The Internet doesn’t just help suspend disbelief. It rolls right over it.
Exhibit A: Two 12-year-old girls from Waukesha, Wisconsin, charged with attempted murder for stabbing a friend 19 times and leaving her for dead. (She miraculously survived.) They appeared in court Wednesday.
The savage crime attracted international attention not only because of the age of the alleged perpetrators and the barbarity of the deed but also for something far more bizarre. The stabbing was apparently triggered by an Internet-generated fictional character named “Slenderman,” a sepulchral figure with long tentacles who kidnaps children and, by the girls’ accounts, requires acolytes to commit murder to be admitted to his realm. In trying to kill their friend, the girls said, they were attempting to appease the Slenderman so they could join him.
Commentators shocked by the crime have labeled Slenderman a new iteration of urban myth, one of those horrid tales that emerge from the collective consciousness. Stories like the woman who had a nest of black widow spiders in her beehive hairdo and died of a bite; the man who awoke to discover one of his kidneys had been removed; the psycho axe-murderer who lurks on lover’s lane, or the ferocious killer alligator that lives in a city’s sewer system.
But there is a key difference between Slenderman and his mythical forbears. He exists at the juncture of urban legend and the Internet, and the Web has introduced a powerful new element into urban mythology. It has so commingled fact and fiction, the real and the fabricated, that two young girls were allegedly willing to kill for their conviction in the authenticity of Slenderman. They had, in effect, entered a chilling, alternate reality.
Urban legends have been around for a long time, and a few, like Slenderman, have attained a certain credibility — even when they seemed far-fetched. It is as if people wanted to believe.