Who is Slender Man? Stabbing pulls shadowy Internet myth into spotlight

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The near-fatal stabbing of a 12-year-old Wisconsin girls has been described by police as "extremely disturbing."

Two suspects, both 12 as well, are in custody, accused of luring the victim into a wooded area Saturday, where one of them held her down while the other stabbed her 19 times. Both are charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide.

The motive: An fictional, internet-created horror figure known as Slender Man.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported the suspects had been planning to kill the victim for several months. The girls told police they needed to kill a person in order to show their dedication to Slender Man, according to the complaint. The suspects reportedly believed Slender Man was a real person. After they killed the victim, they said they were planning to walk to Slender Man’s mansion and become his followers, the paper reported.

The victim in Saturday's attack is walking and talking, KSTP reports.

But the incident has pulled the mythical Slender Man out of the shadows of the internet, and into the bright spotlight of the public.

The Response

The question being asked now is, How did this happen? How did a fictional figure become the reported influence of two young girls' violent attack?

Creepypasta – the site where the Wisconsin girls reportedly told police they heard of the being – is the home for many Slender Man stories and images, as well as numerous other creepy tales. One of the site's moderators posted a message on the front page after the attack, stating in all caps that everything on the site was fictional, and calling the stabbing an "isolated incident."

"This wiki does not endorse or advocate for the killing, worship, and otherwise replication of rituals of fictional works," it continues. "There is a line ... between fiction and reality, and it is up to you to realize where the line is. We are a literature site, not a crazy satanic cult."

The older brother of one of the suspects spoke with the Daily Mail, calling his younger sister normal, quiet and happy-go-lucky.

"She loved CreepyPasta, she loved the Slender Man stories, just anything a bit creepy," he tells the Daily Mail. "But I don't see why it changed from dream to reality."

CNN probed that very concept, asking whether there are warning signs when children may be blending fantasy with real life. As the author points out, millions of kids seem to read, watch or obsessively follow "Harry Potter" or the "Twilight" series, which both feature dark characters of their own. Yet understanding those are fiction generally isn't a problem, she says.

Professor Jacqueline Woolley, a children's thinking expert at the University of Texas at Austin, tells CNN children as young as 2 1/2 can understand reality versus fantasy. By the age of 12, Woolleey tells CNN she believes they should be able to make that distinction as well as an adult.

The Waukesha police chief, where the stabbing occurred, said the incident should be a "wake-up call" for parents, the LA Times reports.

"Parents are strongly encouraged to restrict and monitor their children's Internet usage," he said.

But this isn't the first horror-inducing figure to penetrate kids' culture. Lisa Suhay, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, points out she used to play "Bloody Mary" at slumber parties as a child. Her grandmother, Suhay remembers, would remind her such myths only have the power we choose to give them.

"As a parent, the thought that will not leave my head and keeps me up at night," she writes, "is that children like these two girls join the monster rather than beat it."

The Creation of Slender Man

Slender Man is, unsurprisingly, exaggeratedly tall and thin. He has no eyes, ears, nose or mouth, and no hair – it looks like he's only the headpiece of a full-body spandex suit. He's usually wearing a tight black suit with a black tie, with the hint of a white button-up visible just below his chin.

He was invented, the site explains, on the Something Awful forums – a website that hosts a collection of comedic content. They hosted a Photoshop contest, hoping to digitally insert a creepy image into a real-life photograph, in a way that looked authentic. This one was submitted by Eric Knudsen, known on the internet as Victor Surge, Heavy.com writes.

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You can see in the back a tall, slim figure following the crowd of children. It was credited to an "unknown photographer" who was "presumed dead."

This one followed shortly after.

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Know Your Meme says it included a caption:

One of two recovered photographs from the Stirling City Library blaze. Notable for being taken the day which fourteen children vanished and for what is referred to as “The Slender Man”. Deformities cited as film defects by officials. Fire at library occurred one week later. Actual photograph confiscated as evidence. – 1986, photographer: Mary Thomas, missing since June 13th, 1986.

And from there it took off, with other people creating and sharing their own version of the nightmarish figure.

The Myth Grows

Slender Man has gone from a two-photo figure, to having a reputation.

According to the Creepypasta Wiki, Slender Man is usually found in wooded areas. He appears to target children, though not exclusively, and often will begin to torment those who become "overly paranoid" about his existence, the site says. His victims are usually killed or dragged away.

The Know Your Meme Wiki provides a description of his supernatural powers:

According to the legend, he can stretch or shorten his arms at will and has tentacle-like appendages protruding from his back. Depending on the interpretations of the myth, the creature may cause memory loss, insomnia, paranoia, coughing fits (nicknamed “slendersickness”), photograph/video distortions and can teleport at will.

He appears to float rather than walk or run, giving him a ghostly quality.

Creepypasta even includes "historical references" in which Slender Man appears to be present, including cave paintings that date back thousands of years, and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

There are now Slender Man comics, a YouTube series based on the figure, and a popular horror video game that tasks the player with collecting pages in a dark forest – with Slender Man lurking in the ubiquitous shadows.

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