The Internet is killing people. It’s like something out of a science fiction movie: A creature, a being, a demon, invented at a website devoted to horror fiction, somehow takes on a life of its own. Imbued with reality by the belief of other Internet denizens – who read, write and fantasize about it – the creature leaves the confines of the Internet and begins racking up a body count in the real world. Without a physical body, it counts on the fervor of its believers, who have adopted its mythology. Thus a bizarre cycle of life is created: An idea conceived and promoted online becomes real because Internet users choose to believe it is. That deadly belief, that killer meme, is “Slender Man,” whose followers are now maiming and killing people.

Or are they?

A “meme” is a discreet ingot of cultural information. The term was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, whose book “The Selfish Gene” espoused a collective, genetics-centered theory of evolution (in contrast to evolutionary theories that focus on the individual or the social group). Dawkins saw the meme as analogous to the gene. Just as our genes are a means through which biological information is distributed through our bodies, memes are the means or the currency through which cultural ideas are transmitted from one mind to another.

Consider any Internet- or television-spawned “in-joke” you can think of. The basis for the humor is that you know the source. Whether that source is a cat who looks like he’s frowning, Justin Timberlake pointing to a cardboard box at his belt line, or a dancing silhouette of a person we associate with Apple iPod products, you understand these references, these memes, because these ideas have been transmitted to you and through you in popular culture.

Likewise, “Slender Man”(or Slenderman) is a meme, a cultural idea whose genesis was the Internet and whose propagation through society has been facilitated by the Web. Slender Man “is a mythical creature often depicted as a tall, thin figure wearing a black suit and a blank face,” explains Know Your Meme. “According to the legend [which was entirely fabricated online] … the creature may cause memory loss, insomnia, paranoia, coughing fits (nicknamed “slendersickness”), photograph/video distortions and can teleport at will.”

Slender Man was originally a Photoshop creation by one Eric Knudsen in 2009. He provided a short description of his image, saying that Slender Man was “a mysterious creature who stalked children.” Knudsen subsequently expanded the back story of his monster by creating at least one more image. Other readers of the website where Knudsen posted his Photoshop began crafting Slender Man fiction, using Knudsen’s images as inspiration. The newly minted meme would go on to capture the imagination of many young people, all of whom heard about the monster from the Internet (or from others who did).

Like any “urban myth,” then, Slender Man is entirely a creation of the Web, an idea that takes hold and becomes widely known simply because other Internet users read it and pass it on. The wishful thinking, the longing to believe, of minds enamored of Slender Man was once relegated to the realms of horror stories and Internet lore. Now, however, people are dying for Slender Man – or, more accurately, people are killing for him.

In Wisconsin, two 12-year-old girls viciously stabbed a classmate 19 times in the name of Slender Man. Depending on the source one believes, it’s possible the girls thought stabbing their victim would somehow allow them to commune with the monster. Remember the sneakers-wearing cultists who killed themselves believing their spirits would travel on a passing comet? This is very similar. The girls apparently thought they could achieve some transcendent state by making a violent sacrifice to a spirit, an entity, that exists only in the minds of other Internet users.

Not long after the Wisconsin stabbing, a 13-year-old girl in Ohio attacked her mother with a knife. She claims she doesn’t remember the attack, during which she wore a white mask. (Among her writings, investigated after the attack, were references to killing and to Slender Man.) The recent cop-killings in Nevada have also been linked to Slender Man (although that link may be somewhat tenuous): The male half of the murderous couple was a cosplayer who liked to dress up as the Joker – and as Slender Man.

But are we being too quick to blame an Internet myth for the actions of individuals? Adrianne Jeffries asserts that Slender Man is the new “the devil made me do it.” She writes, “It’s not unusual for murderers and criminals to cite pop culture as an influence. … [But kids] who try to kill their peers or their parents tend to fall into the same three categories as school shooters. … They tend [either to be] psychotic or extremely mentally ill; have been heavily abused themselves; or exhibit psychopathic tendencies, meaning they don’t empathize with others and may be divorced from reality.”

Caitlin Dewey puts a finer point on it: “It’s a seductive narrative,” she writes, “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.”

This is the reality of Slender Man. The Internet as a whole, websites specifically, technology in general … these are not to blame for senseless violence, for brutal stabbings and vicious shootings. Psychopaths within our society are to blame. Broken, mentally ill, soulless children are to blame. A godless society that does not value human life is to blame. The Web is only the messenger. Ultimately, then, we have no one to blame but ourselves: We are all Slender Man’s children, for together we have spawned both the myth and the monsters who kill in its name.

Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].

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