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Thursday, December 1, 2022

Why Did Two 12-Year-Olds Try to Murder a Friend?

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SLENDERMAN: Online Obsession, Mental Illness, and the Violent Crime of Two Midwestern Girls, by Kathleen Hale

If there’s a true crime voice, it’s that of a Midwestern prime-time news anchor, totally deracinated and mellifluous — the kind that makes the worst horrors seem matter-of-fact, not occasions for contemplation but for strict punishment. That isn’t Kathleen Hale’s voice, exactly, but it’s close. Her book, “Slenderman,” is set in Waukesha, Wisc., a law-and-order community half an hour from where Hale herself grew up and where, in May 2014, three sixth graders — Payton “Bella” Leutner, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier — went into a wooded park to play hide and seek. While Anissa watched and offered encouragement, Morgan stabbed Bella 19 times with a kitchen knife. Bella, left for dead, managed to stumble and crawl to a nearby road for help; Morgan and Anissa were soon taken into custody by the police. Given the brutal nature of the crime, they were charged as adults.

What had happened? What drove two 12-year-olds to try to kill one of their friends? Morgan, it turns out, had become obsessed with a website called Creepypasta.com, a wiki of scary stories and urban myths; the ones which gripped her were about a murky figure called Slenderman. Hale writes, “When [Morgan] came across Slenderman, she was captivated. She had seen his face before. Not on the internet, but in her home. He was the spitting image of It, the tall, faceless man who had plagued her since she was young.” As the site and the stories were crowdsourced, information about Slenderman spread all over the internet — kids made new photos, posted new stories. There was even a video game.

Hale spent seven years poring over thousands of pages of court documents, police reports and other public records. She interviewed Morgan and her family as well as her defense team and her pen pals, but she did not talk to Bella or Anissa. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Morgan, whose father has schizophrenia, is showing signs of the illness herself. To her, Slenderman is both a threat and a hero, someone who understands her terrifying visions and fears: “Every hallucination that had ever scared her, thrilled her or comforted her became projected onto Slenderman.”

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