Slender Sickness

Maggie Nye

            The facts are: that two twelve-year-old Wisconsin girls, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, stabbed a third (a friend? I would say so, a friend of Morgan’s, at least) nineteen times with a kitchen knife in the woods behind Morgan’s home during a game of hide-and-seek at the girl’s twelfth birthday sleepover; that the stabbing was premeditated, though unexpected to the victim (role play, sometimes cruel, a facet of their friendship); that the girls gave Slender Man as the motive for their attack; that the victim—Payton Leutner, called Bella—survived; that Anissa and Morgan are slated to be tried as adults for their twelve-year-old crimes; and that their story captured national attention.
            All of this is verifiable event, canon, meaning it belongs to the official narrative of the story’s universe—in this case, our own, the ‘real world.’ The canon is the trajectory of plot and character in any given text. Though the term is typically applied to fiction, we may think of any broadly-accepted story as canon. The problem is that stories, good ones, especially, are highly transmittable, and thus hard to control. Already, you see, my imagination has crept into the spaces between parentheses.
            What I want to say is an extension of the facts, an exercise in empathy, and, equally, in obsession—my own with the ‘Slender Man girls,’ as they’ve come to be known in the media. I imagine they would have cherished this name in an alternate universe where they never carried through with their plan, never become famous. They might have liked the suggested possession, the lack of individual distinction. Slender’s girls, what else? Such a world might even exist—a fan fiction in Morgan’s head: the weapon was a retractable prop knife, a birthday gift from the dark magic shop her father frequented. Three Slender Man Girls, living part-time in the fictional protected space of Slender’s cabin, deep in the woods, and part time in the world of middle school and orthodontist appointments. They were fangirls, keepers of the fictional worlds they longed to inhabit.
            News sites that reported on the Slender stabbing were filled with details about Morgan’s room. What could be more intriguing, more consumable, than the private lives of others? New York Magazine reported that, along with the usual artifacts of a twelve-year-old’s room, police found “more than 50 drawings referring explicitly to Slender Man.” These drawings were filled with, symbols and phrases related to the mythos. One such drawing was accompanied by the words “NEVER ALONE.”1
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            I turned twelve at the start of the millennium, when every American with dial-up fell in love with talking to strangers. In the AOL chatrooms where we met, we shared secrets. It was here that I first found sanctuary against the full and terrifying weight of adult loneliness. Then, I might have called it a kind of confusion. Easy childhood friendships nourished by nothing more than sunshine and proximity grew strained. Long silent lapses followed on the heels of laughter. Our incompatible inner lives: theirs reaching outward, seeking to twine with the adult world; mine, coiling in, rooting down. Worse still, the sudden abandonment of the protection granted by childish myopia. There was so much to reckon with in the larger world. Even the smallest broadening of scope pulled in my mother’s sadness, my father’s anger, my brother’s latent mental illness, just beginning to blossom.
XxSiriusTroublexX: im bored. Want to entertain me?
            But in these cyber spaces, we experienced the dissolution of distinction between the lived and the invented. The transmittance itself, the striking of the Enter key and the on-screen appearance of the words we typed became the validation of our messaging and the execution of the experiences we presented as our own.
            We harbored every message we brought before strange eyes and in conveying it, nurtured it into reality. Every secret we could never say to our closest confidantes, we readily submitted to an eager faceless listener. Everything we wished we were, we became.
SpaceMan33: A/S/L
            The media depicts false representations on the web as predatory, catfishing. But these constructions can be pleasurable for both parties, I don’t say this to mitigate the danger of victimization—all pleasures can be dangerous–but only to suggest that these fictions are not always malicious. In one sense, there is no purer relationship than that of two strangers creating a connection from scratch in the black box of cyber space.
            If all identities are constructed, then what really separates the embodied identity from the virtual one is context. Our identities must withstand the force of our friends, our families, our various communities. In this way, our identities are negotiations between our desired projections and the willingness of others to accept these projections and interpret them as we desire. But online, these relationships are free from the confines of outside context. The world we built was our own.
XxSiriusTroublexX: wut do u think/f/here with u ;)
            While I was often female, I sometimes made myself male, other times I refused to say. Always, I was alluring, mysterious, smart. Always, I pushed beyond the limitations of my IRL self. Because my 12-year-old body was protected from view, these conversations became games. How disparately could I purport myself to these strangers, transform myself without detection? And if I went undetected, was I perhaps more accurately represented in my anonymous state? Were my lies closer to the truth of myself than the adolescent body I inhabited?
SpaceMan33: wut r u wearing?
XxSiriusTroublexX: thats boring. dont u want to no sumthing no one else can?
            If I said I was 28, then the words I typed were magically invested with 28 years of experience, written by 28-year-old fingers. For my part, I didn’t question the identities these strangers purported—as if only I, in all of cyber space had the cunning to present myself falsely.
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            It’s necessary to their story to have an understanding of Slender Man, to track his evolution on the web (his birth place) and his role in the girls’ lives, which fact can only begin to explain. Empathy lives in the imagination. So do a great many other things, so many that it’s easy to become lost.
            In its most reduced form, the Slender Man mythos is an internet meme spawned by two images photoshopped and submitted to the online comedy forum Something Awful by user Eric Knudsen (username: Victor Surge). The submission was a response to a call for paranormal photoshops. The photographs, first posted in 2009, are both unremarkable black-and-white pictures of children or adolescents made remarkable by the presence of an unnaturally tall and long-limbed figure in the background. The fictional captions, which identify the figure as “The Slender Man,” enhance the photographs’ authenticity. One caption establishes a picture as having been taken on the day of a mass child abduction in 1986. The other caption is a quote from an anonymous voice that captures any oddly tender impulse in the midst of horror: “We didn’t want to go, we didn’t want to kill them, but its persistent silence and outstretched arms horrified and comforted us at the same time…” This caption is dated 1983 and the photographer, “unknown, presumed dead.”
            The ambiguity of these captions suggests a long and complex narrative that, by omission of specific detail, invites other users to add origin content, creating an open-source horror myth collaboration with thousands of users contributing their own photoshops of Slender Man, adding story in the form of fake eye-witness accounts, news and medical reports, documentaries, etc.
            In an article that pre-dates the stabbings, folklorist Jeffrey A. Tolbert explains how the mythos attempts to consciously engineer a story “composed of a number of narratives which, while avowedly fictional, are framed within the narrative tradition as ‘true’ experiences;” essentially, an urban legend.2 This makes the internet, with its ability to disseminate ideas so widely, the perfect breeding ground for an urban legend’s propagation. What could make a story seem more real than the corroboration of a thousand strangers from all over the world? What better way to fool yourself into belief?
            Moreover, Slender Man is the perfect object for fan obsession. The sparsity of the original entry means that his popularity, and indeed the survival, of his legend is dependent on fan contribution. Without victims he ceases to be monstrous, so Slender fans have a responsibility to create story for him, often choosing to make themselves characters. In an eerily prophetic observation, Tolbert remarks on the mythos’ “unsettling capacity to enter, in various ways, into the lived experiences of its creators.”
            By design, Slender Man is a watcher, a stalker. According to the mythos, individuals being stalked by Slender are said to exhibit coughing fits, nausea, amnesia, and paranoia. These symptoms are collectively known as Slender Sickness and anyone afflicted with it is marked by Slender as an object of his desire. For fans like Morgan and Anissa, the idea of being marked, or chosen, even in a predatory sense, might have been enormously compelling.
            When the news of the Slender Man stabbings broke, it captivated the public’s attention. An intriguing story, to be sure: two adolescent girls stab a third in a bid to win the favor a fictional character from a dark folklore invented on the internet. The story was so popular that HBO made a documentary, Beware the Slenderman, based on the event.
            For my part, I read every article I could find—journalistic and scholarly—on Slender Man and his fans; I poured through the database of origin myths; I watched Marble Hornets—an extensive fan-made YouTube series based on the Slender Man mythos; I watched hours of walkthroughs for the first-person, single player video game Slender: The Eight Pages—the narrow beam of the invisible player’s flashlight the only illumination as the player walks through a dense woods. The player may click the flashlight off to conserve its battery, though in the games I watch, they never do for long, but rather as a dare to themselves, like saying Bloody Mary before a mirror. And when the light goes out, it’s only the oddly regular crunching of simulated footsteps on underbrush that comes from the screen.
            It’s a simple concept: the player wanders through the woods at night collecting the eight pages, which are hand-written warning notes posted on trees, on old oil drums, the insides of abandoned buildings. As the player makes progress, they lose speed, lose light. They’re interrupted by flashes of static and loud electronic screeching. And Slender Man, faceless, in his black suit, stalks closer.
            The absence of an on-screen body in the first-person gaming format is designed to give the player a more immersive experience of the game world, but the same is true for watching a first-person playthrough. The difference, of course, is that the watcher has no control. As gameplay continues, the player, whose voice I hear over the layered ambient sounds, begins to breathe more audibly, sharp intakes of breath, whispers oh my god oh my god oh Jesus Christ. For me, the dual pleasures of immersion and voyeurism; of anonymity and intimacy. But the pleasure goes two ways. The player posted his walkthrough, made it public, knowing his voice, his fear (the heavy breathing a little too performed) would play through the speakers of thousands of strangers’ computers.
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SpaceMan33: lol ok like wut?
            At 12, I had the intense need to be desired in any capacity, but no recourse, I felt, for making myself desirable. I was a gangly tomboy with a large collection of my brother’s hand-me-down soccer camp shirts and a mouth full of braces. That software-blue bar at the top of the box, palpitations that flared in tandem with my pulse, alerted me to the renewed attention of eGirls and eBoys. I told them anything I thought would keep them responding because it made me feel special to collect their attentions, to be chosen from a sea of cyber strangers,
XxSiriusTroublexX: why dont u ask me about the worst thought I ever had?
            In this strange space between the real and the false, at the precipice of my adult years, I had the greatest need to validate my specialness. There was a desperation is my seeking, my need to discover a way of escaping the confines of my parents’ lives, which seemed to me the worst combination of unhappy and mundane: fighting, separation, long hours, one parent in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, one child in the early stages of mental illness and addiction.
            Even on Halloween, my favorite day, the fiction was limited to four hours of sanctioned disguise: the oversized trench coats, the wigs, the penciled-on goatees. Our transformations were safe, our neighbors knew us through our eyeholes and their patience for our pretend was over by nine pm. Unlike Halloween, the gray 480 X 150px boxes of AOL chatrooms were boundless. For whatever duration I sat stiff-legged behind the screen of that basement desktop, I was unlimited, and it was more than costume. Even when I was called away to answer the mundane requirements of my twelve-year-old life—school, chores, soccer practice—my online counterpart, my so many versions, persisted. Suspended, but not undone in my Away Message.
Auto response from XxSiriusTroublexX: **falling down the rabbit hole**
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            In my daily life, I was a certain kind of girl, not very different in presentation, I imagine, from the Slender girls. In one sense, withdrawn, in another, deeply immersed. News articles noted how Bella often came to school with cat whiskers drawn on the backs of her hands and that Anissa, now in a juvenile detention center, was reprimanded for drawing on herself with colored pencils. From these accounts, I recognize the graphomanic impulse: the notebooks and binders covered in a Sharpie rainbow. Written-on white shoe rubber, written on patch-covered backpack, written-on hands and arms, written-on exposed skin. I can imagine the inscribed bodies, sometimes in the form of scarring. The fangirls in their thumb-holed hoodies, their practiced glare, their refusal to be unread. They made their bodies into fiction. I know because this was my body too, my pen-smeared forearm, my scribbling hand.
            We, the fangirls, overwrote ourselves each day, the previous day’s ink still visible so that we became matrices of layered signs—tomes of scrawled-upon projector transparencies. On top of our acned skin, the undesirable linger of childhood softness, the new dimpled quality of our upper thighs, the dark hairs of our arms. This is how it was for us. The frustration of the disparity between the bodies we inhabited and the minds they could not satisfy.
            Sometimes we were impatient. We moved away from our dark hallway corners before the ink on our skin had dried and our written-on bodies smeared against a desktop or a pastel cinder-block wall. We imprinted our surroundings with the will of our self-authored bodies. They echoed our signs back to us, though imperfectly, in smudged reverse.
            Our early encounters with AOL had taught us the pleasures of talking with strangers. We moved, with ease, into the niche spaces of fansites. We charted our obsessions on threadboards where we eagerly disposed of our given names, loosened already, by our practice with instant messenger. Now we chose usernames, which seemed to be something more than a screenname. By logging in, we became active participants in our chosen fantasy worlds.
            Fan communities such as DeviantArt or Archive of Our Own—social media sites for the sharing of fan culture—are thriving repositories for a large collection of imaginations. They can be generous places to inhabit because the ego of the fansite, rather than being located within the individual user, has the fandom at its center. Certain artists and authors have larger followings, but their work, published under a non-identifying username, is evaluated as a contribution to the fandom, an addition to the world they are working within to shape.
            In fanfiction, some authors circumscribe the canon, working in the margins to grow the universe, carefully seeking out the frayed edges, the underwritten characters only briefly glimpsed by most readers in the periphery of the protagonist’s vision. This one smells of bubblegum in a crowded subway car, this one picks at his pilling tweed topcoat. These characters are attached at the fingertips or braided by the hair to the narrative canon, but the rest of them dangles into an unwritten void they might easily fall into. It’s careful stitch-work that binds these underwritten bodies to the fiction’s universe without the smallest vandalism. This is unselfish writing, a labor of pure affection.
            Other fans break apart the fabric of the universes they overwrite. That’s not to say this kind of writing is detrimental to its source material. Canon is seldom affected at all by the fanwork it inspires, but these kinds of fanfictions fulfill a private need. This was the kind of fanfiction I wrote, and the kind my friends wrote too. We projected ourselves into Fandoms, wrote ourselves into our fanfictions as Mary Sues, idealized self-surrogates to occupy the worlds we longed to be part of and in this inscription, we made holes in the world, carved out spaces for ourselves.
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            Stories from the Daily Mail and ABC tried to provide rationale for the Slender girls’ behavior. They reported that both Morgan and Anissa lived in low-income housing, that both girls were ostracized at school, that Bella was beginning to disentangle herself from Morgan’s friendship, and, most notably, that Morgan had a history of hallucination and mental illness, even receiving an early-onset schizophrenia diagnosis after her arrest. For the Slender girls, and Morgan especially, reconceiving of their problems as marks of their own specialness might have been a very desirable fantasy – certainly this is a popular narrative in young adult literature. It is often the runt, the bookish, the unpopular child, the child maligned by circumstance, that is revealed to be the special one. The conventions of this genre inevitably reveal that the child’s specialness is not determined by their newly-manifested powers, but by their metal and strength of character. To the bookish, picked-on, fate-maligned reader, however, the powers are almost certainly more attractive.
            Morgan and Anissa reported that their blood sacrifice, Bella’s murder, was planned to ensure them positions as ‘proxies’ to Slender Man. Once completed, they believed they could live at Slender’s side and be under his protection. I imagine they conceived of this transformation as something like turning into magical house cats, flanking their dark and powerful master, who would, in turn, stroke their fur. I admit I don’t understand the impulse to harm another person so gravely, but violence and suffering were not foreign to my fantasy life. In fact, I sought out cruel fanfictions—stories of magical self-injury, especially. How quickly deep wounds could heal and be reopened with the flick of a wand. A dynamic punishment that would mirror my brother’s growing pain.
            This adolescent attraction to violence was conflated with a longing to exhibit something like a dark mystique, the kind of suffering so often coupled with female sensuality. Wasn’t the most perfect body always the most ill-looking? The palest, thinnest, most languid? The number of film iterations of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, with their cadaverous heroines are a testament to cultural perceptions of beauty in suffering. Furthermore, their status was a mysterious one. Their enchanted sleep—their bodies, perfectly preserved, protected from adulteration and suspended in youth.
            The culmination of this desire was enhanced by my voracious consumption of adolescent fantasy literature, a central trope of which, is the exaltation of the special child-come-adult, a destiny marked for otherness. My models were characters like Harry Potter, who, at the age of eleven was whisked away to live out his destiny in a castle and school for wizards, Percy Jackson, who discovered at twelve that he was half-Olympian, the son of the Greek god Poseidon. In the Artemis Fowl books, the titular character is a criminal mastermind of some renown by the age of twelve at the series’ start. In some of these stories, the opportunity for specialness had, by the age of twelve, already expired. In C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Edmund and Lucy were too old at twelve and ten to return to Narnia and all that lay behind the winter coats was the back wall of the closet.
            Every morning I woke up to an alarm rather than the rapping of an owl against my window brought me closer to the worst fate I could imagine for myself: absolute normalcy, which felt then, and sometimes still feels, like another word for loneliness.
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            My friends and I came to fan culture in an era before Slender Man. Our fictional obsession, which remains even today one of the largest fantasy fandoms, was the universe of Harry Potter.
            Three of us, the biggest fangirls, read The Order of the Phoenix, together, holed up in my friend Alex’s basement. A sleep-over without the sleep. Her basement was a private place, hidden away from the eyes of parents; it was where we liked to spend our time. The three of us read on her overstuffed red couch, cramming ourselves into the nooks of cushions, swathed in a microfiber blanket we all fought over. We devoured the new volume with frenetic speed, hurling ourselves into immersion, egged on by one another’s mounting mania and afraid to be the last to come into knowing.
            My friends both reached the book’s emotional climax before I did. The two of them embraced, crying in each others’ arms. I could see them in the mirrored wall that faced the couch, and I cried too. Not because I had made it to the death scene of Sirius Black, Harry’s beloved godfather; I was chapters away, the slowest reader, stupid. I cried because I had been left behind. When I had tears enough, I was invited to join and the three of us wound ourselves into each other, burying our faces in one anothers’ unwashed t-shirts and watching our wet cheeks reflected in the wall. I never knew if they believed me.
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1 From “Slender Man is Watching,” by Lisa Miller. Published in New York Magazine, August 2015

2From ‘The sort of story that has you covering your mirrors’: The Case of Slender Man, by Jeffrey A. Tolbert. Published in Semiotic Review, Issue 2: Monsters, November 2013.

Maggie Nye is the writer-in-residence at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and a graduate of the MFA at the University of Alabama (Roll Tide!). Her prose has appeared in Pleiades Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Phantom Drift, and elsewhere.