. "The ability for people to share stories in these kinds of spaces is pretty amazing, we didn't have that pre-Internet.... And horror serves an important function. The Grimm brothers knew that."
"But then there are also these aspects that are chilling," she says. "This is a really tragic moment from all of that."