That is the question being asked after a horrible crime in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Two 12-year-old girls have been arrested and accused of stabbing their 12-year-old friend 19 times, to please a fictional online character from the popular game Slender Man, which is available, for free, on several websites.
The slim, dark character is all over the Internet, where players follow clues to find him, and “die”. The girls, according to court papers, actually backed out of the plan a couple of times, but ended up convincing the victim to go to the woods on Saturday, where they held her down as they supposedly passed the knife back and forth and stabbed her. The barely alive girl managed to crawl out, and was found by a bicyclist who called police.
Prosecutors can try the girls as adults, following Wisconsin law, where anyone 10 or older charged with homicide is automatically considered and adult. The girls’ attorneys say juvenile court would offer more mental health programs and treatment.
“They should have gotten psychological help before”, says Los Angeles Amie Harwick, who deals with childhood trauma in her practice. “The first thing that pops up for me” she explains, “is delusional thinking and mental illness. I am wondering right away what type of characteristics or behaviors were exhibited months, days, years maybe, before with these girls”.
In retrospect, red flags are noticed to have happened, but only after these incidents, say most psychiatrists who deal with this kind of violence. The girls had been planning this for months, according to police, who themselves are asking how could they have done that without anyone noticing? Waukesha Police Chief Russell Jack emphasized at a press conference that “parents need to know what their kids are doing online, not only on computers at home, but cellphones and tablets”.
Slender Man images are available outside the game itself, with a long folklore of dark, menacing figures, kidnapping children in the woods. Harwick thinks that “makes it feel real, so the player of the game feels that they are dealing with something that can actually happen!’
But she goes on to say that neither the game nor the stories surrounding the character “is what causes delusional thinking, or homicidal behavior. Something was going on with these children behaviorally that wasn't not being looked at”.
Can a game cause someone to commit a heinous act? That debate has been going on since the creation of violent videos. The more popular thought seems to be that the relationship is complicated, and it’s not a question of whether the game, or video, or book, or movie “causes” someone to snap, but whether it can “trigger” behavior that is already part of the person’s psyche.
What is much clearer is that there are red flags parents can, and should pay attention to. When a child participating in any kind of role playing game starts believing the characters actually exist, parents should pay attention. It does not mean, emphasizes Harwick, that there is something wrong. But there is definitely a big difference between a five year old having an imaginary friend, and a 12 year old really thinking there is a Slenderman that lives in the woods, and appears to her in dreams.
It is a difficult situation, granted, with teens having access to the Internet outside of the house. In this case, investigators will try to find what was missed about these girls’ behavior.
We had no luck reaching the makers of the Slender Man game, but on the site where the girls told police they had initially found the game, an administrator posted that the stories are fiction and it “does not endorse or advocate for the killing, worship and otherwise replication of rituals of fictional works.”
Amie Harwick, M.A., MFTI works out of Los Angeles, she can be reached at www.AmieHarwick.com