This is a tale of a young friendship gone horribly wrong. In late May, in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, Wisconsin, two 12-year-old girls allegedly lured a friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times.
The victim, also 12, managed to crawl to a road, where she lay with stab wounds in her arms, legs and torso, blood soaking her fleece jacket, until a cyclist found her. According to police, the assailants had been plotting the crime for months. Their motivation? They said that they wanted to prove themselves worthy of Slender Man, an evil character who lives only on the internet.
It sounds like the outlandish plot of a horror movie, in part because it is incredibly rare for young girls to murder. In 2012, of the 8,514 people arrested for murder and “non-negligent homicide” in the US, just one was a girl under 13. It’s not so surprising, then, that when girls do kill, their crimes often devolve into sensationalised pop-culture narratives, replete with simplistic explanations and groundless moralising. “This should be a wake-up call for all parents,” Waukesha Police Chief Russell Jack said in a much-quoted statement about his two young prisoners. “The internet has changed the way we live. It is full of information and wonderful sites that teach and entertain. The internet can also be full of dark and wicked things.”
The response to what these girls are accused of doing reflects our deepest anxieties about girlhood, technology and the growing gulf between parents and their children.
And that’s why this kind of news story rivets us. We say to ourselves: “How awful,” while yearning for more.
According to the criminal complaint, Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier discovered Slender Man on Creepypasta Wiki, a website dedicated to internet horror stories. They believed that he was real. In early 2014, they decided to become what they called “proxies” of Slender Man, thereby proving their dedication to him. To do so, they’d have to kill someone. In February, the girls decided to carry out their act in May. In the intervening months, Geyser and Weier whispered about their plan, often using code words like “camping trip” (to refer to the Nicolet National Park in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, where they believed Slender Man lived). On the morning of Saturday 31 May, they attacked their victim in the woods during a game of hide-and-seek. According to the criminal complaint, Weier pushed the girl down and sat on her, thinking Geyser would then stab her. The victim started yelling, complaining that she couldn’t breathe. Geyser gave Weier the knife, but Weier said she felt too squeamish so she gave it back to Geyser.
“I’m not going to until you tell me to,” Geyser told Weier, according to the complaint.
“Go ballistic, go crazy,” Weier replied. “Now.”
Then, as Geyser put it to police: “Stabby, stab, stab.”
The girls stabbed the victim 19 times, piercing her liver, pancreas and stomach, barely missing an artery near her heart. The victim cried, the girls told police and Weier remembered her screaming: “I hate you! I trusted you!” After the attack, Weier said, she and Geyser told the girl to lie down and they would go to get help.
Instead, they fled.
“It was the hope that [the victim] would die and they would see Slender and know that he exists,” reads the complaint.
The victim crawled out of the woods, where the cyclist found her. “Please help me,” she said. “I’ve been stabbed.” When a police officer arrived, she said that she was in extreme pain. Asked who hurt her, she replied that it was her best friend. The victim was rushed to a hospital, “one millimetre away from certain death”, according to the complaint.
It was there in the hospital that she told police about the second assailant.
Police found Geyser and Weier more than four hours later. One of them had a knife with a five-inch blade in her bag. When questioned by police, the girls expressed regret mixed with cold-blooded intent. “I believe it’s ending a life and I regret it,” Weier said. “The bad part of me wanted her to die; the good part of me wanted her to live.”
The criminal complaint offers many similarly dismaying details from Geyser’s interview: “When asked again why they were going to stab [the victim] Geyser stated: ‘It seemed necessary.’ Geyser told police she was sorry, adding, “It was weird that I didn’t feel remorse.”
Geyser and Weier have been charged as adults for attempted first-degree intentional homicide. Each faces up to 65 years in prison.
The victim was discharged a week after the attack and started walking again. “While we have kept discussions with her short, we did ask how she found the strength to crawl out of the woods,” the victim’s family said in a statement. “Her response was: ‘I wanted to live.’”
“When these episodes come up, people think that girls are becoming more violent,” says Kathleen Heide, a professor of criminology at the University of Southern Florida, who has evaluated 150 juveniles charged with violent crimes, mostly murder.
“There is no evidence that the involvement of girls in homicide or murder is increasing.”
Historically, girls have been more likely to engage in bullying, gossip and manipulation, not physical violence. That is, in part, what makes crimes like the Slender Man stabbing so noteworthy. “We are intrigued by the oddity, the horror, the irony of little girls doing terrible things.” says Frank Ochberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and leading expert on violence and trauma. “It doesn’t go with the age or gender.”
The few cases in recent memory in which very young girls committed murders exemplify how gripping these stories can be. One of New Zealand’s most notorious murders occurred in 1954, when Pauline Parker, 16, and Juliet Hulme, 15, killed Parker’s mother. The teens had developed an intense friendship, bonding over their wild imaginations, inventing their own religion, writing novels together.
Their parents started to worry about the girls’ relationship. Around this time, Hulme also learned that her parents were getting divorced; she would be moving to South Africa with her father, thereby separating the two girls forever. Parker’s mother, who was especially concerned about her daughter, insisted that she not join Hulme on the trip. When Parker and Hulme found out, they lured Parker’s mother down a secluded path in a local park and bludgeoned her with a brick. Parker and Hulme were tried in the Supreme Court of New Zealand and found guilty. Each spent five years in prison. The crime inspired novels, plays and films, including Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures.
Books, films and TV shows followed the 1968 deaths of two young boys in England. The day before Mary Bell’s 11th birthday, she strangled four-year-old Martin Brown. He was found dead in an abandoned house.
Two months later, with the help of a 13-year-old girl, Bell strangled Brian Howe, three, and left him covered in grass and weeds, puncture marks on his limbs and the letter “M” carved into his stomach. Experts said she showed “classic symptoms of psychopathy”; Bell was sentenced to life in detention but released in 1980, at the age of 23.
Our almost hysterical fascination with intense female friendship harks back to a centuries-old story of girlhood gone awry. In 1692, girls and young women in Salem Village, Massachusetts, started accusing their neighbours of witchcraft. Before the crisis concluded, 54 people had confessed to being witches and nearly 150 had been charged with practising “the Devil’s magic”. In all, 19 were hanged and one man was pressed to death with heavy stones.
Historians have analysed the Salem panic through many lenses. Some argue it was mass hysteria in an age when the Devil mattered and religion reigned. Some cite economic anxieties between the prospering Salem Town and the agrarian Salem Village. Others, the emotional needs of girls and young women in a society that confined them to strict gendered roles. “Most studies of witchcraft history don’t sufficiently acknowledge the importance of the Devil,” says historian John Demos.
“I don’t think the people involved went a single day, or an hour, or even a minute, without wondering what the Devil was up to next.”
Today, we flatter ourselves that we are safe from mystical illusions like witchcraft and the Devil. Yet in 2011 more than a dozen girls in Le Roy, New York, developed uncontrollable tics and twitches. Environmental causes were considered. Ultimately, doctors determined the girls were suffering from conversion disorder, an illness brought on by stress, especially during adolescence. As one of the girls’ guardians told The New York Times about the diagnosis, “It’s a very hard pill for me to swallow – what are we, living in the 1600s?” In the Slender Man case, July saw Geyser and Weier make separate court appearances. A judge ordered the media not to photograph their faces and so cameras were focused on their legs and torsos as they walked in, handcuffed and shackled, dressed in navy prison uniforms.
Geyser fidgeted throughout the hearing, playing with a braid in her long brown hair. Video clips of the scene are all over the internet, available for scrutiny.
Had Geyser and Weier been boys, would media coverage have been the same? Many experts interviewed said no. There is something disturbingly intoxicating about seeing girls in chains.
The Slender Man stabbing seems to embody all our fears about what can go wrong for girls: how they are growing up in a culture saturated in their sexualisation; how the internet has altered the ways they communicate and express themselves; how young people spend so much time curating their online personas that the line between their internet selves and their real selves all too often blurs.
Shortly after the attempted murder, focus turned to the parents. The Daily Mail revealed that Geyser’s mother and father have Instagram feeds featuring photos of graves and skulls. “It’s easy to say, ‘These are bad parents’. Part of that finger-pointing is trying to make sense of something that is inexplicable,” says Jane Mendle, a clinical psychologist specialising in 10- to 13-year-olds. “I’m sure we all remember scary campfire stories and it’s not unusual for 12-year-old girls to be interested in the macabre or supernatural. Slender Man is a modern interpretation of the sorts of stories that have always drawn kids in.”
While it is extraordinarily rare for girls to commit murder – between 1976 and 2007, girls under 13 represented just 4 percent of all female juveniles arrested for murder and non-negligent homicide in the US – the crime Geyser and Weier are accused of fits some recognised patterns.
“Kids will do things in groups that they would never do by themselves,” Heide says. “It starts out as talk, in my experience. It’s a thing of fantasy and then it gets to a point where they’re at the cusp and neither feels they can back down.”
Psychiatrists who interviewed her said Geyser believes in unicorns, says she can communicate with Lord Voldemort and thinks she has “Vulcan mind control”. As for Slender Man, she idolises and fears him and worries that if she angers him, he will hurt her family.
One doctor said: “She needs to grow up.”
“This is not an adult crime,” says Victor Streib, a lawyer who is writing a book about how the legal system handles cases of pre-teen kids who kill. “Premeditation assumes an adult mind of intending, planning and premeditating.
“Most kids I’ve worked with have a Nintendo view of this stuff; they’re surprised the person is still dead.”
The adolescent brain is less equipped to set limits and see the world from someone else’s point of view because the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain in charge of critical thinking, judgment and deliberation – has not yet fully developed. In healthy adolescents, that doesn’t occur until the mid-20s. “With adolescents, it’s as if they’re in a car without brakes,” Heide says. “If kids are in the spur of the moment and it’s getting closer and closer to the actual event, they’re all charged up with emotion, and neither of them can stop and reflect: ‘My God, what are we doing here? This is our friend. We’re going to kill her?’”
Knowing what we know about the adolescent brain, should Geyser and Weier be tried in adult or juvenile court? And if found guilty, what should their punishments be? In most criminal cases, certainly violent crimes, the public focuses on punishing the offender, Streib says, rather than prevention. Research suggests that children and adolescents have the potential to rejoin society as healthy, contributing adults.
Mary Bell took a new name and started over after she was released from prison in 1980. Four years later, she had a daughter. The two of them were promised lifelong anonymity (what’s now called a “Mary Bell Order”) and vanished into the wider world. In 2009, Bell became a grandmother.
Parker and Hulme, the childhood best friends in New Zealand who murdered Parker’s mother, went on to live normal, productive lives after each served five years.
Parker changed her name to Hilary Nathan. After earning her bachelor’s degree in Auckland, she moved to Kent, where she ran a riding school, and later to Scotland’s Orkney Islands. She is a devout Catholic and has largely stayed out of the public eye.
Hulme changed her name to Anne Perry, landed in the Scottish Highlands, before becoming a Mormon and starting to write. More than 75 books later, she is a best-selling crime novelist with over 26 million books in print world-wide.
All three women were free as adults – almost. Over the years, journalists hounded Mary Bell, who had to change her name and move multiple times. In 1998, when news broke that she had been paid to collaborate on Cries Unheard, a book about her life by Gitta Sereny, Bell’s daughter learned the horrible truth about her mother.
Nathan was outed in 1997 when the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly revealed her identity and location. One might argue that Perry had the furthest to fall. For decades, no one knew that the best-selling writer was a child murderer until 1994, when a journalist uncovered her identity around the time Heavenly Creatures was released.
“It seemed so unfair,” she said in 2003. “Everything I had worked to achieve as a decent member of society was threatened.”
Apart from the near-certainty that they face a protracted legal ordeal, it’s hard to predict what the future holds for Geyser and Weier, or whether they will ever emerge on the other side of this horror show to lead productive, meaningful lives.
But in one manner or another, Slender Man will likely never be far from their thoughts.