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Published: Saturday, 7/12/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

Slender Man casts long shadow

Internet myth turns into deadly reality

NEW YORK TIMES

BLADE ILLUSTRATION/ TOM FISHER Enlarge

In early June, two 12-year-old girls in Waukesha, Wis., were charged with attempted murder in the attack of a third girl, a classmate whom they had invited for a sleepover. Prosecutors say the girls lured their victim into playing a game of hide-and-seek in the woods. When in the woods, the prosecutors say, they attacked her with a knife, stabbing her 19 times. The victim was discovered by a bicyclist and rushed to the hospital; she is said to be recovering from her injuries.

The story made national headlines both for the brutality of the crime and for the unusual motive cited by prosecutors. According to a criminal complaint, the two girls told the police that they had been planning the attack for months. They bore no animus toward their victim. Instead, the girls said, they had tried to kill their classmate to impress a shadowy villain who haunted the woods. They called him Slender Man — or Slender, for short.

Slender Man is a horror figure for the selfie age. You can think of him as a Web-based, crowd-sourced urban legend. He was born in 2009 as part of a Photoshop contest on the Web forum Something Awful. From there, Slender Man stories, videos, and pictures — all fictional — began to spread online. In many of them, he’s pictured as a disproportionately tall, skinny man dressed in a dark suit who often stands in the background, silently stalking his victims.

Today, you can find shards of the Slender Man myth across the Web. But one of his primary haunts is Creepypasta Wiki, a popular forum where people work together to create spooky stories. According to prosecutors, the girls first discovered Slender Man on Creepypasta Wiki, and what they saw there convinced them that he was real.

The terribly sad case has drawn Creepypasta into the familiar controversy over what is and isn’t appropriate for children to see online. There have been calls for the forum to be taken down or blocked, and for parents to prohibit children from looking at it, although the site itself has long urged parents to monitor how their children use the site.

But for many people, the attack and the coverage surrounding it also provide an introduction to a rising genre in fiction, one that illustrates the power of the Internet as a literary tool. Online crowd-sourced fiction like the stories on the Creepypasta Wiki is the subject of increasing study in literature and mass media academic circles, where the form is seen as a novel take on an ancient human pastime.

Shira Chess, an assistant professor of mass media arts at the University of Georgia who has studied the Slender Man phenomenon, says that crowd-sourced fiction bears similarities to the folklore that was once passed down orally, through generations — only now, the myths are minted online, in a matter of hours or days. Examining Creepypasta reveals something much deeper than any sort of cultish community, she says. It is home to a thrilling new form of immersive, interactive human storytelling.

Multimedia, crowd-sourced fiction is finding root across the Internet, from social-fiction apps like Wattpad to call-and-response videos on YouTube to stories told in serialized Tumblr posts, one picture or snippet of text each day.

“A lot of people are now saying, ‘How do we stop kids from reading this online?’” Ms. Chess said. “Well, that’s not really the right question. This story is no more threatening than vampire stories or zombie stories. Like those, it’s just articulating specific cultural fears in online spaces.”

There are reasons to temper our fear.

Jacqueline D. Woolley, director of the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, has found that children are far more capable at distinguishing reality from fiction than previously thought.

That doesn’t mean that children can always tell the difference between fact and fiction on the Web. But to the extent that Creepypasta raises worries about people’s capacity to spot that difference, those fears are best seen as universal: The Internet is teeming with stuff that blurs the line between truth and untruth, and both children and adults can get trapped up by those differences.



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