This is entirely predictable, and disappointing. Because of a couple of recent incidents in which young people have commited crimes because of the perpetrators’ imagined connection to the entirely fictional being Slender Man, certain corner of the media were sure to be on the lookout for what might constitute a “trend” or “epidemic” of Slender Man-related offenses.
And they got one! Last week, a teenage girl in Pasco County, Florida allegedly set fire to her family home after an argument. Afterward, she apparently texted an apology to her parents. Luckily, no one was harmed, but the girl was charged with arson and attempted murder. You’d think this would be news enough, but then there’s this shocking angle. The Tampa Pay Times reports:
The investigation also revealed that the girl frequents the websites creepypasta.com and souleater.com, which are both associated with Slender Man, the fictional internet character who was said to be the motivation behind two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls stabbing and nearly killing a classmate earlier this year.
That was enough for Huffington Post and Fox News to run with.
The HuffPo headline reads, “ANOTHER Slender Man Attack? Teen Allegedly Burns House Down With Family Inside.” Fox tells us, “Fla. teen with Slender Man obsession sets fire to home with family inside.”
The HuffPo headline follows Betteridge’s Law (“Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no”), as you can imagine. Nothing in that piece or in any other reporting I’ve seen indicates that this event had anything to do with Slender Man, and the fact of the teen’s interest in sites that feature Slender Man are entirely coincidental.
You know who else thinks that? The investigators. Here’s the reporting from WTSP:
At this time, investigators have no evidence to believe that she set the home on fire because of the violence found on these websites, but authorities remain concerned.
Predictably, probably looking to have something to say, a general warning about those scary interwebs is given by the sheriff:
Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco says that while Slenderman and websites like CreepyPasta and SoulEater may not have directly led to the teen setting the fire, he wants parents to be aware of their existence and the content they contain.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with parents being aware of what content their kids consume online, and obviously there’s no direct line here.
Fox’s headline goes in a slightly different direction, claiming that the teen has a Slender Man “obsession.” But there’s been no reporting that supports that characterization. But it serves to draw a connection where perhaps none exists. There could be a connection, but no one’s reported any evidence as of yet.
From my limited exposure, clearly the kind of material that comes from these websites is inappropriate for certain young people. Clearly it’s not for kids, and emotional teens are already impressionable, so I don’t want to downplay the influence that violent media could have on a young mind. By no means.
Some of the reporting notes that the teen in question was also reading many other violent media online, but since they’re not known to a general audience, they go largely ignored in the clickbait pieces.
My critique here is of some in the media’s choice to infer or imply a nonexistent connection to a hot-button Internet phenomenon to a genuine crisis for a real family. Who knows what affect any of this media she’s consumed may have had? And who knows what else might be going on in this scared, angry girl’s life that could have driven her to this kind of act? Crying “Slender Man” is easy, and exploitative of a family in a terrible time.
Hey, I have a lot of fun with Slender Man. I find the idea that a mythical horror-being, birthed online, and whose creator has explicitly said is entirely made up, has had such an impact on imaginations and psyches. It’s obviously fictional, and yet it stirs something in people’s lizard brains that makes them truly scared. So I’ve made funny images with Slender Man, I like to make jokes about him, and I like to tweet this:
If anything bad were to happen to me, or if I were to do something crazy, would that be ANOTHER SLENDER MAN ATTACK?