With the events of Santa Barbara still fresh in our minds, another brutal crime has exploded across the news cycle: two twelve-year-old girls in Wisconsin, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, have been charged as adults for the attempted murder of a friend, who they stabbed nineteen times in an attempt to prove that a fictional online character known as the Slender Man was a real being who would be pleased by their macabre act of devotion. This newest horrifying event has already begun feeding into an active cross-Atlantic quest to find some common element that might explain why violence seems to be on the rise (even though it actually isn’t).
Some blame guns, and others have blamed sexism and privilege. But others have blamed, and will now renew their chorus against, the rise in violent and dark themes in pop culture and video games. This cultural weirdness, the argument goes, leads people to commit violent acts, and curbing it will ultimately stop the worst of the violence.
This argument, to put it mildly, is profoundly stupid. But, as the media has already begun engaging in the newest round of blame-assignment, it must be dealt with anyway.
First, it is important to understand the background to the incident in Wisconsin: Slender Man. Slender Man is a fictitious character that was created in 2009 in an online community known as Something Awful. As part of a challenge to create plausible horror myths, one user photoshopped images of an ill-defined, overly-tall figure into the backgrounds of two pictures of children playing. He also offered sketchy historical explanations for the circumstances surrounding when each of the photographs was taken, just as a real myth might provide. From there, other users picked up the Slender Man concept, and the mythos exploded across numerous other internet communities including the “Creepypasta” online storytelling websites that the two young girls from Wisconsin became involved with. (Read the statement released by the Creepypasta.com site here.) The now-iconic figure has also become the subject of several independent video games, which challenge players to evade the Slender Man’s lethal gaze as they sneak through woods, abandoned schools, and sewers in a nerve-wracking attempt to find the key items they need to survive.
The online culture surrounding Slender Man has exploded to the point where an uninitiated viewer might believe that the legend is authentic, with roots as far back as medieval Germany or tribal Brazil. That appears to be what has happened with the two young girls in Wisconsin: as Anissa Weier’s brother reported to the UK Daily Mail, his sister and Morgan Geyser were enthralled with the Slender Man story, and he was not sure Anissa was able to tell fact from fiction. The girls’ own confessions indicate that they truly hoped to please the Slender Man by brutally killing their friend, and that they hoped to be chosen by this dark figure to serve him in some capacity.
Becoming convinced of the reality of a myth is one thing. Deciding that a myth is so worthy of devotion that you would kill another human being to prove its existence is another, and it suggests a deep level of emotional and mental disturbance. Some experts are already suggesting as much in this case.
But while some news outlets are treating the Slender Man myth as just that, an artificially-created myth, others are leaning toward the sensational. A CNN report on the subject ominously suggests that Slender Man “played a role” in the incident–without, conveniently, indicating what exactly that role was. Mashable said that the Slender Man stories “drove” the young girls to stab their friend. The Daily Mail article linked to above is replete with pictures of skulls, skeletons, and other creepy photographs. One photo caption asserts that the Geyser family’s social media accounts demonstrate an embrace of “darker themes in pop culture,” whatever that means.
This isn’t the only modern case where violence or darkness in pop culture is being blamed as a source of death or social harm. Violent video games are often linked to violent tendencies and self-harm: UK authorities are currently investigating several suicides involving younger victims who all avidly played Call of Duty. First person shooters were also implicated as a part of several recent mass shootings, including Sandy Hook: authorities speculated that Adam Lanza’s pattern of reloading before a magazines’ ammunition had been fully spent indicated that his tactics were influenced by video games. American lawmakers are already threatening to deny tax deductions–which are a significant part of the game development industry–to “violent” video game developers, however “violence” will eventually be defined.
This same kind of hunt for a cultural cause of violent tragedies took place in the 1970s and 1980s as well, when a new game called Dungeons and Dragons was erroneously linked to several suicides:
In 1979, an average of 6,839 young men were picking up Dungeons & Dragons each month: sooner or later there was bound to be trouble. And sure enough, that same year, a Michigan State student named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared after a game of D&D…. A few weeks later, Egbert turned up in Morgan City, Louisiana, and revealed that D&D had nothing to do with his disappearance, but the case caused a sensation. The private investigator hired to find Egbert published a faintly lurid book called The Dungeon Master, which inspired a lurid novel called Mazes and Monsters, which inspired a made-for-TV movie of the same name, starring Tom Hanks. Meanwhile, in Washington state, a seventeen-year-old boy shot himself in the head. Witnesses said that he had been trying to summon “D&D demons” just minutes before his death. Was Dungeons & Dragons a blood sport? Was it a gateway to Satanism? A woman named Pat Pulling, whose son, a D&D player, had also committed suicide, started an organization called Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons, or, yes, B.A.D.D., and before long D&D had joined a pantheon of mostly cooler or at least more authentically dangerous phenomena which were said to be corrupting America’s youth: marijuana, rock and roll, free love, LSD, heavy metal.
Other attacks on the corrupting influence of D&D came from religious communities, most notably from Christian evangelist Jack T. Chick in the form of the “Dark Dungeons” tract (which, coincidentally, is now being turned into a full-length feature film). But the quest to blame roleplaying games for suicides truly culminated in a sensational 60 Minutes special, featuring D&D’s creator Gary Gygax, that was high on circumstantial evidence and low on hard scientific connections.
That, ultimately, is the fatal flaw behind this and every other quest to blame violent or dark aspects of pop culture–gaming, stories, or otherwise–for violent or harmful behavior. The argument suffers from a correlation versus causation fallacy: the fact that the perpetrator was exposed to some sort of darker content leads some people to think that the content itself was the de facto cause of the harm: “Well, this game they played/story they read was violent/depressing, so that must be why they did what they did! They were otherwise so, well, normal!”
In reality, studies have found no evidence suggesting that exposure to violent game content makes someone more likely to commit aggressive acts. I would argue that this evidence can be extended to other forms of more strictly consumptive online activity, including Creepypasta-esque storytelling. By contrast, other types of online phenomena that are more directly interactive do demonstrate statistical connections to harmful behavior, such as the rise in suicide as a result from cyberbullying. The difference is that games and stories are engaged in solitarily by the consumer, but online forums that can enable cyberbullying allow other users to engage back and direct influence back on the solitary user. While a person reading a story or playing a game is limited to their own emotional and mental state going into the experience, other users can change a bullying victim’s mental state in drastic ways.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not denying that exposure to too much content of a violent or dark nature can influence the way a person thinks, feels, or behaves. Age, maturity, and mental health can all influence the kinds and amounts of content a person can enjoy responsibly. Further, families with concerns can and must have the freedom to choose what kind of content is right for them. However, we already have methods for judging what kind of content is in games: rating systems! Other kinds of information, such as book reviews and page previews on websites, can help inform us about other kinds of content as well. While it is impossible to stop every case of someone seeing something they shouldn’t, systems already in place can help the average consumer of media make smart and informed choices that are appropriate for their unique situation–or, in the case of minors, for their children.
The internet is no exception. There is some weird stuff out there, and parents have to be vigilant about what their children view and share online. Tragically, it appears that the parents in Wisconsin failed to do so here. However, simply because something is outside of what mainstream culture considers “normal” doesn’t automatically make it bad or dangerous. It just makes it different, which for some people may make it highly enjoyable. Because there is no causal link between the content and the harm, our urge to ostracize the consumers or producers of that content–here, to punish the Creepypasta writer for writing spooky stories online–does nothing to help curb real violence. Our attacks on different forms of media become attacks merely for difference’s sake, and these stem from the same social impulse that causes the schoolyard bully to pick on the kid who enjoys reading comic books over playing kickball: we attack that which is different in order to reinforce the normalcy and superiority of ourselves.
Merely blaming “badness” in pop culture for violent events is not the answer. If we are ever going to address these crises, we can–and we must–be better than our base impulse to ostracize that which we find weird.