As the country is still recoiling in horror after two 12-year-old girls allegedly stabbed a third 19 times last Saturday – an apparent months-long plan to kill their friend to please a mythical online monster called the Slender Man – many still just gasp, bewildered, and wonder, why?
The adolescent girls told police they stabbed their fellow 12-year-old after they became obsessed with a user-generated, online horror story on creepypasta.com. The site's name puns “copypasta,” which is already a pun on “copy and paste” – a reference to the mashed-up digital-age genre of songs and stories in which users take preexisting content and mix it to make something new.
The Slender Man has become something of sensation among ghoul-seeking youth since its creation in 2009. It has morphed into a variety of forms, but basically it is a tall, faceless, suit-and-fedora-wearing creature who lives in the woods and can control unsuspecting victims' minds and make them do terrible things.
The girls told investigators they were trying to be “proxies” of the Slender Man, planning to kill their unsuspecting friend and run away to the creature’s forest mansion.
"The bad part of me wanted her to die, the good part of me wanted her to live," one of the girls told investigators.
Since the Columbine school killings more than 15 years ago – indeed, well before that tragedy, too – many have wondered whether the hours and hours of violent media the nation’s young people consume contributes to why a handful resort to murder, sometimes en masse.
Some research suggests it does, but given the pervasive, saturating presence of violent media in American culture, the small handful of off-the-deep-end crimes hardly indicates exposure to such media as a primary cause.
Which brings a deeper and more primary question: Why do horror myths, cringe-inducing images of violence, and stories such as the Slender Man fascinate people so much, especially the young?
Indeed, zombies and vampires are all the rage these days on popular TV shows and movies among the young and old alike. Even HBO's wildly popular series "Game of Thrones" shows some of the most horrific acts of violence ever shown on screen – with realistic HD special effects that heighten the fictional fantasy. And let’s not forget the annual rites of Halloween.
“No doubt, there's something really powerful that brings people to watch these things, because it's not logical," said Joanne Cantor, director of the Center for Communication Research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, to the website WebMD. "Most people like to experience pleasant emotions.”
Yet such fantastic horror and violence is a free market, multibillion-dollar windfall for its creators and distributors, an economic reality of supply and demand that means it will hardly wane anytime.
As the new online contribution to the age-old horror genre, “creepypasta” is seen by some simply as today’s version of a generally human fascination with images of the profane.
“The horror genre addresses our archetypal fears,” said Paul Patterson, assistant professor of English and co-director of Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, in a statement. “You can see throughout history how each generation has defined ‘horror,’ and it turns largely on the idea of something outside of our understanding threatening us.”
Theories about the human psyche’s fascination with horror abound. For some theologians, it is an expression of innate sinfulness. In the psychoanalytic tradition stemming from Sigmund Freud – which has dominated media theories throughout the 20th century – horror stories emerge from the anxieties of the unconscious fear of death. A fantasy filled with horrific images then becomes a kind of catharsis – a safe release of what could be a debilitating death dread.
And Freud’s disciple Carl Jung posited a series of primordial archetypes buried deep in a more “collective consciousness” of culture, with images of shadows and parenthood figuring deep in human fears and violent impulses, which are then released in a kind of psychological safety valve.
But viewing such images can still be damaging, according to Ms. Cantor’s research. She found nearly 60 percent of the students she surveyed reported trouble sleeping, and even daymares, from violent images they had seen before age 14.
Modern brain research has indicated that those who enjoy horror films and violent images are more responsive to dopamine, which the body produces during high-intensity and stressful activities – and which produces deep pleasure. Scholars call this the “excitation transfer process,” in which the experience of fear becomes pleasurable excitement.
But gazing on horror and the profane are not enough to cause an adolescent to become unhinged and try to commit murder.
“If these girls get so enmeshed in the fantasy of Slender Man, there’s some kind of a problem,” said former FBI agent Kenneth Lansing, who worked in the behavioral science unit for violent crime, according to ABC News. “It may have lowered their inhibition, but that's not what caused this.... Hundreds or thousands of children talk about, tweet, text message about Slender Man, but ... they've never killed anybody.”