Fiction has purportedly inspired some of America’s most chilling murders: The Columbine massacre. The Beltway sniper. The 24-year-old who stabbed his teenage neighbor 30 times after watching the movie “Scream.”
And yet, when news broke last week that two girls in Wisconsin — and later, a third, unrelated girl in Ohio — committed attacks over an online story called Slender Man, condemnation of the story (and the place it came from) was unusually damning, quick, and universal.
“The Internet can be full of dark and wicked things,” intoned the police chief handling the Wisconsin attack, echoing concerns from advocates, educators, and many, many parents, who wondered — to paraphrase a bundle of stories on the subject — how to keep the evils of the Internet from poisoning their kids.
It’s a seductive narrative — almost as seductive, in fact, as the legend of Slender Man himself. Kids aren’t mentally ill, or psychopathic, or (God forbid!) evil in their own right: They’re just corrupted by the Internet, this vast, shadowy, totally separate underworld that many people don’t entirely grasp. The Internet is the actor. The Internet has all the agency.
The Internet, truth be told, has very little to do with it.
“There has been a lot of moral panic over the role of the Internet because of these incidents,” said Shira Chess, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia who has studied the Slender Man myth. “But it is also important to consider that Eric Knudsen’s initial Slender Man story, which appeared on somethingawful.com, was not entirely new, either … the girls could have just as easily found similar stories in a book of traditional folk or faerie tales.”
In some respects, it almost seems they did: The girls’ version of the Slender Man story notably doesn’t even agree with the Internet’s version, which kind of dampens the idea that the Internet “corrupted” them. Slender Man, per online consensus, never lives in a mansion — nor does he appear to “proxies” after they kill for him. In fact, none of the major stories in Slender Man’s lengthy online mythos involve summoning the creature, at all.
And even if the stories did, wrote the administrator of Creepypasta, the site where the girls allegedly learned of Slender Man, it’s unfair to ascribe blame to an entire genre of writing — if you’re going to blame Internet horror for all the world’s ills, you have to blame Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, too.
But despite that kind of evidence, it’s somehow more compelling — or perhaps simply more easy — to blame the Internet.
“The web gets treated like an evil specter in a ghost story,” wrote Nathan Jurgenson, a sociologist and social media theorist at the University of Maryland. There’s this idea, he explained, that “the web is a separate ‘thing’ out there that can control people, make them do stuff, especially kids.”
That idea is concerning, but it’s not a new one — in fact, Jurgenson has studied it for years. He calls the phenomenon “digital dualism,” a pervasive, pernicious belief that the Internet and “the real world” are somehow distinct entities. Without realizing it, you’ve probably fallen for the digital dualism trap: by insisting you need to “unplug,” perhaps, or distinguishing between “IRL” and “online” friends.
But the Internet is part of real life, Jurgenson and theorists like him argue. Your online friends are also your IRL friends. The digital forces that “corrupt” us are no different from the storm of cultural and social influences that bombard us on a daily basis. The web is, in short, so deeply embedded in our lives and consciousness that it’s impossible (and indeed, dangerous) to carve it out as some kind of separate realm.
Those dangers become particularly clear when things like the Slender Man stabbings arise. Instead of pointing a finger at the responsible party (mental illness, inattentive parenting, the children themselves, what have you), we end up blaming the Internet … and thus missing the point.
Don’t get me wrong: The Slender Man stabbings, both in Wisconsin and Ohio, were legitimately horrifying for reasons that have nothing to do with the Internet (or indeed, with the Slender Man story): the age and gender of the perpetrators, the cold-bloodedness of the crime, the lack of apparent remorse, the brutality of the stabbings. But Chess suspects — and I agree — that had the girls claimed vampires or some other non-Internet fiction as their inspiration, the panic and fascination would be somewhat less pitched.
That’s because, more than even Slender Man, we fear the bogeyman of the web: a silent, faceless, many-armed figure that exerts a power we neither know nor understand. And that, Chess says, is a big problem — because the Internet, even in the case of Slender Man and Creepypasta, is also a force for incredible good.
“These are spaces where creative people are finding their voices,” she wrote, “and we might want to think twice before dismissing their value.”